More than 30 years ago, a few guys who worked in Knott's Berry Farm's Ghost Town thought it would be fun to throw on costumes for Halloween and scare some unsuspecting guests.
"It wasn't really thought out," admitted park spokeswoman Michele Wischmeyer. "It was just last minute."
Since that first year in 1973, when Sinister Seymour served as Knott's inaugural "Ghost Host," the Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt has become the park's most successful promotion and has evolved into the biggest Halloween park event in the world.
It has spawned countless imitators and driven dozens of theme parks to follow suit. This year, Universal Studios Hollywood is reviving a Halloween event that it buried after the 2000 season. And for the first time in its 51-year history, Disneyland has decided to go for the ghoul -- only in a not-so-scary Magic Kingdom-esque way.
Starting today, Disney will deck out the park for Halloween, tapping into the holiday's growing mainstream appeal and lucrative potential.
"Halloween is no longer a day," said Joey Michaels, senior producer for entertainment at Disneyland Resort. "It's a big season."
Americans last year spent nearly $3.3 billion on Halloween merchandise, snatching up candy, costumes, home decorations, pumpkins and other products, according to the National Retail Federation. That number is expected to rise this year to nearly $5 billion. The amusement park industry, which brought in $11.2 billion in 2005, estimates that Halloween generated $275 million of that total.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Halloween at theme parks: A Sept. 29 article in the Business section about Halloween attractions at theme parks incorrectly referred to Cinderella's castle at Disneyland. The feature at the Anaheim theme park is Sleeping Beauty Castle.
"Look at people's frontyards," Wischmeyer said. "You used to only see that kind of effort and money go into Christmas decorations and now Halloween is rivaling that. People are out there and wanting to participate in more themed events. It's only natural that everyone is trying to bank off that."
The number of for-profit haunted houses is also on the rise. Even zoos, aquariums and museums are getting in on the act, said Tiffany Fessler, a spokeswoman for the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa Bay, Fla., will present Zoo Boo, complete with a Halloween animal show featuring creatures that "creep, crawl, swoop and slither." Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach turns into a "Scarium," where children can trick or treat and learn about the monsters of the deep. And at Santa Ana's Discovery Science Center, kids can learn about the Mexican legend of the chupacabra, a blood-sucking beast, as part of a spooky science exhibit.
Knott's 25-night transformation into Knott's Scary Farm has evolved over the years into a full-blown affair with 12 walk-through mazes and re-themed rides, four scare zones, six live shows and 1,000 "monsters, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, freaks, mutants, maniacs and other beasts lurking in the fog," according to the park's brochure.
Those nights represent 15% of Knott's year-round attendance, a total that has risen each year. With numbers like that, very few amusement parks pass on the opportunities presented because of Halloween, said Leonard Pickel, editor of Haunted Attraction magazine.
"October is usually a dead, low-attendance season," Pickel said. "This gives them an opportunity to drive people to the events. It's something that can make or break their season."
Universal Studios Hollywood executives agreed. "Halloween is too great a business opportunity for us to ignore," said Eliot Sekular, vice president of public relations, noting that the studio had helped invent the horror film genre.
"Scaracters" will roam the park, and guests will become part of a theme in which a sociopathic director stalks the hills in search of actors for his next film. Original sets such as the house and Bates Motel from "Psycho" and apocalyptic destruction from "War of the Worlds" will become part of the backdrop. Rides will also play a role. Waterworld, for example, becomes Slaughterworld.
At Knott's, Universal and Six Flags Magic Mountain, the nighttime events are billed as super-scary, with park employees in macabre costumes doing their best to frighten visitors. Six Flags and Knott's also have more youth-oriented Halloween offerings during the day.
Disneyland said it would focus solely on its strength: family entertainment.
"We know who our audience is," Michaels said. "We know we want to be family-friendly. We don't need to bring out all this ghoulish stuff."
Instead, Disneyland's HalloweenTime, which runs through Oct. 31, will feature scares and spooks suitable for youngsters. That includes crafts and shows at Big Thunder Ranch, which will be turned into Woody's Halloween Roundup; characters and activities on Main Street; and a new show at California Adventure called "Golden Screams," an interactive movie attraction featuring film clips of Disney villains.