Although Cedar Fair didn’t add any new headliner coasters during their time as owners, the single greatest improvement in the park’s history did come out of their ownership.  The annual Halloween Haunt at California’s Great America has dramatically increased in popularity every year since it’s introduction in October 2008, growing to its present 3 scare zones, 6 mazes, single ride overlay, and 4 shows.  I finally got a chance to check out Haunt during its second week of operation and I was once again impressed.

After immediately entering the park, the soundtrack of creepy, mood-setting, horror classics blasts through the speakers as a small collection of actors “surprise” guests.  A lot of work is obviously poured into the entry plaza’s decor with a huge collection of skeletons scattered through the area lit by theatrical lighting.  This trip, like every other, was conducted in the standard loop, from Flight Deck and around.  Time for a terror-ific tour of California Great America’s Halloween Haunt.

The closest, and in my opinion best, scare zone is The Gauntlet. Located in the Orleans Place section of the park, The Gauntlet is a carnival gone wrong with boardwalk barkers, bearded ladies, and of-course the strangely frightening clowns.  When entering this area from the side nearest to the Grand Carousel, immediately the strident screeches of guests echoe against the walls.  The Gauntlet entrance is heavy on scare actors spooking plenty of guests.  However, as the scare zone continues towards Flight Deck, there progressively becomes less and less actors.

But overall this scare zone was solid.  The talent was mediocre, I recall better in previous years but the scenery, soundtrack and elaborate costuming all worked.  Bonus points to the Gauntlet for being the only scare zone that did not rely solely on screaming, and surprises but  also utilized the creepiness of stalking with actors following guests for long periods of time. .

 

 

 

 

Inside The Gauntlet is one of the most popular mazes, CarnEVIL.  This heavily blacklit, clown-centric haunted house is also among the strongest mazes of the night.  Unlike the outdoor mazes, CarnEVIL benefits from its space limitations forcing a flurry of corners and small rooms providing for a intimate walk through. In addition, this house has the best pacing with non-stop actors from beginning to end..

An absolute must when experiencing CarnEVIL is to purchase the 3D glasses. At just $1.00 each, these simple, cheap glasses greatly enhance the experience creating a far more disorienting experience.  CarnEVIL‘s utilization of black lights is emphasized with the use of 3D glasses.  While this house isn’t the best, its a strong second and a great start to the night.

Just after exiting The Gauntlet, the subtle campfire country music sounds in the distance.  An abandoned car’s engine roars and the dilapidated sign add to the woodsy atmosphere.  WereWolf Canyon is a natural fit for its location of  the heavily forested queue of Rip Roaring Rapids.  And the beginning section of this maze is fantastic on the loading dock for the rapids in a camp cabin setting.  However, once the maze gives way to the long drawn out queue section, the quality goes down the tubes.  The open, minimally themed areas do nothing to accomplish the sense of fear, and the single actor with a chain saw is in no way convincing or frightening.

Having the longest wait of the night, many guests were hopeful of a top-notch experience, especially with the entrance and soundtrack building suspense.  But in the end, Werewolf Canyon is undoubtedly the worse maze of the night.  More attention needs to be spent on the long expanses of minimally themed path.

The surprise hit of the night was BANG! PrimEvil Percussion, a simple atmosphere drum show which wandered the park. As pictured in the photo above, the musicians chose some dramatic locations to perform, such as right in front of Firefall and a spotlight in front of Drop Tower.  These guys brought kinetic energy to areas that were otherwise lacking.  Plus, the beats and rhythms were nicely composed and easy on the ears (unlike a certain Blood Drums).  I caught BANG!‘s performance twice during my visit and was throughly impressed each time.

Continuing towards the back end of the park, guests pass through the newly revamped Dead Man’s Cove: Forseaken Souls scare zone.  Swallowing the former Witch Doctor’s Trail scare zone and expanding to a larger location, the scare zone’s quality improved.  Vocally, the talent here was the most impressive of the three scare zones with the voices being spot on to their pirate roles.  The highlight here was the number of sliders present; these guys came out of nowhere! Sliders were hiding behind trash cans, in planters, and in other dimly lit areas awaiting victims.

Unfortunately the routing of this scare zone killed most of its momentum.  Missing was a mood-setting soundtrack and huge elaborate props.  Instead, a long drawn out section from the Bridge to Kidzville through Planet Snoopy to Black Widow Cavern contained a small collection of good, but not great, talent.  I understand that the sliders would be unable to do their job on the wood flooring just on the otherside of the buildings, but the waterfront property seems like such a stronger location for the Pirate themed area.  In short, the “new” Dead Man’s Cove was too long for it’s own good.

Pasisng through Camp Snoopy, adjacent to Psycho Mouse is Cornstalkers.  Although not heavily advertised, Cornstalkers to receive noticeable changes.  New Dementor-like scarecrow costumes were institued, completely different from the one pictured above at the mazes entrance.  In fact, this maze came with a slew of other improvements.  The concept of walking through a corn field at night infested with animated scarecrows immediately generates high expectations. And while high, Cornstalkers is able to live up to its expecations

This maze has much better pacing than the earlier WereWolf Canyon, its sister outdoor maze. The designers re-arranged the former endless outhouse labyrinth to become a much more intense, zig-zag course walled off by corn stalks along the way.  Also, manequin scarecrows, indistinguishable from the live scarecrows were scattered throughout the maze.  Cornstalkers is also one of the longer mazes winding all the way from the back of Tiki Twirl, under Grizzly and exiting across from the food court. Ultimately, Cornstalkers isn’t the best maze, but is certainly in the top half.

Upon exiting Cornstalkers, the pulse-pounding base of a familiar tune can be felt not to far away.  It can only mean one thing: time for the beloved Toy Factory! Toy Factory is the only maze that was not apart of the inaugural 2008 Haunt, and it shows.  And it is a step-up from the gore-fests of Club Blood and Slaughterhouse. Instead, Toy Factory plays with the childhood dreams and re-imagines favorite toys.

Toy Factory is uniquely imaginative and features the best rooms in the all of Haunt.  The strobe heavy doll play room is terribly creepy, sections like “Kill-A-Bear” and a giant man eating “Hungry Hungry Hippo” skew impressions of toys that are a cultural staple.  But the highlight of this maze is the completely uncommon ending where you are “packaged” after being squeezed through two enormous inflatable walls; the only comparable experience would be trying to work your way through the bottom of two inflatable bounce houses being pressed together.

This house is a devilish play on the child-like side of one’s imagination.  If you can only visit one haunted house at Great America, make it Toy Factory.

The trip around the park continues through Underworld Alley, Great America’s third and final scare zone.  Much like Dead Man’s Cove,  this scare zone also suffers from awkward routing.  In previous years, guests could only enter through the hedge canopy, however with some new scenery that was unable to be placed under the canopy, the scare zone now consists of two thorough-ways of beneath the canopy and the area just adjacent to it.  Unfortunately, this scatters the talent and leaves some monsters stranded with no visitors to scare, and others submerged in a sea of people.

However, the costumes here are detailed, the new scenery including the entrance and tombstones are welcomed additions.  Underworld Alley with it’s hell-like theming is in many ways, the most frightening scare zone.  But these things can’t save the scare zone entirely, preventing it from matching the quality of The Gauntlet.

The big “New for 2011″ headlienr was the revamped Slaughterhouse Annihilation.  This maze had some of the best scares. While I tried to follow any sort of story, there appeared to be none.  It’s just a lot of blood.  In many ways it is improved over the cheese-fest that was last year’s Slaughterhouse with a McDonald’s ending and blabbering meat salesman, but I can’t say I’m in love with the latest incarnation.

It is one thing to be gory, but to rely on pure blood and guts is lame.  Yes there are certainly some good scares, but this maze is nothing more than blood, monster pops out from around the corner, blood, pop up around the corner, and so on.  I do wish they would try something different.  Perhaps I visited during a period of weak talent, but Slaughterhouse certainly did not Annihilate me.

The last maze on the round trip is none other than, Club Blood.  Aside from Slaughterhouse, Club Blood was the most dramatically changed with the entire course of the maze being reversed.  Unfortunately, it killed the maze.  Last year, Club Blood was a solid mix of gore and creative theming, but now the maze makes little to zero sense.  The maze now begins in the hospital, goes to a church, magically appears in a club, and ends at the club’s entrance.  Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Club Blood is the second worse maze in the park, second only to the the uneventful WereWolf Canyon.

While Haunt was dramatically better than previous years, its obvious how well it does for the park.  All mazes had at least a 10 minute wait, and the parking lot was filled with cars.  I have never seen Great America so crowded.  But could this be the last year?  With the park recently sold to JMA Ventures, Great America’s fate is completely in question, however if the park were to return for another year, I believe it is safe to assume that Haunt will return in some form.

For Halloween fans in the Bay Area, Halloween Haunt is the place to go. It is really the most spectacular time of year for Great America with a fantastic collection of rides, haunted houses, and shows.  Furthermore, this might be the last year.  Only 9 days are left in Halloween Haunt, so be sure to go and check it out before it may be gone forever!