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Theme Park Gets Haunting Season Started

Halloween: Universal opens new attraction to challenge Knott's Berry Farm for a slice of the lucrative fright market.

September 13, 1996|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 kicks off 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, the Frankenstein monster and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, also will 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 jumping ahead of the pack to get a leg up in promoting its new haunted house, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm have increased the number and length of 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 has provided a way for theme park operators to pack in the crowds during the traditionally slow fall season without spending a bomb.

"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."

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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 Hispanic 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.

Meanwhile, plain old human nature tells us people love nothing better than a spine-tingling, hair-raising scare--as long as it's just for laughs.

"What better place to have that experience than in the controlled environment of a theme park," reasons Tom Cluff, an independent production designer who has worked on Knott's Halloween blowout. "You get to feel safe in an unsafe way. You know the scare is all for fun."

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.

Unlike its previous Halloween celebration and those of competing theme parks, Universal will not give visitors the run of the park this time around. 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.

Although Halloween revelers won't be able to experience Jurassic Park The Ride and other Universal Studios attractions, the ticket price will reflect it.

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

That's an advantage the company hopes to exploit in targeting the key teen and young adult market.

"We hope they come back two, three, four times," said Dick Costello, president of strategic marketing for MCA. "Part of the appeal of the concept is its [affordable] price"

The company also is 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.

MCA deliberately sought out medium-sized cities such as Grand Rapids, Mich., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., to test its mall productions of its horror show this year, said Elizabeth Gelfand, vice president of strategic marketing for MCA.

She said those cities have sufficient regional population from which to pull thousands of paying customers, and yet are far enough from competing theme parks to make the Chamber of Chills the hot ticket for Halloween.

"Those areas are somewhat entertainment-starved," Gelfand said.

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