The box shuts, closing me in. The room is dark, especially on a moonless night. We find a back panel and push—it opens. We proceed forward, through fake cobwebs, spiders dangling precariously above. The walls change: the aged veneer of a Victorian Manor lost to time is replaced by a sickening pale green color, the spider webs become blood splattered on the wall. Block letters spell out a single word: ORAL. “You must be here for the appointment, there’s no time to waste, sit down, sit down.” I’m spun around by the haste of a doctor—a dentist—who’s emerged from the darkness. A white chair stained in fresh blood becomes my home. “Open wide.” I open my mouth as he squirts some liquid into it. It’s warm and sweet. “You needed some mouthwash.” He glances at the bottle. “Wait, shit. This is urine.” We’ve found ourselves inside Phobias, a maze as Castle Dark.
Castle Dark is the Halloween treatment of Castle Park, a 26-acre amusement park located in Riverside, CA. Running all of October, this horror attraction boasts three distinct mazes, four scare zones, and over two dozen attractions, including an interactive dark-ride called Ghost Blasters. This is all on top of their world-class mini-golf experience, really proving that Castle Dark has something for all levels of horror affinity. Castle Dark has one of the best content-to-price ratios, as the ticket gains you access to not just the mazes, but also the mini-golf and Ghost Blasters. Plan to give this event most of your day.
Castle Dark & Its Attractions
Castle Park itself is divided into two halves: the four-course miniature golf and arcade can be found on the east, while the attractions, mazes, and scare zones occupy the west half of the park. As mentioned above, your ticket price offers you access to both sides, allowing you to enjoy the mazes and then wind down with mini-golf, or spend your day putting as you ready yourself for the frights that come out to play when darkness descends on the park.
The miniature golf may be what Castle Park is known for throughout the rest of the year. With four different 18-hole courses, playing this may take you all day. We recommend playing at night though when over 4,700 lights illuminate the course, creating some breathtaking viewpoints. Yet, what really captured our attention are the numerous set pieces that fill the space: from the Taj Mahal to a Japanese Pagoda to a Wild West fort to a Spanish inspired Mission to a classic windmill to a haunted house. These are gorgeous and elevate the playing experience from a standard experience to one that feels themed and exciting.
With 21 current attractions, there’s thrill levels tailored to all members of the family. The kid-friendly roller coaster, Merlin’s Revenge, offers a chance to meet the famed wizard. Older guests and kids alike can find a bit more excitement in the Screamin’ Demon roller coaster. First-time thrill seekers can find an introductory coaster in Dragon Flyer. There’s also an inverted coaster, the Fire Ball, which is sure to test teens and adults looking for something more.
Beyond that, there’s the Dragon’s Tower, a drop ride that ascends a 100-foot vertical tower at 35 mph; a flying saucer that pins guests to its walls with a 65-mph spin; and a scrambler. Bumper cars, swings, tilt-a-whirls, and other amusement park staples round out their catalog.
This may have been my favorite experience in the entire park. Ghost Blasters is what you get if you mashed up Astro Blasters from Disneyland, the Haunted Mansion, and a carnival dark ride. Sit back in your “doom buggy” as you traverse Blackstone Manor to evict some ghosts. Armed with a blaster in hand, two riders aim at various targets throughout to earn points and set off some truly clever effects, such as a skeleton emerging from a box or sound effects of bullets ricocheting. The charm is oozing from this one as everything is lit in perfect neon and feels like a reimagining of the Haunted Mansion.
Fans of the Disneyland ride will recognize many nods and references, from hitchhiking ghosts carrying suitcases saying “Boo or Bust” or “Just Blasted” to a skeletal fortuneteller with floating heads surrounding her. We loved competing against each other, but almost found ourselves distracted by just how beautiful this experience was. There are so many details—and two floors—it’s worth a return visit just to experience again.
Castle Dark offers four distinct scare zones this year: Dark Harvest, The Inferno, The Streets of La Sierra, and The Midway. Each is uniquely themed and offers some of the best interactivity and engagement of the night.
Dark Harvest focuses on witches and witchcraft, The Inferno welcomes a cult of death worshippers who believe that only the dead are truly saves, The Streets of La Sierra have once dead family members rise from their graves to haunt those they left behind, and The Midway which is packed like a clown car with demented circus folk looking to delightfully torment new audiences.
While The Streets of La Sierra were easily denoted by its Day of the Dead inspirations, some of the others were a bit more nebulous to identify. Most scare zones are decorated only by large spider webs and gorgeous neon lighting (actually, the entire ride part of the park has dim lighting, fog, and décor), so it can be difficult to tell one area from the rest. The Midway was located near the Twisted Circus maze, allowing actors to come and go from the scare zone and maze, scaring in both. Further, actors will traverse the park too, as we saw Jinxx the clown in numerous areas—and he was always one of our favorites to play with.
As such, it is the actors that make the scare zones special. We didn’t really mind that we couldn’t tell one from the other, because it was simply interacting and engaging with characters committed to their roles that made the night fantastic. We recreated memes with Jinxx, played a copy-cat game with a playful werewolf, and were scared by plenty of monsters hiding in the dark.
Mr. Tubbs Presents Twisted Circus
Replacing Jinxx and Havoc’s Twisted Circus, this year, it’s Mr. Tubbs turn to take the reigns of the haunt. While it hasn’t changed much from 2019, the maze is characterized by flat panel walls, painted in red and white stripes, and has the least set dressing of any of the three mazes. This maze rests on the shoulders of its actors, specifically the silliness and jokes of the clowns within.
The most notable section is a playful female clown who made a boo-boo, as her cotton-candy machine overflowed, filling one of the rooms. No, sadly, you can’t help her eat it, or even walk through it, but it does make for a great visual.
The maze ends with a series of peepholes that you can look out from. Guests on the outside will simply see your head sticking out the rear-end of an elephant. If you’re willing to stick your head in that hole, you can spy on guests receiving their final scare.
While this maze is the shortest of the mazes at Castle Dark (clocking in at about four minutes) and least decorated, the actors still ensure you have a good time. The line to get in also is only about 5 or 10 minutes, and they space out guests, so that scares are never spoiled. We look forward to seeing who presents this maze next year and what improvements they bring.
Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home invites guests to a family gathering in a broken home. The maze itself is divided into individual rooms of the house, making it feel more like participating in small immersive scenes, instead of a linear walk-through haunt. As such, you progress through the daughter’s bedroom, the kitchen in which Mama is dealing with the dishes, a living room, dining room, bathroom, until you finally meet Father in the finale.
While this maze is similar to Mr. Tubbs in length, there is a much stronger emphasis on set design here. The rooms match the aesthetic they are trying to achieve: the daughter’s room has a dresser, a bed, clothes draped against the back of a rocking chair, and even art hung along the walls. There’s also blood—lots of blood—covering all the surfaces. The lighting in the dining room helps elevate the scene from standard haunt faire to something surreal and abstract, potentially showcasing the dissociation the family is facing.
The highlight of this maze, much like Mr. Tubbs, are the actors. The daughter played wonderfully with us. Mama was fully interactive, scolding us for coming in late and even held an in-character conversation with us, until she threw a metal pan across the room, into a wall, heralding our exit. Someone—or something—crawled out from under the dining room table with such a creepiness factor that we ran from the room. And of course, Father left us running from the maze in fear.
This maze still could grow, with focus paid attention to extending it and developing a theme that fits more uniquely into Castle Dark’s catalog and differentiates it from others. Yet, what worked in the maze was exceptional, providing a distinct feel and interaction not seen in other theme park mazes. Keep up the engagement and passion; that was fantastic.
Phobias is a maze that welcomes guests in and puts them face to face with their worst fears. While we mentioned the previous two mazes were short (about five minutes each), Phobias corrects that issue that offers the largest and longest maze in Castle Dark’s history, running almost a full fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on your speed and ability to find your way out.
Fans of Sinister Pointe’s Scary Place in 2018 may find this a bit familiar, as many of the same themes—and even similar aesthetics are used (their maze was even named Phobias as well). Whether someone from Sinister Pointe’s creative team had a hand in this maze, or the repetition of phobias just resulted in a similar aesthetic (really, how many phobias are there? You’re bound to get repetition), this maze proves that the theme is strong—Phobias was our favorite maze from Scary Place, and our favorite maze from Castle Dark.
While there’s no real bugs, electricity, or actor contact, the maze hints at these themes perfectly. Guests can expect to be locked (momentarily) in small spaces, come face to face with bugs, enter a room full of creepy dolls, walk through a cobweb filled hallway, potentially get married to a ball-and-chain bride, and even be separated from your group once or twice. While not all the effects were fully operational when we went through (a garbage disposal gag and a gigantic snake), the ones that did work were perfectly executed.
The highlight of this maze is the dentist’s office. As hinted at in the hook of this article, the dentist is not simply interactive and engaging, but actually has some liquid effects used, elevating this beyond a typical theme park haunted attraction. We loved the playfulness; and this is clearly going to be a memorable experience to anyone pushing themselves beyond the traditional haunted house.
As this is the longest, most interactive, and most technical of all the mazes at Castle Dark, the line is also the longest. Taking place in the same location as The Crooked Man in 2019, the queue takes guests away from the lights and sounds of the ride attractions and towards the darkness of the back of the castle. Tight chain-link fences corral participants and flood them with endless amounts of fog. Red lasers pierce the white and large hooded figures wait just outside your view. As the line can be slow, this is enough to trigger claustrophobia for anyone sensitive to it—but for those who are fine with low visibility, it is a beautiful sight to behold.
Castle Dark is our vote for best value for this Halloween season. While there are only three mazes, the addition of Ghost Blasters, a full arcade, 21 rides, and miniature golf elevate this beyond what most of the other theme parks can offer. The mazes are fantastic too; with a little work and extended length, they could easily rival anything at Knott’s Scary Farm or Six Flag’s Fright Fest. The phobias maze hit all the right notes for us and felt more mature and innovative than anything we’ve seen at the other theme parks. We’d love to see some of the innovations in that maze extended to others. While not all mazes can be interactive (nor should they be), Castle Dark really has a strong roster to build from. We are really excited to see how Castle Dark grows in the future; we will definitely be back to evict some more ghosts, score a hole-in-one, and face our phobias.
Castle Dark welcomes brave guests every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in October. For 2021, they have extended their hours to 7 to Midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and 7-10 pm on Sundays. For more information on Castle Dark, check out their website, Facebook, and Instagram. For more immersive events, check out our Event Calendar.
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Castle Dark takes over Castle Park every weekend in October.