By Sara Hodon
Halloween lovers look forward to October, when their favorite haunted attractions rise from the dead, so to speak, and open their (albeit creaky) doors for business. Operators look for new and creative ways to give their visitors the scary thrills they’re looking for in the main attraction, and once their collective heart rates return to normal, are happy to oblige their need for food, drink, and a little something to take home with them.
“We have lots of food,” said Paul Johnson, owner of Atrox Factory in Leeds, Ala. “We have a concession stand where we sell things like nachos, popcorn, candied items, drinks, and [Otis Spunkmeyer] cookies, and we also have food trucks. Chick-fil-A was a longtime vendor, for about five years, but they no longer had the manpower to staff their truck,” he explains. “We change up the food truck vendors every so often. We like to keep things fresh and different. We work with vendors for the food but contract with a local company to sell the drinks ourselves.”
Brett Bertolino, vice president, director of operations for Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pa., said guests’ standards have been raised for theme parks and similar venues like haunted attractions, and they have certain expectations when they walk through the gates. Attraction operators find themselves tasked with finding new ways to extend guests’ experience and not only meet, but surpass their expectations. “Theme parks are doubling down on the immersive experience. Guests expect much more than they did 10 years ago,” he said, citing the success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, which transports visitors to a village infused with magic and whimsy, complete with menu items like Butterbeer and flavored jelly beans. That said, Bertolino says their food selections haven’t changed much over the years. “Our menu has been fairly consistent,” he said. “We’ve tried new and trendy items and changing the offerings a bit, but we’ve found that people want the familiar. Our concession area is simple, and what I would call ‘carnival food’—your funnel cakes, chicken fingers, cotton candy, lemonade, and those kinds of things. We want to address food sales, and we’ve talked about possibly offering themed items, although most of the naming suggestions we’ve had for themed items were either hokey or offensive.”
The Eastern State Penitentiary itself is an historic landmark where Al Capone was once a prisoner (visitors can tour his cell and enjoy themed cocktails at Al Capone’s Speakeasy on the grounds). The prison’s colorful history and imposing physical structure not only makes for a thrilling haunted attraction but provides several opportunities for unique food and merchandise, and Bertolino said he and his team are constantly looking at new ways to enhance both categories.
“Our Halloween event is a linear event with one entrance and exit, and guests go through six haunted houses. We have some food on mobile carts available at the entrance before guests go in—things like soft pretzels and some drinks. We’ve found guests don’t want to eat too much beforehand. They’re excited, they’re talking with their friends about what they’re about to experience. When they’re done, we want them to spend more time on-site at the prison—that’s when we want the food and merchandise sales.”
Besides incorporating a theme, Bertolino said he and his team have considered featuring genuine “Philly foods,” such as the iconic cheesesteaks and soft pretzels the city is known for. “Our visitors come from a 100 mile radius, so we want to make the trip worthwhile,” he explained. “We’re looking at what are unique Philly foods or brands that we can offer? We look at food as an opportunity for additional revenue.”
Food trucks are a natural tie-in with the haunted attraction and park venues—as mobile units they can go to the customer, rather than make the customer go to the food as they must do for a static concession area. It helps that they’ve seen a huge boost in popularity over the past few years, so ordering from a food truck is still trendy. Operators said using both static and mobile concession methods increase the visibility of their food offerings and simply makes it more convenient for visitors to get something to eat.
Angela Moyer, owner and “Scream Queen” of Waldorf Estate of Fear in Lehighton, Pa., said she solely uses food trucks for her concessions. “We sell chicken fingers, fries, funnel cakes, deep-fried food, and drinks,” she explained.
Unlike food, which fulfills a more immediate need, merchandise is another way visitors can extend their experience and take a piece of it home with them. Johnson said it’s hard to gauge what will sell, so his philosophy is to stock a range of items. Their Emporium is the central location for merchandise. “We sell T-shirts and hats, and a lot of jewelry,” he explained. “We never know what people will want. For every item that sells, someone else sees the same item and will say ‘Who would want that?’ We do try to get the guests to spend.” As an added draw, Johnson schedules actors from horror film and TV shows for celebrity appearances on the weekends during their peak season.
Bertolino said they also incorporate the Penitentiary’s colorful history into their merchandise. “We’ve seen some great themed gift shops. Our gift shop is also a museum and ties into the history of our event, which has been going on for 28 years. We’re trying to double down on unique branded merchandise. We try to develop lines of merchandise that tie into the haunt but aren’t logoed.” He cited art pieces, flasks, knitted caps, and socks as just a few of the items in the shop. “Customers will tell you what they want. For instance, we have two large gargoyles that sit at the entrance of the facility. We never intended for them to be symbols of the event, but they are.” The gargoyles are now featured on a variety of merchandise. Besides the traditional souvenir items, Bertolino said they still sell commemorative photos of visitors going through the haunt. It continues to be one of their most popular mementos, with some regular visitors assembling quite a collection. “We put the photo in a nice branded folder, which we change every year, and we sell tons of photos,” he said. “Even in our all-digital world, they’re popular.” Bertolino said they tend to feature much of the same tried-and-true merchandise from one season to the next. “It can be a challenge to keep up with trends for a seasonal attraction, so we try to stay away from trends. Unless you can sell all of the items in a season, it doesn’t make sense to buy a lot of trendy merchandise.” Moyer said their most popular merchandise includes T-shirts, hoodies, magnets, and shot glasses; customers “look for cool sayings on our T-shirts.”
Haunted attractions may only be running for a few weekends a year, but devoted fans try to extend the experience for as long as they can—all year long if possible. Operators are tasked with satisfying both casual and hard-core thrill seekers. Unique food and merchandise help to round out that experience.