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COVER STORY | THEME PARK REVIEWS

Getting into their costumes

October 12, 2006|Thomas Mills | Special to The Times

THE horror has begun.

No, we're not referring to the political campaigns that are in full swing, but to the Halloween events that have taken up their annual residences in our theme parks and landmarks.

If you're willing to endure huge crowds, unseen stringy things brushing along your neck and copious amounts of fog, you too can share in the fun of the seasonal haunts. Be prepared to scream, to laugh and to run, because you will be terrified, taunted and occasionally chased down darkened streets by the creatures of the night.

This year the competition is stiff as Knott's Scary Farm, Six Flags Fright Fest, Queen Mary's Shipwreck, Universal's Horror Nights and even family-friendly Disney's HalloweenTime compete for your holiday business.

What separates the good from the bad, the scary from the not so? Ask any Halloween aficionado and they'll tell you: eerie environments, quality makeup effects and monster costume creations, and, most important, well-designed mazes with performers committed to the scare. Add in good signage (most of the attractions are in the dark), reasonable lines and knowledgeable staff, and you're in Halloween heaven, er, hell. But that's a plus for the spooky season.

Knott's Scary Farm

Knott's still holds the title of the premier Halloween event in Southern California, even if a few of its 12 mazes are in need of updating. Knott's is unmatched for maze quality, haunt zones (four) and sheer number of costumed employees (an advertised 1,000 monsters) who scare the wits out of paying customers.

Its success comes in a double-edged sword approach -- true scares and edgy comedy. Of the first, just take a stroll through the fog-laden streets of Ghost Town. You might spot the first three or four ghouls coming your way, but the fifth one will shock you from behind. If it's laughs you want, the new maze "Lost Vegas in 3-D" delivers. Where else can you find roaming and very dead lounge lizards and a giant slot machine that chews up money? Well, in Vegas, of course, but this is closer.

The big publicity this year surrounds "The Grudge 2" maze, a tie-in to the new Columbia horror film. The re-creation of the Tokyo house of horrors impresses, but the biggest effect comes from the sound -- especially the bone-crunching audio effect that stays with you throughout. Performance-wise, the clever use of a recurring demon elevates the fear factor.

Of course, the downside to Knott's success is that mega-crowds can overload the mazes with too many people.

Among Knott's six shows is the annual classic "The Hanging." This year's entry, subtitled "The Other Dead Man's Chest," features a wry, dead-on Johnny Depp-aping actor as America's favorite pirate, who utters the night's funniest line when he emerges onstage: "Cripes, I'm in the wrong theme park."

Know this: A few of the live shows are truly for mature audiences, so be aware of that if you intend to send your kids out there for the night.

Despite the pluses, not everything is a winner. Take the waste-of-space outdoor maze called "Dark Realm." It's not only boring, but it also costs $5 to rent a laser gun to shoot the rare creature that might approach. Save the money and buy a hot dog.

Overall, though, Knott's is the scariest of the lot we've seen.

Six Flags Fright Fest

In the past, Six Flags could barely hold a dripping candle to the competition. What a difference a couple of years makes. Fright Fest has quickly become a top-notch event offering some of the best visual effects, character-committed actors and themed mazes around.

There are six mazes, five shows and four scare zones, but here it's all about the faces. No rubber masks -- only Hollywood-level makeup on the monstrous maze performers and street ghouls. The living gargoyles are possibly the best individual makeup jobs in all of the parks.

Of the mazes, the highlight belongs to the clever, scary, well-developed story line in the "Terror at Carnage E. Hall" maze. In a dilapidated theater, guests are sent on a backstage tour through makeup, wardrobe and finally to Robin, a New Yawk real estate agent, who is trying desperately to sell the place for a song.

Outside the mazes, there's plenty to do, but a must-see is the Ghoul Patrol that haunts Gotham City and other locales. You'll know you're in their scare zones when the fog rolls in. Also, check out the haunted percussion band Bang as well as the hilarious "Roadkill Kitchen."

Check it out, that is, if you can find it. The Fright Fest is scarily short on signage, which leads to confusion. But here's a bonus -- you get to ride those roller coasters in the dark.

Queen Mary's Shipwreck

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