Halloween hauntings not waiting for fall

The Shaka Crew dance group performs “Thriller” during the Sleepy Holloween Town event in 2018 at Brownwood Paddock Square.

Halloween has come to Florida’s theme parks. Yes, they know it’s September.  Halloween typically marks the start of the holiday event season for a number of Central Florida’s attractions. At the major theme parks, Christmas follows immediately after. However, Halloween is coming earlier for parks as they seek to draw as many tourists traveling for a fright before Oct. 31. Both Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World Resort had their earliest debuts ever this year. Being scary has become a very big business among the theme parks and in many places across the world, said Ady Milman, professor of theme park management at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. Disney and Universal starting their beloved Halloween events earlier than usual speaks to that big business, he said.

“That the public is willing to celebrate Halloween earlier is affirmation that we have very strong demand,” he said.

The industry also is growing in Florida. New thrills for this year’s season include a Halloween event at Gatorland and a Harry Potter-themed light projection experience at Universal.

And while the events do draw big crowds, the parks also offer special deals for Floridians during a time of year traditionally branded the slow season.

Halloween started early

Nancy Keen, a member of Mickey’s “Fan”atics and Goofy Villagers, couldn’t wait until Halloween to celebrate it with her grandchildren, who visited in August.

So the earlier start for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party opened up an opportunity for them to experience the annual family-friendly celebration at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Keen and her grandchildren last attended about 10 years ago.

Disney began Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party on Aug. 16 — 76 days before Halloween.

This year marked its earliest start, as well as the third consecutive year that it began in August.

“The earliness of it doesn’t bother me,” said Keen, of the Village of Hemingway. “I’m already decorating for Halloween. And the Goofy Villagers’ Halloween party is the first Monday of October.”

What she liked the most about the park’s Halloween party was the attention to detail involved in crafting a unique experience compared to the everyday park attractions.

For instance, she noticed special effects and music for the occasion within the rides and attractions, and enjoyed desserts like an ice cream cone resembling Maleficent, the villain in “Sleeping Beauty.”

“A lot of the little kids want to go for all the candy you get,” Keen said. “And it’s not scary. It’s fun.”

Those who prefer scary also got a head start on the season.

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort traditionally began in mid-September. But this year’s event started Sept. 6, its earliest start since the event began in 1991 as Fright Nights.

This year’s event features haunted houses based on the Netflix supernatural thriller “Stranger Things,” the 1984 fantasy/comedy film “Ghostbusters,” and classic Universal movie monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy.

Outside of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal also has a new Halloween light show at its Hogsmeade portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Called “Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle,” the experience runs from today to Nov. 15 and will showcase villains such as Death Eaters and Dementors.

In Tampa, meanwhile, Busch Gardens will debut this year’s Howl-O-Scream event on Friday. The park’s staff will celebrate the event’s “20 Years of Fear” by revisiting characters from the event’s earliest haunted houses and scare zones.

Scaring up revenue

The National Retail Federation’s 2019 Halloween forecast is not expected until next week. But last year it predicted Americans would spend more than $9 billion on Halloween-related purchases, and that 21% of consumers planned to attend a haunted house or other Halloween-themed attraction.

Theme park operators stated last year in corporate earnings reports that revenue and attendance grew worldwide during the times they held Halloween events, although they didn’t attribute the growth to Halloween.

According to the reports:

- Disney’s theme park revenues for the fourth quarter of the 2017-18 fiscal year, which included September 2018, grew 9% to $5 billion. The first quarter of the 2018-19 fiscal year, which included October 2018, grew 5% to $6.8 billion.

- NBCUniversal, which operates Universal Orlando Resort, reported theme park revenues grew 4% to $1.5 billion in the fourth quarter of 2018.

- SeaWorld Entertainment, which operates SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, reported theme park revenues increased more than 10% to $483 million and attendance grew about 10% to 8.3 million visitors during the third quarter of 2018, which included the first two weekends of SeaWorld’s Spooktacular and Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream. Revenues increased 5% to $280 million and attendance grew about 8% to 4.6 million visitors during the fourth quarter of 2018.

Competing parks aim to build on that momentum.

Next month Gatorland will debut a Halloween event called “Gators, Ghosts and Goblins.”

During the event — which runs Oct. 19, 20, 26, 27 and 31 — guests may experience spooky character meet-and-greets and encounter the creature of Florida folklore known as the Skunk Ape.

It’s the first Halloween attraction for the family-owned nature theme park and wildlife sanctuary that opened in 1949.

Gatorland hosting a Halloween event made sense because alligators may get as many scares out of people as movie monsters or villains, said Brandon Fisher, Gatorland’s director of media productions.

“Florida is becoming the Halloween capital of the U.S., so we want to tap into that movement,” Fisher said. “If it’s successful, next year we may do some evening things as well.”

Some parks are offering deals to attract guests.

SeaWorld Orlando is running a promotion in which Florida residents who buy a 2020 Fun Card, which offers park access most times of the year, can also get visits for the rest of 2019 free.

Gatorland is offering half-off admission for Florida residents to attract more visitors during fall, which is considered the off-peak season for theme parks.

Both deals are going at the same time as their events, and serve the same purpose: to increase attendance. Holding special events for Halloween sparks greater demand for the attractions outside the high season, Milman said.

It also allows Floridians and out-of-state visitors not only to celebrate Halloween, but to immerse themselves in it.

“In the 21st century, people want experiences, not necessarily commodities,” Milman said. “It could be Cruella de Vil. It could be ‘Avatar’. It’s creativity — how to take a story, build upon it and use the five senses to communicate the story.”