Last year, Hellsgate was my most anticipated haunt to review (so much so that I crossed and uncrossed my fingers multiple times in hopes that Haunted Illinois would grant me the opportunity to write the review for the site). Unfortunately, I walked away disappointed but ready to see what the following year would bring. The first year for a haunted house is not without challenges, and I knew a strategic, talented crew like Zombie Army would rise to the challenge of building Hellsgate to something bigger and better the following year. I'm happy to report that they did not disappoint - Hellsgate was a wild, well-oiled machine this year, and my group had a great time!
One thing I like about Zombie Army is that they take feedback constructive and make changes. In a video posted before Hellsgate opened for the season, Zombie Army mentioned three aspects that they were focusing on improving: doing more with the woods, taming the crowds, and making the haunt overall scarier. All seemed like workable goals, so I made a note to pay particular attention to all three.
My group arrived promptly at 7:00, just to try to get ahead of any large crowds. Last year, we spent over three hours from start to finish at Hellsgate, so we were hoping to avoid that same scenario. However, we were happy to see three buses ready to accept passengers. We were directed to get on the first bus and quickly began our trip over the Hellgates, deep within the woods.
Upon arrival, we noted a number of actors working the lines. We paid for VIP admission, so it was easy to jump right into the VIP line. Both lines were paced well and full of line actors who kept the crowd engaged. We were able to enter the woods very quickly, after a quick set of directions and guidelines. So far, so good on the crowd control aspect.
Our journey through the woods was much more exciting this year. It was clear that there were additional actors throughout, and I was the victim of a few good jump scares. The woods also feel more interactive, with rooms to walk through, along with a giant fallen tree. The renovated woods made Hellsgate more of an experience on their own, rather than an area to walk through just to the main attraction.
Once at the house, we were organized into lines and were able to enter the haunt quickly. The opening scene was similar to last year, giving a backstory of the two twins that haunted the house. Very cool effects in this room still and a great way to showcase what was to come. After seeing the opening scene, we ducked through a fireplace and entered the next room. This room was put in place as a way to space out the crowds. Though it felt like we were inside for a while, it was successful in spacing us apart from other groups, which was much appreciated.
When my group finally entered the haunt, we were wowed by the changes since the previous year. There were more actors in the space, popping out from all sorts of nooks and crannies. Hellsgate also does a particularly good job with decor, as the rooms were themed and exciting. One thing to note was the addition of live animals this year, as there was a room with cages full of rats (so cute)!
Some of the rooms that stood out were, again, the doll room, which was followed by a creepy clown tea party. I also enjoyed the taxidermy room - the actor inside was amazing, and the props were top notch. The attention to detail throughout was amazing, and with the addition of more actors, things were much scarier this year.
One of my least favorite elements last year was trying to find the key following the trip down the slide. It felt like a bizarre game show with chaos ensuing. This year, however, the story behind finding the key was much more built up, along with the rooms leading into the search. While my group was not lucky enough to find the key, we did have a much better experience in this scenario.
Overall, Hellsgate was a much stronger haunt than the previous year! I truly enjoyed seeing the changes that Zombie Army created, as I think they're an incredibly talented company. The growth from last year to this year was fantastic, and I look forward to seeing how this house ages over time.
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