By Grant Duvall
While Orlando is no stranger to big name haunts, there have been relatively few haunts that feel intimate by allowing you to interact with the scenes in houses and talk to the characters. Fortunately for the citizens of Florida, the most fun haunt I have ever experienced in my life has arrived. Dark Horizon: Point of No Return is put on by the same people who do Queen Mary's Dark Harbor in California. Several years of experience have made sure that Dark Horizon would be a home run and would give the more well known haunts a serious run for their money.
Dark Horizon is located at the Holiday Inn Resort and Water Park in Kissimmee, which just so happens to be the former Nickelodeon hotel. A few months ago, I got the privilege of seeing people audition to be scare actors for this haunt (and yes, I recognized a few of the people that I saw audition). My biggest question though was how would this fit in a parking lot? Very well it turns out. There are two stages, three houses, several bars, and plenty of food stands in a relatively small area. The ambiance is very high with enough fog and lighting effects to make you forget that Walt Disney World is in walking distance. Scare actors are in every nook and cranny, and gleefully scare people in all manner of ways. One person was watching an aerial silks show and I watched a ghoul lurk behind the person for over a minute waiting for the show to end to really get a scare. I'm usually pretty immune to jump scares but I was got several times. Alcohol is also pretty easy to find, as there are people walking around selling it, several bars, and even a hidden bar. I was given an ancient coin and was told that to find the hidden bar I would have to ask the different scare actors where the bar was. I am not allowed to say where the bar is, but let me just say, it is in a very surprising place. The encouragement to interact with the characters and speak with them was an amazing choice, for most haunts just have the creatures scare you and run. Not here. I had a full on conversation with several characters and they were very good and did not break character once. Speaking of alcohol, by having the haunt at a hotel allows guests to be safe and not drink and drive. If someone has too much to drink, they could easily stay at the hotel and stay safe as long as occupancy allows.
The haunt is broken up into three zones which I will detail momentarily, but wanted to mention that the main food court for the hotel is open to guests, as well as a 4D theater ride for an additional charge. There are also several upgrades that you can purchase such as drink packages, Fast Fright passes, bungalows that give you a great view of the stage, instant entry to the houses, private tours, and most interestingly, something called Terror Up. This is not for sale as you are randomly selected. Sadly I was not selected. If you get chosen, monsters will focus more energy on you and you may be placed in a jail cell, locked in a crate, separated from friends, and even sent through secret passages in the haunts. You cannot ask for this and you just have to be lucky enough to be selected.
The first zone that you enter is The Port. This is also the area where you can get your t-shirt and hat if you so choose. This area is themed to pirate ghosts. This area is home to the siren stage, where aerial acts are performed and people are doing circus acts that I could not do if my life depended on it. I probably spent 15 minutes watching the various acts as there is something is very hypnotic about watching people dressed as sirens moving gracefully and lifting each other up. This is also home to the first of three haunts, Ghostship. Ghostship is themed to being on a ghost pirate ship, run by the captain (and I have to give major props to the creative team for choosing a female captain as well as many female pirates). One thing that caught me off guard about Dark Harbor versus other haunts in the area is that they let people go through in groups rather than a single file line. This allows for the scenes in the haunts to play out so everyone can see them. On top of that, the characters in all mazes talk to you and you can have conversations. This was a welcome surprise and really added a level of humor to the mazes that you don't see in many haunts. Also, this haunt ended with me having to jump ship and go down a giant inflatable slide. That made me so giddy getting to relive my childhood. The actors were great, the set design was great, and the slide twist was ridiculously awesome.
The next area is The Everglades. This really fits nicely in Florida as the real Everglades aren't too far from Dark Horizon. This is where the Gator Grub food stand is and visitors can enjoy a cup of gator gumbo. The true highlight here though is Murder Island, which is a maze through the Florida Everglades. This is the first maze that I've been to that featured a living dog. This haunt is extremely gory, so much that I've never seen this much gore in a haunt. Several scenes made me very squeamish (in a good way), which is very hard to do as I thought I've seen it all. This one goes indoors, outdoors, indoors again, outdoors again, etc. The maze felt very long and was blown away on the level of acting from the creepy Cajuns. This maze is easily the strongest of what are already three very strong mazes.
The final area is the Village. This is where the Sacred Circle maze is, which is where fire dancers perform. These performers are all very talented and were a big hit with the audience. This is also home to the final haunt, Vodou. This is a bayou themed haunt with voodoo magic and witch doctors. This felt like I was actually in a shack in New Orleans and had gotten myself into a very bad situation. The actors were top notch, and there were elevation changes that required stairs (I am unsure if there is a path for those in wheelchairs, but I wouldn't doubt it). Elevation changes really brought the house to life and made the experience much more real. There were also some really nice scares that I don't want to reveal but they had me pleasantly surprised.
All in all, I did each house twice and experienced something different each time. The actors for the event are on point, the set design is fun and detailed, the entertainment is a blast to watch, and the drinks are delicious. I was shocked how much was placed in a parking lot for a hotel, and this was by far the most fun I have EVER had at a haunt. This could have been a disaster, being that this is a first year event, but it was handled so well that it felt like an event that has been going for twenty years. If this is how they are starting Dark Horizon, I cannot wait until next year to see how they could make what was already a perfect event better. I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this. This would be a great haunt for first time visitors to a haunted attraction (although maybe avoid Murder Island if you are squeamish) as the interactivity makes you feel like part of the show. This is also great for veterans of haunts as there are many things I had never seen before. This is an A+ event and if you are in the state of Florida you owe it to yourself to cross into the Dark Horizon.