PLANT CITY -- In September 2017, Lakeland resident Eric Dodson's haunted attraction company, Ominous Descent, had just completed its very first stand-alone scare experience in Bartow.
On Sep. 11, Dodson awoke to find nine months of hard work, co-created with partner Chad Ashley, leveled by Hurricane Irma's wrath. Meanwhile in Plant City, Dodson's friend Zach Glaros was gearing up for his fifth season running his own attraction, Sir Henry's Haunted Trail.
Glaros offered Dodson, 42, a space to rebuild, which took just nine days and help from dozens of friends and family members. This year, Dodson and his crew wanted to give back to Glaros, whose operation is essentially a one-man show.
Their attractions joined forces to become what they call "I-4's Premier Fear Park," a nonprofit organization featuring three unique haunted indoor/outdoor trails, an escape room game which guests must solve before the killer breaks in, and laser tag, where guests battle each other in hopes of finding the murderer of titular character Sir Henry's bride.
This year's proceeds will benefit K-9s For Warriors.
"The Ominous Descent team and I have worked this year to bring new offerings and improve on existing ones; we strive to show previous guests something they've never seen before, and I couldn't have done it without them," said Glaros, who plays the part of Sir Henry, roaming the grounds in search of vengeance between snapping photos with excited young fans.
Each elaborately-costumed character has its own custom backstory, which Dodson said is part of what sets them apart from those larger Halloween attractions down the road in Tampa and Orlando.
"Our theme and characters are unique; we spent a lot of time creating their origins. Everything has a meaning built around it," he said. "I believe our cost is great for what you're going to get. It's more of an intimate experience - crowds are less than what you'll deal with at a major theme park."
Sir Henry's and Ominous Descent rank numbers six and four, respectively, on thescarefactor.com's top ten list of haunted houses in Central Florida; Busch Garden's Howl-o-Scream also made the list.
"That's very humbling," said Glaros. "I think creating something new every year is a big motivation for our guests to keep coming back and give us such high praise. I think our atmosphere, without the long lines especially, is unlike anything else -- it feels very much like that northeast neighborhood on Halloween night."
Each stand-alone attraction incorporates the natural landscape, using twisted tree trunks, moss, and even a decimated corn maze to create an authentically creepy experience.
Unsettling children's cries, distant screams, howling, an ever-closer chainsaw, and haunting music permeate the background. Scare actors are local teens who earn community service hours for their dedicated performances.
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"It's very rewarding to see some of these kids come out of their shells and become confident in life through scare acting," Glaros said.
Thoughtful details abound; children being tortured by evil doctors in hospital beds, zombie corpses straight from the set of The Walking Dead, actors screaming to be saved from electric chairs, and mutilated body parts in jars that look suspiciously like leftover strawberry shortcake.
Guests can reward their bravery with a bite of barbecue or a sno-cone from on-site food trucks, and pick up a unique piece of handcrafted jewelry or a bottle of homemade spiced apple cider to take home.
"It's definitely terrifying - super dark and super scary," said guest April Sanson, 23, who returned this year after discovering Sir Henry's in 2017.
"I've been to Howl-o-Scream and Halloween Horror Nights, and Sir Henry's is definitely up there with them on the scare factor. There are some things here that I've never seen before."
Sanson's friend, who accompanied her from Lakeland, made it two steps into one house before she tore her ticket in fear and had to back out.
"The response so far has been amazing," said Dodson. "Fans of the big parks have reached out to me personally asking what we offer. Of course we share with everybody; I know the theme parks are amazing, and I love their sets. It's just been truly amazing to see the response from fans, and I hope to keep building it up from here."
Tickets can be purchased online or at the gate.
Contact Libby Baldwin at firstname.lastname@example.org.