How Theme Parks Embraced Halloween Attractions

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights

For many theme park fans, autumn is one of the most exciting times of year. The record breaking roller coasters and latest dark rides have given way to some of the best themed attractions that the theme park world has to offer. Once the summer season wraps up, America’s leading theme parks turn their attention to another lucrative time of year: Halloween. From innovative haunted houses to full-on horror experiences, theme parks have found a niche in entertaining guests after dark. But how did the theme park world embrace Halloween as another way to bring experiences to their guests?

Many of today’s leading contemporary haunted house professionals point to the 1969 opening of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland as an inflection point for the industry. The attraction was more than a decade in the planning, and the end result of a collaboration between Disney Imagineers Marc Davis and Claude Coats. The tone of the attraction balanced genuine scares with a lighter hearted family-friendly approach to blend the two creatives’ vision.

The Haunted Mansion - Disney

The Haunted Mansion was a runaway success, and set in motion today’s theme park – Halloween mashup. Many industry experts suggest that one of the major contributions made by the Mansion was its use of technology to elevate the haunted house experience. Previously, the only option available to guests were low budget local options. Ghosts evolved from sheets dangling from trees to full-scale apparitions. Projections, animatronics and the ghost glass created more realism and scariness than backyard fright fests had ever offered. Cheesy fangs and fake blood gave way to good costumes, makeup, sets and props. Quality theming transformed the experience and brought it to the next level. Soon, fans could find Haunted Mansions at all of Disney’s theme parks and it was one of the most popular attractions year round.

Another early pioneer was Knott’s Berry Farm, which also introduced a scary attraction in the early 1970s. What began as a one-night event with costumed staff and some minor sets evolved into a month-long Halloween themed extravaganza. Today Knott’s Berry Farm has evolved to focus on themed horror mazes, with hundreds of performers and year round theming talent that’s hard at work on delivering world-class scares. Knott’s also introduced the idea of scare zones, which create themed experiences around horror topics such as ghosts, werewolves, or carnivals. Themed scare areas are now a common tool used by theme park horror events and the broader industry. In many ways, these early innovations from Disney and Knott’s paved the way for today’s massive horror industry. They also created a natural connection in guests’ minds between Halloween attractions and theme parks.

Knott's Berry Farm Horror Attraction

Universal Studios jumped on board in the 1990s with their Halloween Horror Nights events. They integrated celebrity designers, extensive theming, and have quickly risen to become one of the biggest names in the theme park horror scene. For brands like Universal, Horror Nights has become one of their best-known events and is a major draw to the park. As larger parks embraced seasonal scare attractions, regional parks followed suit and parks dedicated exclusively to Halloween emerged in New England and other areas.

Today, the haunt industry is big business, bringing in billions in revenue. From a business perspective, embracing Halloween attractions makes perfect sense. The fall has historically been a time when revenues at theme parks fall, especially those located outside of warmer weather areas. Kids are back in school and people are beginning to gear up for the holidays. By creating a special event to get people into the parks, revenue and attendance goes up.

Theme Park Horror

Creatively, there’s also a strong appeal. Theme park designers are typically restricted to positive and happy attractions and messaging. You can delight a guest, or get their adrenaline pumping in a dark ride. But evoking fear is usually off limits, unless you’re designing a fast roller coaster or plunging thrill ride. Entertainment designers get to tap into different and darker themes that offer park visitors a whole new experience with horror design. It’s easy to see why theme parks have stepped into the Halloween attraction space. Money, creative freedom, and guest delight all come together and bring strong appeal to a whole new season for theme parks.

Images courtesy of Universal, Wikipedia, TP Critic, and Knott’s Berry Farm

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