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Florida theme parks amp up Halloween screams

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    Universal Orlando announced “An American Werewolf in London” will be the theme of a new haunted house at the park's Halloween Horror Nights 23.Universal Orlando

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    Disney will debut the appearance of Jack Skellington and Sally (from Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) at Magic Kingdom Park for its Not-So-Scary Halloween Parties.Disney

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    Busch Gardens Tampa has created an adult-oriented Howl-O-Scream event to lure in returning and new guests.Busch Gardens

Under the pale moonlight of midnight skies, Universal Orlando has announced another cult classic film for their Halloween Horror Nights 2013 haunted house lineup: "An American Werewolf in London."  It joins "The Walking Dead," "Evil Dead," and "Cabin in the Woods" as part of the big names enticing fear fans to Central Florida this year.  But it's not only Universal making Halloween bigger than ever, as Disney adds popular characters to its "not-so-scary" events and Busch Gardens threatens to make guests squirm like never before.

For Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights creative director Mike Aiello, working with director John Landis in developing a haunted house based on his classic horror-comedy film was a dream come true.  "This one for me and the team is probably the closest to a passion project that we could possibly get," said Aiello. "It is a film that we watch at least once a year […] right up there with the classic monster movies for me."

The walk-through experience will take visitors through all the familiar London settings from the film, including the Slaughtered Lamb pub, Picadilly Circus Tube station, the hospital, movie theater, and even one of the movie's iconic "nightmare" sequences.  And the groundbreaking werewolf transformation sequence will take place in front of guests' eyes by way of puppets created "to a scale that we have not done before in any of our mazes," according to Aiello.

It's all part of the increasingly popular genre of fall attractions that draw tourists to Central Florida in a time that was once considered an "off season."  Universal completely reinvents Halloween Horror Nights each year to summon guests back with something new.  Last year's introduction of the wildly popular AMC show "The Walking Dead" to the event brought its biggest attendance numbers ever, selling out multiple nights and inspiring them to expand its presence this year, recreating set pieces throughout Universal streets in addition to developing an all-new haunted house.

By contrast, Walt Disney World draws tens of thousands of visitors each year with its popular Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, an event that is largely the same year to year.  The slightly-spooky but kid-friendly Boo To You parade and Happy HalloWishes fireworks are highlights of the evening, along with trick-or-treat trails.  Disney is careful to strike a balance between retaining these classic experiences and debuting new ones.

"Each year, we carefully consider adding new entertainment to surprise and delight our guests while also keeping many of the traditional elements that have become guests’ favorites over the years," said Andrea Finger, spokesperson for Walt Disney World Resort.  And this year, Disney is adding two wildly popular characters to the mix: Jack Skellington and Sally from "The Nightmare Before Christmas."  The duo made their Florida debut in October 2012 at Downtown Disney during a special weekend promotion, drawing thousands of fans to line up to get a quick picture with them.  This addition, along with a "Monsters, Inc." scream-rich dance party and popular animated Disney Channel stars Phineas and Ferb will enhance the traditional party experience.

Busch Gardens Tampa also has created a draw for Central Florida visitors by emphasizing variety in their adult-oriented Howl-O-Scream event.  "By bringing back guests’ favorites, in combination with new experiences, we are able to offer the greatest variety possible to both returning and new guests," said Scott Swenson, Howl-O-Scream creative director.  "Classic horror stories are compelling the first time you hear them. And the second time. And the third."

This year Busch Gardens is trying something completely new to the Halloween scene, an immersive and incredibly personal experience called The Experiment.  "In order to proceed, guests will need to interact in a way that we have never asked them to before," explained Swenson.  "They will need to face their deepest and most horrifying fears."  Bugs, snakes, needles, and darkness are among the listed fears for this up-charge experience, one that nearly doubles the price of admission.  But for thrill seekers looking for more out of the spookiest time of year, The Experiment may just offer the sinister satisfaction they crave.

As these events grow, the theme parks are under pressure to luring in visitors with new attractions or perfecting the old. "By continuing to offer the quality of haunt that our core audience has come to expect, this fan base continues to tell their friends that our event will meet their darkest expectations," Swenson stated.  Even director John Landis noticed how popular Halloween Horror Nights was when he last visited the event in 2009 to see the "Wolfman" maze.  "It was so crowded," he stated.  "I wish i could have gone through by myself."  But he had fun nonetheless.

Halloween is certainly a big scene for Central Florida theme park fans, Landis included, who despite long lines and crowded attractions emphasized, "I'm going to be there opening night."  And so will tens of thousands of fans, flocking to Disney, Universal, and Busch Gardens, each beginning their eerie events next month.

Ricky Brigante is a theme park expert and fan who edits InsideTheMagic, a blog focusing on Disney and theme park news and entertainment.  He's also host of the award-winning "Inside the Magic" podcast.