Halloween celebrations at Central Florida's major attractions are gearing up earlier and becoming more elaborate to scare up a share of the $7 billion spent for the holiday nationwide.
"Halloween has become the single biggest promotional event in our industry," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services.
At Universal Orlando, Halloween Horror Nights is in the midst of a record 30-night run. Walt Disney World has created a new stage show featuring rarely used characters for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party events. SeaWorld Orlando and Legoland Florida have added dates for October celebrations geared to young visitors.
"Halloween has become one of the biggest investments in the park in terms of transitional theming," Speigel said. "It costs a lot to put that on."
Disney World dipped into its vault for inspiration for a new stage show for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, the after-hours, extra-ticket event at Magic Kingdom. The production called "Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular" is based on the 1993 film "Hocus Pocus," starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as sibling witches.
"The thing that I love about the Sanderson Sisters is that they're funny," said Denise Case, show director. "And being that our event is the Not-So-Scary, it's a wonderfully funny, lighthearted way to have that great Halloween presence with witches, of course, but they're funny witches." The show is not a retelling of the movie. Instead, the trio interact with relatively scary Disney villains. The production uses elaborate new projections on Cinderella Castle, costumes patterned after the originals and decor that daytime guests do not get to see.
"All of the scenic elements for the Villains Spelltacular are loaded in for each event night and then struck at the end of the night," Case said.
The more programming that is produced for the season, the more time the parks need to celebrate.
"They need to get as much time out of it as they possibly can," Speigel said.
BRICK OR TREAT
Legoland Florida has added two Friday sessions amid its regular Saturday-Sunday schedule for Brick or Treat, an event with trick-or-treating, costume contests and other Halloween activities. It's included with regular admission to the Winter Haven park.
Visitors can encounter new characters and Lego figures at this year's event, said David Brady, a park spokesman.
"We have two new characters based on minifigures that have been released in the past: mad scientist and Frank N. Stein. They're Lego's take on the archetypes," he said.
"We have our master model builders working on a 13-foot, vampire-themed hearse that we're going to roll out as a photo op during the event," Brady said. The vehicle is an oversized version of a Lego building set no longer for sale.
Legoland also added exclusive pirate-themed fireworks and a scavenger hunt with prizes that change every weekend. The latter draws annual-pass holders and boosts event repeatability, Brady said.
"It's a challenge to us: How do we make it fun and different each year?" he said.
In America, trick-or-treating surged in post-World War II suburbia, and the kids who benefited from that have boosted Halloween festivities as adults, said Robert Thompson, who teaches pop-culture courses at Syracuse University.
"I think a lot of those baby boomers didn't want to let that go when they grew up," Thompson said.
SOUNDS OF SCREAMING
Theme parks and Halloween are a natural fit, Thompson said.
"What's one of the first noises you hear as you approach a theme park? People screaming," Thompson said. "One of the things that an amusement park produces is fear that is artificial and therefore safe: It allows us to engage in fear without the actual bad feeling of terror." Some parks, including SeaWorld Orlando, have Halloween experiences included in regular admission. Others charge special-event prices or present seasonal add-ons. A Not-So-Scary ticket costs $68 to $79, depending on the date. One evening of Horror Nights runs $101.99, although Universal offers discounts and multinight combo tickets.
"They are upselling the experience," Speigel said. "Some of the parks, if you want to go beyond the normal experience and have entrance to some of the really exceptionally scary things, it's another X dollars."
Universal Orlando, which is marking its 25th year of Halloween Horror Nights, has added a $50 "scareactor dining experience" with dinner buffet, photo opportunities with Horror Nights characters and a digital-download photo from the event.
The 2015 calendar has also given parks have more chances to lure crowds.
"It really works well for the parks, when Halloween falls on a Saturday or Sunday," Speigel said. "Then they get that last weekend, they squeeze it out."