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Blood bank: Elaborate Halloween haunts pay off for Florida theme parks

Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.
Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.
Published Sep. 25, 2014

Elaborate haunted houses have become a bloody bank of profits for Florida theme parks, with crowds for Halloween-themed special events now dwarfing the spring break hordes.

For visitors, one of the scariest sights may be the incredibly long lines — which has only given theme parks such as Busch Gardens and Universal Orlando another way to cash in from the events that are well under way by mid September.

The influx of paying customers in what used to be a slow month has given parks a big bump, one theme park expert says, something Busch Gardens might especially crave after its highly anticipated new drop ride, Falcon's Fury, missed the summer vacation season.

"A good strong Halloween can cure a lot of ills," said Dennis Speigel, president of the trade group International Theme Park Services of Cincinnati.

Theme parks don't release attendance or sales figures, but Speigel estimates Busch Gardens will see some 200,000 to 300,0000 people over the next month line up for gory haunted houses at Howl-O-Scream.

Universal Studios in Orlando, his studies show, will draw more than 600,000 visitors by Nov. 1 for its Halloween Horror Nights, easily more than twice the number of people who visit Universal in the March and April spring break season.

Halloween now accounts for 12 percent of yearly attendance at those parks.

With that many people filing through, waits for the haunts range from 45 minutes to a couple of hours on popular nights.

So Universal offers an express pass that runs from $59.99 to $119.99 per person — on top of the $41 to $95.99 admission price. At Busch Gardens, where admission is $35 to $89, front-line access packages range from a $26 Fright Feast, which gets you dinner and some front-line access, to VIP upgrades for $45 to $219.

Busch Gardens has been through some scares of its own recently, with attendance dipping 6 percent in 2013, according to the Themed Entertainment Association's annual report, the steepest decline of any of the top 20 amusement parks in North America.

As Howl-O-Scream starts with previews this weekend, the newly opened Falcon's Fury — dropping riders 335 feet face down — is among the scares at the Tampa theme park, along with roving bands of vampires and zombies and a collection of specially built haunted houses.

"We are really gratified that this has become a significant part of our business model," said Busch Gardens' director of creative services Scott Swenson, who was part of the original team that created Howl-O-Scream and now runs the show.

So will Howl-O-Scream be the hero who rescues Busch Gardens from declining sales?

"It's hard to say," Swenson said. "I'm told we are not doing too badly this year and you can't always control the weather and who comes, but I do know we are really excited because we have a brand new element this year, the new Zombie Containment Unit."

The laser-tag zombie hunting feature is being touted as a U.S. theme park first at both Busch Gardens and California's Knott's Berry Farm this year, a sign of parks ratcheting up the frights with interactive components.

Meanwhile Disney, SeaWorld, Legoland and other amusement parks and zoos also see a bump in attendance by offering less-scary alternatives.

At Disney, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party opened Sept. 1 at the Magic Kingdom. The popular event, which includes a parade and fireworks show, sells out on some nights. Tickets for the separate nighttime party run from $57 to $77.

Across the country, Speigel has seen how a good fall turnout can rescue a park from a flat year. The Haunted House Association says more than 300 amusement parks operate extra Halloween attractions, generating $400 million a year in extra revenue, by Speigel's estimate.

"People just love this stuff," Speigel said, marveling that even in countries that didn't traditionally celebrate Halloween, like Brazil and Mexico, amusement parks get into the scare scene. "It's one of our chief exports in the theme park industry."

And each year they arrive earlier, get more elaborate and often carry more expensive tickets for buyers.

"The theme parks have done to Halloween what the retailers have done to Christmas," Speigel said.

Speaking of Christmas, that's the next frontier, Speigel predicts.

Indeed, the day after Halloween, Swenson and his crew at Busch Gardens will begin stripping the park of its skeletons and zombies to put up lights and angels for its third year of Christmas Town, a separate ticket nighttime Christmas light, music and display with real snow to play in Nov. 28-Dec. 31.

Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at (727) 893-8595 and wynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.