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Dark Harbor Halloween event may finally scare up success for Queen Mary

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Oceana, left, and the Ring Master greet visitors to Dark Harbor, the annual Halloween festivity on the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In the 48 years that the Queen Mary has been docked in Long Beach Harbor, a series of operators tried to turn the aging ocean liner into a thriving hotel and tourist attraction, with a mixed record of success.

But the tide finally may be turning for the 1,000-foot-long ship, thanks partly to the surging attendance of several special events hosted by the Queen Mary, including its annual Halloween festivity, dubbed Dark Harbor.

The event, which has grown along with Halloween’s increasing popularity with adults, could draw more than 120,000 people this season, helping keep the ship afloat after perennial losses.

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“It’s a profitable enterprise now, which it hasn’t been for a number of years,” said Michael Conway, the city’s business and property development director.

Revenue from the events, including a September music festival, has jumped 400% over the last five years. And as the events have exposed more people to the Queen Mary, revenue from rentals of the ship’s 314 rooms has increased by 85% in the same period, according to city financial records.

Those results are promising after years of chaos for the ship and the city.

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Long Beach bought the Queen Mary in 1967 from the Cunard Line shipping company. Since then, the city has brought in several firms — including Walt Disney Co. — to manage the ship and develop about 43 acres of adjacent oceanfront property.

One previous leaseholder went bankrupt, and an operator abruptly ended its contract and walked away. During the recession, occupancy rates for the ship’s rooms dropped to 50% — just barely high enough to cover expenses.

There has been more success with the latest operator, Newport Beach-based Evolution Hospitality, which took over in 2011.

It was hired by New York-based Garrison Investment Group, which owns a 66-year lease on the ship and the adjacent land.

City financial records show that room-rental revenue has climbed from $6.3 million in 2009 to $11.6 million last year. Meanwhile, special-events revenue jumped from $678,000 to $3.4 million over the same period.

The increases may even provide some momentum to long-stymied plans to develop the property around the ship with permanent money-making improvements. A 12-member task forced was appointed last month to tackle the idea.

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But there are high costs to repair and maintain a permanently docked 81-year-old ship. Those and other expenses led to net losses for five of the last six years. It was not until last year that the Queen Mary reported a net income — of $320,000.

(Despite the uneven figures, the Queen Mary is not a drag on the city’s finances. Garrison Investment absorbs the losses after collecting an administrative fee and invests any profit into a reserve account, used to restore the ship.)

Hotel consultant Alan Reay, president of Atlas Hospitality Group, said the Queen Mary faces tough competition for the visitors to downtown Long Beach, who have many modern hotels from which to choose, including boutique properties that are popular with young travelers.

“From a demand standpoint, the Queen Mary doesn’t sit well with what millennials are looking for,” he said. “It’s a very niche proposition hotel.”

Still, the city is pleased with the ship’s current course, given that its hotel-room occupancy rate has risen to above 70%, Conway said.

“Every visitor that comes to the Queen Mary supports the retailer in downtown Long Beach,” he said.

Lynn Koslowski, vice president of marketing for Evolution Hospitality, said events such as Dark Harbor are probably helping promote interest in renting rooms on the Queen Mary.

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“During events we see increased room sales,” she said.

But the reason that the Queen Mary has struggled as a hotel may be the same reason it has been a hit as a Halloween attraction: The creepy old vessel is teeming with tales of ghosts and ghouls.

“The intrigue with the Queen Mary is that it’s considered one of the most haunted locations in the world,” said Charity Hill, director of entertainment for Dark Harbor.

Dark Harbor, which runs until Nov. 1, is a collection of stage shows, food and drink booths, plus dark mazes made from metal cargo containers, teeming with actors in masks and makeup. The event takes place on the ship and on city property adjacent to the dock.

The most popular attractions are the self-guided tours that take guests through the bowels of the ship, where more costumed actors jump out of darkened corridors.

Since the Halloween event launched in 2010, annual attendance has doubled to 120,000 visitors last year.

For the first time, Dark Harbor sold out on the first Saturday of opening weekend this year, drawing about 8,000 visitors, according to organizers.

Dark Harbor has become so popular that organizers increased its staff of actors, performers and other workers by 20% this year to more than 600.

Among the additions are performers on “Sideshow Stage,” featuring contortionists, fire breathers and other “freaks and oddities.” Tickets range in price from $20 to $94, depending on the features included.

The ship, which was first put to sea in 1936, is the subject of dozens of ghost stories, most involving the 50 or so deaths that have taken place on the ocean liner.

One tale centers on a young crew member who was supposedly crushed to death by a watertight door during a fire or a leak. Other stories focus on young girls or women who reportedly drowned in an indoor swimming pool on one of the lower decks.

Hilda Martinez of Moreno Valley said she brought her adult daughter Cynthia to Dark Harbor because the ghostly tales add extra creepiness to the Halloween event.

“You don’t know if there are real people or ghosts in there,” she said after rushing out of a themed tour of the ship.

Once the Halloween event closes, the Queen Mary will prepare for its next holiday event, Chill, starting Nov. 20.

Within the 130-foot-tall dome at the base of the ship, sculptures will create an ice kingdom from 2 million pounds of ice. Guests can also ice skate and ice tube in the dome. Tickets will cost from $25 to $50.

hugo.martin@latimes.com
Twitter: @hugomartin

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