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In-Depth Escape Room Reviews

Review: The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2017

 A notoriously haunted nearly century old ship has held many different roles throughout its lifetime: luxury cruise liner, war ship, and epic Halloween event venue. Unfortunately, all of those are now history, as this year’s Dark Harbor falls short of reliving the grandeur we so desperately miss.

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The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor is a separately ticketed event that runs twenty-three select nights between September 28, 2017 and November 1, 2017, every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday as well as the last Wednesday of October and Halloween night itself. In its 27th year, Dark Harbor features an expanded seven different haunted houses – one of which is brand new for 2017 and the first time a total of four have been located on-board the ship herself, as well as a park-wide scare zone, rotating live bands and entertainment shows, a 4D theater show as well one carnival ride with a very interesting history – Sinister Swings, formerly the Wave Swinger from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

Haunts which return unchanged from the previous year will be duplicated from our 2016 review.

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Feast

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During WWII when The Queen Mary was in service as a troop transport ship, an enlisted military man serving in the ship’s kitchen quickly moved up in the ranks to become a highly decorated Chef.  Unbeknownst to the soldiers traveling aboard, Chef had a dark side.  Quietly he would sedate a few solders at a time and collect them in the middle of the night to prep them for his latest dishes.  Eventually caught, the Chef was thrown into one of his own ovens and cooked alive. Ever-faithful to Chef, his dutiful kitchen staff sacrificed themselves to become his evil henchmen, burning themselves in the same oven. Chef and his evil crew went into hiding aboard the ship for many years.  Largely forgotten these long-time stowaways aboard the ship have resurfaced to resume their deadly duties by collecting new victims for some of Chef’s latest recipes.  Are you ready to be served?

Feast was, without a doubt the one thing we were most excited to see at this year’s Dark Harbor event. Traditionally, mazes aboard the ship itself are always the most compelling, greatly enhanced by a naturally creepy setting to bring to life the dark storyworlds crafted by each of the event’s icon characters.

Unfortunately Feast, more than ever before for an “on-ship” maze fell drastically short.

Scenically, Feast felt like a “bare minimum” approach – with moderate set dressing connected by long sections of nothingness. This made for a very uneventful feel – something not at all what we have come to expect from “on-ship” mazes of prior years. Unfortunately, as we would soon learn, this would become a theme that would carry across even the return mazes this year.

Unique to The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor event, Feast includes a crawling tunnel (appropriately through what is meant to be an oven.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t at all scenically read as an oven once inside – but more an air duct – and worse, it completely lacks any form of padding making it a bit uncomfortable on the knees.

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The flaws of Feast – and what would become the trend for this year’s event as a whole, did not fall on the scareactors. They still remain as engaged and interactive as ever – and truly do put their highest effort into creating a memorable experience for Dark Harbor’s guests. Unfortunately in the cast of Feast, there’s only so much they can do given the tools they have to work with.

From an originality perspective, Feast felt more like The Queen Mary simply going through the paces rather than an attempt to truly raise the bar with their brand new haunt. Needless to say, this was one dinner that left us wanting more.

 

 

INTREPID

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untitled-13Do you dare go back to where it all began? Meet the mastermind, the creator and now the protector of the Queen Mary. The Iron Master has returned to reclaim the precious vessel he built, fiercely guarding it from the antics of the freaks and ghouls. Follow his maddening journey… if you dare step aboard.

One thing Dark Harbor understands exceedingly well is the value of an event icon character – and the new maze every subsequent season becomes that character’s foreboding permanent home. Intrepid belongs to the Iron Master, creator of The Queen Mary, and who apparently has an entirely disjointed mind.

So – the convoluted backstory centers around this spot being the location where the Queen Mary was originally constructed, beginning in 1930. Nothing about that is clear in its execution. Instead, this maze – albeit a significant improvement, redesigned from the ground up over last year’s original take feels bizarrely disjointed – and at no point has anything to do with the creation of the ship.

This year, Dark Harbor started over with Intrepid – a maze which was a total fail in its opening year. Is it better? Yes, it is, for sure. But is it good? Well, that depends.

For some reason that I’m still unable to process, the first act takes place aboard a passenger train. Scenically it’s an extended and improved approach at the attempt they made last year, and for that, we’re appreciative. From there, we exit the train and find ourselves in a plague-ridden village that feels much more like what was probably left standing from the event’s prior Voodoo-themed haunt which went unused last year.

That’s not to say that some of the scenes don’t look good – because they surely do – but they also surely make absolutely no storyworld sense for where we’re supposed to be.

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As is always the case at Dark Harbor, the actors do their best to live their roles – a fact that does enhance the overall muddled feel of Intrepid. Most memorable for us were moments traveling through the passenger cars of the train, with a monster waiting at the dead end for us, forcing us to walk toward him. The Queen Mary has always understood the impact of the psychological scare – the sort of “he’s going to do something, he’s going to do something, HE’S GOING TO DO SOMETHI….. he didn’t do anything!” We find that to be far more disturbing than a cliché boo-scare any day.

Unfortunately beyond these moments, it’s difficult to find a specific scare that stands out in Intrepid thanks not to its actors, but in full due to its completely disjointed lack of storyline.

Intrepid was a major disappointment in 2016 – and at that time we were hopeful that it might receive a complete redesign for its second year. We’re thankful that it did, and while there’s no question that it was improved (bringing it from a 1 Key haunt to a 3 Keys haunt) we remain hopeful that this may have only been step 1, with step 2 left to address the massive story flaws next year.

 

 

LULLABY

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untitled-7Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of nightmares. The Lullaby maze takes the visitor on a spine-tingling trip through the story of little Scary Mary. Gone, but certainly not forgotten, Mary is looking for playmates to join her on the other side of hell. Will you succumb to the youngster’s pranks and tricks, or will you escape with your soul intact?

I think it’s probably a scientific fact that when you add cute children and toys to something scary, it just transforms it into the purest form of nightmares. Lullaby embraces this fact and uses it to its advantage to create the most frightening maze of Dark Harbor.

This is the story of Scary Mary, the little girl ghost who drown aboard the Queen Mary decades ago – yet who never left. She just wants a friend. To keep. Forever.

Last year, we quipped “Tucked away in the bowels of 80 year old notoriously haunted ship, Lullaby would intimidate even the bravest souls of your group – even without any scenic decor added.” I feel as though The Queen Mary took that statement as a dare.

For some reason, a long-time returning maze – one who already had all of its set pieces and props in existence, was completely watered down (no pun intended) to have large, empty sections with little to nothing going on in between them. And worse, the believable real-world set dressing took a bizarre turn towards a Six Flags-style haunted toy room. What resulted took what was formerly our single favorite maze of The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor – and dumbed it down for seemingly no good reason.

Lullaby only maintains a 3 Key score (formerly 5 Keys) because of the sections of the ship it exists within, and even that was lessened from prior years. The path feels shorter, and notably, the most memorable moment passing through the infamously haunted indoor pool was omitted entirely.

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Lullaby’s scares continue to benefit from its narrow passageways, which are so dark that it’s easy for scareactors to hide in plain site right in front of you. The authentic setting will unnerve you on its own, and some great scenic and atmospheric effects truly immerse you into the storyworld.

Dark Harbor’s cast has long proven they understand how to truly interact with guests in their haunts – and Lullaby is always one of the best examples of that. The cast also does a phenomenal job of embodying their characters. Each portrays their role with a darkly sinister childlike whimsy. They’re all dead kids, and they just want to play with you. At least to start. It creates an incredibly creepy mood that just cannot be matched.

 

 

DEADRISE

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untitled-10Deadrise is a WWII escort ship that helped guide The Grey Ghost through enemy-infested waters. After a fatal crash during one of their dangerous voyages, Deadrise sank to the bottom and has been resting in her watery grave in the depths of the sea ever since. The wreckage of Deadrise has once again been called into service by the star of Dark Harbor, The Captain, to escort him and his armada of ghosts and monsters into a battle against the living to reclaim Dark Harbor.

If there were an award for “Most Improved Returning Maze,” Deadrise would be a shoe-in to receive it this year. Consistently our least favorite year after year since its debut, Deadrise resurfaced in 2017 with a much more story-driven approach, new scenic and decor and greatly improved sets, as well as a new custom soundtrack that added an appropriately militaristic flavor to its Grey Ghost backstory.

Beyond the somewhat cool returning entry statement with the sunken warship facade, the remainder of Deadrise felt almost unrecognizable to us. Formerly not much more than a series of large, empty metal shipping containers, Deadrise’s interior scenes are now fully dressed to resemble areas of a military ship, including crews’ quarters and the mess hall .

Deadrise saw enough improvement that we’ve, much to our own surprise, gone from always wishing for a replacement the next year to actually appreciating it as a stand-alone addition to the Dark Harbor line-up.

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There’s nothing ground-breaking in the way of scares in Deadrise. A fairly decent sized cast, but each interaction essentially equates to simple boo scares. Even with the improved set dressing, there’s still not much for the cast to utilize beyond jumping out and screaming in your face.

Being a fully outdoor haunt. Deadrise also makes use of a fireball and water cannon effect – the latter of which has been amp’ed up to to blast out an utterly offensive amount of water that will leave you completely drenched from head to toe. There’s just no need for that on a cool fall evening after the sun has long since set – and even with our newfound appreciation of Deadrise, we’ll continue to not endorse a haunt that willingly drenches its guests.

 

CIRCUS – BIG TOP TERROR

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untitled-8Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and experience the world’s most horrifying circus! Face your greatest fears as you wander through a terrifying tent of terror. Disorienting illusions, maniacal magic acts, and a cadre of sideshow freaks are certain to shock, stun, and startle even the bravest of souls.

Another year, another Circus. And while we don’t mean that as a negative point (we’re big fans of Circus-themed haunts) it remains unquestionably the most thematically out of place maze at Dark Harbor – an event where everything connects back to the lore of the legendary Queen Mary ship herself.

Circus is home to former icon character, The Ringmaster – because, you know, luxury cruise liner.
In past years, Circus was scenically one of the best haunts to be found at Dark Harbor. Unfortunately, this year it has (again) been completely reinvented nearly from top to bottom, this time not for the better. What once was a maze full of compelling, twisted sets sadly now feels like a transplant from Six Flags Fright Fest.

This year’s Circus comes across as being very downgraded in scale and quality from its original roots – a statement we actually made last year as well, just to illustrate the point that there has been a consistent decline in its quality. I was very disappointed to find that this year’s Circus ultimately felt like the “budget version” of a once truly fantastic haunt.

Circus’ brand new, stark white finale this year offers an interesting approach that we can only assume is meant to imply the proverbial “walking into the light” that supposedly accompanies death. It was so bright and so full of fog that it was actually unnerving to continue moving forward through it. A cool gimmick that definitely added something unique, but unfortunately we fail to see how this connects in any way to a circus tent.

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As with all mazes at Dark Harbor – one constant saving grace is that you can always count on an energetic, engaged cast of scareactors. The sinister clowns in Circus bring their wacky characters to life, playing psychological games with guests trying to find their way out. What results is a delightful balance of fear and comic relief that feels entirely appropriate given the thematic setting.

There’s also a few notable moments straight out of a carnival fun house like moving slider plates on the floor – something not commonly found in a haunt.

 

B340

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untitled-12What would drive a man to madness and murder? That’s the question B340 attempts to answer as we take a schizophrenic sojourn into the psychotic mind of Samuel the Savage. Tight spaces, darkness mixed with flashing lights, and pulse-pounding noises would drive anyone to the brink of insanity. Beware the wrath of violence of Samuel the Savage and be careful not to lose your head or your mind!

B340 dives in to what might happen if someone had a psychotic breakdown on one of The Queen Mary’s trans-Atlantic crossings. Trapped at sea for days on end with no where to run can do number on the mind – not to mention the innocent victims in his path. Each step of your journey through Samuel’s world becomes more twisted, more demented and more bloody.

B340 returns, for the most part, entirely untouched from past years.

Some epic scenic moments await in B340 – but honestly they are more because of the actual physical layout of the ship than any decor that’s been added for Dark Harbor. As with Lullaby, B340 includes many narrow passageways and steep staircases, a whole lot of dark hallways and an infinite number of hiding places for Samuel the Savage and the sinister figments of his imagination.

Your journey begins in the mind of Samuel – quite literally. You navigate the claustrophobic passages through the tissue of his actual brain (for some reason) in a moment that doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense in the context of the maze, yet still creates an unsettling mood.

From there, you see Samuel descend into madness, from his childhood classroom all the way up to his cabin on the ship, full of the blood all those who crossed his path.

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The cast throughout B340 proved as always to be completely engaged in their roles and dedicated to bringing their characters to life. They were aggressive, angry and disturbed – which in this case are all good things.

Again, the layout of the ship and the inherently supernatural feeling of your surrounds only serves to significantly amplify the sense of intimidation this maze creates, making B340 always one of the more memorable experiences at Dark Harbor.

 

 

 

SOULMATE

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untitled-11Gale has been haunting Dark Harbor looking for a soul mate since her mysterious disappearance. A meandering maze of mystery, Soulmate is where Graceful Gale lures potential suitors with her charm. Beware of her minions, whose job it is to chop up her suitors and reassemble them into the perfect man. Once you’ve been smitten by Graceful Gale, there is no escaping…even after death!

Add a little jealous vengeance over a long-lost love into the mix of a supernatural tale and you’re sure to end up with a hair-raising experience. There’s something so haunting, so intriguing about Graceful Gale. She’s beautiful, yet clearly dangerous. You know she means you harm, yet your still instinctively drawn closer to her.

This is the demented tale of a desperate lover so determined to find the perfect mate that she’s willing to create one with pieces of her past loves – and that story flows through clearly and chillingly from the moment you enter Soulmate.

Soulmate returns similar to its flow from last year – which, unfortunately, is the lesser version of what was once a haunt worthy of 5 Keys.

This maze is an interesting mixture of elegance and gory brutality. Scenes depict The Queen Mary in her hayday, the outfits Gale plans to wear to that evenings big Masquerade where she holes to find her Soulmate, and the terrifying seamstress rooms where she’s been sewing together her perfect mate, regardless of the fact that the body’s she’s taking those pieces from happen to still be alive and screaming for your help.

Scenically, I’d be remiss to not mention one bizarre omission; The story of Soulmate builds to that masquerade party – and in its prior years, that was the grand scale finale of this haunt. As was also the case last year, however, as part of the maze’s re-configuring, that masquerade party scene was cut entirely. What results is a story that builds to… nothing, with the scene that is in simple fact the entire purpose of this story now completely nonexistent.

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As with Lullaby and B340, Soulmate greatly benefits from an inherently creepy atmosphere aboard the ship itself even before the show itself begins. Great effort is made with additional set dressings that only bring it to another level – but it’s the cast of Soulmate that really bring this experience to life.

Truly embodying their roles – these scareactors bring their characters to life – or death, as it were – in the most believable of fashions. Without a doubt, this creates an effective, chilling mood for an already solidly spooky story.

 

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The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor differs greatly from the big theme park events in that it doesn’t have Scare Zones, per say. Instead, the entirety of this event, from the moment you enter to the moment you exit its gates is in play. There’s no safe spot. Monsters can – and will – get you anywhere.

It creates a delightfully chaotic mood that truly stands on its own and remains memorable year after year. The street performers are highly energetic – running, diving, sliding and coming at you from all angles, completely out of no where. In short, expect “all hell breaks loose.”

It should be noted that there is no real theme or decor to the park-wide Scare Zone, beyond lighting and fog – but the energy of the cast still creates a scenario where it works better than most other venues could ever dream of.

The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor had long been a stand-out for quality decor, making for a stellar haunt experience in the Southern California market. Unfortunately, much like the glory days of the ship itself, it seems, at least for the 2017 season, that those days may be behind us.

Although there were some noteworthy improvements made to the events previously worst offerings – Deadrise and Intrepid – it’s the inexplicable lowering in quality of long-time standard bearers like Lullaby, Soulmate and Circus that left us scratching our heads. Surely it cannot be a matter of budget, as the props and decor already existed. Were they damaged during last year’s run? Was this a cost-cutting measure to lessen install times?

Whatever the case, this much is true – we have been long-time believers in The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, but our 2017 visit left us wanting not just more, but more of how the quality always had been in prior years. And while we still enjoyed our visit and made the most out of it, there’s just no question that this years event does not measure up to the standards The Queen Mary has set for itself year after year prior.

 

Venue: Queen Mary

Location: Long Beach, CA

Dates: Select Nights September 28th – November 1st

Hours: 7PM – 12AM or 1AM depending on the night.

Cost: General Admission prices vary, starting at $24 or $64 admission plus Fast Fright (Highly Recommended)

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