Monday, October 15, 2012

Scarowinds at Carowinds Amusement Park 2012

                Three years ago we decided to take a weekend and go visit some haunts around the area of Charlotte, North Carolina.  On that trip we did the VIP experience for Scarowinds at Carowinds Amusement Park in Charlotte.  On THAT trip we had a great time and really enjoyed the food and fun with some of the characters.  So, you noticed how I said "THAT trip" did you?  Well, we went again this year.  On Friday, October 12, 2012 we thought it would be a wonderful idea to go back to a haunted attraction where we had experienced a good time in the past. see....Okay, there's no getting around it.  It may not have been the best idea that we have ever had, but you can judge that for yourself. 

                Scarowinds is broken down into multiple experiences which are themed differently.  There were four scarezones throughout the park and another eight mazes.  They also have three shows that are designed to match the evening's festivities.  It should be noted that Carowinds sells two different tickets at this time of year and they do clear out the park from the daytime customers before switching over to the scarier side of things.  This year we did go through every single option that was offered at Scarowinds, and we can give you our thoughts on them as well as our overall experience.

                Let's start with the hotel. The Quality Inn that is across the street from the entrance to Carowinds was great.  Their complimentary breakfast included items such as bacon, eggs (scrambled or hard boiled), cereals, oatmeals, biscuits, sausage gravy, and you could make your own waffles.  There was more than that, but it already sounds great for a hotel breakfast, right?  The beds were comfortable and everything was clean.  The wi-fi was reliable, as well.  We highly recommend them for your trip there if you need a hotel.

                We are happy to report that Carowinds has fixed the parking issues that were apparent three years ago when we visited, so we give them credit for that.  Exiting at the end of the night still seemed to need a little work, but we were going so close that it didn't bother us.  Ticket scanning and security were top notch and courteous.  We could tell that they were trying to ensure you had a pleasant start to your evening, or at least lulled you into a false sense of security about what was to come later.

                If you want to be there when the park opens be prepared to stand around after you get through the ticket plaza.  You'll get some quality time with the cast of characters, which is the best experience you will have seeing them all night.  There is a small introduction when they prepare to let you proceed into the park, but we keep missing seeing it from the front since we are usually on the edge of the crowd just chomping at the bit to get inside and get going (last time we missed it because we were VIP and got dinner and early admission into three haunts before they opened the gates for others).  It's not that important, and can easily be overlooked, as we seem to.  We did notice that the crowds seemed to be heavier on this trip than they were three years ago at the same time of year, so we can anticipate that they will continue to grow throughout the season and be larger this time of year next season.

                The park was very clean and the general decorations were very good.  We were saddened that we couldn't find an offering in advance for the same VIP package which we had purchased before, so we roamed with the crowds who were waiting to run in and get started.  Sorry, we don't run.  We'll get there and get in line when we get there.  It'll all still be in the same spot once we get there.  It's not as though we'll have to wait in line, since it seems that almost every haunt they do is running what looks like a conga line through it.  Yes, that's right.  We weren't really going in small groups through most of the haunts, and that drastically impacts the experience.  There was one that was amazing with the group size and timing, but we will talk about that one more during its moment in the spotlight.

                We had heard somewhere that the new management for Carowinds was trying to improve things to be somewhat more "Disney like" for service.  They are headed in the right direction with this.  The cleanliness of the park, the friendly customer service, and the free small cups of ice water available anywhere that serves beverages are some of the little touches that make you feel more valued as a customer, and we applaud them for their efforts to improve their park for the patrons.

                Now, let's get down to what you really want to know about.  After all, it has taken long enough to get to this point.  Let's get the easy stuff out of the way first.  They have three "shows" for you to attend at Scarowinds.  No, we didn't say enjoy, sit, or see.  We were carefully choosing our words for a reason.  The first of the shows is located right at the front after you enter.  It is Creatures of the Night.  This is a singing show without a storyline.  The singing really isn't even that good.  It's a very small venue outside with benches to sit on if you are among the few who get there while seats are available.  We don't think that finding a seat will be a problem if you want to see it, since we saw a lot of people get up and leave once the singing started.  It was disappointing and we don't recommend starting your visit with it.  If you want to sit down later in the night and rest, then by all means grab a bench and listen for a bit.

                If you want something a little more involved you could go to the back side of the park and see Blood Drums.  This musical review is aiming for something similar to the Broadway production by the name of Stomp, but it is missing something.  There was canned music playing behind the percussion, which made it hard to tell if the musicians on stage were actually performing much of the music or not.  They did have an eclectic use of materials to create their percussion sounds with, however all of the drummers were playing identical parts rather than creating more of an experience by taking on different parts of the song so that each one was more individualized.  Since there was nowhere to sit most people stood around for a song and then just kept on walking.  Enjoy it if you like as you pass, but you won't miss anything by continuing to walk.

                The final of the three "shows" is the only indoor performance event.  Eternal Jamnation is in the Theater and is basically a T&A show (if you don't know what that is, then you don't belong in the audience for it anyway).  It's more music and no evident storyline again, so there really isn't a show for Scarowinds this year in our opinion.  It was massively loud inside the theater and there were some performers who were definitely more on key and skilled than others.  The songs didn't seem to have a clear connection to Halloween and scaring, though they were songs most people know and are enjoyable.  They used a casket, a metal table, and a rolling chair as the large props on stage and they rolled them around a little.  There was a lot more that they could have done with this, and it made us miss the prom themed performance of three years ago.

                Moving on, Scarowinds has four different areas that are called scarezones around the park.  These are little walk-through experiences that are designed around particular themes.  The first of the four was The Playground.  This area had fewer characters than we had experienced there in the past.  Three years ago we took a ton of pictures with characters in this area and posted them on our Haunt Review Facebook page.  This year we didn't feel as though any characters wanted to be immortalized in photos.  There was just less personal attention given to us by the roaming playground kiddies, and we simply felt sad for the poor guy who was obviously the victim of an age old bully prank that is known for being quite painful.  Not only did we feel as though there were less people to play with here, but we also felt as though there was less equipment around to play on.  We wanted to go back and play on the playground from three years ago, but we could easily sit under a tree and read a book instead of playing with the other kids this year.

                After The Playground we pretty much walked straight into Mass Acres.  This was a cemetery type setting with large monuments and a pretty cool Grim Reaper if you looked up to find him.  They had lots of fog in this area, so there may have been some things that we missed.  Hopefully the fog was hiding some of the people who should have been roaming Mass Acres, since we barely saw anyone around.  The highlight of this scarezone was the beautiful glass casket/hearses on display.  We wanted to see so much more out of this space, and we were left wanting it.  There is another scarezone with a similar purpose and we feel that maybe they should just be combined into one to make it better.

                The Cemetery is another scarezone, which is a bit more character driven experience than Mass Acres was.  The dead are waiting around every corner to welcome you to their new homes.  Some of the set pieces needed a bit more lighting in order to show their details for the crowds, and we did see some staff trying to figure out how to rectify this for one specific piece that wasn't getting the attention it deserved.  There were only a few of the dead greeting us in the cemetery, and one of them had brought her wheelchair with her into the afterlife (nice touch that she could do this job with skill, and actually freaked out a few people that we saw).  It was definitely hard to tell which direction we needed to go in once we reached the exit of the maze, even when we tried to use the map.  If this area were combined with Mass Acres in a different part of the park it might make for an amazing scarezone. 

                The last of the scarezones this year was Feeding Frenzy.  This wasn't open when we first entered the park, and we had to be routed around it.  That's sort of frustrating to get there and expect them to be ready to go when they are open, especially since it isn't their first weekend being open, and they have obvious difficulties.  When we finally did go through it there was a huge amount of characters within this zone, though they probably didn't need all of them in such a small location.  There was also so much trapped fog within the tent that it was hard at times to tell if you were about to run into a monster or run over another guest heading in the opposite direction.  Though we are pretty sure this was meant to be a vampire themed zone, we found it to be an environment that was more of a post-apocalyptic road warrior space.  It just seemed a little confusing, though they very obviously did some serious work on this zone.

                It's now time for the most important information, what you have been waiting for (assuming that you are still reading, which it seems that you are...yay!).  There are eight haunted houses, known as mazes at Scarowinds this year.  As we said earlier, most of these are mazes where you are sent through in either such large groups or with such a small amount of time between groups, that you end up in what we are calling a conga line.  One of us actually started doing the Conga as we went through one of the haunts that was like this.  It is the most effective way to get a lot of people through an attraction, but that doesn't meant that it will give the best experience.  We do understand that they have to push through an astounding number of victims for the haunts each night, and need to have a way to do this.  Having said that, we still hate the conga line entrance into a haunt.  Going through in a large group like that could easily evoke the old adage of "safety in numbers."  Who is going to get really, honestly afraid when they are surrounded by others?  Not us.

                Camp Killauee is...well, when you go in there's....umm...okay, it's forgettable.  Yep, it's that simple.  There are tents where there would normally be cabins at this type of a camp. The sets seem random.  Three years ago they used a large bus as a great piece for a creepy interaction, now it just sat in the background taking up space that didn't contribute to the experience at all.  We even walked around a corner into a space where a group of staff members were actively working on a bungie type scare.  So much for that being scary if it isn't even ready.  There really wasn't a big ending, and we just walked out confused.  Not one of our favorites of the night.

                On a different note there was Last Laff 3-D.  This is their clown haunt, which is definitely going to have the last laugh on you if they do you the same way that they did us. This was that one amazing haunt that managed to get the timing and size of groups going in just right.  They found that magic combination that made paying the extra dollar for the 3-D glasses worth it.  We even managed to lose each other for a little bit inside of this one!  That never happens.  When you can't see another person in the haunt it definitely will start to mess with your mind and intensify your experience.  While we could see each other one of us actually jumped from a scare, which is another amazing thing.  Their staff knew what they were doing.  Their positions within the haunt and their timing with the guests was immaculate.  Not to mention how hard the mirror maze is when you are wearing the 3-D glasses!  It was our favorite haunt of the night and saved Scarowinds in so many ways. 

                Since our hotel was so nice outside of the park we just had to check out the hotel inside of the park: Dead Inn.  We went through it earlier in the evening, and then went back before we left to verify what we were thinking.  The actors actually tried harder the first time we went through, and their characters seemed a little tired and defeated when we went through later in the evening.  Though there are some classic tricks in this haunt, along with a mirror or two that aren't really mirrors, there are still some things missing.  We sort of felt as though we saw more of the black plastic strips hanging between sets than we saw of the actual sets.  On both trips we somehow managed to miss the big guy who was supposed to be the big ending scare, which we still can't figure out how we missed his scare twice.  When we left there were three staff members taking notes outside of the exit. Of course, you know it, we went over and said hi.  We even made a few suggestions for their notes, though it didn't really seem as though they were taking us seriously.  Their loss, taking us seriously could have led to better comments here for them, but as it is you now know about it and can make your own decisions.

                The first haunt that we went through was actually Silver Scream Sinema, though we are just now getting to it on our list.  It really is a long walk to get so little out of it.  They do sell the classic souvenir photos at this event, though they scare you before it when they should do it during the picture to really have an impact.   They do have some high quality prop pieces in the sets, but the overall scenes aren't high enough quality to live up to the few pieces.  It really did feel as though they used strobe lights to hide their flaws, which shouldn't be necessary in any haunt.  We recognized a few classic horror movies trying to reach through the fumbled sets to let us know that they were represented at the movies, however there was something missing.  This was more apparent that ever when we went through the actual cinema set and saw ourselves being projected onto the big screen.  We only saw ourselves for a moment and didn't get the big scare that this space was desperately screaming out for.  It would have been perfect to have had us on camera for longer and gotten a great scare in while we were on camera.  They could then have snatched a still from that for the souvenir photo ops idea.  I might actually have considered buying that if they could have scared me.

                There is another haunt that reminded us of a really horrible Christmas morning for some poor little girl.  Defex seems to be where bad toys go to serve their purpose of instilling fear into naughty little children.  Sometimes a teddy bear just isn't a cute little teddy bear anymore.  Those adorable little rosy cheeked dolls can get quite evil as well.  The toy factory did seem to have some interesting twists and turns.  We do wonder how the toys managed to get the staff all wrapped up and hanging, but we didn't want to hang around long enough to end up in the same predicament.  We sort of felt as though there was a mad toy or maker every ten feet, and they at least were asking us to play or help rather than doing the old annoying stand-by of screaming for no reason.  There's room to grow here, but it was one of the haunts that was headed in the right direction.

                The most confusing maze of the entire evening has to be Fury.  We thought about it, talked about it, went back to it later on in discussion, and still couldn't quite figure out what they were aiming for.  With a name such as Fury your mind pulls up some images that are possibly going to be involved, however you can delete those files since they probably won't be relevant at all.  When you are in the queue line you will see a video that seems to be very official and government related.  It seems to have something to do with a pharmaceutical experiment/program gone wrong for the government.  So, are you conjuring those images mentally yet?  Okay, now delete those as well since they probably won't match what you are going to walk through either.  We don't know why, but it just didn't seem to match the name or the video introduction.  Maybe it really did and we were just clueless and missed the big picture, but I swear we were trying to figure this out for you and for us.  Once we got inside there was a lot of loud music and it seemed sort of like an industrial wasteland that was somewhat post-apocalyptic in nature.  There was even a big monster at the end that we heard another group talking about when we left.  They weren't saying what you hoped, but rather that it made them laugh instead of scream.  You'll have to see for yourself why that's the case.  Our visit really made us miss the Slaughter House maze that was in this location three years ago.  It was better than Fury, in our opinion.  Fine, it at least had a haunt that matched the name and image that was given to it in advance.

                The traditional October corn maze gets a twist with CornStalkers maze.  I know that when I have gone to actual corn mazes they start to lose some stalks as the season moves forward and plants die off.  People cut new paths through that shouldn't be there, and you find the gaps to be confusing.  You don't expect that when you are going through a prepared maze where the corn stalks have been placed with intention in their spots.  If they were placed as carefully as they should have been then there wouldn't have been gaps on the walls of the maze where we could see large patches of black vinyl.  We regret to inform you that the scariest part was at the end when a guy yelled out "Hey" which was probably really "Hay" since that was the other item dominating the scenes in this maze.  Sure, there was some times that the kids and mom ahead of us jumped, but only for loud noises.  It had so much more potential from what we had remembered of our last trip.

                The last of the mazes was The Asylum, which had some of the more likeable experiences of the evening for us.  There was a great old ambulance and some antique medical props outside of the haunt, which got the crowd into the atmosphere of what was coming.  We noticed that the actors were very conscious of their tasks to scare you and one even had a rather lengthy interaction with us who told us his character name and proceeded to follow us for a while asking where his dragon was, until we told him that it was back where we had already been and he went to search for it.  He seemed as though he would have stuck to us if we hadn't had a good response to get rid of him, which is great.  The atmosphere was only marred by a couple of things though.  There was a narrow bridge in one scene, which was supposed to be over an eternity flooring.  The problem here was that the mirror was so dirty it no longer seemed to go on forever.  There was also a lot of loud music in this maze, which didn't quite make sense.  The screaming in a psych ward haunt would definitely make sense, so we will let that one go as logical for the theme.  It was a conga line, for certain, but they did seem to do the best that they could with it.

                Sure, we've had our ups and downs through this review, but now it's time to cut to the chase and talk ratings.  We really missed the Scarowinds of three years ago.  Maybe it was the VIP experience with the meal, hanging out with characters, and getting in early.  We think that it had more to do with this year having conga lines through haunts causing us to miss scare after scare.  Actors frequently tried to act out something, when they were in an environment that was more conducive to a quick scare and retreat strategy.  After averaging our personal ratings we ended up with 2.75 severed heads.  It was almost an average haunt experience, but it missed by a little bit.  We would, however, like to point out that Last Laff 3-D would have received an individual rating of 4 out of 5 severed heads.  Perhaps they should consider what they have going right in that maze and look to incorporate those things in other ways throughout the park.  It certainly couldn't hurt.