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Halloween: A Day That Won't Die

Theme parks are stretching their celebrations over a month or more, hoping to make a killing.

October 11, 2005|From Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — Dave Surgan dropped into a crouch, then leaped into the air and let out an eardrum-rupturing yelp.

His imitation of a crazed monkey during a recent audition at Universal Studios Orlando helped him land a job frightening some of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will come to be scared, be very scared, at the theme park resort's multimillion-dollar Halloween celebration this month.

"Once, they had to call the paramedics because a girl started hyperventilating," said Surgan, 22, who in the last five years has worked as a crazed chain-saw operator and a mutated dinosaur at the park's monthlong Halloween Horror Nights, now in its 15th year.

Not so long ago, Halloween was merely a one-day holiday, observed primarily by kids dressed in fake blood, plastic teeth, ballerina tutus or superhero costumes, who traipsed from door to neighborhood door dragging pillowcases full of candy.

Not anymore. Over the last five years or so, the nation's $11-billion amusement park industry has appropriated the holiday as its own, helping transform Halloween into a monthlong celebration.

"If there are still theme parks out there that aren't celebrating it, they need to get their heads examined," said James Zoltak, editor of Amusement Business, a trade publication. "It's a moneymaker, almost universally."

Nationwide, Halloween has grown by leaps and bounds as a holiday, and this year consumers are expected to spend $3.3 billion to celebrate the occasion, according to the National Retail Federation. Celebrations also have spread abroad to amusement parks in places without strong Halloween traditions, such as Mexico and Brazil.

"One of the things we know is that this is a worldwide trend. It's not just in the United States," said Beth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the amusement park association.

Although the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions doesn't keep figures, industry experts estimate that millions of people go to Halloween celebrations at parks around the nation, generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

For Terri Lacroix, the appeal of the celebrations comes from the adrenaline rush she gets anticipating where the next grotesquely masked figure is going to jump out at her in the confined space of a haunted house.

"I don't like roller coaster rides, but I love scary movies," said Lacroix, 35, a catering manager in Orlando, as she exited the Skool haunted house at Universal.

The parks' embrace of Halloween has been for economic reasons as much as creative ones. Before Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park became the first park with a major Halloween celebration 32 years ago, most regional theme parks closed their gates soon after Labor Day.

Halloween gave the regional parks an incentive to extend the season and offered the year-round destination parks in Orlando and Los Angeles a marketing tool to get people through their gates during what traditionally was a slow period.

Knott's Berry Farm in 1973 began with just some scary decorations and a few dozen "monsters" lurking in the fog to jump out at unsuspecting guests. This year the celebration will have 12 mazes, five "scare zones," six live shows and more than 1,000 monsters roaming the property. The Halloween celebration accounts for about 15% of the park's annual business, attracting 500,000 people from as far away as Germany, said Jennifer Blazey, a spokeswoman for Knott's.

"We were the first, and there are a lot of copycats out there now," she said.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia started its Howl-O-Scream celebration in 1999 with two attractions and three shows, which operated over three weekends in October. This year the Halloween celebration started in mid-September with five haunted houses, four scare zones, five attractions and eight shows. It also accounts for 15% of the park's annual attendance.

"It's a good business for us, doing it now for seven weekends," said Diane Centeno, a spokeswoman for the park, which closes after Halloween.

This year the nation's theme and amusement parks are counting on successful Halloween celebrations to boost attendance hurt by the recent hurricanes and high gasoline prices.

"The parks are putting a heavy emphasis on it so they can help generate the numbers that will help pick up some of the drop they've seen in late August and early September," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a consulting firm.

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