Monday, October 17, 2011

Transforming Theme Parks Into Scream Parks

Detroit Free Press: Universal Orlando's first foray into Halloween Horror Nights 21 years ago involved one weekend, a single haunted house and some people in store-bought masks jumping out of dark corners.

What was largely an experiment has evolved into a monster draw for the Orlando theme park -- and for other amusement parks around the country.

Once the creative types figured out that people loved having the wits scared out of them and would pay for the privilege, the challenge was on to create something bigger and better every year. This year, the event takes over the entire park, with eight themed haunted houses and mazes, two live shows, sophisticated makeup, film-quality set decor, gallons of fake blood and as many as 1,000 "scare-acters" involved. Planning and production takes place year-round now, and the event draws hundreds of thousands of people who pay $42 or more to attend.

"I think it all has to with escape," says Patrick Braillard, a production show director. "People love to be transported, they love to be taken somewhere they're not familiar with. So our job is to create eight immersive environments. When they walk in, they are completely somewhere else."

Universal Studios Hollywood stages its own Halloween Horror Nights, with original mazes based on '70s shock rocker Alice Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare" theme, Rob Zombie's "House of 1000 Corpses" and "The Wolfman." Also new this year is a maze built around "La Llorona," the fearful story of melancholy and murder that has terrified Mexican and Latin American children for generations. For the uninitiated, La Llorona was doomed to wander the earth forever after drowning her children in a desperate attempt to win a lost love.

At Busch Gardens in Tampa, the annual Howl-O-Scream event features seven haunted houses and mazes. Creative director Scott Swenson says twice as many actors are hired just to haunt the streets inside the park now than were involved in the entire event when it started 12 years ago. Now Busch Gardens hires an extra 1,000 people and artists spend hours creating detailed silicone prosthetics and masks for the characters.

Walt Disney World has Mickey's Not-So-Scary-Halloween Party, which offers something for families who want some Halloween fun that doesn't involve uncomfortable surroundings, gore and body parts. The costumed little ones can collect trick-or-treat candy from throughout the Magic Kingdom and see the Boo-To-You parade that includes stars of the famous Haunted Mansion attraction. Disney caps it off with a Happy HalloWishes fireworks show.

The SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego also are offering family-friendly Halloween events with undersea themes. Kids can trick-or-treat throughout the parks and check out Sesame Street's "Countdown to Halloween Show."

HalloWeekends at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, offer family-friendly fun during the day and scary stuff at night. The park is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through October and has four haunted houses, six outdoor walk-through scare zones, live entertainment and special decorations.

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