Which Is Better? Knott's or Universal?
“Which one is better?” That is the question friends ask of theme park fanatics (like myself) during Halloween. “Which is better, Knott’s or Universal?” They demand to know. My answer, “Queen Mary.” I say that to throw off those that know nothing outside of the two major Halloween events. The truth is that both are equally as good, and they get a run for their money from Queen Mary and Six Flags. In fact, all four events have their own personality and deliver different experiences. The granddaddy of them all… Knott’s Scary Farm (or Haunt, as we old timers like to call it), started the Halloween theme park tradition. As popularity grew, so did the competition. Universal Studios, Queen Mary and Six Flags Magic Mountain have all added season-long entertainment to capture that coveted Halloween dollar. So, which is my favorite? Well, it depends… In my opinion Knott’s puts the most effort in their event than any other park. That’s not to say that staff doesn’t give it their all at the other places, but as a company, Knott’s excels. With nine mazes, four scare zones, two shows, a DJ, roaming characters, almost two dozen open rides, and fog galore... it is by far the largest, most immersive event in Southern California. There isn’t a spot in the park that you can escape monster talent and every building and lamppost has some sort of decoration. It feels like Halloween, it looks like Halloween and you are placed right in the middle of it. Knott’s comes up with all original ideas for their mazes and scare zones. While some mazes repeat for a number of years, they are all concepts that originated right there on the property. This being said, the budget for the event limits quality a bit when compared to Halloween Horror Nights up the road at Universal Studios Hollywood. What I love about Knott’s is the new Scary Farm Season Pass. There are days where I visit and never enter a maze. Nothing is better than sitting back on a bench in Ghost Town in the fog and watching the GTS (Ghost Town Streets) talent do what they do best. Hearing people scream and watching teenage boys run into gift shops and leave their girlfriends behind is priceless. Also fun, is sitting in the Boardwalk watching clowns antagonize and terrorize people. What better way to spend a Saturday night? Knott’s allows its talent to follow guests through the scare zones and from room to room in a maze, something Universal does not. Horror Nights uses very static pop in and out scares to startle guests. This is a problem when the line backs up in a maze and you have seen the same “Freddy” character pop in and out four times. The freedom to move around adds to the excitement. Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights has become a beast in the industry, crushing everyone along the way. While the Florida event is arguably bigger (and better), Hollywood give Knott’s a run for its money. Every year, the crew at Horror Nights bases their mazes on popular horror film and television franchises. The mazes are creative and incredibly well done. But, originality lacks. The props and sets are movie quality, as they should be, seeing as how they are a studio with massive resources. Over the years, the decorations and scare zones have been scaled back at Horror Nights, and all but one theatrical show has been cut. Don’t get me wrong, money is spent on what they have, we just want more. Wait times are typically horrendous, even during opening weekend. This year, for example, there are only 13 total attractions and shows that can absorb the crowd. Knott’s offers more than 20 open rides during Scary Farm, with queues for roller coasters that can literally suck thousands of guests off of the midway. Mazes at Knott’s are easy to find and are all within a short walking distance. Due to the design of the Upper Lot, Universal spreads their attractions out across three lots. Some mazes are more than a mile walk from the front gate. Most usable open space during Horror Nights is used to house massive (up to) 140 minute wait queue lines, thus killing any ambience. This year, “The Walking Dead” attraction uses most of previous year’s scare zone for a holding pen for guests, which means an oddly placed “The Purge” zone was relocated to the central plaza and courtyard areas. Where Knott’s excels at ambiance, Universal falls short. You feel most of your time is spent walking through, and around queue lines, not through monsters looking to scare you. While Knott’s has upped their game big time (think Paranormal, Inc, Shadowlands and Special Ops), Universal crushes everyone in set design, albeit Knott’s is leading the way in the use of technology. Street and maze talent at Horror Nights is static and mechanical. Knott’s monsters are free to roam and harass you at every turn. Don’t even think of getting a monster photo at Universal… it’s not going to happen. I certainly don’t hate Horror Nights, and I am the first in line opening day at 9am, to spend the entire day at the park. I usually visit two to three times a season with a front of the line pass. Knott’s on the other hand, I go at least a dozen times, (or more) to soak up the atmosphere and sit in the fog. Now, let’s look at Queen Mary. This event has reinvented itself to the point where the main cast of characters have a following. Guests wait in line every year to see them, and seek them out through the festival grounds. The setting aboard the ship casts an eerie vibe, as it is known to be haunted. The setting on the ship can’t be recreated anywhere else, but it does limit what the crew can build and do. Personally, I find the off-ship mazes to be of higher quality. But, again… who doesn’t want to roam around the boiler room, or empty pool of an old haunted ship? Dark Harbor allows what appears to be free reign on their talent, and it works. Those that are easily scared, will be. Those that want to snap a million photos will be granted the opportunity. All the mazes are original creations, with many based off actual legends from the history of the ship, and each one has a walk-around character associated with it. The concept is ingenious and guests react well. There is non-stop entertainment at Dark Harbor that rotates around multiple stages. This creates a circus-like atmosphere. To see all of the performers, you would need to spend all night ignoring the mazes and other attractions. The ticket price is affordable and offers the biggest bang for your buck. The only drawback is parking. Arrive early, or you will be shuttled in from a far off lot. Also, be prepared for a full body (and quite thorough) pat down by security. Now, on to Six Flags. Their Fright Fest event in Valencia is usually considered the underdog. “Is Fright Fest worth going to?” That seems to be a question I get asked quite often. My answer, “Yes it is!” There is no separate admission charge for Fright Fest and the park does not close for day guests. The scare zones open and the shows begin promptly at 7:00 pm. If you scare easily, get out of the park before the sun goes down. The park-wide PA system announces the change multiple times, as to not catch the uninitiated off-guard. There is no additional charge for Fright Fest from general admission, with the exception of a maze pass. If you want to walk through the mazes (which also open at 7:00 pm), you simply need to buy a $15.00 wristband while in the park. The scare zones this year seem a bit scaled back and the “Suicide Squad Experience” is more of a photo op, than a scare zone. Their mazes are actually quite underrated. “Red’s Revenge” and “Vault 666” are two of my current favorites. The newly relocated “Aftermath” maze is the most massive and expansive maze in Southern California. Don’t miss this one, as it is tucked in a corner near Apocalypse. While not as polished as its competitors, Fright Fest offers a variety of entertaining mazes, great costumes and impressive make-up. Both shows can easily be skipped, but the event as a whole is quite entertaining, and the scare zones are visually appealing. So there you have it. All four events are a ton of fun in their own right and offer a different experience. Which is the best? Well, I have my personal favorite, but as you can see, there is reason to visit all four!