clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Spooky thrills at theme parks

Halloween events scare up lots of visitors

SANDUSKY, Ohio — John Taylor is a ringmaster of sorts, directing an assortment of ghouls and sideshow freaks in the shadows of Cedar Point amusement park's roller coasters.

It's opening night at the park's annual Halloweekends event, and the monsters are milling about in search of jagged teeth and wrinkly ears. Some are getting too restless, interrupting Taylor as he dabs black paint on the face of Mike Vatan, a k a "Lord of the Monsters."

"The monsters haven't learned monster etiquette yet," Taylor says with a sigh and a chuckle.

Soon the "Screamsters" will stake out their places in the haunted houses and fog-filled paths throughout Cedar Point, waiting to frighten anyone who comes along.

"To see them scream makes it all worth it. There's no better raw emotion than fear," said Vatan, an imposing 6-foot-5 figure with skulls hanging from his belt and horns jutting from the top of his head.

Theme parks nationwide are transforming themselves into dark and spooky Halloween attractions at a time of year that once was a slow period but now is one of the busiest.

"October is as big for us as July and August," said Susan Tierney, a spokeswoman for Knott's Berry Farm, which claims to have started the amusement park craze for Halloween fright.

The park near Los Angeles hired an additional 1,000 people for October, including 100 roaming monsters. Some are known as sliders because they run and slide at unsuspecting guests.

Halloween Haunt, which debuted in 1973, is so popular that it sells out on some weekends.

Visitors who want to bypass the hourlong lines at the 11 haunted mazes on the weekends can buy a $499 package that includes an overnight stay for two, front-of-the-line access and a pre-scare dinner.

Universal Orlando in Florida has doubled the size of its Halloween Horror Nights this year, expanding into both of its theme parks. It's offering a special "Gory Getaway" package that includes a hotel stay and tickets.

There are seven haunted houses, and the park grew a cornfield to create a haunted maze called Field of Screams where creatures lurk within the cornstalks.

A team of about 30 people spend all year designing the sets and coming up with new themes, said spokeswoman Susie Story.

Knott's Berry Farm and Universal are open in the day and then close for an hour or so while they are transformed. Both warn that the parks aren't for children at night.

"This really pushes beyond the family," Story said. "Our houses are very scary."

Halloween events have become so big that the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions a year ago began devoting an area at its annual trade show to spooky characters and special effects.

None of the parks would say how much money they bring in from Halloween.

A successful October can help park operators make up for bad weather in earlier months, said Beth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the group in Alexandria, Va.

"Our visitors know this is a safe way to be scared," she said.

Behind an arcade inside Cedar Point is "The Dungeon," a storage room where its monsters come to life.

Eleven makeup artists use airbrushes to spray paint in a rainbow of colors on the faces of the monsters and clowns wearing prosthetic masks. Photos of past werewolves and vampires and worn-out masks are tacked to the dimly lit walls.

Taylor, who has been with the park for all eight years of Halloweekends, said it was much more primitive in the beginning.

"I bought a bunch of cheesy, Styrofoam tombstones," he said. "It's grown to a more professional look."

Cedar Point began expanding its Halloween festival after its parent company, Cedar Fair LP, acquired Knott's Berry Farm in 1997 and saw the success there, Taylor said.

New this year is "CarnEvil," a spooky take on a sideshow carnival where the freaks and clowns have gone mad and wait to leap out at unsuspecting guests through a cloud of fog.

Still, you won't find any monsters running around with a chain saw or a lot of blood and guts.

"We're low on gore and high on startle," said Cedar Point spokeswoman Janice Witherow. "There are areas where you can get scared, but we warn the families."

Lake Compounce, a regional park in central Connecticut, is in its fourth year of hosting The Haunted Graveyard. It draws 10,000 people on busy nights in October, rivaling the crowds on summer weekends and giving the park an extra month of revenue.