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In-Depth Escape Room Reviews

Review: Halloween Horror Nights 2017

Horror returns to Universal Studios Hollywood in a year that feels just a little too much like it cheated off of the Orlando event’s notes.

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Halloween Horror Nights is a separately ticketed event located at Universal Studios Hollywood that runs twenty-nine select nights between September 15, 2017 and November 4, 2017, including every Friday, Saturday, Sunday as well as every Thursday in October and Halloween night itself. For 2017, Halloween Horror Nights features seven brand new haunted houses (eight when you include the year-round Walking Dead attraction), three scare zones, the iconic Terror Tram, as well as most of your favorite Universal Studios Hollywood attractions, including Jurassic Park In The Dark and Revenge of the Mummy. It should be noted that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) is not available during this event.

 

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American Horror Story: Roanoke

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Step inside the twisted world of American Horror Story, the award-winning anthology horror series.
Deep in the backwoods of North Carolina, there is an isolated farmhouse that has witnessed centuries of horror. Legend has it that the house was built close to the site of the infamous “Lost Colony of Roanoke”, an English settlement that mysteriously vanished back in the late 1500’s. Though no one knows for sure what happened to the doomed colonists of Roanoke, the suffering of the residents of the cursed farmhouse has been well documented; a legacy of murder and madness that extends back into the murky past in an unbroken chain of horror. They say that the most dangerous time to visit the farmhouse is during the first moon after the harvest…the Blood Moon!But in the woods beyond the haunted farmhouse, even worse horrors await. Whispers of cannibalism, blood-sacrifices and murderous spirits who still cling to the cursed land.

Embracing an established IP can be a tricky thing; as a designer, you’re expected to offer that “fan service” highlighting everyone’s favorite moments, while also tell a story solidly enough that those who do not hold a familiarity with the brand can still follow along. In the case of American Horror Story, I fall into the latter. Yes, I recognize it’s a very popular TV show, but it’s just not one that I myself enjoy.

Thankfully the designers of American Horror Story: Roanoke – the haunt – truly did it justice, crafting a story clear enough that it stands on its own as an attraction, without requiring prior knowledge of the IP to truly appreciate it.

 

American Horror Story: Roanoke features some truly compelling scenic – upping the bar from last year’s version and establishing something that stood out among some of the more impressive sets at Halloween Horror Nights 2017.

This year, the decision was made to focus solely on one single season of the show – Roanoke – rather than taking the “clip show” approach of multiple seasons in a single haunt as done in 2016, or as continues to be done at Universal Orlando’s version of the event. This worked well for the haunt, giving it a much more cohesive scenic flow through a believable wooded forest, ducking in and out of rustic cabin interiors.

Unfortunately this haunt did suffer from the “black hallway plague” that many at Universal Studios Hollywood endure. Having sets themed as well as they otherwise are truly hurt the pacing overall when they’re separated by plain black, completely unthemed, entirely out of place transitions.

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American Horror Story: Roanoke embraced the art of sudden jump scares delivering them to a satisfyingly (and startlingly) effective level.

True to the branding from this season of the TV show, expect lots of severed pig heads popping out at you from around every last corner, some lurking in the shadows so well that you’ll never see them coming.

 

THE WALKING DEAD ATTRACTION

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Enter the post-apocalyptic world of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Prepare to fight for survival in a fully immersive journey as you navigate through a world overrun by hungry walkers. Follow in the footsteps of the human survivors as you battle your way through nightmarish iconic landscapes that bring the most popular cable TV show in history to life!

The Walking Dead Attraction spans the first few seasons of the hit AMC show taking guests up through the assault on the survivors’ prison compound. While the main human characters of the show don’t make any appearances, some of the more memorable walkers appear and scenarios from the show play out for guests to see.

There’s a good flow moving through the hospital, into the woods, and finally through the prison that gives this maze a story arc that works even for non-fans of the show. The Walking Dead Attraction is the must see maze at this years event, even though it does run year-round.

This is, by far, the best looking maze at Halloween Horror Nights 2016. Of course, it also has the added benefit of being the highest budget maze because of its year-round standing at the park. Numerous animatronics and special effects make this feel like as real of an environment as you’ll find in a haunted attraction.

The best faux fire effects I have seen are also on display with a burning cabin emitting heat onto the guest path. It’s a show moment you’ll want to just stand and stare at.

 

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The walkers here really know how to make zombies work in a maze environment. Assisted by some excellent prosthetics and animatronic figures, The Walking Dead Attraction creates an all encompassing experience. Video screens, shadow projections, and semi-mechanical mannequins make the walker count feel enormous.

The live actors working among the mannequins are also able to blend in well with their fake counterparts making it difficult to know who is real and who is not. They don’t use this as an opportunity for statue scares, but instead try to mimic and manipulate the horde to make everything feel real.

 

 

The Shining

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Based on visionary director Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic film, The Shining will let Halloween Horror Night guests experience all the iconic scenes and characters that have made the film a masterpiece of modern horror.

Welcome to The Overlook Hotel, a sprawling yet isolated century old hotel with a tragic history of murder and madness. Jack Torrance, a man with a troubled past, has agreed to be the caretaker for The Overlook Hotel during the harsh Colorado winter and has moved his family into the shuttered hotel. But as soon as the Torrance family takes up residence in the hotel, Jack begins to undergo a startling change…a descent into madness that will put his family in grave danger.

Unbeknownst to Jack, his young son, Danny, is imbued with a dark gift – the ability to see events and people, both past and future, that others can’t see. A gift called “The Shining.” Danny’s nightmarish visions will help to unlock the mysteries of the haunted hotel and allow the horrifying, true nature of The Overlook to reveal itself.

The Shining is played out more as a book report than an immersive story – with a greater focus on “hitting all the expected beats” from the film without regard for how well they flow from one into the next.

Sadly overall, a maze that came much hyped on both coasts somewhat falls flat twice – though the Universal Studios Hollywood version, overall, may be the weaker of the two.

One thing Universal does exceedingly well is its inclusion of epic entry statement facades for its haunts. You might envision a grand scale replica of the Overlook Hotel. If you do, you’ll be a bit disappointed. Much like at Universal Orlando, The Shining’s entrance is modest, with no attempt made at recreating the iconic hotel. Instead, you enter through a very modest hedge maze, transitioning quickly into… book pages scribbled with “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy?”

Look – I get that this is an iconic line from the film, but why am I suddenly walking through a book?

All is not lost for the Universal Studios Hollywood version; the memorable scene with the twins is much more impactful than its Florida version, thanks to a chilling projection effect that transitions into their dead bodies. Unfortunately, the “Universal projection syndrome” later works against the haunt, replacing Florida’s practical effect for the blood elevator scene with another screen.

We greatly appreciate that this version of The Shining did conclude with a key element that’s rather easy to miss in Florida: a frozen Jack dead at the end of the hedge maze – accentuated further by piped in ice cold air.

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Awkwardly, in Hollywood’s version of The Shining, every “Jack” character wore a mask. To the contrary in Orlando, each actor was cast to bear a resemblance to Jack Nickleson. It’s difficult to not have the entire production feel a bit cheesier when the main character is wearing a rubber human mask that doesn’t move.

With that comes scares that will probably be rather predictable for anyone who has either seen the film or been in any given haunted house previously. Expect lots of “boo scares” and lots of “Here’s Johnny!” audio clips.

 


Ash vs. Evil Dead

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The story begins in an isolated cabin in the woods. It was there that young Ash Williams and his friends stumbled upon a book and unwittingly unleashed an ancient evil on the Earth. After losing all of his friends, and his right hand, the evil was vanquished and life returned to normal. Ash settled into the quiet life, living in a trailer park, drinking in dives and working in an undemanding, dead-end job.

But evil doesn’t sleep forever. Thirty years later, poor Ash screwed up and recited passages from that book one lousy time and evil has found him again!

Now it’s time for Ash to reclaim his chainsaw and save the world again from an evil worse than anything he has confronted before.

Again, another haunt that suffers the “IP curse” of making little sense without prior knowledge. Here’s the one thing I do know about Ash vs. Evil Dead: it’s supposed to be funny. Unfortunately, the haunt just is not – and to that level, it really doesn’t do justice to what one would expect from the branding.

Similar to American Horror Story: Roanoke, Ash vs. Evil Dead had some great scenic moments interconnected with completely unthemed black hallways.

If you can get past the jarring transitions, you’ll be treated to some grand scale house facades straight out of the show. Importantly, their detail is impressive enough that you don’t need to be a fan of Ash vs. Evil Dead to appreciate their quality.

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Again, I’m not a fan of Ash vs. Evil Dead – but beyond knowing that it is a horror comedy, there’s one other thing I do know about it: Ash is the hero.

So why is Ash the one constantly jumping out at us in the vast majority of this maze’s scare moments? It’s odd, and not in a good way. It almost feels as though he’s painted as the monster, which seems entirely out of place.

 

 

Titans of Terror

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Fall victim to the silver screen’s most deplorable killers, whose affinity for bladed weapons, redefined the horror movie genre as slasher films: Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) wielding his iconic chainsaw, Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) brandishing his relentless machete, and Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) swiping his trademark glove armed with razor blades.

The new maze will be an assault on your sensibilities as you descend into the forbidden realms of these iconic horror monsters and discover the place where these depraved legacies were born.

Titans of Terror takes a handful of IPs done to death (no pun intended) at Halloween Horror Nights and finds a way to give them a pretty unique, interesting spin. Freddy, Jason and Leatherface return, yet again, but this time, the adventure begins in the 1980s bedroom of a kid who is a horror super fan.

Through his obsession, the characters literally come to life, and, naturally, then try to end ours.

Titans of Terror begins with a realistic house facade, decked out in classic Halloween (the holiday) decorations. Inside, we enter the bedroom of the presumed teenager who lives there – someone obsessed with horror movies as illustrated by the many posters and collectibles he’s gathered.

From there, this haunt takes the clip show approach you would probably expect, with scenes appropriately themed to those found in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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Although arguably a bit overdone by this point, there’s still no denying that there are whole heck of a lot of people that still are repressing their childhood fears of Freddy, Jason and Leatherface. As such, Titans of Terror is likely to have a few effective scares for most who visit.

At its core, expect a lot of Freddy, Jason and Leatherface masks overlaid on standard “boo scares,” but that doesn’t necessarily make this haunt any less enjoyable for its classic kitsch flavor.

 

 

 

Saw: the Games of Jigsaw

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The SAW series – one of the highest grossing horror franchises of all time – makes its terrifying return to Halloween Horror Nights®. Bringing the blockbuster’s most twisted traps to life in an all-new original maze, it will also feature a first look at the upcoming eighth SAW film, Jigsaw, in theaters Oct. 27.

SAW: The Games of Jigsaw will test your physical and psychological limits as you come face-to-face with mastermind Jigsaw and his collection of infamous traps from the entire SAW film series.

If you’ve seen any SAW movie, you’ve seen them all – and you know exactly what to expect from this haunt – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, SAW: The Games of Jigsaw was a significant improvement over the version found at Universal Orlando this year.

SAW: The Games of Jigsaw felt far more like being dropped inside a SAW film – making us active participants in the horror – rather than the “SAW Museum of Kills” found at Universal Studios Florida.

SAW: The Games of Jigsaw’s scenic probably won’t be surprising to anyone – due in part to the fact that every SAW film has a familiar visual style and perhaps just as much thanks to the fact that a large portion of the haunt was recycled sets from Universal Studios Hollywood’s prior SAW mazes.

Expect to encounter the most recognizable “kill machines” from Jigsaw’s warped world, some stacked with bodies and others with barely-still-living victims about to meet their bloody demise right before your eyes. And blood. Expect a whole lot of blood. But honestly, was there anyone not expecting that?

 

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SAW: The Games of Jigsaw was far more impactful in delivering compelling scares than its Florida counter-part. Rather than just kill after kill after kill on display, Universal Studios Hollywood took breaths in between each theme, allowing transitions that created a satisfying storyworld flow before our next attack by Jigsaw’s pig face killer. (Yes, that makes two mazes full of killer pig heads this year!)

This haunt embraces its scenic just as much as story in creating compelling scares, including one very memorable moment with saw blades coming out of the walls in an attempt to mince us into a fine paste.

 

 

Insidious: Beyond the Further

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The all-new maze will delve deep into brilliant parapsychologist Dr. Elise Rainer’s past, starting with a childhood in which her paranormal abilities emerged… until her mother’s untimely death by a demonic entity.

Troubled by a lifetime of evil supernatural spirits trapped in the Further-a vacuous netherworld caught between the living and the dead-Elise will take guests on an unsettling journey back in time through a portal into the Further to defy the most depraved and intimidating beings that have tormented her since the 1950s.

Insidious: Beyond the Further offers a satisfying mix of all films in the franchise. Although structured as another sort of book report clip show hybrid, its moments do succeed at putting one into their respective storyworlds, creating an immersive flow.

Overall, expect less story and more “features” from each film, including encounters with each of their main focal demons.

Insidious: Into the Further is yet another victim of Universal Studio’s Hollywood’s black hallway curse. While inside a scene proper, the decor is unquestionably up to Universal standards. Unfortunately, they’re again daisy-chained together by plain black, unthemed spaces.

As mentioned in other mazes, this harsh juxtaposing hinders the overall flow of a haunt that would in truth otherwise be quite good.

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Following the “clip show” model, Insidious: Into the Further features scenes dedicated to each film from the franchise. Along with it, the core baddies in this haunt are appropriately each of the demons that stalk Elise and company in the films.

And stalk they shall; Insidious: Into the Further features some truly effective stalking-style scares from each demon — but this time, they’re coming for you.

 

 

The Horrors of Blumhouse

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Get ready for three twisted Blumhouse Productions films in one bone-chilling experience. Come face-to-face with the most iconic and unnerving moments from the blockbuster The Purge franchise, Sinister movies and soon-to-be released Happy Death Day.

In The Purge section, you will attempt to survive the night, immersed in the film property’s depraved world where all crime is declared legal in the government’s annually sanctioned 12-hour cleansing of society. In what can be described as a living trailer for Happy Death Day, you will encounter the deja vu scenario, forced to relive the last day of your lives over and over again, trying to escape a mysterious masked killer. Then, in Sinister, encounter an ancient pagan deity who is determined to trap you for all eternity in the sordid shadow world of the dead.

Like in Florida, Universal Studios Hollywood’s version of The Horrors of Blumhouse is structured as a clip show of several popular films. In California, the line-up is slightly different, offering a unique experience for those, like us, who were able to visit both events.

Here, iconic scenes from The Purge, Happy Death Day and Sinister await those who venture through this haunt. Like other “clip show” style haunts, limited time is spent in each, making it a bit difficult to tell a flowing-enough story to allow guests to become immersed in their respective worlds. While that doesn’t necessarily make the haunt less fun, it just makes it less of an active experience.

The Horrors of Blumhouse begins outside, in what was essentially just one of The Purge scare zones from 2016. And it was terrible. Very little was changed beyond the inclusion of a few masks from the most recent Purge film. The rest is simply chain link fence, Christmas lights and a few cars with little else in the way of scenic.

Once indoors, our transition to act two, Death Day, was a slight improvement, but still offered little in the way of true scenic “wow” moments. Although I suppose it does connect to the “Groundhog Day” nature of the film, something about dorm room, hallway, same dorm room, same hallway, same dorm room, same hallway really doesn’t translate to a physical haunt.

The final act, Sinister, was much better – and frankly carried the tone this entire haunt should have maintained. But again, great scenic is instantly hindered by more black, unthemed hallway syndrome.

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Much like its scenic, quality of scares in The Horrors of Blumhouse vary by its act. To be clear, this is not because I personally prefer any one of these film IPs over the other; I’ve actually seen them all, and enjoy them all. But lackluster scenic in the first two acts hinders The Purge and Happy Death Day from delivering to the level they otherwise should be able to.

It should come as no surprise that act three’s Sinister scenes were the most effective, with some great hiding places for jump scares thanks to its vastly improved scenic attention to detail.

 

Titans of TERROR TRAM: Hosted by Chucky

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Taking terror to an unspeakable level of bloodcurdling screams, The Titans of Terror Tram Hosted by Chucky will transport guests into a nightmare of carnage pitting you against these four modern horror icons, this time led by infamous serial killer doll Chucky (Child’s Play franchise). With his faithful army of degenerate chainsaw-wielding Good Guy Dolls, Chucky will unleash havoc upon guests as they navigate a portion of the world-famous backlot.

Let’s start by stating the obvious – it’s a bit of a questionable call to have two haunts basically carry the same branding. Titans of Terror (the standard haunt) and Titans of Terror Tram (the standard tram experience) is a bit convoluted and confusing even for experienced guests like us. And similar to the haunt which we already discussed above, Titans of Terror Tram: Hosted by Chucky also features… you guessed it… Freddy, Jason and Leatherface.

But that’s where the similarities end. This year’s Terror Tram is essentially exactly the same as every other year’s Terror Tram – except new for 2017 it’s… less. The entire upper loop walk through the woods before arriving at the Psycho House and War of the Worlds set was cut, and replaced with nothing. Just a short cut between the former paths. And while this was pleasing on my feet to avoid a hike up the hill, it seems like an odd choice to make an attraction at an overly busy event carry a smaller capacity than usual.

Titans of Terror Tram: Presented by Chucky began – as tradition, with a brand new preshow video featuring Chucky himself to fill the time it takes to drive guests to the drop off point outside the Whoville sets and Bates Motel. Unfortunately, once off the tram this year’s version (as with many years prior) offered absolutely nothing new in terms of scenic.

If you’ve seen it before, you’ve seen it this year too. Walk across the porch of the Bates Motel before climbing the hill to walk through the War of the World’s crash site sets. And while it’s always cool to be on foot among the wreckage, we find ourselves wishing for something unique again.

The experience ends with a post show video by Chucky, wherein we learned that his whole reason for kidnapping and trying to kill us was to plug his new movie. Ummm. That seems a bit misguided.

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Each year, any Terror Tram attraction is basically just an elaborate scare zone. Without any truly dedicated sets or effects, you’re left with a bunch of scareactors just wandering around in fairly open spaces.

And while the use of fog and lighting does help, it’s difficult to not look at the Titans of Terror Tram: Presented by Chucky as a somewhat dated attraction that seemingly refuses to evolve with the rest of the event around it.

 

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After attempting one universal theme (get it?) to mixed results in 2016, Universal Studios Hollywood returns to their more traditional approach of multiple uniquely themed scare zones around the park.

 

Urban Inferno

 

Take your chances as you journey through Hell, where you will encounter Burnt Lost Souls, Half-Goat Executioners, Mad Monks, Blacksmiths forging the chains of Purgatory and Satanic demons including the towering King and Queen.

 

Located at the entrance to the backlot’s cluster of haunts, Urban Inferno is a welcome improvement over past years that saw little more than stacked shipping containers as “theming.” This year, a demonic flare is in the air, right down to the devil babies.

 

Hell-O-Ween

It’s trick or treating time in the big city in the worst possible way. Witches, ghosts, vampires, werewolves and undead children have come out in droves to roam New York Street in celebration of Halloween. Be careful of stacks of jack-o-lanterns – they may be human heads.

Halloween Horror Night’s quasi-entry statement is subtle this year. Nothing more than a few minimal decorations barely fill the space just past the Studio Store to welcome thrill seekers into the event.

 

Toxic Tunnel

Utility workers were doing repairs inside the tunnel and accidently burst a pipe with toxic gas. Hazmat teams were called in, but everyone has been infected by the gas and turned into zombie-like subhumanoids (as usually happens in this sort of situation). You just need to get past the crazed workers before the toxic gas turns you into a subhuman!

It’s so weird that this is a “scare zone,” because it really isn’t. An actual tunnel under an office building (don’t get too excited — think more parking space for cars than “spooky tunnel”) is a necessary obstacle between the park’s Lower Lot and the Backlot area that houses the remaining several haunts. Colored strobing lights, some fog and a handful of seemingly lost scareactors “put this one on the map” – for better or worse.

JABBAWOCKEEZ

Originating from the Westside of the galaxy light years away, the Jabbawockeez, have crash-landed on planet Earth and are now stranded in the 1950s. Feeling out of place from outer space, a musical journey ensues as they try to find a way back home. On this fantastic voyage through this strange land, the Jabbawockeez encounter a like-minded and masked character named Alize-unaware that this being they’ve just met may hold the key to the Jabbawockeez’ homecoming.

The Jabbawockeez have created a new show exclusive to Halloween Horror Nights building off their successful Las Vegas residency. We didn’t attend the show as it is not what we tend to look for in entertainment, but it appeared to be popular with the local audience.

We’ve touched on it several times now – but let’s begin our wrap up by addressing one of the two biggest issues with Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights event: Plain, black, unthemed hallway transitions in the vast majority of their haunts. The whole thing is puzzling to me — because on the one hand, this is Universal Studios; they CLEARLY have the budget to theme out the full space. So why not? And here’s the thing, let’s say they didn’t have the budget to do it right — then just shorten the path of the maze and have 100% of what you build be themed and in world. These jarring transitions are off-putting in the worst possible way. They feel lazy, and perhaps even worse than that, they feel as though they think we as the guests just won’t know any better.

Well we do — and we also know that Universal Studios Hollywood is better than that. We’re literally only holding this event to the standards that it set for itself in the countless years that it completely blew us away.

The elephant in the room when talking about USH’s Halloween Horror Nights is the massive crowds the event receives. Without purchasing a Universal Express front-of-the-line pass, guests will be hard pressed to complete every maze without taking advantage of the event’s early entry offering. Even so, on the night we attended, after 7:00pm the shortest haunt wait time was already 45 minutes, with the longest reaching up to an hour and a half. These lines only got longer as the park eventually hit its capacity number. Nearly every night of the event will sell out, meaning there’s not a slow night where guests looking to save on purchasing Universal Express pass will be able to have an easier time accessing mazes.

Universal Studios Hollywood produces fantastic looking sets and has makeup and masks only rivaled by its sister park in Orlando. This event looks like it’s worth its high budget price tag, but odd decisions with maze flow and repetitive scares make it miss the mark of being as great as it can be, should be, and frankly once was. It’s still an enjoyable experience if you can afford to splurge on the Universal Express pass, but at that price point the event is more expensive than the experience received is worth.

Venue: Universal Studios Hollywood

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Dates: Select Nights September 15th – November 4th

Hours: 7PM – 2AM with early entry beginning at 5pm.

Cost: $95 at the gate, or save as much as $30 per person if purchased in advance online.

 

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