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Bid to Attract Ghoul Seekers Getting Scary

Halloween: Billions will be spent celebrating the event, and theme parks are going all-out to grab customers.


Competition among area theme parks is cutthroat in the best of times. But the bid to attract the Halloween crowds is getting downright scary. The season begins earlier than ever this year with tonight's Friday the 13th debut of the Chamber of Chills at Universal CityWalk--fully 48 days before Halloween.

The live horror revue--which features classic Universal Pictures cinema ghouls such as Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Creature from the Black Lagoon--will also be presented in malls in 10 other U.S. cities, including Philadelphia; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Tacoma, Wash.

The nationwide monster bash marks Universal's entry into the lucrative fall fright market, which will see Americans spend an estimated $3.5 billion for Halloween costumes, merchandise and candy alone, according to a study by Roper Starch Worldwide.

The public has developed an appetite for scare-related entertainment, and Southland theme parks have been happy to oblige. Although Universal is moving ahead of the pack to get a jump on promoting its new haunted house, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm have increased the length and offerings at their upcoming spook fests this year as well.

Cincinnati theme park analyst Dennis Speigel says with Halloween now the nation's second-most popular holiday, it provides a way for theme park operators to pack in the crowds during the traditionally slow fall season without spending a bundle.

"It's a no-brainer," said Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services. "It's all about building attendance at a weak time of year without a huge capital outlay."

Theories abound as to why Halloween has become so popular.

Some speculate that hard-working Americans need to blow off some steam during the long stretch between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Sociologists point to the influence of Latino culture with its Day of the Dead celebrations. Marketers observe that it's a one-size-fits-all holiday that appeals to all ages, incomes and celebration styles, from family-oriented to debauched. And cynics conclude if we didn't already have Halloween, retailers and marketers would have invented it to perk up early fall consumer spending.

Universal's new production, which it's billing as "The World's Scariest Haunted House," is actually the company's second attempt to crack the lucrative Halloween market. Management launched a Halloween event at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1992 that it abandoned the next year as too expensive and unwieldy.

The new Chamber of Chills marks a significantly different strategy for Universal and its parent company MCA Inc. MCA isn't going it alone this time, having opted for a joint venture with its Spencer Gifts Inc. novelty subsidiary and film director Ron Howard's production company, Imagine Entertainment Inc.

The self-contained Chamber of Chills has been constructed on the lower level of a parking facility, with a spooky facade and entrance at CityWalk, Universal's public retail and entertainment center just outside the movie park. Unlike its previous Halloween celebration and those of competing theme parks, Universal will not give visitors the run of the park this time around.

However, adult admission to Chamber of Chills is a mere $8, compared with a $29.95 advance purchase ticket to Knott's legendary Halloween Haunt.

That's a price advantage the company hopes to exploit in targeting the key teen and young adult markets.

"We hope they come back two, three, four times," said Dick Costello, president of strategic marketing for MCA.

The company is also positioning the Halloween revue to serve as a marketing tool for its merchandise and films. Guests exiting the Chamber of Chills at CityWalk will find a Spencer Gifts shop loaded with Halloween novelties, including video releases of classic Universal Pictures horror films.

Universal's most fearsome rival is undoubtedly Knott's Berry Farm, whose annual Halloween Haunt has become a tradition with thousands of Southland thrill seekers. Each year the park is transformed into a fake-blood-dripping nightmare of themed mazes filled with beasts, ghouls and mutants. It's just the type of thing that appeals to teens and young adults--the very market that Universal is trying to court.

Knott's spokesperson Dana Hammontree predicts that most of the Haunt's 13 nights will be sellouts, regardless of what Universal and other competitors are doing.

"It doesn't affect us," Hammontree said. "We like to think we grandfathered the whole idea."

Rather than go head-to-head with Knott's for the teenage werewolves, Disney and Six Flags Magic Mountain have carved out a niche catering to families and small children.

Mickey's Halloween Treat! is being expanded to five nights this year, up from four in 1995 when the celebration made its debut. Concerned parents are fueling the demand, says Michele Reese, senior vice president of marketing and sales for the Disneyland Resort. She says parents are leery of letting Junior roam the neighborhood to trick-or-treat, and they are clamoring for an alternative to all the blood and gore entertainment at other parks.

How big the Halloween craze can get is anyone's guess.

But consultant Steve Balgrosky warns that there is a limit to how much holiday-related entertainment the public can consume. And despite Universal's early launch this year, he doubts that September will become the new industry standard for unveiling Halloween attractions.

"It's hard to sustain the excitement for that long," Balgrosky said. "Halloween in September. Now that's a really scary thought."

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