TAMPA — Weeks before the last ghoul shrieks bloody murder and last goblin jumps out from the shadows, officials at Busch Gardens are already thinking about next year's Howl-O-Scream.
Planning for the park's annual Halloween event is a year-round effort, involving everything from food and entertainment to merchandising and general operations. It's not enough to dust off the decorations and build the same haunted houses. Attractions have to be ever bigger, better and scarier.
"It's a huge event for us," said park president Jim Dean. "We have a lot of people who have made it a tradition, and we have to keep the event fresh every year."
Next to Christmas and the summer travel season, Halloween has become the third-busiest time of year for many theme parks. Parks don't release attendance and revenue figures for specific events, but one expert estimates Halloween events generate 10 to 15 percent of a park's annual revenue.
"It's a moneymaker," said Pete Trabucco, author of America's Top Roller Coasters & Amusement Parks. "No one is going to go a park if they went there during the summer. But these events give people a reason and an excuse to go."
October is typically a slow time of the year for theme parks and attractions. Children are back in school, and parents are back at work. The next round of vacation isn't until Thanksgiving or Christmas.
"Any time we can fill a time of the year when attendance is nonpeak and make it a peak time, that's absolutely what we're trying for," said Mike Aiello, creative director of Halloween Horror Nights at Orlando's Universal Studios.
Now in its 23rd year, Halloween Horror Nights has evolved into a highly themed, parkwide event with eight haunted houses tied closely to horror characters, TV series and movies. This year's mazes were inspired by The Walking Dead, The Cabin In the Woods, Evil Dead and Resident Evil.
Compared to more family-focused Christmas events, Halloween nights appeal to a mature audience of horror fans who want to be scared senseless. Many are out-of-state visitors who come year after year to see what's new and might not visit the park any other time of year.
"Halloween has become an event. It's well past the idea of trick or treating,'' Aiello said. "It's very much an adult party now, much like New Year's."
Theme parks reap benefits across the board. Visitors buy food, drinks and store merchandise, which is often Halloween themed. Particularly lucrative are the gate fees. Special events require a separate ticket, meaning passholders don't get in for free (although they get a discount).
Single-night tickets to Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream start at $48 online and $35 for passholders. Tickets to Universal's Halloween Horror Nights start at $42.99 for Florida residents and $38.99 for passholders. Prices go up on prime nights, reaching $65 at Busch Gardens and $69.99 for Florida residents at Universal on Saturdays.
Lowry Park Zoo has enjoyed similar success with ZooBoo, now in its 15th year. The event has become the zoo's best-attended fundraiser, although other events such as Wazoo and Karamu run just one night. ZooBoo attracts 30,000 to 35,000 visitors a year, many of them families with children too young for horrific attractions. A recent Living Social offer sold nearly 8,000 half-price tickets in one week.
The popularity of Halloween events mirrors trends for the holiday overall. Americans plan to spend $7 billion on Halloween this year, according to a survey by BigInsight research firm for the National Retail Federation. In 2005, spending was about $3.3 billion.
Interest in Halloween activities, specifically, has grown. Nearly two-thirds of people plan to celebrate Halloween or participate in activities this year, up from 53 percent eight years ago, the survey found.
Trabucco, the theme park author based in New Jersey, said Florida parks aren't the only ones profiting from Halloween events.
Six Flags parks, for instance, started experimenting with fall weekend festivals years ago as a way to lengthen the season and saw such great results that it turned them into major Halloween events at parks nationwide — even in Northern places haunted by Jack Frost.
"It has become big business and something for people to do on the weekends," Trabucco said. "Parks are doing well with it. Obviously, if they weren't, they wouldn't be doing it."
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.