By Chad Emerson
While it’s still the quiet winter months for many large parks and resorts, that doesn’t mean busy planning isn’t underway. Though the summer months garner much of the interest, Halloween season is one of the fastest growing (and one of the most profitable) times of the year for large parks. This issue, we look at how Halloween events have evolved from a small “extra” to a major capital investment.
Early Halloween Events
One of the earliest large parks to embrace the Halloween season was California-based Knott’s Berry Farm. Celebrating its 45th Halloween Anniversary this fall, Knott’s Scary Farm was an early trend setter. Back then, many large parks did not operate past the Labor Day holiday weekend. The conventional wisdom was that the cooler weather, along with kids back in school, meant little opportunity to make a profit past early September.
Knott’s Berry Farm certainly had the advantage of a seasonable year-round California climate. Still though, it was their decision to offer not just an extended park season, but one that offered a unique theme park experience centered around Halloween that developed the model that almost all large parks and resorts follow today.
The Halloween season has become so profitable that even northern parks like Cedar Point (a Cedar Fair sister property to Knott’s Berry Farm) can charge over $50 per day for guests to enjoy the park nearly two months after they had normally closed for the year. This high revenue possibility has created a scenario where parks are “racing to the top” to develop the most elaborate and unique Halloween experiences.
Halloween Goes Hollywood
One of the most interesting aspects of large park Halloween celebrations is how parks name their event. Marketing firms appear to be making a mint as they re-brand park experiences for the spooky season. In addition to Knott’s Scary Farm, you’ve had SCarowinds, Fright Fests at Six Flags, Howl-O-Screams at Busch Gardens parks, and HalloWeekends at Cedar Point. These are just a few of the cleverly-worded Halloween events. Even more than naming, the most interesting Halloween trend is investing in big name creative power to develop large park Halloween experiences.
According to Hauntworld, over 300 amusement venues currently present Halloween-themed special events. While many of these are modest in scope, several large parks have gone as so far to hire Hollywood talent to create their high-scare concepts. For instance, Universal Studios Hollywood hired the producer for “Hostel” and “Cabin Fever” (two recent horror flicks) to develop concepts for their Halloween park productions.
Universal has also worked with horror rockstar Alice Cooper and “Walking Dead” producers in the past to create Halloween concepts. Obviously, these engagements don’t come cheaply but when you consider that many Halloween seasonal events begin in September and extend to late October, the investments can help add attendance and revenue to an otherwise quiet time of the year for most large parks and resorts.
Two Attractions in One
In addition to big name creative talent, another Halloween trend involves developing PG and more adult versions of the same experience. For instance, several parks open during the day for family friendly Halloween experiences which are usually heavy on candy giveaways and more gentle Halloween characters (imagine Casper the Friendly Ghost). Then, in the evening, the attraction evolves into a more PG-13, if not downright R-rated, experience that parallels the local haunted house industry where just about anything that meets the fire code is fair game.
While many smaller parks cannot afford Hollywood directors and producers, the “two for one” concept is replicable for almost all entertainment venues. In fact, one local option could be collaborating with area haunted house operators to produce your Halloween event. During the day, family friendly ghosts can provide Halloween laughs and fun. Then, after dark, the ghoulishness ramps up with the same characters and stunts presented in a scarier set of scenes.
And, if the goal is to include some level of Hollywood horror, license agreements may be a way to incorporate Halloween brands without having to hire the actual directors and producers. While every legal agreement is unique, the general concept behind a license agreement is the ability to use existing characters and storylines in a non-exclusive setting (though exclusivity can often be secured for at least your local market).
Ultimately, the lesson learned from large parks and resorts is that the Halloween holiday is an opportunity to extend your operating season by creating seasonally-unique experiences that transform your park or venue with a spooky overlay that generates scary good revenues.