Category: Reviews

Review: Halloween Haunt 2011 at California’s Great America

Posted on October 10, 2011 in Reviews, Trip Reports by


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!

Riding the World’s Steepest Coaster – Takabisha

Posted on August 11, 2011 in Reviews, Trip Reports by Malcolm

Recently I had the delight of riding the world’s steepest coaster – Takabisha (this apparently means ‘dominant’ in Japanese); a Gerstlauer Euro Fighter taken to the extreme at Fuji-Q highlands in Fujikyu Japan.

Firstly, Takabisha is an impressive looking coaster. Compared to the loopy colours of Dodonpa and Eejanaika, it’s a study in formal black, grey, white and red. And it works!

After bolting through the park and waiting in line, and completely forgetting one had to redeem your entry tickets to get actual ride tickets, I had to bolt all the way back to the front of the park and get this sorted. Silly me. The ride ops were kind enough to realise we were dumb tourists and let us come back in through the VIP entrance. Bear in mind I had happily lectured my partner about how Fuji-Q Highland works previously, and then completely forgot when we got there in the excitement of needing to get on the ride NOW NOW NOW!

Anyway, onto the ride. After being strapped in with a seatbelt and pulldown harness (seems the same as other Gerstlauers in this oeuvre), you’re off into the dark. The ride ops shout excitedly and wave at every train – a nice change from the ‘Have a stroke and fall out for all I care’ Six Flags attendees. You enter the dark – and it’s pitch black, then do a sudden drop and half circle. Then into a tiny brake run, down a fun little dip and you can see the light again as well as the vertical track in front as you zoom over the very powerful first launch. Into the first three inversions – all of which are really high and provide some great hang time – then an overbanked hill and back into the back end of the station and brakes. This station is really stark and empty, bar a fire extinguisher…maybe a chance for some more themeing in here? A poster? An adorable Japanese cartoon animal with big eyes screaming about what’s to come next?

We take a slow turn round to the right and the impressive lift hill is in front of us. Slowly…slowly we approach (whether it’s to scare us silly or the system just getting everything secured…or both) then we’re on the chain lift and pointing towards the sky. It always feels on these rides (I’ve been on Mystery Mine and Saw) that this is the bit that if you so much as wiggle the wrong way the whole thing’s going to come crashing down. Again…part of the theatrics I suppose. The lift stops just before the top and you edge over excruciatingly gently… quietly…deliberately…there’s a magnificent view of (the usually hidden) Mt Fuji to your right…as long as you don’t have your eyes closed of course…the train starts to drop and is pulled up by the magnetic brakes (eliciting a yelp from everyone) then slowly…ever so slowly…leads you to the edge…keeps holding till you’re facing straight down, then keeps holding some more till you’re literally hanging out of your seat…then you’re off again! It’s a relief to make it back to the ground (albeit briefly) before another three very similar and impressive inversions to the first one, then up a hill and into the final brake run.

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My mouth was dry – I was very impressed. It’s a great coaster and well worth their investment. There was some surprising headbanging going on at times – I might have done better to jam my head against the seat more but wasn’t really thinking. I like the way the super scary part is halfway through – seems to extend the ride quite nicely.

Overall, 9/10. Well done Japan!

PS We accidentally took the long way to the park, through the Five Lakes district – it was a beautiful bus trip but fairly agonising when we knew time was short and you could see hints of the park in the distance. What doesn’t seem to be often mentioned is that there is a train station OUT THE FRONT OF THE PARK! No kidding. Use it! Get to Otsuki station (from Shinjuku station inTokyo which is accessible from anywhere on the Yamanote line), then transfer to the Fujikyu Line (get it? Fuji-Q?? Nice!) to Fuji-Q Highland.

Giant Dipper at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Review

Posted on January 23, 2011 in Reviews by

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a west coast amusement park icon.  The crowd midway with the rickle and rattle of the multi-story attractions on one side and the crashing waves and whispers of the wind to the other.  And what has kept the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk alive for more than 100 years is the park’s famous wooden coaster, the Giant Dipper.  Constructed by Arthur Loof in 1924, the coaster is now the 5th oldest in the country.  But don’t let it’s age fool you, the coaster continues to pack a punch. Reaching speeds of 55 mph, heights of 70 feet, all over half a mile of track.

The Giant Dipper is really one of the best wooden coasters in the West.  The ride’s a non-stop thrill ride that is jam packed with plenty of turns and twists that idealize the turn of the century coaster.  The smell of deep fried cheese cakes, the shoulder to shoulder crowd, and the often long journey to the boardwalk is all worth while after riding the Giant Dipper.

Upon entering the boardwalk I was immediately intrigued by locating the station.  Due to the limited space the Boardwalk occupies, the station to the coaster is nicely tucked away in the middle of the coaster’s massive support structure.  Guests enter under a large marquee above the midway that can be seen from essentially either end of the boardwalk.  First there is a small hall of switch backs before a gentle semi-circle incline that hugs the station.  Unlike most modern coasters, the Giant Dipper’s station is curve to the confines of the above turn around.  Crews quickly assign guests seating as guests are loaded like machine gun fire shooting out each of the two trains long before the other one rushes back into the station.

Once the ride begins, the coaster immediately dips into total darkness and winds in a few directions completely disorienting guests before they reach the light as well as the chain lift.  On the way to the top of the 65′ there is a great view of the Pacific Ocean and the thousands of happy park goers who come to explore the delightful sands.  As the train slowly crests the top of the hill, the train whips over the top of the hill and the real fun begins.

Perhaps this is only my own personal belief but I think that a wooden coaster is intedned to be rough.  I am a huge fan ofGhostrider with this mentality and the same can be applied here.  Giant Dipper shows no mercy on it’s riders at the bottom of the first hill (especially in the back row) by thrusting riders into the seat.  The coaster pulls up and around in a 180 before 2 bunny hops into the mid course break run.  The coaster once again reverses directions heading back towards the lift and follows it’s original layout once more.  Towards the end the coaster bounces over numerous bunny hills directly providing some added fear.  Giant Dipper flies into the station seeming not to slow down until it reaches the loading dock.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Giant Dipper is a great classic wooden coaster.  A true mark of it’s early design is the lack of banked turns.  The coaster for the most part does not seem to bank in any which direction more than 45 degrees, providing for some great lateral G-Forces.  While short, the coaster’s layout weaves over and under itself in a fashion that maximizes it’s length in the available space.  Fortunately, the Giant Dipper maintains it’s speed along it’s course providing for some nice airtime and butt to seat action.

Yes, the coaster does get a lot of praise, however there are still some flaws.  The old fashion train design is not tall person friendly with minimal leg room.  In addition the coaster is quite pricey for one time riders (listed at $4.50 per a ride as of January 2011).  So if you going to hit up the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, even for just a couple of hours, it is worth getting a day-long wrist band.

Overall, the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a really solid coaster.  It’s a shining star in the Pacific Coast park and is far better than it’s sister at Belmont Park in San Diego.  Although, other wooden coasters including Roar!, Termina…er…. Apocalypse, and Ghostrider are all better, the Giant Dipper is unique for it’s classical design.  I would give the coaster a 6 out of 10 being above average, but still not great.

Haunted Mansion Holiday at Disneyland Video

Posted on December 18, 2010 in Reviews, Thoughts by

Ever since its debut in 2001, Haunted Mansion Holiday has become a Christmas time staple at the Disneyland Resort in California.  Each year, in time for the Halloween season and extending through the Christmas Time, one of the most beloved dark rides in the world, Haunted Mansion is given a lavish and detailed overlay.  Consisting of audio animatronics, new music,...

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – Review

Posted on August 18, 2010 in Reviews by

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World of Color: The Review

Posted on August 5, 2010 in Reviews by



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Pony Express: A Mixed Review

Posted on May 7, 2010 in Reviews by

The Kentucky Derby is an American classic: the thrill of horses racing through down the mighty dirt track, jockeys straddling the great steeds as the speed inches away from disaster.  However, the Kentucky Derby is a joy that only a lucky few get to experience first hand.  However, at Knott’s Berry Farm, park goers can get an idea of how...