Halloween Blitz Day 5: Mystic Seaport, Roger Williams Park Zoo, Dark Manor, Ghoulie Manor

I love Halloween attractions because unlike bars they’re creative and unlike museums and concerts they’re interactive. So this year I’m doing a Halloween blitz! The Events INSIDER team and I are visiting 28 attractions in 10 days, going indoors, outdoors, and as far away as New Hampshire and Connecticut. Click and scroll to the bottom to see my list of 160 Halloween attractions and more creative October events than anyplace else!

Day 5: Monday, October 28, 2013. It’s our second day in Connecticut and we visited 5 attractions! First the Mystic Aquarium and Mystic Seaport, then Dark Manor, then crossing into Rhode Island for The Roger Williams Park Zoo Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular, and ending up in Taunton, Massachusetts for Ghoulie Manor.

Mystic Aquarium (4 stars)

While Mystic Aquarium is not a haunted attraction, it’s a top feature of Eastern Connecticut, and is paired with Mystic Seaport. You can see beluga whales, which are white, and if you attending the feeding they’ll do a little show and you can see them vocalizing. They also have a sea lion show, the gist of which is that sea lions are awesome and quite smart. You’ll also find a tank where you can pet rays, an outdoor penguin exhibit, a shark tank, a main tank, and outdoor natural habitat exhibits. We were enchanted by the special jellyfish exhibit, but avoided the Titanic. Pieces of a ship where people died… too morbid to draw us in.

Mystic Aquarium is a great spot to go in the cold because it’s partly indoors. Everyone seems happy to be here, both the staff and the animals! They have a good variety, but it’s not overwhelming. I’m not sure they have an animal that’s a “must see” but it’s worth a visit.

Mystic Seaport (3.5 stars)

Mystic Seaport, also not a haunted attraction, was a little less compelling. Whereas the Mystic Aquarium is accessible to everyone, you have to be interested in the history of ships to stroll Mystic Seaport. Unlike Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation, they have few actors dressed in period costume (none on the day we visited but sometimes there are as many as five). Also we got less of a sense of community, although surely our visiting on a Monday in the off-season had much to do with that. Mystic Seaport does throw festivals that I’m sure tie its attractions together more.

Plenty of staff are available to greet you for your $24 adult admission. You can see a half dozen old ships with staff to tell you their stories, and many of the buildings had staff as well to show you for example old-timey printing, barrel-making, and using a sextant. You can shop an old time naval goods store. It was a solid, good time, but did not have a “wow” that we would have regretted missing. This is an attraction that I recommend if you are in the area, but not to drive specially to.

Dark Manor (3.5 stars)

Dark Manor is the most impressive low budget horror destination I have seen. Because it’s located in a remote corner of Connecticut, our expectations were low. Fortunately, we were pleasantly surprised! Owner Rick Peirce told us that the event is for-profit, but they give money to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s an indoor attraction that leads you outdoors and then back indoors again. It’s a good 20 minutes long.

The strength of Dark Manor is its homemade effects. It has tons of animatronics that are special built, not purchased, so they can be used in location-specific, scene-specific ways. I loved the swing with the headless kids, and the bookcases and tables that spill over (even though the bookcases came close to hitting my head). Using mirrors they’ve created two endless tunnels: one with bookcases and one an infinite descent into hell. We were impressed by the scorpion animatronic effect, although the green laser could have been used more effectively with fog to create a spooky plane or cone.

Unfortunately, the location had weaknesses as well. The set design was a bit random, rather than thematic, and would benefit from someone with theatre experience. Most of the actors just screamed, rather than having a role to portray, but kudos to the little girl with the walker who just stared at us silently and malevolently. Yikes! The trail contained some filler sections that didn’t add much, such as a long cage section, and a few random scenes (a clothes closet with t-shirts, a garden shed) that were perhaps outside the horror category.

I came very close to giving this attraction 4 stars, but without a high production “wow” (no hay ride, no giant animatronics, no vortex) and with just 20 minutes of path, that would have been unfair to competitive attractions that have more effects and more length. Still I am left awed by what is clearly a spectacular accomplishment on a low budget! While you may not want to drive specially to Dark Manor, its creative, unique special effects and chutzpah make it a must see attraction if you are in the area.

The Roger Williams Park Zoo Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular (4.5 stars)

The Roger Williams Park Zoo Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is not spooky and is safe for small kids. It’s an outdoor carnival (well, some vendors) with a long walk through the zoo and along a lake, lit by 5,000 pumpkins. Actually, they say they use 20,000 pumpkins throughout the season. One of those two numbers is correct. Although you won’t see any animals (those exhibits are closed), it’s a fantastically beautiful walk under the night stars. Time after time I have visited a Halloween attraction with beautiful displays that I’ve been unable to stop and admire, because of people behind me on the pathway. At the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular, the walkway is wide. So there’s no rush to get through and you can go at your own pace and enjoy the sights, taking deep breaths. We must have shot more than a hundred photos.

Music plays and there’s a carnival atmosphere with good mood lighting. Although most pumpkins are carved, in amateur or professional style, some have been painted and are lit from inside. Throughout they have dioramas celebrating for example the US Southwest, the US Midwest, and all 50 states. I have to confess that I found many of the painted pumpkins and dioramas cheesy. Do we really need tribute pumpkins to the Indy 500 and Family Guy? These pop culture rather than deep cultural choices to represent each region were part of an over-the-top patriotism that was a bit much for me. The path also includes two patriotic dioramas with heavy Christian songs. The creators apparently forgot that not all Americans are Christians, and that if you want a patriotic display that religion is not patriotism. But in such large quantity and with such beautiful forest and lake views, it’s impossible not to find even the cheesy displays heartwarming. Some pumpkins are set on benches, or on podiums, or even on posts in the water. The settings are basic – there are no pumpkins belching pumpkin seeds or a big pumpkin trying to eat a smaller pumpkin. But the end display features hundreds of pumpkins towering over you in a tree, which is as impressive as anything we have seen, even at Haunted Overload.

Don’t expect to be scared, but this Halloween location deserves a 4.5 star rating.

Ghoulie Manor (4.5 stars)

Ghoulie Manor is an H.P. Lovecraft attraction in a shopping mall in Taunton. What they’ve done is very thematic, by which I mean that everything in one room follows a clear sense of set design. This helps suspend disbelief and really puts you “in a real place” far more than any other haunted attraction we’ve seen (the caveat being that Ghoulie Manor cannot match the budget of other places). And the actors take on real roles, so instead of just groaning they have lines and behaviors that match each room as well. This powerful combination pushes Ghoulie Manor way further than it’s location in a mall would suggest!

We were able to interview owner Victor Bariteau, who told us that this year they have grown from 22 rooms to 30 rooms and they rented the space the entire year to work on it. His wife and two young daughters are part of the cast and one of his daughters even designed the spooky doll room. We were the last visitors of the night and Vic’s actors still had tons of enthusiasm to entertain us and then stay afterwards for photos and to chat. Kudos to everyone for the amazing energy they displayed! Now that’s entertainment.

Ghoulie Manor has lots of animatronics, most of which they build themselves. It’s astoundingly creative. For example, actors entertain you in line while you wait and get your names, then sneakily pass the names along to actors inside the attraction to shout at you. Also, where competitive venues simply throw up plywood walls with wood, at Ghoulie Manor they use stencils to create a wallpaper effect on the walls. Even though the ceilings are open (this is a fire code requirement so that sprinklers in the mall ceiling can reach in), the lighting is specially designed to downplay this, and the very tall walls reach up to nearly 12 feet. So unlike with my polite complaint about Fright Kingdom, at Ghoulie Manor you really can forget that you are in a warehouse space.

The Frankenstein lab and even the Egyptian attraction are impressive, though horror themes that we have seen before, but none of us had ever seen a display like Ghoulie Manor’s furnace room. And there are spooky puppets that look like animatronics but move in lifelike ways because they are controlled by a live actor. Believe me, when I say puppets I mean *scary freaking puppets*.

While not having the production budget of larger attractions, Ghoulie Manor in its theatrics and acting even surpasses that longtime specialty of Barrett’s Haunted Mansion. That being said, without fog or laser effects, and a length of only 15 minutes, and a lack of really big stuff (very elaborate stage, giant animatronics) I cannot give Ghoulie Mansion more than 4.5 stars. But be on the lookout for them to hit 5 stars and 5 stars plus in the near future.

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