ORLANDO — Evil creatures have emerged from the ground to wreak havoc in a dimly lit bar. The rowdy hillbillies who play pool here fight back with shotguns. Amid the scrambling and screaming, one of the creatures confronts T.J. Mannarino in the bar's walk-in cooler, shaking and shivering, edging its gnarled tentacles toward Mannarino's legs. ¶ "It just doesn't feel chaotic and frantic enough," says Mannarino, entertainment director at Universal Orlando, after the dress rehearsal. ¶ He orders more disorienting strobe lights, cranks up the shotgun volume and re-aims air cannons that fire in the darkness. He figures the dozen guys in creature suits will learn to make the lever-driven tentacles more threatening. ¶ "We need more blood," he adds. "After we coat these creatures in gel, they'll look like their skin is turned inside out." ¶ Yes, it's showtime again at Florida theme parks decked out for another celebration of the gruesome, ghoulish and gory.
From Universal's creep-laden Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Africa to the tame, family-fare and safe trick-or-treating offered at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween at Walt Disney World and Sea World's Spooktacualar, Halloween has emerged as by far the parks' biggest special event of the year.
But after a seven-year attendance run-up, owners of the nation's 5,000 Halloween haunts fear a stagnant economy has conjured spirits of a sobering season.
"Everyone is worried about attendance and trying to hold prices," said Leonard Pickel, owner of Haunted House Attraction, a trade publication.
Still, the big Florida theme parks have boldly raised admission by $5. Investments in new scares and headline characters are bigger than ever. And two parks added more nights to a Halloween event calendar that kicked off at Disney World on Sept. 5 and doesn't end until the weekend after Halloween.
For the parks, it's a way to shed their family entertainment image and target a younger crowd searching for thrills and chills. It also gets them through a slow tourist season with a second daily admission that can double attendance and drive up revenues enough to turn an off year into a good one.
"Halloween gives us a 13th month," said Joe Couceiro, chief marketing officer at Busch Entertainment Corp.
For many of roughly a million visitors, the events have replaced Halloween parties and become a date-night destination, even though 45-minute lines for a six-minute haunted house experience are common. Crowds are about two-thirds female, three-quarters Floridian and mostly repeat visitors. Universal sells thousands of passes good for 13 nights. Busch found more than 10 percent of Howl-O-Scream guests also hit rival Halloween Horror Nights.
Design and costume work goes on year-round; planning for 2010 has already started.
The events are logistical feats. Universal and Busch each hire about 1,100 actors paid $8.25 to $12.50 an hour. But the events require twice that many backstage support people. Each haunted house is staffed with up to 75 people. Universal had 500 people working on costumes and sets in May and uses 50 makeup artists nightly to dress two groups of actors working 30-minute shifts.
Universal, which launched the first event in Florida 18 years ago, now has three scare zones, three stage shows and eight haunted houses filled with 90 rooms of movie-quality sets.
Some parks freshen last year's haunted houses with new story lines. For example, Busch opens two new houses this year. But one house that featured a story of strangulation and suffocation last year this time is about multiple electric-chair executions.
Common themes are people's fears: death, the supernatural, mortuaries, murder, suspense, monsters and clowns. Experience has taught industry veterans to avoid science fiction, aliens, satanism, wizards, trolls or witches.
"Big new trends this year are pain and really grisly monsters," said Scott Swenson, creative director for Howl-O-Scream.
Universal rebuilds all eight houses from scratch annually and this year stretches out the heavily themed street scare zones so there are even fewer places in the park to escape roving scare-actors trying to sneak up and startle the unsuspecting. Busch deploys roving gangs of scare-actors, so there is "no escape."
Some haunted house stories now begin in the streets. For instance, Universal's Body Collectors, ghoulish characters who do medical experiments, steer horse-drawn hearses around the park grabbing lab victims.
Inside, visitors see victims slashed with knives, legs sawed off and a woman screaming as her spine is yanked out — to the polite applause of student ghouls in the surgery gallery.
New characters are created to star in ads and oversee mayhem.
Busch dreamed up the Raven Twins: Born joined at the forehead, they cut themselves apart to terrorize would-be suitors.
After featuring horror movie stars Freddie Krueger, Leatherface and Jason, Universal this time switched to urban legends and twisted fairy tales.
Instead of costumes for 50 zombies, 50 vampires and 50 warlocks, Universal costume designers came up with 600 different characters to tell familiar tales with twisted endings.
Cinderella's glass slipper fits because a foot is cut off. The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz chops out people's hearts. Outfitted with jet-packs, Flying Monkeys dive-bomb guests while suspended from harnesses.
All year park landscapers save each of Universal's old dying trees in concrete containers, then wheel them out as graveyard decor. This year the forest includes a dead tree costume hiding a scare-actor.
At Universal, the star is a supernatural urban legend called Bloody Mary. She appears everywhere to wreak havoc — even from 80 billboards across Florida.
Her eerie opaque eyes stirred a protest from a young Orlando moms' group, who complained their young children asked for Bloody Mary explanations every time they passed a billboard on the way to the grocery store.
Universal regards the image for its PG-13 event as acceptable for youngsters. In contrast, Busch this year toned down the look of Howl-O-Scream ads, airs them after most kids' bedtime and issued a sterner warning that the event is for adults and depicts "blood, gore and violence."
"But we'll still have people show up with young children," said spokeswoman Jill Revelle .
For those older patrons who are braced to be petrified, technology is starting to enhance scare execution. Robotics make props come alive. Some actors are equipped with hand or foot triggers that activate lighting, sound or movement effects as distraction.
"But it's mostly good ole Theater 101," said Universal executive Jim Timon.
Indeed, this year he hired a fire eater/illusionist who appears to pound a nail into his eye. The precision chainsaw drill team is back. And for the first time in 18 years the Rat Lady, who lies in an open coffin while live rats nibble peanut butter on her neck, has been given the bubonic plague.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.