Monday, December 4, 2023

San Francisco Bay Area’s Theme Parks Go to Hell (and Other Creepy Places)

Courtesy California's Great America
Courtesy California’s Great America

InPark News Editor Joe Kleiman joined The Season Pass Podcast crew for Halloween festivities at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo, CA, USA and California’s Great America, Santa Clara, CA, USA.  Here is his review:

Doug Barnes of the Season Pass Podcast, Valerie, and InPark's Joe Kleiman.  Photo by Robert Coker
Doug Barnes of the Season Pass Podcast, Valerie, and InPark’s Joe Kleiman. Photo by Robert Coker

A number of years ago, while riding the Judge Roy Scream wooden coaster at Six Flags Over Texas with Tony Baxter, the famed Imagineer taught me a breathing method he had just brought back from Europe to ease the riding experience.  I can assure you that it does not work on either of the Bay Area’s newest coasters – Superman Ultimate Flight at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and Gold Striker at California’s Great America.  Both parks have upped the intensity with these rides and, for their Halloween festivities this year, both parks have upped the scares as well.

When I last visited the parks at Halloween time in 2004, Six Flags Marine World, as it was then known, only had two mazes, and they were both mediocre.  Great America, then under the Paramount moniker, had a Nickelodeon-themed event for kids, but nothing for their elders in the evening.  What a huge difference a decade has made.  The foliage around Discovery Kingdom has grown in, creating a wonderful park atmosphere during the day and claustrophobic passageways during the park’s Fright Fest nights.  And at Great America, a new coaster at the entrance, new paint, and tender loving care around the park are bringing it back to the feeling of its glory days.

SkyScreamer backwards. Courtesy Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
SkyScreamer backwards. Courtesy Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

The experiences are quite different at each park.  Discovery Kingdom is open all day long and into the night.  Shows are included with admission, but entering the haunts, six in all, requires an upcharge.  This means that during the day, guests can enjoy the unique combination of rides, wildlife, and marine life the park has to offer and in the evening come face to face with zombies and enjoy special Halloween-themed shows starring dolphins and sea lions.  A special highlight of the Halloween period is the opportunity to ride SkyScreamer, the park’s 15-story Funtime StarFlyer, backwards.

Courtesy California's Great America
Courtesy California’s Great America

Great America is also open during the day, but then it closes and reboots the park for Halloween Haunt, a hard-ticketed event.  Included with admission are most of the rides, eight mazes, and five shows – our favorite being Blades of Horror, an amazing ice skating show with top-notch production design and performances.  Also unique to this event is Madame Marie’s Voodoo Chophouse, a New Orleans-themed buffet where the hostess is none other than Madame Marie, whose Massacre Manor is nearby.

The one thing I would ask that the parks improve is how they handle their upcharge front of line guests.  At Discovery Kingdom, the line for the VIP wristbands were sometimes had to discern from the regular queue, while at Great America, a number of the Fright Line entry points were hidden in out of the way places.  But perhaps that’s all part of the chaotic fun of Halloween.

Overall, both parks are approaching the level of quality found at Halloween events at the major Los Angeles and Central Florida parks.  In some areas, they’re exceeding them.   Instead of giving a rundown on everything, I’ll review my three favorite mazes at each park.  The full park visits can be heard on The Season Pass Podcast.


Park President Don McCoy and fiends. Courtesy Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Park President Don McCoy and fiends. Courtesy Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Highlights include:

  • Interviews with park spokesperson Captain Lee Munro and new park President Don McCoy
  • Meeting Valerie the African Elephant
  • Riding SkyScreamer backwards
  • Walkthrough of the park’s newest maze, Total Darkness


  • Nightmare Manor: It’s as if Discovery Kingdom took the mental ward patients from a movie such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or 12 Monkeys, transformed them into young girls, stuck them in a dilapidated mansion, and hired Takashi Miike to instruct them what to do.  I’m still not sure which scene was more disturbing – the quiet girl sitting on the floor who suddenly shrieks and throws kitchenware or the girl looking at her reflection in the mirror who turns around to approach you as her reflection crawls out of the mirror to join her.  I used to be terrified of clowns.  Now I’m terrified of young undead girls as well.
  • Scrapyard of the Dead. Courtesy Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
    Scrapyard of the Dead. Courtesy Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

    Scrapyard of the Dead: I need to give accolades to Discovery Kingdom for doing something top-notch with their production design on a number of mazes.  From building a maze inside the shark exhibit building, where live sharks in their Plexiglas tanks gave the impression of being underwater with doomed pirates, to the use of the space around the old Dinosphere,  they successfully integrated existing park environments into their mazes.  But none better than this one, where ride equipment for the Vertical Velocity coaster and filtration tanks from the Tidal Wave help create a sense of scope to a post-apocalyptic zombie playground.

    Slaughter House Pig Farms.  Courtesy Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
    Slaughter House Pig Farms. Courtesy Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
  • Slaughter House Pig Farms: Using the entrance and exit walkways of the old Dinosphere giant screen theater, along with its interior queue, this maze is a simple tale of hillbilly farmers gone cannibal.  My personal favorite part was passing what had been the 3D glasses cleaning room and seeing inside a hillbilly chopping up a hanging cadaver.  There were many days as a giant screen theater manager that I wanted to take complaining customers into the 3D glasses cleaning room and . . . I’ve said too much.


Highlights include:

  • Interview with Clayton Lawrence, Manager of Entertainment and Halloween Haunt
  • Walkthroughs of all eight mazes


  • photo by Joe Kleiman
    photo by Joe Kleiman

    Dia de los Muertos: A 3D maze celebrating Mexican lore. You start outside under the stars in a Mexican village, but soon work your way indoors through the building that used to house the park’s Pictorium IMAX theater.  Scenes range from a Robert Rodriguez cantina to ancient Aztec ruins in the jungle.  The maze is painted and decorated with so much detail, the actors faces appear in 3D as they jump out at you, the path slopes up and down unexpectedly – all combine to make this a highly enjoyable and repeatable experience.

  • Zombie High: My prom in many ways felt like the one at Zombie High.  Ah, the memories.  So much to see, so much happening.  You’ll need to listen to the podcast to take it all in.

    Courtesy California's Great America
    Courtesy California’s Great America
  • Madame Marie’s Massacre Manor: A highly detailed maze, there’s one scene in particular that caught our eye.  There’s a pair of double doors looking down a hallway and suddenly people rush from the sides of the hall and amass at the door. At this point, we moved on.  But we later found out that had we stayed, the scare actors would have shot at the people in the hall and as their heads exploded, we would have been sprayed.  A fantastic use of high definition video only improving upon an exquisite set design.  And to top everything off, our new friend Madame Marie was there to guide us through her home.


Cemetarium.  Photo by Joe Kleiman
Cemetarium. Photo by Joe Kleiman

I also had the privilege to join The Season Pass Podcast crew on a visit the Cemetarium, located in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights, only a couple of hours from the Bay Area.  Unlike the theme parks, this haunt uses volunteers and a number of them are children.  When a young lady in a maze asks you if you want to play, it’s creepy.  When it’s a very young girl asking, it’s even creepier.  Not to mention the young boy, probably around ten or so, who walked up to me and whispered, “I killed my mother.”

The maze is a walk through a dilapidated, haunted home, where every room leads into a nightmare world – the zombie apocalypse, Santa’s workshop, and the circus from hell.  Yes, a maze that has both clowns and undead young girls.  Joy.  I actually refused to go through this one a second time because those two factors really got to me.  The maze only uses around 30 actors, but it’s designed in such a way that they can maneuver around the entire space, giving the impression of many more being on duty to frighten guests.  Cemetarium also pushes groups through every four to five  minutes, allowing for a much more personal experience than at many of the theme park mazes.


Special thanks are due to Doug Barnes of The Season Pass Podcast and the rest of the Season Pass Halloween crew: Robert Coker, Mike Maryman, and Jeremy Muse.

At Six Flags Discovery Kingdom: Nancy Chan, Lee Munro, Charles Laureano, Don McCoy, and the rest of the fantastic cast and crew.

At California’s Great America: Roger Ross, Megan Hamik, Clayton Lawrence,  Raul Rehnborg, Raffi Kaprelyan, and Madame Marie and her undead minions both onstage and behind the scenes.

At The Cemetarium: Frankie Babcock, Troy Calpham, and their army of the undead – except the clowns.  Didn’t like the clowns.

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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