Wait Line Entertainment: Strategies to Build Anticipation for Big Scares

The mind inside the head of a haunted house proprietor can be a delightfully scary place. Devising new ways to scare the living daylights out of patrons in preparation for the Halloween season can be a blast and each wants to pass that thread of enjoyment on.
“I don’t care if they scream, laugh, cry, as long as they’re entertained and have a good time,” said Tyler Barnett, owner of Valley of Screams, Lexington, Ky.
The objective of proprietors like Barnett is to get that reaction out of guests the minute they get out of the car and keep it going until they get back in, or maybe longer, until next year.
The challenge to be met is the fact that a year-long wait explodes into a limited span of time culminating on Halloween night, and the line that forms is notoriously long. However, if it creeps, these proprietors make sure it’s captivatingly creepy.
What really counts, said Barnett, is skilled line actors. “Ours is an outdoors carnival atmosphere attraction. Unicyclist, stilt walkers and old booth games set the mood along with large flat screen closed circuit TV showing old horror movie trailers that fit with the environment. Barnett is considering having someone walking through the line with merchandise. “It’s the natural next step,” he said.
Though the line to the Valley is a mere 10 to 15 minutes, Barnett has noticed that the audience attention span is short these days and the wait is boring for them. “The scariness starts when out of the car. They have to build up courage while waiting in line when actors are doing a good job.”
He contended that the haunted house attraction is seen as more professional when the midway is consistent with the inside and advised to not replicate competition in the area. “Set yourself apart, keep unique and creative.”
Typically the monsters have all the fun of scaring people, said Tim Gavinski, owner along with wife, Ann Marie, of Wisconsin Feargrounds in Waukesha Wis. Guests in the wait line have the option this year, of reversing that process as “hunters become the hunted.” A caller outside determines interest in the Revenge living shooting gallery, a paint ball arena where participants can shoot paintballs at zombies.
Expanding the entertainment into pre and post attraction is important because, said Gavinski, “People spend an equal amount for our 15-minute haunt as for our number-one competition, the movie theater, and they want more than a bucket of popcorn.”
From arrival to departure, integrated into the entire event must be, affirmed Gavinski, “excellent customer service, courteousness at the ticket booth, a great experience and appreciation that they chose you.”
As the unexpected occurs, guests in the wait line can feel confident they made the right choice. A continuous hour-long loop of the anticipated attraction snippets on video screens provide something to watch, grab attention and build anxiety, interspersed with Halloween-based trivia, sponsorship commercials and staff working the cue line. “A person can turn one way and a zombie might sneak up.  It all makes the time seem less,” said Gavinski.  To top it all off, Pizza Hut sponsors the haunt and company representatives hand out 20 free pizzas. “I lose a little at concessions but when they show up people go crazy. It makes the entire atmosphere better.”
For 13 years, the nonprofit Nightmares Haunted House in Delmar, Del., has been providing hair-raising fun for volunteers and guests alike to raise funds for various charities.
“From prep to build and maintenance, we create a very safe and family-oriented environment for volunteers and families of children over 8 years of age, keeping the kids involved from start to finish, starting in the parking lot to run smoothly,” said Producer Cindy Matthews.
Keeping guests entertained as they wait in line includes haunters and occasionally a magician entertaining guests, working the line, scaring them and an interactive and engaging entertainer playing continuous music. Guests can also buy tickets to ride a monster truck. “We want to give more entertainment for the ticket price,” said Matthews.
Walking dead and zombies are big now in mainstream culture and voodoo is popular in Louisiana, explained Dwayne Sanburn, owner of Baton Rouge-based, The 13th Gate, where the underlying story line is voodoo and incorporates a great deal of mythology.
The cue line for the swamp-themed Necropolis 13 circles an add-on cemetery attraction across the street. Every hour, the voodoo queen raises out of the ground of middle stage and the walking dead drama ensues, featuring a fire show finale. Zombies emerge from the ground under the graves, which replicate old crumbling upright style crypts. “It’s a great surprise and no one expects it,” Sanburn said.
The wait in line can often climb to three hours as Halloween approaches, said Sanburn. “You can’t expect patrons to stand in line with no entertainment, especially in this economy. Characters on the street and in an immersive show involving customers get a reaction the moment they’re out of the car, gives them value, and more bang for the buck.”
You don’t want the main memory of an attraction to be standing unhappily in a long wait line, said James Lurgio, owner of Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery in Salem, Mass.
To combat that from ever happening, even on the narrow big city sidewalk, the guest involvement starts immediately. “We want the experience to be very personal,” said Lurgio, “inside with haunters, outside with wandering characters, who pose with patrons for photos. Grave diggers take measurements for coffins, give names of patrons to monsters inside, for a voice to call during a séance, causing participants to have real reactions.”
Theming helps to create a total integrated experience, he added, “If patrons immediately know the theme and it’s familiar, then they understand and it’s not foreign.”
Also in line movie trivia ties in to the monster movie horror museum theme. “People come throughout the year for both the haunted house for a good scare and the museum to see the scary collection.”
Nothing takes the place of interaction with the audience, according to Marvin Skaggs, part owner of Sinister Tombs Haunted House, Eastview, Ky., even with a voice coming from a talking skeleton or somewhere behind a window where hideous faces and clowns or ghosts appear and disappear upon a projection screen. And said Skaggs, good actors make all the difference to build excitement.
Opening the 2012 season for viewing is a torture museum and to entertain and build anticipation in the waiting area, holograms will display and describe various types of torture methods, how and why used and the time period when used.
“To entertain and get anticipation revved up, it has to be a full round of entertainment, with comedy and all sorts of elements even before the haunt, to take guests out of their reality and bring them into ours,” Skaggs said.
“We want to get them engaged so they feel they’re getting their money’s worth, to keep them motivated, and guessing what comes next, and remember the experience for a long time like certain spots in movies they see, so they never forget.”
Skaggs’ constant goal is for guests to have a totally integrated experience that taps all of their senses so that they really think they are the ones hanging in the gallows, smelling rats and dead corpses, seeing snakes and feeling cold in the butcher room. “Afterwards, in a dark room, wearing night vision goggles, after the various experiences they’ve had, what they think is happening is much worse than what they just experienced.” After all, the mind inside the guest can be a delightfully scary place. –

Tips for Cutting Down on Wait Time

  • “Provide the option to buy timed tickets, ticket upgrades to skip line, and practice techniques in house. It comes down to the person at front of house. If not trained, it gets backed up.” – Tyler Barnett, owner, Valley of Screams, Lexington, Ky.
  • “No one walks at the same speed, we send off a group every few minutes, sometimes even go to 30 seconds. If we have to pick up the pace, put rovers dressed as monsters in the first three rooms who get behind and push forward, which picks up the pace and decreases wait of each group.” – Tim Gavinski, owner, Wisconsin Feargrounds, Waukesha, Wis.
  • “To keep moving smoothly inside, scare forward, not scare backwards, keep people in inside space moving through the haunt. Manpower keeps people going to avoid bottle ups.” – Cindy Matthews, producer, Nightmares Haunted House, Delmar, Del.
  • “Sell online tickets instead of onsite, scare forward instead of letting guests walk hallways, create a pathway where they move continuously through, speeding them up yet not decreasing experience quality.” – Dwayne Sanburn, owner, The 13th Gate, Baton Rouge, La.
  • “Publicize that to avoid a long line to come in the first two weeks of October, and that the last two weeks are busiest. We have celebrities come in the first two weeks also. Let more people in at more frequent intervals and add a few more people to the beginning of line.”  – James Lurgio, Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, Salem, Mass.
  • “We added tour guides to move the audience along faster so they don’t lag and get lost, and we speed up our show.” – Marvin Skaggs, owner, Sinister Tombs Haunted House, Eastview, Ky.

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