Ah, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride. It may only be in its third year of existence, but the LAHH is easily one of my top 5 favorite Halloween activities. Back in 2009, the Hayride took place at a rather secluded ranch in Calabasas, and it had a deliciously Ray Bradbury-esque carnival-gone-weird vibe unlike anything else I had ever experienced at a commercial haunt. Last year, the Hayride was relocated to the old abandoned zoo in Griffith Park, a more easily accessible location for most of L.A., but one that was a little lacking in the original's rustic charm. While I still enjoyed myself in 2010, I did feel like the Hayride was too brief and the Hey! Maze (as it was then known) left much to be desired. Luckily, the LAHH is back and even better for 2011.
When I entered the Hayride grounds this year, the first thing I noticed was that the "haunted carnival" aspect had been scaled way back. In fact, it had been pared down to just a handful of booths: A food vendor selling cleverly-named refreshments (including candy apples, popcorn, hot dogs & other "fair food"), a fortune-teller, and a "gift shop" tent. There was also a sideshow and a couple of rides/attractions - a house of mirrors and the adorably macabre "scary-go-round."
One nice change this year is that you can walk through the house of mirrors or take a (backwards) spin on the scary-go-round at no additional charge, whereas in '09 and '10 you had to spring for tickets. Even though the carnival has been downsized for 2011, it still has that same magical autumn vibe that I love so much, and that sets the LAHH apart from its peers in the haunt world.
While we were waiting to board the ride, a number of characters in full costume came out to taunt the crowd, including some sort of black-feathered bird creature on stilts and the unfortunate bride pictured above (it's hard to tell in the picture, but that's actually a bloody fetus protruding from her belly). I loved how inventive the characters were - another unique aspect of the LAHH is that the actors seem to be given far more creative reign, and that makes for a more exciting, unpredictable and genuinely haunting experience.
The Hayride itself was not unlike its predecessors; those of you who went last year or the year before will recognize many favorite set pieces, including the "Angel of Death," the "I Scream Man" and the clown tent. There were also a few new pieces, including a creepy Christmas scene and - my favorite - three robotic masked farmers promising to "make you barbecue" as they inch closer and closer to the captive riders. And yes, the ride was longer than last year's - about 25 minutes total.
Another way in which the Hayride has improved over last year: The maze! It's actually fun and scary this year! Now dubbed "the In-Between" and included in the price of general admission, this maze is unique in a couple of ways. First, you're in the dark. I'm talking complete pitch blackness, with only a flickering lantern to guide your way. They also stagger the line so everyone goes through in groups of 2 or 4. (No safety in numbers!) When we went, one of the characters - an unwholesome, Charles Manson-looking fellow carrying what appeared to be a bloody pillowcase full of who-knows-what - actually accompanied our group through the maze. The smaller size of the Hayride when compared to behemoths like Knott's or Universal means that you can get that kind of one-on-one attention - who says customer service is dead?!
When all was said and done, Mr. Spooky and I only spent about an hour and 15 minutes at the Hayride, but it was time well spent. I can't think of any other Halloween attractions in or near Los Angeles that have quite the same anarchic, backwoods feel. And the spooky memories, of course, will linger long after you leave Griffith Park: "Close your eyes and take a picture," one of the clowns whispered in my ear as our tractor pulled away from their tent. "We'll be in your dreams..."
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary passes to review this event.