It sounds like an interesting challenge. Staging an authentic-looking zombie apocalypse while -- at the same time -- not scratching up any of Grizzly Creek Lodge's nice new furniture.
But that's exactly what Jon Cooke has spent the past five-and-a-half weeks doing. Taking Knott's Berry Farm's recently refurbished Camp Snoopy and -- using the 45 minutes between when this Buena Park theme park closes for the day and when Halloween Haunt officially opens for the night -- then transforming this family-friendly area into a six-acre wide kill zone.
"While Security is clearing the Park and sweeping the last few Guests towards the exit, myself and six or seven other Knott's employees are backstage preparing everything. We have a box truck loaded up with bodies and barricades, different barrels and stuff. And as soon as we get a Park Clear, we drive onstage and immediately begin setting everything up," Cooke explained during a recent phone interview. "Our goal is to have the entire area flipped and get all of our zombies in place before the first Guest wanders back to Camp Snoopy and then get in line for 'Special Ops: Infected.' "
"And what is 'Special Ops: Infected'?," you ask. SOI is the multi-track, interactive, group participation experience that Jon -- who is one of the leads in Knott's Scary Farm's prop department -- has been trying to convince Cedar Fair officials to build for a number of years now.
"I'm a paintball fan. I love doing physical stuff, plus playing video games like 'Left 4 Dead.' But then when 'The Walking Dead' debuted on AMC and then became this huge hit, it all just kind of clicked for me one day. That here was this perfect storm of elements that could now be combined to create a maze that was unlike anything else that had ever been done for Haunt before," Cooke continued. "So I brought this idea up to Lara Hanneman, who's the Director of Entertainment here at Knott's one day. And she just kind of looked at me and said 'Yeah, that sounds pretty cool. But how exactly are we going to pull that off?' "
And why was Hanneman concerned? Because what Jon wanted to do wasn't really a maze. At least not in the traditional sense.
"When you're building a maze for a Halloween event like this, strictly from a design point-of-view, you always design the rooms for your maze with two things in mind: Where is each scare in that room going to come from? And where is the distraction going to come from that then sets up the scare in that room?," Jon stated. "With 'Special Ops: Infected,' by placing a laser tag gun in each of the Guest's hands, that's our distraction."
"What also helps here to give Guest a different experience is that 'Special Ops: Infected' doesn't play by traditional haunted house rules. You're not being sent into a maze two and three people at a time. Here, the Guests are grouped in 12-person squads. They've then assigned two squad leaders -- actors that we've hired for Haunt specifically to play these roles -- who then take each group out into what used to be Camp Snoopy but is now a fog-filled wide open space filled with 135 zombies," Jon enthused. "Better yet, depending on which side of the land that these people began their mission on -- the Alpha Side or the Bravo side -- and which of the four variations of our basic Alpha & Bravo scenarios they wind up being assigned to, these people can have completely different experiences each time they enter the kill zone."
Take -- for example -- the Bravo side. Where your initial mission is to head up high into the hills and find a secret laboratory. Once there, you're supposed to rescue this scientist who may have found the cure to this horrible zombie virus. The only problem is -- as you're making your way back to Base ... Well, it's not just the zombies that you have to worry about. There's also a rogue militia unit hiding out there in the fog who may try and capture your squad so that they can then ...
Ah, let's not spoil the surprise. Especially since folks in Southern California still have a chance to grab a laser gun and go shoot some zombies this weekend. You see, rather than shutting down its annual Halloween event on October 31, Knott's officials opted instead to keep this year's Haunt going through Saturday night, November 1st. Just understand that -- if you're driving out to Buena Park to experience "Special Ops: Infected" -- that you could be in for quite a wait tonight.
"Right from the get-go, this particular maze has been hugely popular with Haunt attendees. The first week of this year's Scary Farm, I actually had a Guest come up to me and say that he'd been back to the Park three nights in a row just so he could then try and do all of the variations of the 'Special Ops: Infected' combat missions," Cooke stated. "I didn't have the heart to tell him that we keep changing things up from night to night."
"Take -- for example -- the combat mission you go on when you're doing the Alpha track. You first have to get to this campsite and then rescue this camper who's locked inside of a trailer," Jon said. "Well, we change the location of where we hide that key every night. So even if you've done this particular mission before at Haunt, there are still different challenges, enough variations to keep 'Special Ops: Infected' fresh for Knott's repeat customers."
So if you'd like to work off some of that Trick-or-Treat candy that you ate last night by working up a sweat running away from zombies, then you should definitely check out the closing night of the 2014 edition of Knott's Scary Farm. Where you can then experience "Special Ops: Infected," that unique Haunt experience which proves that wide open spaces can be just as scary -- or even scarier -- then dark twisty mazes.