The park sold out last night, which I guess is the norm. The whole early access thing didn’t work out so well as, by the time the mazes pre-opened at 5:15pm (the event officially kicks off at 7pm), there was already a 45-minute wait for many of them. So, from 5pm to 7pm, we were able to do Insidious, The Shining, and make a dent in the line for Saw — which was smart because the lines for those three rarely dipped beneath the 150-minute mark all night. The rest of the mazes averaged between 60 and 120-minutes all night. A combination of the sold-out crowd and this year's notable scaling back of the scare zones made for some seriously congested areas, but the park handled it fairly well over all. There was a lot of line jumping going on, and the rope guard rails in the switchbacks were no match for the crowds.
Despite this, we were still able to hit every maze except for the Terror Tram (which we were okay with skipping given the reviews and our experience on last year’s tram [it sucked]). The park began selling $50 front-of-line passes at 11pm, but we opted to go without as we’d already dumped a ton of money into the evening. Given how packed the place gets, and how grim the lines are, the front-of-line pass is a must if you can afford it. However, you can still do pretty much everything without it, but you have to be diligent, take zero breaks, and be prepared for a lot of standing around.
We were surprised that the scare zones were so dialed back this year, with the upper lot’s usual props, fog, and flamethrowers largely absent. Instead, there were a few roaming monsters, but that was it. Given the traffic congestion through that area, it’s no real surprise that they scaled it back, though. The transit tunnel was just strobes, music and a few actors this year (I seem to recall insane fog there before that actually made it kind of dangerous). The result was less of a scare zone and more of an inconvenience. Speaking of lines, the only scare zone that really resembled a scare zone was in the backlot and had a fairly steady wait to go through it all night. It was much more elaborate than previous years, although the lack of fog rendered it far less frightening. Perhaps it’s just because it’s still early in the season, or perhaps Universal hasn’t fully staffed the event yet, but the scare zones were a notably minor feature of this year’s event.
In past years, there was some variation to the mazes. Some were kind of cutesy / creative / funny, but this year, there was an unmistakable sameness about them all. They were all strong, but aside from a few moments here and there, they didn’t vary much in terms of design and approach. The Saw maze was more about grisly set pieces, and the Blumhouse maze had a kind of scare zone set up in front of it. Aside from that, they all borrowed heavily from last year’s excellent Exorcist maze by using lots of blackout sections with severe jump scares. Some thoughts on each, from best to worst:
Titans of Terror: This was the most coherent, thoughtful, and well-designed maze — a combo of several past mazes put together as an effective tribute. It was paced well, the sets were excellent, and the scares were consistent throughout. Because of the Waterworld location, the line never really went over 90 minutes for this one, yet it was the standout of the night for us.
Insidious: We actually did this twice, catching it the second time around 1:30am. Unfortunately, much of the staff had left by then, so large sections were unmanned and several of the effective scares we saw the first time through went un-triggered (the door / wall panel scene, for example). The set design is strong, as are the animatronics. The scares are consistent and well-timed, and the ending was probably the most intense of the night (spoiler: it’s a simple trick of about five or six jump scares in an immediate sequence).
American Horror Story: We thought this was pretty bad last year, but the whole maze has been overhauled. The sets were excellent, and the scares were consistently strong this time around — even up to the closing minutes of the event. Although none of us watch the show and had any idea what was going on in terms of narrative, it was a freaky maze with lots of well-done pig masks and cabin-in-the-woods type scenes.
The Shining: Clearly a labor of love, but a difficult film to adapt into a maze. They made it work by featuring iconic scenes, but it did seem a bit fragmented and confused overall. Lots of good dark spaces with jump scares, but there aren’t exactly many characters in The Shining so the production team didn’t have much to work with. We also found the over-reliance on projections to be a be a little questionable (but, then again, how would you construct a bleeding elevator scene otherwise?) You can tell that they were trying to do what they did with last year’s Exorcist maze by telling a story through scenes, but we did give the Exorcist the edge in that regard.
Ash vs. Evil Dead: Fairly creative with some good iconic monsters from the original Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 films, but otherwise, same old, same all. There were some good house-inside-the-house sets in here, presumably lifted from past mazes, and the overall set detail was excellent. At this point, though, we really started to notice that there’s little distinction between the mazes beyond superficial cosmetics.
Blumhouse: A long maze with a ton of potential, but also the maze that felt the least complete. There’s a scare zone-type sequence out front which appeared to be some version of the tiresome Purge franchise, and the maze itself tries to cover two different films (an upcoming film that appears to be about a masked slasher [not much originality in Hollywood these days!] and a film called Sinister). The last 1/3 was the best, but it was a fairly inarticulate maze overall with lots of empty space, winding corridors, and weird transitions. Both the concept and the maze design would benefit from more focus.
The Walking Dead: As the permanent fixture maze of the night, TWD wins in terms of set design and overall detail. Less of a maze and more of a series of open sets, it feels a little out of place at the event in that it sacrifices the claustrophobia of the other mazes. Of course, it makes perfect sense why they’d use it, but the TWD does feel a bit like an afterthought.
Saw: This held the longest line of the night but it really was more about set pieces than scares. It was basically a series of grisly scenes of people being tortured by rusty contraptions. The props themselves were good, but the maze was quite short and the scares were minimal.
Overall, we did well given the crowds and our budgets, and Universal’s access to sets and props upholds their monopoly on SoCal Halloween events. The lack of scare zones and the sameness of the mazes, however, does suggest that, like many of the movies the company produces, there’s not a lot of thought going on beneath the surface. While the event is always a blast, and the jump scares within the mazes do their job well, we couldn’t help but feel that Universal would benefit from developing and diversifying their tactics to present more ways to scare people than the now-gimmicky loud noise and strobe combo.