Review: Knott’s still working out the kinks in Halloween Haunt 2016

Concept art of the Special Ops: Infected haunted maze at Knott's Halloween Haunt 2016.
(Knott’s Berry Farm)

After 44 years, Knott’s Berry Farm should have Halloween Haunt down to an exact science.

I visited the Buena Park theme park for Thursday’s opening night and found Haunt 2016 to be very much a work in progress.

For the record:

1:58 p.m. Dec. 8, 2021Knott’s announced Sept. 27 that it was closing the Fear VR attraction.

The chief offenders this season were the upcharge Skeleton Key rooms. In years past, the Skeleton Key rooms were intense live-action scenes that set up the backstory in some of the mazes for those willing to pay extra for the experience.

But that arrangement created logistical problems: Some mazes had three queues -- Skeleton Key, upcharge front-of-line access and regular ticket holders.


This year, Knott’s decided to break the four Skeleton Key rooms away from the mazes and create individual two-minute participatory experiences with all-new unique stories. This has created a whole new set of problems. The Skeleton Key rooms were difficult to find. The lines were indistinguishable from the lines for the mazes. And the waits stretched to an hour at one point for the 25 people in line.

The problem was the pacing of the short scenes and the relatively low capacity for each cycle. Only five to eight people admitted per rotation and the cycles stretching to 10 minutes at times, the relatively short lines quickly turned into long waits. It didn’t help that the scenes were running long and that the pacing was off.

In general, these problems are all fixable and will no doubt improve with time.

Which raises this question: Are the Skeleton Key rooms worth the upcharge? The short answer is no, but it’s not that simple.

Knott’s uses variable pricing, which means the price of tickets changes depending on the night you visit.The park advertises prices starting at $40 for general admission and $110 for the Skeleton Key upgrade, which includes the Fright Lane front-of-line access.

If you can rationalize an upcharge fee that lets you cut to the front of lines that can stretch up to an hour, the Skeleton Key rooms will be a nice bonus.

But it’s not worth nearly tripling the cost of admission if you’re interested only in the Skeleton Key rooms.

Beyond the Skeleton Key rooms, Haunt 2016 was a mix of new surprises and more of the same. Unlike Universal Studios Hollywood, which introduces a new lineup of Halloween Horror Nights mazes each year based on popular horror movies and TV shows, Knott’s adds only a few new mazes annually based on traditional Halloween tropes. For that reason, there will always be a great divide between the two seasonal events. Universal opts for quality; Knotts emphasizes quantity.

Here’s a closer look at the new offerings at Knott’s Scary Farm, from best to worst:

Special Ops: Infected

The best new maze of Haunt 2016 involves an old idea in a new setting with a laser tag twist.

I was dubious when Knott’s billed Special Ops as a “new” maze, but the popular zombie-killing attraction is better, scarier and more exciting than years past.

The interactive video-game-like experience arms visitors with simulated military assault weapons and assigns them a simple mission: Kill as many zombies as possible. Guided by squad commanders, teams of Haunt visitors set off into an infected zone swarming with zombies.

By moving Special Ops from the 6-acre Camp Snoopy kiddie land into a more traditional maze-like cityscape, the Knott’s creative team intensified an already extreme experience. It was hard to tell whom to shoot with so many zombies and commandos running around. Fortunately, I avoided any friendly-fire incidents while recording eight zombie kills.

The tighter confines of the indoor-outdoor setting allowed the Haunt designers to create a post-apocalyptic world filled with detailed sets. My favorite scene saw our squadron trapped on a subway train while zombies approached from both ends of the car.

One criticism: The commandos spread throughout the maze spent too much time slowing down our team with complicated and nearly incomprehensible orders. So much so that three teams got squashed together by the end of the operation.

A simpler set of orders would help speed up the experience and likely shorten the lengthy line waiting to slay some zombies.

Shadow Lands

Shadow Lands puts visitors in an ancient Japanese temple inhabited by the rotting corpses of disgraced samurai warriors who must redeem their honor on the battlefield.

Shadow Lands is clearly designed to compete with the higher quality at Universal’s Horror Nights and is the latest in a string of Knott’s mazes that emphasize set design and storytelling. The beautiful maze departed down several divergent paths, encouraging repeat visits.

Shadow Lands featured several easily repeatable scenes that helped propel the story, breaking away from the startle scares typically awaiting around every corner in many Knott’s mazes.

I particularly liked the finale, which involved flying samurai warriors supported by aerial rigging.

Fear VR

The new four-minute Fear VR virtual reality attraction admits visitors to a hospital where a patient with demonic powers named Katie is on the loose.

The Knott’s creative team, with technical assistance from Simi Valley-based Hollow Studios, did a wonderful job creating the VR experience. Veteran Haunt talent plays all the roles in the short film.

The recorded pre-show video in a hospital waiting room struck me as boring. I would have preferred a face-to-face interaction with a live actor playing a panicked doctor and a fleeting glimpse of Katie fleeing through the hospital. I can sit on a couch and watch TV at home.

The upcharge Fear VR experience costs $10 to $15, depending on the night you visit. Reservations are available only at the park.

Note: Knott’s jettisoned an earlier name for the attraction that made reference to 5150, the California police code for a mentally ill person who is a danger to himself or others, after mental health advocates raised concerns.

‘Elvira’s Danse Macabre’

I’ve never been a big fan of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and her brand of sexual innuendo humor, off-key singing and sleep-walking dancing.

But in the most backhanded way possible, I have to admit, “Elvira’s Danse Macabre” is the best show I’ve seen her do. Wisely, for the most part, Elvira got out of the way and turned over the show to her talented back-up dancers and intriguing aerial acrobatic troupe.

Skeleton Key Rooms

Clearly, the Skeleton Key rooms will improve as the talent and staff make adjustments and improve the pacing.

Visions was the best of the Skeleton Key rooms. Visitors are armed with augmented reality devices as they explore a museum teeming with paranormal activity.

Holding a digital tablet device, I wandered around a darkened room until I spotted a ghostly cowboy who fired his revolver at me just as I was hit by a hidden blast of air.

Two other Skeleton Key rooms suffered from identical pacing problems -- and identical scares.

The Zozo room put seven visitors around a table with a Ouija board before the lights went out. When the lights came back on several seconds later, the evil spirit Zozo joined us.

Slasher, another Skeleton Key room, repeated the lights-off-lights-on gag three times to diminishing effect, this time with a serial killer making an appearance.

The Red Barn

The worst of the new mazes featured a simplistic set design, a cliched theme and only a few good scares.

The Red Barn, which was filled with bales of hay and burlap, told the story of a murderous farmer and his sadistic sons who prey on innocent victims who accidentally wander onto their blood-soaked farm.

The whole thing reminded me of the hackneyed Slaughterhouse maze that Knott’s debuted in 2008 with a deranged butcher running a barbecue restaurant. After the advances of recent years, Haunt doesn’t need to fall back on these simplistic cliches.

‘The Hanging’

This year’s edition of the perennial pop culture show, which mixes comedy and music with disembowelment and a noose-swinging finale, was an equal opportunity offender -- taking on a range of celebrities, characters and even political candidates. The show looked impressive on the new larger stage, which featured improved lighting and sound.

Universal Horror Nights jettisoned its version of the same show, dubbed Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, suggesting that the annual evisceration of celebrities and their foibles had grown old and tired, especially with the speed at which pop culture moves on the Internet. A year in review seemed like ancient history.

It didn’t help that the first half of the Knott’s show featured too much talking and not enough action. Fortunately, this is the type of show that can improve with a few minor adjustments. I expect Knott’s to tune up “The Hanging” within a few nights.

Skeleton Key Room

Nope, I didn’t forget there were four Skeleton Key rooms. I only wished I could. Prey, the fourth and final Skeleton Key room, was a waste of time.

Prey looked and felt like a leftover idea from the Red Barn. More hay bales, more redneck farmers, more tired cliches. All made worse by technical problems with the lanterns given to the visitors and a dead-end trip to nowhere.

There was some story about the farmer’s “prey” being trapped in boxes, but there was never really any resolution. The whole thing was a giant mess -- with a really long line.


Knott’s brought back six old mazes that can be broken into three categories: Still Going Strong (Voodoo and Paranormal Inc.), Looking a Little Tired (Trick or Treat and Dead of Winter) and Ready for Retirement (Tooth Fairy and Gunslinger’s Grave).


32 best new theme park additions of 2016

8 unanswered questions about Disneyland’s Star Wars Land

Disneyland 2055: What the future may hold for the original Disney park

Disneyland 1955: ‘Walt’s Folly’ got off to a nightmare start

21 creepiest abandoned amusement parks