A creepy hike through the forest along a frightful river. A high school possessed with a maze of evil creatures. Fairgrounds taken over by haunts.
Halloween is more than a week away, but the thrills begin this weekend as several holiday favorites kick off the season in Hernando County.
Both the Wild n' Wicked Nights at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and the 22nd annual Halloween Harvest Festival open tonight for two weekends of family fun. Also returning, for just one night, is Horror High at Springstead High School.
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This year's Wild n' Wicked Nights will feature a "Happily Never After" mermaid show.
"It's based on fairy tales but with a spooky, Halloween twist," said John Athanason, marketing coordinator at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Athanason promises activities for all ages, including the Lost River boat ride and hike, hayrides, John Leggio's Witches of Weeki show, a haunted maze geared for teens, a fun maze for tots, a haunted house, carnival games and contests.
Among the most popular features are the costume and scream contests each night for children. And, of course, the hike through the haunted forest is among the favorites.
A boat will drop visitors at the trailhead. After the trek through the haunted forest, those who survive will take the boat back.
"The trail is very popular but might be a bit too intense for the younger kids," Athanason warns.
The Weeki Wachee event has been going strong since its inception nearly two decades ago.
"It is just a lot of fun. Everyone has been working very hard putting together costumes, building props and rehearsing shows," Athanason said. "It's a hit every year. … We'd do it all month long if we had the manpower."
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The Halloween Harvest Festival at the Hernando County Fairgrounds offers quite a few changes this year.
The event, which has been sponsored by Hernando County Recreation Department for the past last 21 years, is now a collaboration between the department and the Hernando County Fair Association.
"We've had the festival at the fairgrounds for many years," said Harry Johnson, Hernando County's recreation supervisor, "but this year, we partnered with the fair association and are working together."
With the groups working together, Johnson said, it was easier to allow the event to span two weekends.
"It just works well for both parties," he said.
Favorites that will return include the hayrides, haunted trail, children's game area, face painting, a five-room haunted house, Pet Masquerade, and costume contests for both pets and humans.
Tonight's event will feature the Pet Masquerade and costume contest for pets.
"It is not limited to just dogs and cats," Johnson said. "All pets can participate."
He said there have been turtles and lizards in the past.
The costume contest for people will be Saturday.
Also returning this year is the pumpkin-carving contest. Those interested can bring their carved pumpkin, preferably today or Saturday. The pumpkins will remain on display throughout the event, and visitors will vote on their favorites. The winner will be announced Oct. 27.
Probably the most exciting addition — a Masquerade Ball for adults — will wrap up festivities Oct. 27.
"I am really excited," said Christie Williams, program and special events coordinator for the county Parks and Recreation Department. "I've been wanting to do this since I started working here in 2000. I finally have the opportunity this year."
The ball is sponsored by the First Hernando Republican Club. It is for adults 21 and older (must have ID) and will include a DJ, dancing, finger foods and a costume contest with several categories. Beer and wine will be available for purchase.
"There will also be some fun games and prizes that will get people out on the dance floor," Williams said. "We want everyone to just enjoy the season."
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During the past week, Springstead High School has been transformed into Horror High, featuring nine scare zones spanning nearly the entire main building of the school.
This year's theme is "The Last Year," with the homecoming queen as the lead character.
Put together by more than 175 students, the annual event is guided by Springstead teachers Marco Feola, Tim Plumadore and Todd Toomer.
"There will be more costumes, more sounds and more volunteers," said Toomer. "It is one of the biggest school-sponsored events in the county."
Visitors will encounter Malice in Wonderland, a zombie prom and class clowns. Back by popular demand are the undead cheerleaders. "There will also be a few new surprises in the outdoor zones," Toomer promised.
"The kids really put their hearts and souls into (Horror High)," he said. Preparations for this year's event started in late January. The students not only plan the show, make costumes and build props but figure out safety and security, crowd management, and ticket printing and sales.