For sheer entertainment factor alone, the Queen Mary Dark Harbor panel at Midsummer Scream has become a must-do, for the great banter between the Captain and the Ringmaster riffing on the seriousness of the rest of the panelists. That kind of aloofness is what has really elevated Dark Harbor in the last few years as their talent during the event is given far more freedom than other competitors, allowing for more intense and personal experiences.

Right out of the gate, there was a new member of the Dark Harbor family introduced, but it wasn’t a monster, rather a bigger name, at least in this community.

Jon Cooke.Cooke became a star player at Knott’s Scary Farm over the last few years, with each of his mazes becoming fan favorites, including Shadowlands, Dark Ride and Infected. This year, he left Knott’s, to become a contract worker for them, and founded his own company. This new company, Plague Productions, revealed their first escape room, MurderCo, which will debut this year in Upland, California.

So seeing him walk out onto the stage was a big shock, in a positive way. For most of the panel, when it came to mazes, the other panelists deferred to Cooke to explain any changes regarding this year.

The biggest was that we lost Soulmate, and Feast, which debuted last year, will be taking over that spot. No new mazes were revealed, but all of them were touched and given a more complete backstory or at least linking the hooks that were established but never linked. B340’s maze is now more focused on the earlier version of the character, more freshly wounded after the door incident. Feast now involves the guests walking through becoming the newest recruits, and those that fail become the feast. Deadrise has been redone to add a giant area in the middle that’s essentially its own scare zone.

There was a discussion about clues and story elements outside of the mazes to discover, but they left it vague. The story and mythos of Dark Harbor is a large part of the appeal, so making sure to build on it is a move in the right direction. A lot of mazes will now involve some degree of choice.

Outside of the mazes, the performance stages have been slightly shuffled around. Sliders have been confirmed to return with two different shows each night. And there’s a new ticket option above Fast Fright called Fear Express, which is slightly more premium ticket. In years past, the security check to enter Dark Harbor has become a large wait, and the pre-purchased Fast Fright ticket was almost a necessity to not have to wait an hour to enter. That benefit has now been moved into the Fear Express ticket level, along with a higher priority for attraction entrance over Fast Fright. This means each maze will have 3 different queues, something to consider when purchasing your ticket.

And it wouldn’t be Queen Mary without a copious amount of alcohol. Two bars will be open prior to the event start, and plenty more around the land, and even more inside the mazes.

In terms of food, they’re trying to step up their game this year beyond standard carnival fare. They made no mention of the tacos, famous in years past, but that doesn’t mean to say they aren’t going to reappear.

All of these changes are intriguing but we’ll have to wait until September to discover how it turns out. Losing a maze is never an easy choice to make, but with Jon Cooke helping transform the existing ones, this may ultimately turn out to be the best set of decisions they’ve made in recent history.