It wasn’t until after Brian Helmich booked his family on a three-night cruise aboard the Disney Dream that he learned it would be a special Halloween sailing.

“It was a bonus,” said Helmich, of Washington, Ill. Along with all the usual shipboard activities, his 10-year-old son got to dress as a pirate, go trick-or-treating and attend several special holiday parties and activities. “It’s a really great time to cruise, because it’s off-season and not super busy, and you also get Halloween,” Helmich said.

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Disney Cruise Line offered “Halloween on the High Seas” on just one ship last year, but this year it’s treating passengers on all four ships in its fleet to special decorations, activities and menu items through the end of October – along with some of the lowest fares of the year.

Back on dry land, meanwhile, “Disney is perhaps single-handedly expanding the Halloween season to two full months,” said Deb Wills, founder of the Disney planning site AllEars.Net.

Indeed, Disney World in Orlando, Fla., is already festooned with Halloween decorations. Oct. 31 kicked off on Sept. 1 with the wildly popular “Not-So-Scary Halloween Party,” an evening bash in the Magic Kingdom with Halloween-themed fireworks, decorations, parades and, of course, trick-or-treating. The event, which requires a special ticket, was extended to 26 select nights this year – three more than last year.

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“As long as Disney continues to provide quality experiences, guests will continue to be part of the fun,” said Wills. “How many folks can say they actually went trick-or-treating in the Magic Kingdom?”

Wherever you live, ghouls and ghosts are coming to a theme park near you. “It’s a phenomenon that’s grown and grown, so that today virtually every amusement park in America has a Halloween event,” said Arthur Levine, theme parks expert at About.com.

“But it’s important to know that they fall into two distinct camps: not so scary and unbelievably scary.”

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For younger kids, Levine recommends the gentler offerings at Disney World; “Halloween Time” at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.; “The Count’s Halloween Spooktacular” at Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa.; or “Howl-O-Ween” at Great Wolf Lodge’s 12 indoor waterpark resorts.

But if you’d rather be scared out of your socks, nobody dials up fright better than Universal.

“Halloween Horror Nights at the two Universal theme parks – in Orlando and Hollywood, Calif. – have evolved into the two biggest Halloween events at theme parks in the country,” Levine said. The event kicked off in both parks last weekend and runs into early November.

“While most seasonal theme parks offer generically themed haunted houses, the Universal events are elaborate affairs with an extremely high production value,” Levine said. “They use highly recognized brand-name themes such as the ‘Halloween’ movie franchise and ‘The Walking Dead,’ and the experience is almost like stepping right inside one of these movies or TV shows.”

“‘Immersive’ doesn’t begin to describe it,” Levine continued. “You become a character in a horror movie. When you descend into the world of ‘The Walking Dead,’ you are surrounded by walkers lurking in every corner. They definitely delight in scaring the daylights out of you, and they’re really very good at it.”

Halloween Horror Nights will feature new haunted houses this year, including one based on “Dracula Untold,” the upcoming Universal film.

“What’s wonderful about Universal is that they have a legitimate claim to Halloween,” Levine said. [image]“Their legacy goes back to the classic monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula, and they often play homage to them at their Halloween events.”

Universal’s go-big-or-go-home approach has been a game-changer for what used to be a slow time of year.

“It’s obvious that they’re spending a lot of money on this, which also makes it obvious that they’re making a lot of money on this,” Levine said. “The event in Orlando will often sell out on weekends, and we’re talking about a huge, huge park. Fall is now a blockbuster season.”

But boo-ers beware. “Just as parents might exercise caution with a movie that’s rated PG-13, they should do the same thing with the scarier Halloween events at larger theme parks,” Levine said.

“These events tend to take place at night, and there’s lots of blood, gore and screaming. Some of the shows at larger parks also have some racy dialogue and suggestive costuming. It’s not intended for impressionable younger kids, and it can feel very un-theme-parky.”

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.