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Great America and Knott’s pull Fear:VR from Haunt lineups after criticism from mental health advocates

After a name change before it opened to the public and just three days of operation, both California’s Great America and Knott’s Berry Farm removed their “Fear:VR” attractions from their Halloween Haunts after mental health advocates in Southern California cried foul.

In their letter to Cedar Fair, the President of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said, “The attraction adds to the hurtful, dehumanizing, discriminatory, prejudicial, insensitive, offensive and stigmatizing of mental illness. (We believe) it is in the poorest taste that mental illness stereotypes are being used by entertainment sources for commercial gain.”img_8719

Cedar Fair – corporate owner of both parks – issued a statement late Tuesday night:

“For nine years we have delivered unique and immersive haunted experiences to our fans and loyal guests. Our evening attractions are designed to be edgy, and are aimed at an adult-only audience. Over the past week we have heard from a number of people expressing their concern that one of our temporary, Halloween attractions – FearVR – is hurtful to those who suffer from mental illnesses. Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness. As it is impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween time frame, at this time we have decided to close the attraction.”

For those of us who DID experience it, the consensus was clear: it WAS scary as all hell. It was a better, overall use of VR than on a coaster – because you didn’t know what to expect. It truly immersed you in the program. But – was it offensive, insensitive and stigmatizing? And more importantly, should that matter when it comes to a fantasy event like Halloween Haunt?

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On the one hand – it’s a Halloween event. It’s supposed to be a little “off.” Hell, Knott’s regularly MURDERS and HANGS celebrities (in effigy) twice a night in Calico Square. Yet, you don’t hear from those who decry the death penalty or for those wanting more gun control – because everyone knows it’s fake. It’s built into the event.

I don’t remember the “hospital” in Fear:VR focusing on mental health in the storyline. We went into the room for an “ocular” exam. There was a backstory about a young girl who was possessed in some way, but it was never made clear that the facility we were at was anything more than a regular hospital.

On the other hand, is mental health a huge stigma in our society? Absolutely. Could this attraction possibly play into those stigmas? I suppose you could say, “yes” given the reality many interpreted it as. But then again, the whole Haunt experience is one big stigma / stereotype when you think about it. Are all farmers murderous, un-educated hicks? Then Cornstalkers must go. Are all clowns homicidal maniacs? Killer Klown Town has to go too – it could be offensive to genuine, circus performers. Is a hospital full of half-dead zombies going to trying and kill you if you check into a mental clinic? No, it isn’t.

Cedar Point tried a similar attraction a few year ago – and it met the exact same criticism and ultimate demise. How the company thought that in CALIFORNIA of all places that this would fly, is a question for someone above my pay grade. One must also wonder if the park’s “INsanitarium” maze might be in the cross-hairs as a result of all this activity.

The other question that I don’t think we can answer is this: Where do we stop with this? I don’t claim to have the answer – I don’t think any of us do.

Recently, a lot of people were pretty “upset” that In N’ Out Burger didn’t offer a vegetarian burger. They made a petition that got a ton of play online and loads of media attention. Yet, do you see meat eaters going into vegan or vegetarian restaurants, demanding beef? But I digress, let’s get back to the parks…

There is one thing I think that we CAN agree on: there is difference between fantasy and reality – and there’s no reality in a park’s Halloween event.

None.

The chainsaws don’t have chains, the monsters have no magical powers and all of the blood is fake. Are we laughing at the dead, the murderers among us or the worst of our society by celebrating Halloween like this? Of course not. It’s just fantasy.

What do you think? Should the parks have shut down the attraction, or is this just a massive blow up for nothing? Let me know in the comments section below – but please keep it civil:

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Great America’s Halloween Haunt 2016 Proves It’s Still The Best in the Bay Area

Northern California’s marquee morbid event, Halloween Haunt, returns to California’s Great America in 2016 with a few tweaks and added shrieks.

I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow review of each and every maze – you really should go out and explore them for yourselves. However, I will be giving you an overall picture, with some detailed insight.

The marquee attraction for 2016 is “Fear:VR” a virtual reality experience using Samsung phones and the Oculus headset. They are the same headsets used by Six Flags for their VR coasters – but that’s where the comparison ends.

Fear: 5150 seat

The seats used in “Fear: 5150.” NOTE: Photo taken with park representative present. Photos inside mazes and other attractions are NOT ALLOWED.

Fear: 5150 at California's Great America

Guests of Fear:VR experience a simulated hospital – and lose all sense of the real world for a few brief, terrifying minutes.

Fear:VR (the name was changed due to complaints from mental health advocates) uses 8 stationary “wheelchairs” set up in one of two rooms, dressed just like a doctors office. The “nurses” allow you to get comfortable, then quite literally strap you in. The “Nurses” then place on the VR headset and earphones. The simulation (they call it an ocular exam) proceeds and uses several extra-sensory tricks, similar to a 4D theater in addition to the VR screen.

Overall, it is a fascinating, psychological trip that shows the potential of VR without having to strap you into a moving coaster. But, it will also set you back $10 per person. Normally, I’d be against this – but once I saw the slow capacity, I understood the necessity of making it an “upcharge” attraction. The ability to schedule your “doctor’s appointment” and realistic looking ID wristband you get to take with you are very nice touches.

Fear: 5150 at California's Great America

It’s been a bad day at the hospital…

One of the biggest changes that Haunt fans will notice is the separation of the Skeleton Key rooms from the mazes. Now they are in their own, individual sites (mostly stores). This has alleviated one of the chief criticisms of last year’s Haunt, in which Skeleton Room patrons waited LONGER to experience the maze than those who had not purchased an upgrade.

This separation keeps the uniqueness of the rooms, while preserving the Fast Lane that comes with it. The five rooms are: Bone Crusher, Dominated, Vanity, Sorority Slaughter and Hoarder House. Their experiences vary from standard “walk-though” maze to full-on “escape from the room.”

Cornstalkers received a much-needed refresh – and it paid off nicely. Great to see the older mazes get some love here, too.

However, the event is not without it’s wrinkles to iron out. For example, the Fast Lane entrance for Insanitarium was difficult to find – and when I did find it, it wasn’t separated from the other guests, which led to some confusion. Thankfully, crowds were very light for a Friday night.

Also, the area around “Fear: 5150” is quite bleak – and not in the good, “Haunt-ish” sort of way. It’s actually quite difficult to FIND or even SEE the attraction as you’re walking past it. With Planet Snoopy completely dark, I struggled to see the sign for the attraction – and many guests probably walked right past it without even realizing it was there. Maybe some extra “nurses” could be stationed around the area, and used like carnival barkers to ask if people have made their appointments” to see the good doctor.

Fear: 5150 at California's Great America

It’s easy to miss “Fear:VR” if you don’t know it’s there. The area is very dark and the signage is nearly impossible to see.

Now, I know I’ve written at length before about this last gripe, but it bears repeating: How can a park, with a ride themed after a demonic creature, not do ANYTHING to plus the ride during a Halloween event? Of course, I’m referring to “The Demon” – and it befuddles me each and every Haunt to ride it, only to find nothing has been added, changed or put into it. Heck, at least the other Demon at Six Flags Great America brings back the kitschy theme song that used to play in the queue during their Fright Fest! Here’s the complete soundtrack, in case anyone at the park is reading this:

The event still suffers from a lack of talent, both in the scare zones and mazes. Hopefully, it will fill out as the event progresses.

Finally – this is something that I’ve watched become more and more of an issue with each Haunt season: parking control.
While I realize that security is more focused on the guests inside the park, it may be time to address the parents picking up their kids outside the gates.

You see, this isn’t the line to get into the park for Haunt – these are all parked vehicles, blocking the entrance to the parking lot. It extends all the way onto Great America Parkway. If I were a guest who didn’t know better, I’d assume it was the line to get into the park – and promptly change my mind about going that evening:

Haunt Parking Mess 1

This is a line of parked cars, blocking the entry to Great America – they’re all waiting to pick up their kids, when the drop off spot is less than a block away.

Haunt Parking Mess 2

If I were driving on GAP and saw this line of cars headed to the park – I’d promptly keep driving, assuming the park was packed.

What’s more frustrating, is that in addition to all of that roadway being a red zone, the drop off / pick up area is right across the way, designed for easy entry and exit. It was only about half-full when I took these photos. But, come peak Haunt season, it will be full and overflowing. It would be nice to see the park and city come up with a better, higher capacity waiting area, so that more people would use it. Where’s Stanley Roberts when you need him?

So is Halloween Haunt a good bet for you and your friends in 2016? Absolutely.

Should you pony up a few extra bucks for the unique, Skeleton Rooms and Fear:VR? Yes. You probably had a Gold Pass anyway, so why not spend a few bucks every now and then to “plus” your experience? I know I’ll be returning to the fog…


Six Flags Discovery Kingdom unveils Rage of the Gargoyles VR Coaster for Fright Fest

Being the closest Six Flags park to Silicon Valley, it seems strange to have it receive the virtual reality add-on to one of its coasters so late in the game.

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However, with time comes improvement and those lessons learned at other Six Flags parks were on full display at the media preview aboard Kong for “Rage of the Gargoyles” – a virtual reality experience powered by Samsung and Oculus.

The headsets have been completely re-designed, with a simple click wheel for tightening in the back and bungee straps with a single adjustment point. The phones themselves still have the occasional hiccup, which does add to dispatch times. But overall, it’s faster than other installations I’ve seen.

The newer headsets are easier to clean and adjust, which should speed up dispatches.

The newer headsets are easier to clean and adjust, which should speed up dispatches.

WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD:

The experience itself is fairly straightforward. You’re a gunner in a helicopter, slowly climbing to do battle with gargoyles – because, why not? At the top of the lift, a giant gargoyle appears and rips the top off your helicopter, rendering your gun useless.

During the ride, the gargoyles still come at you, move your head around to target them with missiles.

At the end of the ride, the “boss” gargoyle appears once again, so you have to do battle with him as the train slowly navigates back to the station. If you don’t do battle with him at the end – you actually end up losing the game!

END OF SPOILERS…

My biggest concerns going into the event today were shared by many others: how could a ride known for rough, jerky transitions be suitable for a “blinded” VR experience? I have to say, I did not experience significant headbanging on my two trips (it was far from smooth, however). On the second trip, however my headset did become loose and began bouncing around on my head, which was not pleasant.

Kong VR Instructions

With the large, Vekoma over the shoulder restraint, I also found it difficult to reach the side button to shoot during the game. It also limited my reach when the headset came loose.

Dispatch times were improved over what I saw this past summer at other Six Flags parks. At this special media event, they were averaging around 4-5 minutes. That is a vast improvement over the 7-10 minute dispatches I saw at Six Flags St. Louis, Over Georgia and Over Texas this past summer.

So, is it worth a trip to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom to experience Northern California’s first Virtual Reality coaster? Yes, if you’ve never done it before. Just be prepared for long waits and slow dispatches. I’ll predict that the general public will eat this sort of thing up, while coaster fans (who already weren’t too hot on Kong) might give it a second look.

If you’ve been on a VR coaster before, it’s not much different from what you’ve already experienced. A ride on the Joker or Medusa might be a better bet if the lines are as long as predicted.

Understatement of the century when it comes to VR coasters!

Understatement of the century when it comes to VR coasters!

Overall, I still don’t like the idea of VR on rides, at least on the rides that they’ve been installed on in the United States. While the idea is there, the execution just isn’t worth the wait. At least, not yet. All that being said, this is one of the better VR installations that I’ve experienced.

Have you done battle with the gargoyles aboard Kong? Let me know what you think in the comments section below: