It’s hard to know where to start when talking about Knott’s Scary Farm. Now in its 46th year, the team is better than ever at transforming the park into a living manifestation of Halloween. It’s more than mazes and scare zones. It’s more than the monsters. It’s the proof of the saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
In terms of mazes, there are two new mazes and both feel like they’re going to stick around for a while if they can adapt a little bit.
The first new maze is The Depths, from the mind of Jon Cooke, about an early 1900s beach community where you discover what lies under the ocean. I’m personally torn on this maze. It’s very ambitious and does a lot of “Show, don’t tell” at least from our journeys inside. There’s about three parts to the maze, where you eventually keep going deeper into the cave and discover multiple ships, a few big animals, and its worshipers, I believe.
The biggest problem with the maze is I can’t piece together the progression of the story, if there is one. One moment you’re on a modern ship, walking through, and then after a few turns later, you’re next to something like Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean on his pirate ship. It’s a gorgeous maze, and really atmospheric with good scares, but the flow just seems a bit beyond me. Also, placement on some of the props could use a little work. I banged up my shin on a box that was hidden by the fog.
The props can easily be fixed and likely will be by the time you read this article as is the nature of these kinds of events. The story, however, will likely have to wait until next year to be improved upon. Outside of that, it’s a fantastic new addition to the park, especially with the great facade of the lighthouse.
The other maze, which we have Gus Krueger to thank for, is Dark Entities, a space station-themed maze. Whereas The Depths took over the Voodoo location, this is where Tooth Fairy used to inhabit.
I had a lot of fun with this maze. Right from the entrance, you feel like a part of the crew, and it’s an open design where an actor directs you around. This helps solve a common issue with mazes where it’s difficult to design an open space without having guests get lost inside.
There’s also a lot of build up in the maze. A good portion of the actors inside are not there to scare you as a monster but rather set the mood. It’s a good long while of build up until the monsters appear. And there’s a LOT of details in the maze to take in from the computer screens to the robots dissecting the victims. It doesn’t take itself too seriously which is nice as it could easily have been a very dark maze of corridors and pop-out animatronics.
If there’s only one complaint about the maze, it would be the over-reliance on the space-blanket kind of material that’s used as the shattered window material. I’m not sure if there’s any better possible substitution, though. But honestly, if that’s the worst thing I could say about the maze, that’s a great thing.
It’s a frustrating fact of life at Knott’s that the wait time for mazes seems to be dictated almost entirely by location rather than quality and popularity. This isn’t to say any mazes are particularly horrible, but recently, while Trick or Treat: Lights Out would reach a 120-minute wait, Dark Entities would be at a 15-minute wait around the corner. Dark Ride, a universally loved maze, would be at a 5-minute wait, if at all, because it’s over in the Boardwalk, on the opposite side of the park.
In regards to the returning mazes, most have been tweaked in small ways. Shadowlands has eliminated the opening ceremony and made it so you exit out the back now, by the swings, helping with the crowd flow. If anything has changed in Dark Ride, Infected or Trick or Treat, I wasn’t able to tell. Red Barn has a new opening, with the patriarch outside talking to people, in lieu of the old radio broadcast it traditionally used and no more stacks of hay inside.
But the biggest surprise, by far, was to Paranormal. What was teased as a new ending, replacing the old one with the creature, was a shock. I really want to avoid ruining the surprise so if you’re considering going to Knott’s this season and haven’t done Paranormal Inc. yet, you owe it to yourself to do it before reading any further.
One of the greatest experiences theme park people can have is discovering a surprise for themselves, free from social media, videos off YouTube and word of mouth. And chasing that rush only gets harder and harder, so finding genuine surprises is something to be treasured. So only proceed if you feel comfortable knowing what lies ahead.
Suffice to say, the original ending to Paranormal never made sense. They tried to awaken some ghosts, or talk to the dead, or whatever, and you end up walking through a scary insane asylum. In this new take on it, you end up coming to the inflatable walls you have to squeeze through. But once you make it through, it’s… peaceful. You end up transported back in time, reminiscent of The Shining, to a safe, new, version of Hayden Hill with nurses smiling and welcoming you. I immediately had thoughts of Bioshock, as well. Leaving the lobby, you enter a hallway that gets creepier again, with some amazing effects on the scrims.
This new ending really gives Paranormal a complete story, although arguably a bit backwards. But its execution feels natural and really makes me pine for an entire maze focused around time travel or at least that era that they brought you back into. It’s honestly the biggest secret at the farm this year and you should make it a priority to visit it and see it for yourself.
The scare zones are also improved this year. In a big way. There’s an area between Ghost Town and Camp Snoopy, the Lake of Reflections, that’s always been a kind of grey area when it comes to being a scare zone. Sometimes the Dia De Los Muertos character would be there. Sometimes it was Ghost Town characters. But it wasn’t officially used. This year it’s become one of its own, re-purposing props from the retired Voodoo maze. It’s themed to a flooded cemetery where the dead have come back to life. The costumes are amazing, and the lack of lighting in the area really helps to make it a great scare zone, along with the additional props and decorations that were added around.
There’s another aspect to it, though, which is a performance there. Last year, Knott’s secretly added a ‘performance’ to the Hollows, every night at midnight between the warring factions. Every scare zone supposedly has these impromptu bits. I’m hesitant to call them shows, so as not to compare them to actual shows going on in the park like the hanging. They’re more pop-up dances or chanting in groups. For Forsaken Lake, it’s a choreographed funeral procession. In Ghost Town, above the saloon, you might catch Thriller or a deranged medicine man right near the Calico mine. In Carnevil, Rob Zombie’s Dragula plays synced with the lights on Hangtime. The Hollows has some witches casting a spell on an unsuspecting guest. There may be more, because the times are kept secret, encouraging you to find them naturally. But a tip is that they seem most likely to occur on 15-minute intervals.
And they’re all great shows. There’s something really memorable about walking into one of these happenings without planning on it. It encourages you to wander around the park and really take it all in. That’s not hard to do either. Knott’s, as always, has done a tremendous job decorating the park for the season. Even the Dole Whip tiki man is wearing a pumpkin mask on the sign outside the Charles M Schulz Theater. Everything is touched in some way from colored lamps to spider webs and special foods like a Dark Entities Dole Whip.
As for the real shows, that’s where the mixed bag begins. Even though there’s no big headliner, there are a lot more other shows now. In place of Elvira in the Charles M. Schulz Theater is a “comedy sports” style improv show called “Hacks” which used to be in the park some many years ago. It’s decent fun, but clear the audience isn’t always aware of how improv shows work or what to expect. Additionally, the Bird Cage Theater is booked this year with a magic show! We’ve seen two of the three magicians scheduled for this year and they’ve been fantastic. There’s something very special about being in that small theater on a dark night. It feels quite intimate. Additionally, while the Fiesta Village has lost a scare zone, it’s become a nightclub of sorts with a DJ playing music you can hear all over. It seems sparsely attended from what we’ve seen, but the music can be heard from all the rides in the land so it’s a great change of pace from just hearing Pistolero on loop ad nauseam.
In the scare zones, not everything is trying to kill you, however. A keen eye might notice more characters around. The most noticed is the train conductor, simply keeping an eye on the passerby. These are called “atmosFear” characters, each given a ‘goal’ for the night as their motivation. It’s the one advantage that really gives Knott’s an edge over Universal. As the scare zones aren’t changing, the same monsters can return each year, honing their specific persona, maintaining their own social media presence, establishing a legacy.
That leaves us with the final show, The Hanging, a staple of Knott’s. Subtitled as “Shhhh – It Happens”, this year is lacking in ways I couldn’t have fathomed. We heard early on there were going to be tough restrictions placed on the show this year, and they seemed to have turned that into a plot point. While it’s become a tradition to deride The Hanging every year as being the worst ever, we’ve never personally disliked them. It’s always been a streamlined mix of choreographed violence, quick references and a litany of corny jokes. This year the violence is really REALLY toned down, the references all seem safe, and it drags. I had a lot more written here digging into what’s wrong with the show, but it’s overkill. Just skip the show this year.
Ignoring the Hanging, this feels like the strongest Knott’s has been in a long while. The whole park has a great energy and trying to discover the new performances in the scare zones has given new reason to venture into the fog. Considering how cheap their season pass is, with no blackouts, there’s really no excuse to not visit multiple times this year. You owe it to yourself.