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An Unforgettable “Drive-Though Experience” at the Iconic Headless Horseman Haunted Attractions (Ulster, NY) -2020 Season Review

Introduction

The ominous, dark forest of Ulster Park, NY, is the perfect backdrop and home to Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Attractions, an iconic, longstanding event that we cannot express enough is of the most exceptional quality. Embracing diversity in attraction design while maintaining an almost mystical spirit, this is one attraction that has earned its right to be heralded as one of the very best in the country.  Not to sound cliché or corny, but Headless Horseman is a magical place, an exceptional masterpiece of horror art built on a foundation of history and commitment to quality.

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Perhaps no other haunted attraction in recent memory perfectly captured the essence of the season in such a rich, detailed, and authentic manner. Typically, our focus is on the “attractions” featured by a haunt or amusement facility. Still, in the case of Headless Horseman, it is impossible to not become wrapped up in the ambiance and genuine festival-like nature of this event. Headless Horseman has taken drastic steps to address concerns associated with the COVID-19 global pandemic and ensure a first-class show. Despite slight modifications to operations, including operating a lesser capacity, and conversion of the haunted hayride to a “drive-thru” experience, each attraction continued to be as entertaining as ever. Headless Horseman focuses more on “world-building” in building attractions, amusements, shops, and food options that all work together to create an atmosphere unmatched by any attraction.

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While the entire “experience” of visiting Headless Horseman even during unprecedented times is near perfect, some minor changes and improvements can make this event even grander (if one can fathom). Headless Horseman has never had the most “performers” in each attraction, and this season, it appeared even less were present likely due to the restrictions associated with the global pandemic. Furthermore, throughout the “Corn Maze(first eight attractions),” groups are mostly self-guided, and some guests were moving far more quickly than others (some even running), and this caused some line-backup issues which could be prevented if a few staff members or even performers are added to help pace each group.  Despite these slight issues, the overall high-level production quality and commitment to safety were apparent from the moment we entered the property to our departure.

The Attractions

Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses features a total of ten total attractions starting off with the “Drive-Thru Haunt Experience (replacing the “Haunted Hayride for 2020).” Each season, a new “story” is interwoven into the attractions, and this season focuses on the legend of the “Headless Horseman.” Despite hosting ten attractions (the first eight are featured in “Corn Maze” style succession), some are shorter than others. Still, the diversity in themes and styles again allows for the overall attraction to cover a vast array of interests and target specific fears of a large number of guests that attend the show each season.

Drive-Thru Haunt Experience – “Dare to Ride the Horseman’s Trail”

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Headless Horseman’s “Drive-Thru Experience” is a journey into a series of impressive sets set to a specific theme each season. While skeptical that the experience would be less than stellar, we were quickly shocked at the quality and near perfection of this well-executed innovative attraction. Despite having cars in front and back, and reduced special effects in some scenes, and fewer actors, the entire experience was absolutely engrossing, almost enhanced by controlling the progression through each detailed scene/performance in this roughly twenty-minute adventure. Sets are larger-than-life, enhanced by special effects, and thematically enhanced by a soundtrack played through one’s smartphone. It is important to emphasize that each scene appeared to be heavily upgraded this season, with brand new animatronics, chilling lighting effects, and minimal downtime allowing for a constant flow of scares and themes around every turn. Scene highlights include a “pirate ship-themed” set/performance, an 1800’s haunted town, and a brand new Satanic/Demon scene that genuinely is shocking to see from the comfort of a car, and several enclosed sets that feature characters ripped from one’s nightmares and countless masterfully crafted set designs.

A three-dimensional approach to design, there is action and details on both sides of each scene, building a transformative nature to each stage. For example, traveling through an “evil infested” town, buildings, houses, a town hall, etc. come to life as one travels down the road. Encountering the “Headless Horseman” himself is also an imposing confrontation faced by guests in a more intimate experience. While the drive-through version of the attraction helped highlight the intense details and quality of each scene, Headless Horseman did reduce the number of performers, and some of the more dangerous pyrotechnic displays of previous years had to be cut due to safety issues. However, the trade-off for these changes reduced the impact on show quality as it was easier to become immersed in the show environment itself by controlling the pace of the show via car. Furthermore, the soundtrack was perfectly timed to each scene, creating a totally immersive experience within a vehicle, which in itself is a monumental accomplishment that should not be understated.

Lunar Motel (Start of the Corn Maze)

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“Lunar Motel” is a twisted-time warp, taking guests back to a grungy, gritty 1970’s style abandoned hotel that is ravaged with death and twisted images of serial killers and violence. Authenticity drips from each room as the period-specific decorations and props create a motel atmosphere, unlike any other attraction we have ever visited. Numerous “haunted hotel” attraction themes exist, but “Lunar Motel” truly captures a feel and time place unlike any other. Relying heavily on its set and gruesome prop design to create fear, this would be the perfect display for more interactive scare-actors. Each room of the motel is genuinely disturbing and filled with vile, violent imagery.

“Lunar Motel” is a genuinely demented experience, a lengthy first walk-through attraction, and truly takes guests back in time with no little detail unaccounted for. Violent murder scenes in bedrooms, bathrooms, and hallways are around each corner, odd smells emanate from each room, and a sense of tension builds from scene to scene. From “Richard Nixon for President Posters” to vintage tube televisions, the “atmosphere” of “Lunar Motel” comes to a horrific life and is one of the best “hotel” themed attractions in the industry. Broken down cars, vintage 70s era signage adorn this wonderfully designed and disturbing attraction, the perfect start to the walk-through Haunted Houses featured at Headless Horseman.

Glutton’s Diner and Slaughterhouse

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“Glutton’s Diner” is an authentic, 1950’s era diner bathed in blood and gore, which is another strong walk-through attraction featured at Headless Horseman. The first cries of help from the “undead” patrons give way to a twisted, hilarious off-color scare-actor “chef” in the “kitchen.” Creepy scenes of human slaughter, giant pigs, and animals that feed off the flesh and a morgue for fresh “meat” create a chaotic atmosphere augmented by the nasty sounds of squealing pigs, other unworldly sounds of suffering. The gruesome nature of the scenes and the sensory triggers, such as feeling the “cold” air of a “meat locker,” create a sense of immersion, and “Glutton’s Diner” is a unique attraction that combines reality with horror. One feels as those they are in a classic diner. Yet, the surrounding violence, cannibalistic nature of the “cook’s intentions,” and overall grotesque nature of the theme, the authentic “diner” experience followed up by the emphasis on slaughter creates an unsettling and horrifically entertaining attraction that is one of our favorite stops along the “Corn Maze” trail.  

Nightshade Greenhouse

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“Nightshade Greenhouse” is a brief visit through a plant-horror attraction, featuring the theme that mutated plants are now hungry for human flesh.  Featuring animatronic man-eating plants, snakes, and other creatures, the attraction is relatively brief yet highly detailed, featuring life-like animals, bubbling, boiling “chemicals,” and creepy sounds a sense of tension and make guests feel uncomfortable.

Mama Rose’s Swamp Shack

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“Mama’ Rose’s Swamp Shack” appeals to those who are afraid of “voodoo” style themes and is a short yet detailed trip through a simulated “bayou.” The entire attraction is relatively short in nature and does have some small scenes with a few scare-actors and a voodoo-priestess are featured, but the experience was quickly over. There is a sense of dark humor used in the “bayou” themed attraction, and again level of set detail is second to none. An action-packed and short but detailed stop on the “Corn Maze,” we hope the attraction continues to grow as it presents an innovative theme.

Evil Reaping

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“Evil Reaping” is a unique take on the classic “corn maze” concept where scare-actors do a great job of hiding in the stalks and actually “moving” props to create jump scares mixed with real interactions.” Due to safety issues, fewer actors were featured along the trail, which negatively impacted the pacing of groups. Without actors or staff managing groups from running or timing groups inside the maze several times, other groups seemed to run into ours despite a brisk pace.

Dr. Dark’s Circus Side Show

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“Dr. Dark’s Side Show” is a general carnival-themed attraction with various scenes of circus freaks and clowns. An all too brief experience, the attraction effectively recreates a twisted midway with interactive scenes and a few clowns that torment along the way. “Dr. Dark’s Circus Sideshow”, while a brief experience still extremely detailed and gives one a sense of traveling back into a 1900’s midway. While many of the more “theatrical” scenes seemed to have been removed this season, quality is certainly not an issue in this brief diversion through the lengthy “corn maze” featured at Headless Horseman.

Horseman’s Tomb

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“The abandoned graveyard behind the Crow Hollow Orphanage doesn’t have a name.  It has earned the nickname “Witch Cemetery” by the stories the nuns told the orphans to keep them from running away.” Following this introductory sequence is the demonic and genuinely terrifying descent into the “Horseman’s Tomb.” Surrounded by candlelight and “hooded” guards, the sense of fear created by the entire tomb atmosphere, the real demonic imagery, and special effects associated with the “Horseman’s coffin” itself is practically perfect. While not a lengthy attraction, it is designed to really create an unsettling feeling, and many of those who walked through with us could not wait to leave. The catacomb-like structure itself is unnerving and conveys a sense of dread, which is again generated slowly by set and scene design. “Horseman’s Tomb” is a frightening mini attraction that really highlights the level of scenic intensity in set design. Walking towards the “coffin” is a terrifying experience, and we witnessed other guests run to get away from the psychological terror built up by this attraction’s design.

The Feeding

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“The Feeding” is one of the final two walk-through attractions. It is an intense biological facility where surgeries have gone drastically wrong. Many of the “patients” are now treated best described as a sci-fi infused mental asylum. Some of the most impressive and intense scenes are featured in “The Feeding” from gruesome surgical rooms to rows of genetically enhanced “mutants” trapped in incubation; this is a severe and detailed attraction.  With such rich detail and massive set designs, “The Feeding” could benefit from more scare actors that interact with guests and add to the already chaotic nature of the attraction.

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Generally, the only real interaction we came across with scare actor wise was in a “maze” like sequence. Still, for the most part, the attraction is heavily influenced by prop, theme, and animatronic usage. Some of the scenes are genuinely sickening, watching “monkey’s used for experimentation’” feed on the flesh of human experiments and medically induced mutations, “The Feeding” is one of the most terrifying attractions featured at Headless Horseman.

Careful thought is obviously placed into the design and structure of each scene and allows for a balance of “gore” and “science fiction” to intertwine.  Each set is highly detailed, with freakish displays of medical horror and scientific exploitation, and “The Feeding” is designed to be an intense, lengthy experience that once again displays the overall “excellence” in presenting diverse themes that fall under the “horror” genre.

Two Raven’s Manor

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“As an English colony, the banks along the Hudson River were a friendly haven for pirates in the 1700’s.  Many found their uncharted creeks and streams ideal places to hide, setting up homes in wooded areas.  Access to the Hudson River was important for those running from the law, and establishing a homestead allowed pirates to conceal their ill-gotten treasures.” “Two Raven’s Manor” is a classical style haunted house that takes guests back in time to the era of “Jack the Ripper.”

“Two Raven’s Manor” feels authentic, taking guests back in time and successfully building a “city” within the darkness of the more considerable attraction’s property. Guests will visit a “classical” haunted mansion leading into a lively midtown area, a cursed “village” from colonial times. Ghastly and ghoulish trapped mansion staff, pirates, and thieves roam the manor, and a variety of scenes entice guests featured in this richly detailed attraction. A transformative experience is a great way to describe how this attraction “builds” a world lost in time, from a ravenous tavern to an authentic “pirate” shipyard/dock scene, every set is designed to tell a story and with a few more interactive actors could really thrive due to its unique style.

“Two Raven’s Manor” effectively uses mirror tricks to simulate a cityscape experience and diversity in set design, taking guests out of the house into the world itself created by this period piece. “Two Raven’s Manor” immerses each guest in a world of classical, colonial-era violence and focuses on its authenticity and realism in keeping with its period and style, which again is a strong point of all the attractions of Headless Horseman, a commitment to detail and first-class quality in attraction design.

Final Thoughts

We genuinely enjoyed our annual visit at Headless Horseman and believe it is one of the finest haunted attractions/scream-parks one could EVER visit. While we would love to see more “scare-actors,” especially in such incredibly detailed walk-through attractions (even in previous seasons, we felt more actors were needed), the sheer scope and level of detail featured overall by the entire property is almost unfathomable. Perhaps no other attraction captures the “feel” and “spirit of the season” quite like Headless Horseman, and it truly is a unique haunted attraction, a must-visit destination.

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The intricate thought process underlying the production of the numerous attractions featured at Headless Horseman is one of the key strengths as each separate attraction is not only entirely different but features rich, authentic details. Authenticity in the haunted attraction industry is a dying concept as many mainstream, and even smaller haunted attractions are only buying massive props and scenes without thought. Headless Horseman strives to create “realistic” horror experiences, using vintage artifacts and custom-built props to create a living, breathing world within the context of each attraction.

Structurally and scenic wise, it is by far one of the most detailed haunted attractions one can visit. Managing such a beast of property during challenging times and implementing an extensive safety and sanitation protocol is not an easy task, and Headless Horseman’s commitment to excellence and detail is one that allows it to thrive and maintain its legendary reputation. The conversion of the “hayride” attraction to a “Drive-Thru Experience” in itself was a herculean task and was executed flawlessly; despite having to make alterations to several scenes for safety reasons, the management, staff, and creative minds powering this iconic attraction created a safe, immersive experience that embraces a philosophy of excellence in presentation, theatrical showmanship, and operations. Headless Horseman is acclaimed as one of the top attractions in the country and maintains its status as an industry leader and innovator during one of the most challenging seasons, perhaps on record.

Buy your tickets now at: https://headlesshorseman.com

Written by Joe Rovinsky

Joe Rovinsky is a seasoned veteran media creator in the haunted attraction and immersive entertainment industry. Having worked with national and regional media outlets and numerous major attractions, Rovinsky has become established as one of the top influencers in the haunted attraction industry.

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