By Sara Karnish
Haunted attractions’ limited season made the challenges of operating during a pandemic even more difficult. From re-imagining various aspects of the attractions to limiting crowd size, haunted attraction and escape room operators restructured their operations in such a way that ensured guests’ safety without compromising the spirit of the attraction, so to speak.
“Since we’re not a ‘chainsaw running’ haunt, our demographic is older,” said Ricky Dick, owner of Castle Blood in Monessen, Pa. “Our two biggest challenges were A. Convincing the older folks coming out and having fun was the right thing to do, and B. Convincing them we were safe. Marketing was a challenge.” Dick said their attraction was 60 percent timed ticketing to better control the size of the crowd entering the haunt. “We don’t force people to go in with people they don’t know if they don’t want to. Our groups are smaller now anyway.” He added,
“The first year was definitely hard. We had to change how we made the props. They all had to be smooth surface plastic or metal so we could wipe them down. We had sanitizing stations which we branded ‘Mortal Cootie Goo’—we tried to work it into the attraction. The first year, everyone had to be masked or they were thrown out. Last year, about 70 percent of the guests were masked. The largest group we do is eight people. We tried to keep it to around six. If a group shows up with eight and they’re all together, that’s fine. Mostly administratively and trying to get everyone in was probably the biggest headache.”
Todd Fedyshyn, owner/vice president/director of operations and marketing for Reaper’s Revenge in Scranton, Pa., said many of their operational challenges were obvious ones: “The first thing is cleaning and sanitation. We’re an outdoor establishment—we had to make sure all our facilities were compliant with CDC’s recommendations. We had a PDF on our website outlining our hygiene practices. We have a lot of people in makeup and masks, so we just had a face covering built into the costumes, so there was no opportunity to spread germs with guests. Latex masks are not safe—[even though they are a face covering] they still have holes in them. We had to spread the actors out; we couldn’t have big groups.”
Sarah Kuceyeski, executive administrator of Factory of Terror in Canton, Ohio, and Haunted Schoolhouse & Haunted Laboratory (HSHL) in Akron, Ohio, said timed ticketing and limited capacity were the two biggest operational changes to their Factory of Terror attraction: “In previous years, we sold tickets until the line was gone – end of story. The pandemic forced us to reevaluate whether that was in the customers’ best interests. In 2020 we introduced timed ticketing and we kept the system for our 2021 season. It was a hit,” she explained. “Not only did it allow for us to monitor how many people we should be expecting at any given night and time, but it also allowed for us to stop selling tickets when we knew that it would be ‘too much.’ This allowed us to provide the best experience to every customer instead of focusing on overall attendance.” Only one building ran each night at the HSHL—one on Fridays and the other on Saturdays. “This system really slowed down operations at the beginning of 2021, as it was like starting over,” Kuceyeski explained. “We tested selling single house tickets (i.e., Haunted Schoolhouse ticket or Haunted Laboratory ticket) and combo tickets which granted customers access to both buildings, but this proved to be a major slowdown in our real-time operations. For the second half of the 2021 season, we focused on selling a single ticket which granted access to both buildings. This proved to be the best option for us in 2021, but things could change for the 2022 season.” Other attractions didn’t have to alter much, if anything.
Matthew Lendraitis, owner of RiddleBox Escape Rooms in Naperville, Ill., said little changed other than customers having to wear masks. He did notice a shift in attendance numbers, however: “It was down in Year One of COVID and up the second year. The first year was affected very much by two mandatory closings and the second year is up. And I assume that is because of the reduced competition. At least three other escape room businesses within 15 minutes’ drive from our location closed down for good,” he said.
Attendance numbers changed for some haunts, as well. Fedyshyn said their 18-night season (six weekends) was “down a little bit from pre-COVID [numbers]. 2020 to 2021 figures were almost identical—there was a 200-person difference in attendance.” Dick said their attendance was down approximately 20 percent in 2021—“We were down a lot. It’s a haunt you walk through with animation and scare zones, and we have an escape room as part of the haunt. We were down 20% in 2020, and down another 20 percent in 2021.”
Kuceyeski said their pre-COVID attendance was growing at a slow but steady pace. Pandemic-related health regulations posed many challenges, but Kuceyeski said they complied with mandates and had a successful 2020 season. “Obviously, we faced dramatically lower attendance in 2020 than we did in prior years. However, 2021 boomed back up with attendance on par with 2019 and earlier. We did face a small drop in total attendance, but it was an operational decision that led to that and we’re happy with the results,” she explained. “Since our purchase of the Haunted Schoolhouse and Lab in 2017, attendance has steadily risen year after year. 2020 hit us hard and proved to be a difficult year for us, but we bounced back in 2021 with record breaking attendance that HSHL had never seen before.”
Some operators raised their admission price. Fedyshyn said, “We had an expansion that was already purchased prior to COVID which we bought in November 2019. We had no choice but to shut down two of our attractions in the first year. When we put all five attractions up, we had to raise the price to accommodate our growth in business. The price increased because of two things: 1. The cost of doing business pre-COVID versus post-COVID. Everything costs more now. 2. When COVID hit, we were putting up a fifth attraction. We have 185 actors working every night, plus the support staff—parking attendants, ticket takers, et cetera—so over 300 people are working every night. That never changes—it’s never an option to cut down a little bit. People who come on a Sunday get the same show as the people who came on a Saturday.” Dick said their prices did not go up—“To reserve your time is $5 more than a walk up, but even with the price we’re still comparable to more than half the haunts around us. We stopped doing group haunt discounts—for example, our local TV station would have a discount. We stopped that—we have enough expenses and can’t lose any more revenue. We still do our own couponing, though.”
Operators say it is essential to still give guests the thrills and chills they expect, but adding the health and safety precautions gives customers an extra level of comfort. Fedyshyn, a Haunted Attraction Association board member, said that industry organization always stresses safety first, and that certainly came into play throughout the last three years. “The mission of that group is ‘protect, promote, educate’. As far as the haunted attraction, you have to do what’s worked over the years. COVID hasn’t changed what people like. So let’s be creative. With COVID, you had to implement the safety mechanisms. You want to change the show as little as possible to keep it the same, but put the safety mechanisms in so people feel safe and comfortable. See what the national guidelines are, but see what’s going on in your area to make your customers feel safe.” Due to the “escapist” nature of these attractions, giving customers the experience they want is important. From an escape room perspective, Lendraitis added, “People love to win. Help them achieve that if possible. Also, people come to have fun. Help them have fun.”
Now entering the third year of doing business in the time of COVID, operators say some of the changes they implemented had positive long-term effects. “First thing—the hygiene and sanitation. For the most part, the hygiene practices we implemented for COVID—we kept them. We saw a tremendous difference in our actors getting sick, even though we were cleaning masks after each use,” Fedyshyn said. “When sharing items—whether it was the constant reinforcement of ‘wash your hands’, social distance, any kind of proximity—it all had a lot to do with better attendance for our actors. It made the season run smooth to the point where we thought, “Wow, this was one of our better seasons’. Same thing in 2021. We learned a lot during COVID and chose to keep them implemented. We still have the masks built right into the costumes. This fall we had more people being socially distanced—didn’t have masks on those who were not close to the crowd.”
Dick said his team developed more efficient processes throughout the pandemic, and he can only see them moving forward, not backward. “We’ve had to make sure that everyone [in] front of house and ticket line knows exactly what to do. We do more training in September before we open (now have three-four things they have to do). We’ve done checklists—we usually we have five managers a night and everyone has a checklist and timing checklist of what they’re supposed to be doing. We have safety walkthroughs, who turns the music on, who does the lighting—it’s all of those kinds of things. Other than the masks, I don’t think we’re going back to how it used to be. We’ve smoothed things out a lot. Booking tickets online is just done for everything—young people are used to it now. Was done before pandemic, but the pandemic pushed it in for everyone.”
Kuceyeski said, “The pandemic opened our eyes to a slew of operational changes that needed to take place and COVID forced not only our organization, but also the public, to accept these changes. Efficiency is always changing in the haunt industry and more and more technology comes out every year to allow attractions to improve.” She added, “Our ticketing service has updated dramatically in the last year to accommodate these changes and each new feature has pushed us to question our operations and make changes year after year. We’ve moved to focus so much more on customer experience and safety than we ever have before, and the pandemic had a huge hand in that shift in focus.”