Getting the chance to visit Knott’s Scary Farm is something I never miss. I have been going to both Knott’s Berry Farm and all its seasonal incarnations since I was a wee lad and, because of this, it has a very special place in my heart. However, this does not mean I give it any unfair quarter in reviewing their venerable Knott’s Scary Farm event. If anything, it makes me more critical of it as I actually care about the park, its history, and its future. During the 2014 Knott’s Scary Farm preview event, it was announced that rumors were true and the entire scare zone known as “Necropolis” would be replaced by a laser tag style attraction known as “Special Ops: Infected”. This is one of the biggest upheavals in the haunted attraction’s history. That fan-loved scare zone was home to a huge amount of “monster talent” (pun intended), most of whom were very dedicated to the park and their corner of it. Clearly a gamble on the part of Knott’s Berry Farm, only time will tell whether or not this decision will pay off. I can, however, give you my thoughts on Special Ops: Infected’s first season in operation as part of this haunted attraction review, but more on that later…
Our evening at Knott’s Scary Farm began with media check-in followed by a cool theatrical opening presentation where the park’s Green Witch character lamented how one of her scare zones had been invaded by an “infestation” and ordered guests to help get rid of it. It was a cool way to integrate Special Ops: Infected into the overall story of Knott’s Scary Farm. This first opening presentation of the season even saw Commander Chuck, helicopter pilot and radio presenter, make a fly over of the park to coincide with a recorded message warning of the infection zone.
Once the opening presentation was completed, we walked into the park’s “Ghost Town” area and enjoyed some of the monsters scaring guests in the fog. As great as the fog is in Ghost Town, I happen to know that the lighting designers of the park have done an excellent job of lighting that area for night time conditions – yet during Scary Farm operations they turn most of the lights off. For example, there is an awesome spider and web adorning the door of the blacksmith’s forge and you can’t see it at all as it is too dark. Check out our images from the scare school preview event the park held a short while ago for some shots of Ghost Town at night. I would like to see them show off the area’s nighttime beauty a bit more by keeping some, not all, of those lights on. As it stands now, it’s extremely dark and foggy at ground level and, while that is probably the whole point, it would be nice to see a slightly modified take on it in the future.
We got to check out several of the park’s haunted mazes throughout our evening – my favorite being the new “Voodoo” maze. The exterior of this maze alone could win awards for set design and lighting. Inside the maze is no different – this is easily one of the most beautiful mazes the park has ever created. The maze also features a couple of alternate routes for guests to take, so you can return to the maze later and possibly experience something completely different inside. Also, I love it when indoor haunted houses give you the impression of being outside and Voodoo does a terrific job of replicating the bayou. Finally, some of the rooms inside the maze have some intense subject matter being acted out and I dig the edgy approach that the park as taken to voodoo folklore.
Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be given to Dominion of the Damned, the park’s vampire themed maze, which was incredibly hot and stuffy and takes forever to get through because they have daisy chained the cue to the entrance of another new maze this year, “The Tooth Fairy”. This backs up Dominion badly and, despite valiant attempts by the maze talent within to scare us, we were absolutely miserable going through it. One of the more claustrophobic members of our group was, at times, about to “lose it” with as closed-in and stuffy as we felt, standing in some places of the maze for what seemed like an eternity (Ed. Note: Vampire simulation, anyone?)
The Tooth Fairy was a welcome change from Dominion of the Damned and another very edgy maze for Knott’s Scary Farm to build as it deals with the torture of children for their teeth! Going into its suburban house setting, things seemed quasi-normal until we entered the realm of the Tooth Fairy – a fairy, I might add, that is not the traditional, cutesy fairy from books. The Tooth Fairy of this maze is quite a grotesque sight to see, with influences from the creatures of “John Carpenter’s The Thing” and the menacing presence in “Darkness Falls”, to name just a couple. This and Voodoo represent one of the strongest new maze line-ups the park has had in quite some time and they should not be missed during your visit.
For some reason, there has been a trend in recent years to move all of the daytime reminders of Knott’s Scary Farm out of sight from guests. As a kid, I loved going to the daytime park and seeing the maze facades, decorations, etc. It got me into the seasonal spirit without having people jump out and scare me – a proverbial “whetting of the appetite” before the Scary Farm got underway. There were even a couple times that we didn’t have tickets to Knott’s Scary Farm and we bought them solely based on the stuff we saw in our daytime visit. Unfortunately, this trend has extended to entire mazes and Voodoo, Dominion of the Damned, Trick or Treat, and The Tooth Fairy are all located in what is essentially the back stage area of the park. This would be fine if the back stage area of the park didn’t resemble a parking lot. There is no theming in this area whatsoever, and it really takes you out of the mood to see the beautiful maze facades butted up against gigantic metal warehouse structures that contain the mazes. At least the last few years saw the talented belly dancers from the Red Moon Dance Co. in the area, which gave people something to watch instead of just the asphalt underneath their feet. Unfortunately, they are missing from Knott’s Scary Farm this year. This area is in desperate need of a theme overhaul.
The one very welcome addition to this region of back stage was the Knott’s Berry Farm food truck. The food truck brought a welcome bit of refreshment to an area otherwise devoid of it. The food and drinks are of good quality and I highly recommend picking something up from them. The Po’ Boy sandwich being served from the food truck was excellent!
The rest of the returning mazes this year were all very entertaining and had good scares and lively talent working them. “Black Magic” was still one of our group’s favorites with its inventive set design and we also loved the intensity brought to the table by the “monsters” of “Gunslinger’s Grave”. Originally, Gunslinger’s Grave was a hard sell for me in terms of concept in that, the monsters of this maze are mostly just cowboys – not ghouls, zombies, etc. I don’t personally find regular people that scary, and it does make it harder for the talent of the maze to do their jobs. However, they successfully make up for the lack of makeup or grotesque masks with their intensity. They yell, smash into things – pretty much anything they have to do to get a start out of guests. The “Calico Mine Ride” was a treat to experience – even with the “Witch’s Keep” makeover for the haunt season. The new audio-animatronic figures from Garner Holt are beautifully crafted and the overall ride experience is much improved. The Witch’s Keep aspect of the ride, however, just kept making me wish that the park would go back to what they used to do and have monsters in the dark, jumping out at the train as it crept by. “Trick or Treat” returns this year and, while not much has changed inside the haunted house, it still doesn’t disappoint and we love the entire concept behind it. The vintage Halloween masks, Jack-o’-Lantern covered stairwell, and mischievous monsters that reside in the Green Witch’s house are all fantastic.
Special Ops: Infected
Now it’s time to address the 800 lbs gorilla in the room: Special Ops: Infected. The premise of this attraction is that zombies have taken over the park’s Camp Snoopy area and guests must don laser tag style rifles and stop them. Guests are put into squads of ten to fifteen people and lead around by a squad leader and rear guard clad in tactical gear. In order to experience Special Ops: Infected, guests have to pick up appointment time cards to report to one of the experience’s two entrance points: Alpha or Bravo. Zombie-shooting experiences like Special Ops: Infected have been done around the country in many forms for a while now. Some attractions stick to laser tag guns, others use airsoft rifles, and one back East even uses automatic paintball markers attached to big military trucks – a merging of the zombie-shooting attraction and haunted hayride (Ed. Note: I need to try that one). This is a first for Knott’s Scary Farm, however, as while the park has contracted out more traditional laser tag arenas in the past – this time, it is an all in-house affair on a large scale.
In my first time through Special Ops: Infected, the park was clearly having a rough time of it and the line was backed up quite a bit. It was opening night for the attraction, after all, so those kinds of delays were to be expected. I have visited Special Ops: Infected more recently on a second trip to Knott’s Scary Farm and the line was MUCH better managed and I only had to arrive 15 minutes prior to my appointment time. They have tightened things up quite a bit. After going into Special Ops: Infected, squads are quickly briefed on the situation and what your objectives are going to be once inside the infected zone. Listen to your squad leader – they are clearly laying out the things you will be asked to do ahead of time, and that will save you a lot of “what’s going on?” moments down the line if you are not paying attention.
An M4 style carbine IR laser gun equipped with green rail system, a green stock, black box magazine with LCD display, and single point sling is handed to each squad member. This is where my problems began. I have a good amount of experience with real firearms. I am also an avid airsoft player – I even write the airsoft column here at GamingShogun. With all the intensity that Special Ops: Infected had been pushed and “Oorah!” infused marketing being done at the preview event and subsequent interviews, I was expecting a rifle that didn’t feel so much like a toy. A lot of the rifle is made from plastic and the retractable stocks have been screwed into place so they don’t adjust. Also, I was told that the 100 “bullet” limit touted in promotional materials had been changed to unlimited rounds. Additionally, the full-auto fire selector mode on the rifles had been de-activated. Basically, you can go into the encounter and just keep squeezing the trigger as much as you want.
Disappointed, I was already forming paragraphs in my head on how I would phrase these issues when our squad was sent off into the infected zone. That’s when I had a whole lot of fun! My group and I formed up and our squad mates who did not know us probably thought we were crazy with our yelling out contacts and taking knees where appropriate for a more stable shooting position. The IR laser guns make tinny gunfire noises and emit a three-beam faux muzzle flash, and it helps add to the overall experience. Both Alpha and Bravo missions have different interactive locations and objectives to accomplish. While I won’t spoil them for you here, I would recommend the Bravo mission over Alpha. The locations to be found on that route were more fun to experience.
I have been through Special Ops: Infected twice and each time I have had a high degree of fun when I dropped my more hard corps expectations and just enjoyed it for what it is. Now when I go through Special Ops: Infected, I don’t mind the gun issues. By the way, the reasons for most of the changes from the marketing materials, I found out, were to make the attraction easier for laypersons without trigger discipline to enjoy. Also, they had an issue where guests would adjust their stocks and pull them off, sending the batteries falling out – hence them now being screwed down. On the plus side of things, the leader-board system is now functional, where if you get a high score (as shown on your box magazine’s LCD display), a squad leader will have you tell it to the person manning the score board to enter it in for bragging rights.
Overall, I had a lot of fun going through Special Ops: Infected. I only have two gripes about it that I would like to see resolved. The first is that not all of the zombies in the experience are wearing IR laser sensors around their necks. These sensors keep the event honest by giving actors and players a cue as to when a zombie has been “shot”. If you are going to have a laser tag style experience, you have to have all of the actors wearing these sensors. Otherwise, you are just going around shining a flashlight at people’s faces. Also, you don’t get any increases to your score if they are not wearing them, which takes away from the competitive element.
My final thought and issue with Special Ops: Infected, isn’t actually about the attraction itself. It comes from the loss of the scare zone it replaced. I would love it if Knott’s Berry Farm brought back Special Ops: Infected next year, but in another location – maybe the nearby Knott’s Soak City water park across the way. That way, guests could take their appointment time cards there and alleviate the crowding now at the entrances to Camp Snoopy – and – we could get the Camp Snoopy scare zone back. Also, now that Knott’s owns these IR laser guns and sensors, they could see fit to use them in a year-round attraction, so it will be interesting to see what their plans are. There is space where Kingdom of the Dinosaurs used to be… Just sayin’!
As far as shows go, this year the park is home to The Hanging and Elvira’s Big Top. Each of these shows is worth watching and the irreverent humor in The Hanging clearly hit the funny bones of those in the crowd. The Mistress of the Dark herself, Elvira, was still going strong in her stage show, which features plenty of dancing, comedy, and one-liner fun. There was no show in the Bird Cage Theatre this year, and I am unsure as to why none was booked for that venue.
We did not get to spend as much time as I would have liked to in the “Carnevil” scare zone but, from what I saw of it, the clowns were all very active and working hard at their jobs. They have a wide assortment of clowns in that area, some focused on being scary and others focused on being funny or crude. Overall, they work well in the area, and it was especially fun to watch them gang up on guests.
To conclude, this year’s Knott’s Scary farm is an excellent time – even with some of the issues I have regarding how the park has been laid out for the event. Knott’s Scary Farm has an extremely reasonable ticket price and a lot to see and do for that reasonable price. In fact, there is so much to do that we couldn’t get to all of it in two night’s worth of adventuring. For example, Knott’s Scary Farm has an up-charge, interactive horror maze called “Trapped” which we would have loved to get into, but they were already sold out by time we got there (make your appointments early). The gamble that is Special Ops: Infected is a fun time and has definitely been way more of a success than not in its first season, and I hope we see it again next year, albeit in a different location so we can have Camp Snoopy return as a scare zone!
Knott’s Scary Farm runs on various days throughout October and on November 1, 2014. Check their site for ticket information and more.