Escape Authority

In-Depth Escape Room Reviews

Review: Halloween Haunt

Join us for a festive fall visit to Kings Dominion, a sister park to one of our favorite Halloween events on the west coast. This year, their lineup clearly drew much inspiration from some of Knott’s Scary Farm’s classic haunts.


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Halloween Haunt, located at Kings Dominion, is a an event included with regular park admission that runs sixteen select nights between September 22, 2018 and October 28, 2018, nearly all Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays with the exception of its opening two weeks. It should be noted that Halloween Haunt is not open on Halloween itself this year. The event features seven different haunted houses, one ride seasonal overlay, five scare zones, several shows as well as most of your favorite Kings Dominion attractions, including the brand new Twisted Timbers, Intimidator 305 and Dominator. (Flight of Fear is closed throughout the evening due to a haunt taking residence in its queue, and Volcano: The Blast Coaster is expected to be down for the remainder of the 2018 season due to technical issues.)

It’s very important to note that despite being included with regular park admission, Kings Dominion inexplicably does not allow reentry into the park past 6pm. What this means is that if you visit the park earlier in the day and play to leave for a break before the Halloween Haunt begins at 7pm, you must be back inside the park prior to 6:00 or you will be refused admission – even with an annual pass. This seems like a misguided policy more likely to frustrate guests than serve any real benefit, so, you have been warned.

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Cornstalkers

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The harvest has begun and you are the new crop. Weave through the rows of decaying corn and hope that you can find your way out. The people and creatures that live here are determined to rid their fields of anything they see as a threat and you just made the list.

 

Cornstalkers began as a haunt years ago at sister park, Knott’s Scary Farm. The thing is, although a cool-sounding concept, its execution there never really worked.

Kings Dominion clearly figured it out with their version of Cornstalkers – one that exhibits a much higher degree of quality than the California original. Here, Cornstalkers feels much more like a fiendish farm than it did just a pathway to no where, making it much easier to become immersed into its storyworld.

Ten foot tall (real) cornstalks tower over and quite literally surround you, creating a sense of helpless foreboding. The trail finds guests weaving through the corn and in and out of some detailed farm-like sets.

A circular path through a pitch black water silo creates a moment of disorientation, while a giant two story windmill hides a fantastic scare moment.

Back outside, many winding turns and blind corners genuinely created a sense of being lost in a real cornfield.

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As would become the theme of Halloween Haunt, we felt one of its biggest detractors were the actors themselves. Some seem motivated but lack proper direction to understand their roles. In the case of Cornstalkers, many would scream the same things over and over again at us in high-pitched clown voices, despite the fact that they were actually either scarecrows or farmers.

But others would do much less than that; several actors we encountered here were simply standing around seeming bored. The thing is, we visited Cornstalkers early in the evening, so they hadn’t even been working long enough to be tired of it yet!

Condemned

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The rumors have been floating around since the 50’s – of a wedding at Darkside Manor that ended in the disappearance of the entire wedding party. After this horrific event, the property was sealed, forgotten and the events of the day quickly turned into legend. Recently a few local teenagers out exploring rediscovered the hotel. They reported hearing strange sounds and made claims that could only be described as supernatural. As their stories about the property spread around the community, a group of local paranormal investigators decided to see if the reports were true.

Everyone agrees that something is odd about the Inn, but we need you on the team to help solve the mystery of what happened to the poor souls that checked in, but never checked out of Darkside Manor.

From the start, we’re a bit confused by the seemingly interchangeable nature of Condemned’s setting. Is it a manor? Is it a hotel? The outside, complete with it’s “No Vacancy” sign certainly told us this would be a hotel-themed haunt – yet inside, it’s quite clearly a mansion.

That not withstanding, Condemned crafts a solid storyworld that is different from many we’ve seen – focusing not on its confused setting, but rather – and appropriately – on that infamous wedding party from centuries ago. And once inside, we immediately find ourselves as guests at the reception, till death do us part.

Condemned begins with a fairly grand facade of the hotel/motel/mansion. Once, it’s definitely more manor than motel, but that probably works to its benefit. Pitch black dark and clearly abandoned, this place is far beyond disrepair, falling apart but yet, still decorated for a wedding.

Guests are individually issued small, dim flashlights and sent inside to explore at their own risk. Grandiose sets hide in the darkness, covered in cobwebs and clearly untouched for years. Each and every room is a fully detailed, dimensional set – and easily has some of the highest quality production found anywhere at Halloween Haunt.

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Each scareactor portrays either a bride or a groom – a very clever concept for a dark wedding-themed haunt. Unfortunately, they felt a bit more like maids and butlers – but hey, on paper we love the concept. Unfortunately, this haunt was one of the worst examples of non-stop “boo!” scares – with many of the cast simply jumping in front of us and screaming “WELCOME TO THE WEDDING” over, and over, and over again.

Um, guys, it’s a wedding. If you’re going to scream SOMETHING, why are none of you screaming “I DO!” A little bit of directing and some time with an experienced acting coach could make a massive difference in the Condemned experience – but even without, it’s a solid haunt.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was the flashlights – standard issue with no high tech programmable tricks. We certainly found ourselves wishing that Kings Dominion had engaged our friends at Gantom to make use of their Torch technology – similar to their sister park, Knott’s Berry Farm last year.

Tollway Terror

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Take a drive on the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway and experience the sights and sounds of the mountains after dark. A warning to any outsiders: According to local legend creatures lurk in the woods at night, rumored to prey on drivers who take a wrong turn. Sit back, relax and ignore the screams of other visitors as you take a ride on the Tollway Terror.

Tollyway Terror is a special seasonal overlay to the park’s classic antique cars attraction, Blue Ride Tollway.  On Halloween Haunt nights, this peace and completely family-friendly attraction embraces its spooky side, inviting guests to drive their cars through a haunted forest full of monsters, fog and surprises.

We’re big fans of ride overlays, and frankly it’s just not something that we find very often. We appreciate Kings Dominion for doing something different, but to a certain degree, this one just didn’t really work as well as it could have.

It’s also worth noting that if you do purchase the uber-priced Fright Lane option to enjoy shorter waits during your visit, Tollway Terror is NOT included. Knowing this, we arrived a half hour before the attraction opened for the evening to get in line, and even getting there that early, we still waited nearly an hour and a half before we were finally in our antique car.

Let’s start with what really does work for Tollway Terror: the ride’s track weaves in and out of a heavily forested section of the park, providing a truly spooky atmosphere on a Halloween Haunt night. Add to that copious amounts of fog and some well placed, vibrantly colored lighting and Tollway Terror clearly does to some degree create a really neat seasonal flavor.

But to that, there’s also what doesn’t work. While the added sets were not plentiful, the few we saw felt as though they may have come straight from the nearest Spirit Halloween store. And while, as Halloween fans, we’re obviously big fans of Spirit, there’s no question that one should probably expect a higher quality from a major theme park like Kings Dominion.

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Herein lies the biggest problem. When we took our evening drive through Tollway Terror, we found the vast majority of the actors in the woods were literally just … standing around. Most put no effort into offering any type of scare, let alone even engaging the passing guests.

On top of that, while some antique car rides zip around their course at a peppy speed, Blue Ridge Tollway is on the slower side, and its movements feel somewhat clunky. It’s difficult to feel a sense of urgency when we’re barely sputtering past a monster who is, in effect just standing there watching us.

We were excited for Tollway Terror – but unfortunately it proved to just not be worth the wait at all.

Zombie High

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The infection started as a high school science project gone bad. From a simple experiment to an outbreak that would cover the world in days. No one was prepared for the chaos that ensued – the dead were no longer dead and no one was safe. Welcome to where it all started…welcome to the last school that you will ever attend. It’s true what they say – high school never ends!

If we’ve got to see another zombie haunt, we’re actually happy that it’s one that carries such a unique twist on the genre. Zombie High is more of a haunted high school than it is cliché Walking Dead-flavored invasion. As such, the mood feels different, which we absolutely appreciate.

The “high school” storyworld is omnipresent throughout, thanks to scenes that check off all the prerequisite boxes of classrooms one might expect to encounter, each with its own “zombie spin,” of course.

Zombie High’s scenic is somehow both its strongest and weakest aspect. There’s a certain cleverness to its design, adding character and a bit of fun. Moving from one classroom to the next, we find ourselves as students in shop, theater, and of course the cafeteria for lunch break. The music room is full of hanging jingle bells, while another is, for some reason, full of yarn.

The biggest problem is that much of the scenic takes a very flat, two-dimensional approach. Painted plywood walls rather than adding even the smallest bit of dimension makes what on its own is a fun concept feel oh-so-temporary (and we know, as a haunt, it obviously IS temporary, but it shouldn’t FEEL that way.)

Everything builds toward Zombie High’s strongest scene, and obvious climax, prom night – full of dancing zombie couples in a very clever, campy atmosphere. It would honestly be the perfect ending to the story – except, for some reason, it isn’t. Past the prom, we find ourselves in the gym locker room, and our “grand finale” is hanging jock straps. Listen, I don’t make the rules, ok?

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Much of the character of Zombie High comes from its storyworld setting. Its scareactors are very much a heavily “boo!” scare affair, with lots of cliché jump scares that honestly don’t feel quite so befitting of what we’d expect from a slow-moving, brains hungry zombie.

Again, we circle back to what should have been the finale – the best scene in the entire haunt is the prom towards the end. How often do you get to see dancing zombie couples before they try to eat your flesh?

Blood on the Bayou

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There are rumors that the swamps once ran red with blood and it’s time to find out if the rumors are true. The locals refuse to speak about the horrors that once filled the bayou, whispers of curses and unnamed voodoo priests. However, refusing to talk about something does not make it go away. The evil that lies in wait hungers for new visitors. The voodoo queen dreams of times gone by, times when the blood of the innocent once flowed through the bayou.

Blood on the Bayou clearly drew some inspiration from a now-retired Knott’s Scary Farm haunt, Voodoo – Order of the Serpent. Set amid the murky swamps of a voodoo priestess’ village, this haunt, no matter its location, always creates an impactful experience.

Halloween Haunt’s take on this attraction may actually even surpass the Knott’s Scary Farm original. Without question, it’s the strongest haunt at Kings Dominion, making it must see for those who visit the event.

Blood on the Bayou boasts perhaps the highest quality of scenic found in any haunt at the event. Similar to the Knott’s Scary Farm version, this haunt weaves in and out of backwoods shack-like buildings, while traversing elevated wooden docks over the dank swamp waters below. But with tighter, narrow spaces between structures in this version, Kings Dominion manages to create a more menacing sense of danger.

Each building guests pass through is intricately detailed, full of voodoo dolls and various other tools of black magic. And they’re all surrounded by a forest of trees, with low hanging branches dripping with Spanish moss that absolutely bring the scene to life.

For some reason, towards the end Blood on the Bayou shifts its focus from Voodoo to a bit of a hillbilly slaughterhouse. But here’s the weird part – in the contest, somehow, it actually works rather well. From there, back to the swampy theme, we find ourselves amid a crashed and sinking boat, creating for a unique finale.

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Scareactors on the Bayou basically come in two flavors – sinister voodoo priests and priestesses or wacky hillbillies. What results is a truly fun, different mood from any other attraction at Halloween Haunt.

We found the best character acting in Blood on the Bayou – and while some, sure, were still relying solely on “boo!” scares we saw so much across the event, others were muttering voodoo spells and speaking in tongues to truly bring the spirit of this world of dark magic to life.

Trick or treat

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It’s always Halloween on Hemlock Lane. Our story picks up where the Fairy Tales ended – our clan of distraught witches were given a new start in this very special halfway house for wayward souls. Throughout the years the residents have worked to make their new home a welcoming place for their next victims.  It’s time to find out if a treat is in your future or if it’s all just an evil trick.

Trick or Treat is one of several haunts adopted from Kings Dominion’s sister park, Knott’s Berry Farm. It’s no secret that the original Knott’s Scary Farm version of this attraction consistently rates among our favorite haunts in the country, so we were quite excited to see a new take on its storyworld.

For the most part, Kings Dominion’s version of Trick or Treat did quite well for itself, and ended up being one of the better haunts of this year’s event – even if it lacked some of the wicked whimsy of the California original.

Lost is the story of the Green Witch and her playfully sinister Tricksters. In its place, this version of Trick or Treat is more a standard haunt dropped on top of that world.

Similar to Knott’s Scary Farm, Trick or Treat here does indeed begin by approaching the large, old house facade of the witch. Sadly, where the California version embraces that scene by having guests step up and physically ring the doorbell to actually trick or treat before entering the haunt, this one has you walk around the corner, behind the facade and enter through an access door on the side of a warehouse like wall.

Once inside, some similar scenes and a more familiar level of quality can be found – beginning of course with the staircase lined with glowing jack-o-lanterns. Further into the house, strongly detailed sets bring us through the witches dining room, a bedroom (complete with monster underneath, of course) and into more sinister corners of her home full of voodoo and black magic.

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It’s at scares where the Kings Dominion version of Trick or Treat loses a key from the original Knott’s Scary Farm edition’s score. To understand this is to know what works so very well in California. There, the actors are essentially split into two categories – the Tricksters, who are demented kids terrorizing the town in their Halloween costumes, and the Green Witch – their leader – who is, well, just pure evil. The balance between wicked-but-still-childlike whimsy and sinister darkness is a delightful juxtaposition that is ever so effective. It gives Trick or Treat (at Knott’s Scary Farm) a clear character and personality that set it apart from other haunts.

At Kings Dominion, however, those character personality types are basically non-existent, replaced with standard haunt “boo!” scares. Where Knott’s Berry Farm uses Trick or Treat to masterfully craft a storyworld that the guest becomes immersed within, the Virginia version focuses more on jumping out of dark corners and screaming at you.

Just the same, Trick or Treat is still an enjoyable haunt that boasts some of the better scenic at Halloween Haunt. It’s just difficult for us to know from experience how much more than one could be.

blackout

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Are you frightened of the monster that lurks under your bed? Do you ever have the feeling that something bad is about to happen? Are you worried that there is a boogie man in the closet? The things that go bump in the night are waiting for you in this darkness filled realm of nightmares. Will anyone be there to hear you scream? What you can’t see might hurt you…and in this case it will!

See all that story above? The monster under your bed? Boogieman in the closet? Etc, etc? Well, forget all of it.

Once inside the world of Blackout, it has no story. At all. Or anything else for that matter. It’s just an empty building.

Blackout exists in a fairly large building, yet it doesn’t really do anything with it. Black plywood walls form your pathway through… nothing, occasionally accentuated with hanging fishing line, rope, and yes, pool noodles.

Worst of all, this empty box is only almost pitch black – meaning without the true total darkness, guests are actually able to see all of its shortcomings in their path as they pass through.

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In a haunt with virtually nothing going on, we’d hope that the scareactors would at least step up and try to fill the gap. But, at least in the case of our visit, they did not. In fact, throughout the course of Blackout, most of the scareactors did… nothing. We’re talking just stand around and put no effort in.

But kids, it gets worse than that. There’s a reason why you don’t find many haunts dabble with (near) total darkness for their entire durations. When people can’t see where they’re going, they … stop … moving. What results is an incredibly frustrating time in the worst haunt of the event were you can’t even move to leave.

lockdown

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More than half a century ago an infamous riot claimed the lives of dozens of men at Doswell State Penitentiary. Following the massacre, the prison was abandoned and left to crumble. Today the prison is finally being reopened and you’re the first to get inside.  All visitors are encouraged to stay on the marked paths, or you may find yourself the next victim of this never-ending Lockdown.

 

Located inside the alien-invasion-themed Flight of Fear coaster’s queue, Lockdown’s storyworld, just like the attraction its taking over, is a bit of a bumpy ride. Starting with the crashed UFO that is actually an unrelated part of the year round ride, we then find ourselves in a prison. And we’re not quite sure, but the prisoners might be zombies?

Lockdown is so hindered by its environment and lack of clear direction that its story becomes a jumbled mess with either no clear flow, or no flow at all.

Built in Flight of Fear’s interior queue, a guest’s first impression of Lockdown is a massive UFO, which, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the story we’re entering into. Rather than block it with black curtains, Kings Dominion oddly chose to embrace it by adding an alien statue standing next to it – one that, unlike the UFO itself, is actually not there as a permanent part of the attraction.

From there, we enter a standard human prison, aged and run down, just as one might expect to find in a haunt. But at some points, we find ourselves inside a hospital? All before ending back up in the prison for a classic electric chair finale? The flow is certainly as disjointed as the storyworld for this one.

Lockdown actually utilizes a couple of two story tall cell block sets to great success, making memorable scenes that are easily the highlight of the experience.

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So like, are the scareactors prisoners? Or zombies? Or are the prisoners zombies? Or are the aliens running a prison for zombies?

We can’t possibly be expected to make sense of this one.

Lockdown is full of standard “boo!” scares, with little creativity that makes it stand out. But at the end of the day, its cast can only do so much with its jumbled storyworld, and we certainly acknowledge that they made it work as well as they possibly could.

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Five official scare zones, plus additional roaming characters make up the street entertainment for Kings Dominion’s Halloween Haunt event. Executed to varying degrees of success, some truly benefit from parts of the park’s heavily forested setting, creating some of the more memorable scare zones we’ve seen this season.

Necropolis

The once peaceful spirits that resided in this cemetery have been dragged out of their slumber and forced to walk the earth once again. The deceased are searching for the person that woke them…they are searching for revenge.

Framed by ominously crumbling cemetery arches, Necropolis instantly establishes itself as not only a solid scare zone, but one that screams “Halloween,” among all the other screams it elicits from its guests. Taking over a fairly lengthy section of the park, Necropolis essentially spans from a branching path at the Eiffel Tower well into Old Virginia, almost to Grizzly.

This is everything we look for in a scare zone. Lots of engaged and energetic actors, darting in and out of permanently placed props and crumbling crypt structures, providing them the perfect hidey-holes they need to get an effective scare. Tons of fog makes it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead, and the ominous purple and teal glow that surrounds the space unquestionably gives Necropolis a clear supernatural feel.

And naturally, it’s graveyard setting, with tombstones breaking up the path of guest flow, all set amid the most forested section of Kings Dominion is sure to instantly elicit that classic Halloween flavor.

The Lair

Forced from their ancestral home this small clan of Vampires has taken refuge in the dark. The vampires have been without blood for far too long. Their sharp minds are clouded with hunger but luckily their next meal is only a heartbeat away.

This world of vampires is, well, a small world after all. Existing under the park’s shade canopy arbor nearby Grizzly, The Lair is Halloween Haunt’s smallest scare zone.

Despite its small size, Kings Dominion but clear effort into jam packing it full of action, thanks to a lot of fog and strobing lights, plus even more blood thirsty vampires. This scare zone, despite its relatively tiny size, may have had more active scareactors in it than any other section of the park.

Life-sized vampire-bat-hybrid monsters hang from the ceiling of the arbor, creating a fairly creepy mode in the flashing fog. We just wish they moved.

IronWorx

 

This is not another story from your history books. The future is now and the revolution has begun. The creatures of your nightmares have declared war and man has taken up the challenge. Only one can survive in this steam filled alternate reality.

 

Traveling down a densely wooded path in the shadow of the park’s Eiffel Tower, IronWorX already has an effective setting going for it. Its steampunk theme lends to vibrant-but-ominous lights casting shadows through the trees – and best of all – well it just wouldn’t be steampunk without the steam, right?

IronWorkX utilizes a lot of fog, and does so quite well, managing to take a scare zone which is quite literally just a straight line path and turn it a bit disorienting. The atmospheric benefits alone made this one of the best at Halloween Haunt.

The Yard

 

For years The Yard of Doswell State Penitentiary was the only place the prisoners could go to get out of their cells, and escape the close eye of the evil warden and his guards. After the prisoners asked to increase their yard privileges, the vindictive warden ordered all inmates confined to their cells. A violent riot ensued as the guards tried to enforce his command.

The warden was outraged by their disobedience and ordered his sadistic guards to torture and permanently silence the prisoners. These unfortunate souls were secretly disposed of under dead of night and the yard became one unmarked mass grave. The merciless guards of Doswell State still patrol The Yard, always ready to enforce the warden’s rule of terror.

What works best about The Yard is its ability to build a storyworld mood for guests approaching the adjacent Lockdown haunt. Carrying a jail-break theme of its own, The Yard flows into the haunt as sort of one continuous experience.

On the other hand, what doesn’t work so well is it’s total lack of actors. In fact, during our visit, we only saw one? Surely there were others that we somehow missed in the crowd – but even still – just how many could there have been if we only managed to find one?

Scenically, The Yard does its job creating a prison motif, thanks to chain link fence barricades blocking your path and two rather tall guard towers complete with search lights that help energize the area.

 

Cleaver Brothers Carnival

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls you have seen the rest now step right up and experience the best. The Cleaver Brothers have set up their midway and invite you to experience a carnival like no other. Enter a world where the extraordinary comes to life and your worst nightmares will seem like a pleasant dream.

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of a classic haunted circus theme, so Cleaver Brothers Carnival was perhaps the scare zone that had us the most excited. Unfortunately, in its execution it doesn’t particularly pay off.

Set on the midway of Candy Apple Grove, this scare zone is surrounded by actual carnival rides and games – which, in effect should make it work even stronger. However, with somewhat sparse decor beyond a few clown statues, a wagon and a large animated jack-in-the-box prop – and worse, seemingly even less actors at the time of our visit this area almost felt more like what that section of the park might be even without the cool chill of fall weather in the air.

We weren’t sure what to expect when visiting Halloween Haunt – an event so clearly influenced by the original Knott’s Scary Farm at Kings Dominion’s sister park in Southern California. We were certainly excited to see new takes on some of our classic favorites from the west coast. Some in Virginia even managed to surpass the quality of the originals, while others feel a bit short.

Kings Dominion is an interesting backdrop for a Halloween event. With half of the park shrouded in a heavily forested setting, some areas are distinctly spooky after dark. Others, though, that exist across unthemed carnival midways lack the distinct flavor of the season of tricks and treats.

Although we genuinely did enjoy our visit to Halloween Haunt, the one constant we experienced were the actors – and sadly, this time it’s not exactly a compliment. While we by no means blame the cast themselves – we feel that with better direction, they could learn that there’s more to haunting than just jumping out in front of someone and quite literally screaming in their face. We wish that Halloween Haunt would embrace a bit more story-driven interaction with the guests rather than a constant non-stop series of teenager jump scares.

You can find an extended photo gallery from our night at Kings Dominion’s Halloween Haunt in this exclusive album on the Escape Authority Facebook page! While there, why not give us a “LIKE” if you haven’t already? We’ll give you candy!

Venue: Kings Dominion

Location: Doswell, VA

Dates: Select Nights September 22nd – October 28th

Hours: 10:30am – midnight Saturdays and Sundays or 7pm – midnight on Fridays. Halloween Haunt begins each night at 7pm.  

Cost: As low as $39.99 if purchased in advance online. Halloween Haunt is included free with a valid season pass.

 

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