I recently visited Knott’s Scary Farm for the first time and I must say I was pleasantly surprised. As a spoiled Orlando resident who swears by the “Big Name” theme parks and a passholder to other seasonal horror-based events that “can do no-wrong,” my jaw was literally dropped at times by the offerings at the former berry farm of Buena Park.

I had not been to Knott’s Berry Farm since I was a young lad in ye olden days of 1995, when I was told I could not ride the new “Jaguar!” Coaster because we didn’t have enough time. (24 years later, guess who had time to ride it now, Mom!) I had watched the park’s evolution from afar, only visiting the other Southern California parks in Anaheim and Universal City, and seeing things on the internet I definitely had a low bar of expectations for what I was about to experience, but Knott’s Scary Farm definitely met and by far exceeded what I was expecting. Now, this being my first time, I feel it’s unfair to give any kind of ranking to the offerings but I will speak on my experience on each one of them.

I’ll start with what I felt were the low points of the event. I know others will probably disagree, but again, it’s my first time and my eyes may be spoiled by other seasonal offerings at other parks even though I try to go in fresh.

The Scare Zones

Some were definitely better than others but, overall, the scare zones were ruined for me by a lack of set pieces — save for Forsaken Lake, which had some nice work done. The Hollow was eerie and almost overly-fogged and the scare-actors in the zones threw me because they were allowed to talk and borderline harass the guests. That was something I’ve never seen before and I was stunned when I saw two scare-actors in the Carn-EVIL scare zone essentially corner some teen girls who were cowering in that fear-laughter as the performers were screaming at them with phrases like “Why won’t you love us??” That was a little off-putting. The fog and lighting of the Ghost Town Streets were a highlight as well, but I personally wouldn’t call those “sets” as the ghost town is one of the areas that make Knott’s Berry Farm so special and unique.

Conjurers: Magic and Mirth at the Bird Cage Theater

I had high hopes for this show, perhaps because of the legacy of performers that had come from the Bird Cage Theater. I know that Steve Martin has a history here among others. This particular performer, Eric Buss, was on America’s Got Talent, and CW’s Masters of Illusion but I feel this performance was definitely not as good as it could have been. The performance I caught was the last show of the first night of the event and that may have played a part in it, as well as some mishaps with the trickery that makes a magic show so special in the first place. That said, it is my understanding that there are different performers throughout the run of the event, including Dana Daniels who is known for her magic at a neighboring kingdom further down the 5. The idea of a new performer each time definitely makes this show one to keep checking out as one may not be so great and the other can be phenomenal.

Shadowlands

“A fulfilling life ensures a soul safe passage into eternity, but what happens to the souls of soldiers slain in battle?” Based on my experience, not much. Guests embark on a quest through a sacred shrine, an ancient Japanese temple and into the midst of the shadowlands. The sets of this maze were gorgeous. I loved walking through it and looking around. However, there weren’t very many scare-actors or hardly any jump moments. I may have been in that unfortunate window of time where the cast is switching out or perhaps there just aren’t that many scare-actors. This year also happens to be the last year for this maze and it pains me to say that aside from the set design, I can see why.

Awaken The Dead

This dance party in Fiesta Village will be a great place to get a break from the streets and mazes with a DJ dance party themed to the Festival of the Dead in the height of the crowd. While on the night I visited it wasn’t the most popular offering, I can see this area being a go-to stop on a hectic Friday or Saturday night later in the event’s run.

Dark Entities

While a bit hokey (but hey, what space-themed haunt mazes aren’t sometimes?), there were a lot of aspects of this that I enjoyed. The animatronics/puppets were great for what they were, and I really enjoyed the sounds and lighting of the whole maze. Again, this one didn’t feel too populated by scare-actors but the ones that were in there, including one who basically bungeed through a wall, could be truly frightening. I also really love a good finale, and the terrifying puppet that provides this finish did not disappoint.

Dark Ride

I absolutely loved Dark Ride just for its concept alone. I’m a fan of old-style funhouses and the detail of that idea, for me, was astounding. As a former park-ops person the idea of a fake track (Read: Trip Hazard) in the middle of a darkened environment raised an eyebrow, but as a fan of detailed-immersive environments I loved that detail. This house was well populated with scares from actors and effects, and even though the story got a little lost in there (A carnival has become a refuge for freaks and carnies and shunned performers who have created a dark world of terror in long-neglected attraction) it was still easily one of the highlights of the night for me just because of its original idea and should not be missed if you’re going to the event.

Paranormal, Inc

It was a pleasant surprise to see a pre-show in a haunted maze, let alone a pre-show that has moments to catch any newbie off guard. Paranormal, Inc. is like any Ghost Hunting show come to life and the only tip I would have, and this can be true for any haunted maze that is outdoors, is wait until nightfall. A lot of the surprises were ruined because of the sun. Aside from that, the indoor portions and uses of (arguably over-used) projection technologies and screens worked really well for this one (as well as Dark Entities) and there were two jump-scares that definitely got me, and can be noticed in the video below. This maze also features a love-it or hate-it claustrophobic inflatable hallway that have popped up at haunts in the past. That was a nice surprise as it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those.

Origins: The Curse of Calico

New to the event this year, this was the only maze I had heard anything about before I came to Knott’s Scary Farm. About the evolution of Sarah Marshall from the ghost town of Calico, and her paranormal activity that plagues the town as she is put on trial for her suspected crimes of witchcraft. According to Knott’s, “All will be unveiled when the Green Witch rises up and curses the townsfolk, transforming all who have accused her into a wicked horde of malicious creatures with an eternal quench for the living.” This maze actually ties together the Hanging show, and the Ghost Town Streets Scare Zone and the maze into one coherent story, and actually helped explain the strange chicken-woman hybrid I saw running around the scare zone. The house itself was immaculately done, with beautiful set pieces and aerial performers in some scenes. There was a lot of use of screens in some areas, sometimes blended in as mirrors which worked really well, but other times when they were just there, it didn’t really seem to work. The length of this maze is very good as well, as it is quite lengthy compared to other events, and even other mazes at Knott’s. I also really enjoyed that there is a performer elevated outside of the house, setting the stage for what’s about to occur inside as guests wait in the queue. A great touch.

Pumpkin Eater

This maze is the kind of maze that I think about and get uncomfortable and I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s because it’s loosely based on a childhood rhyme, and is also located in a popular kid’s area of the park. Perhaps it’s because of 7-foot tall pumpkin creatures come to life or just the eerie silence while going through the maze with the sounds of distant screaming and burning fires nearby. I don’t know. The sets, again, were surprisingly immaculate, from creaky old tilting barns to makeshift corn mazes and almost unrecognizable “boo-holes” so you can’t even predict what’s about to come at you. For its corner location away from most of the event’s activities, it’s definitely worth traveling over to that side of the park to see.

Wax Works

Another new house for this year, this house has a great backstory and is well done, with beautiful sets and plenty of scare-actors. A once prominent plastic surgeon, Dr. Augustus Scratch, has been seen tinkering at night and is now ready to show off his beautiful yet terrifying life-like masterpieces of hot molten wax and bloody flesh. You walk through his gruesome works of art and try to escape his deadly grip or become the newest masterpiece to add to his collection. This is a great house, but tragically (for me) didn’t have any “wow” moments that stood out as wildly unique, original, or exclusive to that house.

The Depths

Another maze with a pre-show-esque feature in the guise of a freight elevator (which I later found out is a scene that was added this year), it instantly won me over with its amount of scare-actors, it’s beautiful set design, and a surprising amount of  “wow” moments that I really wasn’t prepared for. Coming from Orlando, where fake elevator pre-shows are fairly common, the simplicity of this one for a seasonal event, and (spoiler) going out the same door I came in but to a completely different environment had me audibly say “wow” regardless of how simple the effect may have been. From broken ships, to larger than life sea creatures and scare-actors that were uncomfortably close to me, this is a maze I would return to the event just to see again.

Special Ops: Infected

I was floored again at this event because of the very idea of this maze. Being burnt out on certain zombie-related television shows-turned haunt mazes I scoffed at the idea of escaping a city filled with the undead. Then, I approached the beginning of the maze and was offered a laser tag gun and rushed out into the middle of the city to fight off the hordes (scare-actors with laser tag targets all over themselves) and was running around like a 10 year old and was so distracted by how awesome the concept was that I literally did not realize that we were actually outside and not in a building for a good 2 minutes, which is saying something because the maze while interactive and fun (or maybe because of it) did not seem that long. And I loved the subway/crashed subway train portion of it. This whole maze had me floored. Tragically, like Shadowlands, it turns out this year is the last year for this maze at Knott’s Scary Farm, so I would suggest if you go to make a point of seeing this maze because it truly is something special.

Brian Henson Presents: Puppet Up

Brand new for this year, I must say as an overgrown child who is forever trapped in a psychological state of arrested development (not the show) I absolutely adored “Puppet Up!” Brian Henson and Patrick Bristow (of Seinfeld, Ellen, and Showgirls) rounded up some outrageously talented puppeteering improv performers for a show that is one-part Avenue Q and one-part Whose Line Is it Anyway? A show that I was attempting to film and not shake the camera from how hard I was laughing. The beauty of the show, like most improv, is that it’s different every time thanks to audience suggestions. That said, the target audience of Knott’s Scary Farm and thus the show, can make the content of the performance not-so-family-friendly. However, raunchiness aside, as it’s Brian Henson’s show, the puppeteers also re-create classic puppeteering moments live in front of the audience between comedy sketches. Each of the performers has quite a background, ranging from Disneyland projects to various series’ like Dinosaurs, and feature films like The Happytime Murders.

 Merchandise

At various points throughout the night, I was able to pop into some of the stores of Knott’s Scary Farm and have a glance at some of the merchandise offered. There was the necessary and popular (at least right now) Spirit Jersey and of course, T-Shirts, some specific to various mazes, others generic just marking the overall event. I came to one shelf and actually laughed out loud when I saw some merchandise from Mars Attacks!, that I jokingly said must have been there since shortly after that aforementioned last visit back in 1995.

Unfortunately, due to timing, I was not able to catch a performance of The Hanging or participate in the upcharge VR experience, “Time Zombies.” I did overhear part of the Hanging (which is a comedic performance sending up moments in pop culture) and audibly laughed out loud at some of the jokes poking fun at a neighboring park’s newest attractions/expansions comparing them to the very ghost town that they were performing in. From others I have spoken to, I have been told this year is comparable to others in the past, with the only difference being the some of the jokes, and that they now included Sarah Marshall/The Green Witch to tie it into Origins: The Curse of Calico

Located in Buena Park, CA, Knott’s Berry Farm becomes Knott’s Scary Farm select nights now through November 2nd. For more information, be sure to check out their official website.