Many a spooky story begins with, “On a dark and stormy night…”, but in the case of visiting a theme park Halloween event, that kind of wet environment tends to just put a damper on the fun. Unfortunately, such was the case when I visited the Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Berry Farm. Though, honestly, the rain isn’t solely to blame for the complete lack of scares I witnessed during my first-ever visit to the decades-old theme park.
Knott’s Berry Farm is located within minutes of Disneyland, a short drive up the highway. At Halloween time, it transforms its roughly 160 acres into Knott’s Scary Farm, featuring with 13 haunted attractions and mazes, 7 live shows, and actors roaming the streets trying to entertain and scare guests passing through. I visited Knott’s on Sunday, Oct. 23, and was anxious to step foot into what I have often heard described as one of the scariest Halloween events around. Years ago, Knott’s essentially pioneered today’s concept of the theme park Halloween haunt. Despite its history, the event now suffers from holding on too strongly to the past and not progressing into the amped-up Halloween entertainment that’s present today in competing events.
Throughout the night I was there, a light sprinkling rain was persistent. This meant that all of Knott’s famous roller coasters and rides were closed for the majority of the night, a bummer for me as a first-time visitor to this park. Likewise, nearly all of the live shows for the Halloween Haunt were cancelled, as most are presented on outdoor stages. I had been told not to miss “The Hanging,” a parody-filled show described to me as a ruder version of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, found at Universal Studios Orlando and Hollywood. Again, I was bummed to be missing most of the live entertainment. But all was not lost for the evening, as Knott’s Scary Farm boasts 13 haunted attractions – 11 mazes and 2 rides. I thought that would be more than enough to keep me entertained. I was dead wrong.
Before I offer my thoughts, here’s a quick video summary of some of the more interesting sights I spotted throughout my time at Knott’s Scary Farm:
Knott’s enhances two of its rides for Halloween, adding actors and startles throughout. The classic Calico Mine Ride, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary next month, is made over into Black Widow’s Cavern.
While riding on this attraction for the first time, I appreciated the piece of theme park history I was experiencing. A relatively slow-moving mine train takes visitors through a mountain. It seems to me that by day, this ride is something akin to the now-extinct Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland at Disneyland. During the Halloween Haunt, costumed actors hide themselves in plain sight alongside the train track, standing still until the opportune moment to shake a noisemaker at guests passing by. It produces some good startle scares, heightened by the inward facing seats, allowing actors to lurk behind guests without them ever realizing it. A number of animatronic spiders also haunt the Calico mine, but the creep factor is lost on them, as most have their mechanisms clearly visible.
Similarly, the Knott’s Berry Farm Log Ride is transformed into Sleepy Hollow Mountain for Halloween, but as I coasted through a few elaborately-decorated scenes, I mostly witnessed a handful of actors doing the bare minimum required of them to keep their jobs. One even appeared to be sitting lazily alongside the log flume, just kicking back until the next log floated by, only then bothering to raise his noisemaker for a moment before returning to his semi-sleeping position.
And therein lies the major issue at Knott’s Scary Farm that left me feeling underwhelmed: a lack of quality control. Throughout most of Knott’s haunts, I saw things that I shouldn’t. Animatronics had exposed armatures and wires. Actors stood around looking bored or chatting with each other as if it was a night off from work. “Behind the scenes” areas were often seen through unsecured doors. In general, it felt as if Knott’s was just phoning it in that night. Was it because of the rain? Perhaps in some cases, but that’s no excuse. If an event is going to be put on rain or shine, then it is expected that the experience will be top notch, regardless of the weather. Actors shouldn’t give up the scares for the night simply because they’re getting a little wet. And the rain certainly doesn’t justify letting backstage show elements or mechanics stay visible to guests.
In walking through the 11 haunted mazes of Knott’s Scary Farm, it became clear to me which had been around for years and which were newer. Some mazes like Terror of London and Dia de Los Muertos felt more like elaborate backyard haunts rather than something that would be found in a major theme park. Each house suffered from a severe lack of actors. There were times when I would pass through several scenes in a row without seeing a single actor, left only to look at the dark walls and a handful of props scattered around me. And even when I did approach an actor, little effort was ever made to scare me. Many actors seemed to wander aimlessly from scene to scene, rather than manning a particular position. Occasionally they grouped together and seemed to have a casual conversation, ignoring the guests passing through.
But all was not terrible. There are some gems to be found scattered at Knott’s Scary Farm. The Doll Factory features good sound design, a handful of girls dressed as creepy dolls that played their parts well, and a fun trip through a full-scale doll house. It’s the only house I bothered to go through twice.
Cornstalkers places a traditional Halloween corn maze in a theme park setting and offers the largest animatronic figure I’ve ever seen inside a haunt. It wasn’t scary, but it was big and fun to look at (despite the uncovered mechanical parts).
Virus Z is a valiant attempt at a comedy-based haunted house and was the only maze that mentally took me outside of Knott’s Berry Farm and put me in another world, a fictional town of Pleasanton full of maniacal residents.
Slaughterhouse is the goriest maze of the bunch and while actors were few and far between in this house, scenes were elaborately decorated and even included a people-sized meat grinder.
Less memorable houses include Lockdown, Fallout Shelter, Club Blood, and the completely-baffling Labyrinth, which leads guests through a world of characters and sets that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
Uncle Bobo’s Bigtop of the Bizarre was probably a good 3-D house when it first premiered, but today it looks like a day-glow nightmare (and not in a good way). Knott’s also feels the need to charge $1 for 3-D glasses that are essentially required for enjoyment of 2 of its 11 haunted mazes (the other being Dia de los Muertos). Other parks with 3-D haunted houses almost always include these paper glasses at no extra charge.
Outside of the houses, street actors ranged from entertaining and amusing to dull and lifeless. A large number of annoying clowns roam the streets of Knott’s Scary Farm, doing very little to scare anyone. Instead, they fall into the standard Halloween clown routine of just being obnoxious. One man inexplicably dressed in drag in the park’s “Ghost Town” area was spouting comments to guests so inappropriate I won’t even repeat them here. Some street actors did seem to be enjoying themselves and played their parts well. Near the end of the night, a group of “Ghost Town” actors blocked a main path heading toward the exit of the park, taunting guests to try to get past them. I watched as one girl tried to break through and bounced right back. Finally, after some laughs, the gang disbanded to play with guests’ minds elsewhere. It was one of a select few amusing moments I found throughout the night.
In the end, I am looking forward to returning to Knott’s Berry Farm some day to experience its rich history and fast rides in the daytime. But not even the promise of good weather would entice me to return to the Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Scary Farm in its current form. The event would benefit greatly from retiring half of its haunted houses and condensing its team of actors into a handful of their best experiences. With a bit of attention to detail and some sprucing up, Knott’s Scary Farm could once again be considered a must-visit for a Halloween fan. But as it exists in 2010, the scare has left the farm.
Photos from the 2010 Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Scary Farm:
(Photos by Jared Isham and Ricky Brigante)