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April 4, 2023

2023: The Year of Year-Round Horror Experiences?

2023: The Year of Year-Round Horror Experiences?

Theme parks nationwide have announced expanded Halloween schedules; meanwhile, more horror experiences are opening up in the off-season. Will 2023 be the Year of Year-round horror? In this episode, we look at the Creepiest Trends for 2023. Support for...

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Theme parks nationwide have announced expanded Halloween schedules; meanwhile, more horror experiences are opening up in the off-season. Will 2023 be the Year of Year-round horror? In this episode, we look at the Creepiest Trends for 2023. Support for this episode comes from Gantom Lighting and Controls. See what you’re missing with a free demo. Subscribe to everything from the Haunted Attraction Network here.


Philip Hernandez: From our studios in Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi, this is Green Tagged Theme Park in 30, and this week we're going to talk about horror year-round. Well, we'll start off with, I think, the big news, in at least this horror and theme park space, which of course is Universal Orlando has announced their dates and some of their tickets for this year. They're going to return September 1st through Halloween, and they announce right off the bat 44 nights, which is their record-breaking season, their longest initial announcement. Because you know how these things go, Scott. They announce this first wave of tickets, which conveniently doesn't have any of the multiple night, and the Frequent Fear passes, or any of that, and they'll usually add nights or they'll open or whatever. 

Philip Hernandez: But right off the bat they have announced 44 nights, and it's really Wednesday through Sunday, right off the bat. I mean, right now you can buy a ticket to that first Wednesday after the event starts, which is Wednesday, September 6th, and that alone is a big deal. I think it's going. To really shape a lot of smaller events when they're looking at their calendars, but they haven't announced much else besides that there's going 10 all-new movie-quality haunted houses inspired by everything from top names in terror and pop culture, to unfathomable original abominations. I like how they said so many words that say nothing, and they'll have five scare zones, along with food, and they announced the RIP tours and the behind scenes, Unmasking, the daytime tickets, and all that kind of stuff. 

Scott Swenson: So basically it's a full press release to say Halloween Horror Nights is coming back.

Philip Hernandez: Well, I mean, I made a TikTok video about it, it did pretty good. So, I boiled it down to what, 45 seconds? But I think the big takeaway is we have the dates now, and that's important for a lot of reasons. I think just like when you start to see Halloween stuff appear in retail stores, you know these signals really do kind of reverberate through the whole ecosystem that is Halloween at theme parks, and Halloween in general. I think it's a big deal that, from step one, they're saying we're going to be open every Wednesday in September and October. That's a big deal.

Scott Swenson: Well, and I think the thing you have to recognize is with Halloween events is, if you have hit your capacity on the prime nights of Friday and Saturday, you cannot expand in those times, the only way to expand is to expand into other nights. So, in doing this, it sounds to me like a very clever way of attempting to disperse the crowd. I'm sure that, and I haven't looked at the pricing, but I'm sure that the non-peak nights are... if they're using the same basic strategy, they're either cheaper to begin with, or there are deals that are only available on the non-peak nights. By announcing the right up front, you're still going to have those people who are like. Well, I only want to go on a Friday or Saturday night, that's going to be a given. So, if you're going to expand your market, the only way to do it in a limited-run event like this is to add additional nonpeak nights to try to disperse that crowd a little bit. 

Scott Swenson: Again, based in Abu Dhabi now, this is the land, when it comes to theme parks, of record-breaking, biggest, newest, fastest, etcetera, etcetera. Etcetera. So, I love the fact that it's, "for a record-breaking 44 nights." It's a great marketing ploy. There are some small haunts already that are starting to promote and starting to audition, actually, even looking for talent as early as June. So, I'm seeing a lot of that. I think that Horror Nights is recognizing that they don't have to just be locked into the month of October, clearly. They're also, I think, continuing to test the waters, as are so many other parks, to see, “can we do either year-round or multiple haunt pop-up events throughout the course of the year?" So, they just keep expanding the granddaddy and testing the waters with some others, which we'll talk about in this show.

Philip Hernandez: I'm curious, from your perspective Scott, does this change anything for a smaller, independent attraction? As in, do you think they should try opening up earlier in September? Or maybe trying a weekday? I mean does this change anything or is it just Universal is doing this thing because they're huge?

Scott Swenson: Well, I think it depends, on a couple of factors. With the smaller haunts out there, or smaller events, it depends on whether you leave your stuff set up year round. I mean, do you own the building you're in, or do you rent the space you're in? If you rent the space you're in, you have to recognize by expanding you're going to elevate your cost significantly. Unless you've been selling out, I would not recommend necessarily trying to go toe to toe with Universal as far as their season. The other thing to keep in mind too, is even if you're in the universal market, either California or Florida, after that first rush of early adapters, that's the time that you have the opportunity to ride the wave, so to speak. So, I wouldn't suggest trying to match them toe to toe, because you're going to lose. You've got a chance to go to Universal Halloween Horror Nights or Bob's Haunted Hayride--and if there is really a Bob's Haunted Hayride, sorry, I'm not being sarcastic it just burst in my head.

Philip Hernandez: You know there is.

Scott Swenson: I'm sure there is somewhere. But if you have the opportunity, obviously Universal is going to win. But if Universal has been open for two weeks and then Bob's Haunted Hayride comes in and says, "and now come see us!" I think you got a much better chance because they've already wet the appetite of Halloween, goers of haunt goers, and you're not going to compete with them toe to toe. So, should every haunt out there now open on September 1st? No, I don't think so. I wouldn't, because I think that puts you in too much of a competition line, not only for ticket sales, but also for media attention. There's going to be this deluge on social of everyone's talking about their first night at Horror Nights, or their first weekend at Horror Nights. So, Bob's Haunted Hayride is going to be screwed because it's just going to get buried in the in the noise. 

Scott Swenson: So, I think if you're strategic, you can still get your Halloween season going and make it something that works with your attendance. If you were sold out every single night last year, then yes, add a couple of extra Wednesdays or Thursdays. I think that's a great idea. If you weren't, then there's nothing wrong with what you're doing, just make sure that your business decisions are justified by your overage or underage when it comes to ticket sales.

Philip Hernandez: Farmer Bob's Haunted Hayride is in Missouri. 

Scott Swenson: I apologize to Bob.

Philip Hernandez: So, that there's that. So, I think my perspective.

Scott Swenson: Free mentioned from somebody, just completely randomly.

Philip Hernandez: There you go. Start your marketing early.

Scott Swenson: So, if anyone has seen it let us know because we'd love to know more about it.

Philip Hernandez: In Eureka Missouri. 

Philip Hernandez: So, I agree with most of that. I think I would just add the caveat, I agree with you it's highly dependent on your infrastructure, are you building year-round or not, what not. But I think there's a lot of room to open earlier, even if you're opening on a Saturday. I think the big reason for me is, getting that media out there. Horror Nights will take the first two weeks of September. Now we have their list, so we know, but that's only really in the Orlando market. If you're in California or in Texas, or kind of in an area, we'll talk about this a bit more about what markets might work, I just think that, again, it sometimes takes media, maybe up to two weeks to put out something. If you're opening in October, and they come out your opening night and then the coverage doesn't drop for two more weeks, it doesn't do you any good because it's coming out when you're already going to be selling out. 

Philip Hernandez: So, I would say even if you're opening for dress rehearsal and to get your stuff down pat, and to get your media, I think that would be worth it. But then again, to your point, if you don't own the building and you're having to add a lot of extra costs to rent it out for maybe low ticket sales. But my point is, I think you can get people out there and you could make it worth it. You can get friends and family out, and you can get media out, and that's worth it. We've all been to those events where it takes them a while to get into the groove, and then by time they get into the groove it's over.

Scott Swenson: Right. I guess my point is expand out of need, don't expand because Universal did.

Philip Hernandez: Yeah, yeah.

Scott Swenson: That's my point.

Philip Hernandez: So, all these stories are related, but it's just kind of funny when you're saying don't expand because Universal did it. So, Hershey Park in Hershey, PA, their Dark Nights are expanding this year. They're returning starting September 15th and going through October 29th, and basically, they're adding more Friday evenings to the 2023 event. This year it's going to have four haunts and three scare zones with themed food and beverage exclusive to the event. So, seems like they're going down the same route, and they are bringing it back, which was actually in question. We were wondering in our episode about that so. They're starting early, I mean for a regional park to start Halloween on September 15th is early.

Scott Swenson: But again, exactly what I'm saying. This is anecdotal, I've heard this kind of through the grapevine, but they did very well last year. So, the reason they're adding those Fridays is they've recognized, and I talked about at the very beginning, you can't add additional bodies to a Saturday night, or you don't really want to, because then it just starts to degrade the quality of the experience and then people won't come back the following year, or there won't be repeat visitation. So, as you say, they're adding more Friday evenings. So, that means they're adding the, in essence, second tier of Dark Nights, and they're and they're expanding the right way.

Philip Hernandez: Well, let's change gears a little bit now, still keeping on the same thing. I want to talk about some of the events that I have gone to, and they're all spooky-ish events that are happening right now in March and April. This is, again, the same theme of expanding the horror to a year-round or seeing what's possible, kind of pushing different areas. The three events I've been to since kind of we last did an episode are Screen Break at Six Flags, of course, EscapeIT in Vegas, and Springtopia and their Spookyland, which is also in Los Angeles. So, starting with Screen Break, I didn't get anybody on the record there, but we did go through and experience everything. We have a video that you can watch on YouTube about that. Remember when we talked about this and we were like, "it all is in the execution"? I have to say, wow, I was impressed, and that is something that I don't say. I mean, that's not a common thing for me, I think, to say. But I was impressed. 

Philip Hernandez: I was mainly impressed at how, I guess I thought they were just going to open the mazes and then just kind of like have at it, but actually, they did retheme both mazes and they made a narrative story that tied together the zones and the houses. So, the premise is, it is Screen Break but it's happening during spring break, and you are going there to basically a monster college party. Your job is first, you go through initiation at Vault 666, and that is where you are going to try and pledge into a fraternity or sorority, and you're pledging. So, you're going through these initiations, the characters actually ask you, "What are you going to do for us? Why should we accept you? Why should you join? What are you going to be useful for?" Then you proceed to go into the house party, which is after you've been accepted and initiated into the fraternity or sorority. You exit those two and you exit into the, I guess the like Screen Break scare zone, which is the main scare zone, and that's where you're having all the monsters dressed in their screen. 

Philip Hernandez: Every character was themed for monsters on spring break. We had Margo-rita, which we met, and she was an older kind of mom who was kind of crashing the kid's party, and of course, she was drunk off of her margaritas. Then you had the fraternity signs, you had people that were there, the jocks, I mean it was very well done to take these monsters and put it in this scenario. Then the next scare zone was a rave, which was a big rave that was themed as Grave. So, it's just like a spooky rave basically. I think some people had the criticism of it wasn't scary at all, and I'm like, yeah, because it's in March. The fact that it was so different from the regular event, because they were able to theme everything, and the fact that it had a narrative shell. Also, we've talked about this a lot too, it was just a fun event because it was monsters at a party, and it was this whole party theme. I feel there's nothing wrong with that, and it seemed to me that the target market was really enjoying it. 

Philip Hernandez: A few other things to note, too. Since we last reported on this story, they did end up allowing pass holders to attend. So, if you're in the park and you're a pass holder, you can go up to guest services, or go up to a little window, and you can get a band that lets you stay that night. It's unclear if you can do that online, we've only heard of people staying in the park when they're already there and getting the band on. So, I'm not sure if you can purchase it online or how that works. Also, they made the parking free after 7:30. So, really you're not paying for parking, you're just paying the event ticket if you don't have an annual pass and you're showing up. And if you're an annual pass holder, then you just get the band and if you're there for the whole day, then you can stay extra and enjoy the party vibe. Just an aside, I will also say that I thought that the costume and makeup was pretty exceptional. They did a great job of the airbrushing and the prosthetics and making sure that everything kind of fit. They had great, great queue line actors, great acting, great improv, and they made-up little sayings like, "rave to the grave, baby." I just thought it was fun. It was fun and I thought it was a cohesive theme.

Scott Swenson: So, again, I did not attend, but in all the stuff that you've told me, I guess my first question is, will these characters be scary now that they've been parodied? Because that's in essence what I think you're describing here is. they have been parodied to take terrifying monsters and put them into a college/fraternity/sorority environment. So. you've created this fun, playful party, have you now undermined their scariness when they come back in Halloween?

Philip Hernandez: So, that is a great question. We even asked that question a little bit ourselves when we were there at the event. I think it comes down to whether or not they're going to bring back this area for Halloween. It's entirely possible they just retire the characters altogether, like you're not going to meet Margo-rita at Frightfest, she's only here at Screen Break because she's crashing her son's fraternity party.

Scott Swenson: And don't misunderstand me. I love the idea of, in essence, making it another themed event, but from what you've described, it's clearly not a horror event. It's clearly not a scary element, it's a fun party element. So, it's sort of like spring break with monsters, which I know that's like duh. So, I could understand that if you went into it with a haunt mentality you'd be disappointed because as you said there were people who feel that it's not scary enough. But it just comes down to branding and then how much they want to reutilize these characters and try to bring them back and make them scary. And if they do that, will that be successful? I don't really know the answer to that. It could go one of two ways. It could be that in the Halloween season, yes they are scary, but if someone interacted with these monsters as the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders, or whatever, they may also just go, "Oh wait, weren't you the nerd? Weren't you the jock, that made me laugh? We danced and we had a party moment?" So, I'm curious, again, to see how this goes in the long run. All of that said, I think it's great that the execution was good. I think it's great that they chose to brand this as its own element. I'm just curious to see how it moves forward and how and if they are able to shift it back to Halloween, or if they even try to.

Philip Hernandez: So, we talked a while back about this challenge that the theme park haunts, especially Six Flags, the Busch, and those events are having that target the younger crowd. I think the way you put it, Scott, was there's like a ceiling on how extreme you can get and then you combine that with you don't really want to do too much to this younger demographic just because you want them to be safe, right? You want them to be safe. So, there's this clash between the ceiling of what we can do and that. I actually I thought this was the most promising model I have seen for solving that particular conundrum of, let's just make it fun. We're not trying to push the envelope and make it the most extreme, scariest thing that a teenager has ever seen. We're just going to make it a fun environment. We're going to get them dancing, and we're going to get them taking a bunch of pictures with the people, and that's what we're going to do. We're going to add those elements of you talking to the characters in the fraternity houses trying to get initiated and going through like hazing. We're just we're put that in there. I am so curious to see if they're going to try and work that into Halloween, to your point, or not, but I do think that this is a potential solution to that problem of you just can't get any more extreme. So, stop trying. Just focus on making it fun.

Scott Swenson: It's certainly a way to go.

Philip Hernandez: Well, anyway, another way to go, EscapeIT, which is the world's only officially licensed IT experience, has opened in Las Vegas. I went to get a sneak peek of the experience. The producer is Jason Egan from Egan Productions, and he is a longtime haunter. He had his own haunt, then he managed the Fright Dome at Circus Circus, and he's also produced a lot of high-capacity traditional haunts. He did the Five Nights at Freddy's Haunt, he did the Halloween haunt, and he did the Saw experiences as well. So, he's no stranger to haunts and also working with IPs. He kind of put together this, also, equally tremendous experience. It's a 90-minute experience, I hesitate to even call it an escape room. It's kind of a 90-minute horror experience that has 16 rooms, and full-scale sets. I mean, they're 14-foot sets and you're going into the full-size Neibolt house, and you're seeing iconic scenes in the movie. 

Philip Hernandez: I had an interesting discussion with him, and he kind of talked about the reason he transitioned from haunt into this is because A) IPs are important. You need that touch point to people because it's sells. B) because it's year-round, and he believes that certain markets, specific markets, have the ability to do year-round horror. He thinks LA, Vegas, kind of some of those places like that, but that it would not work in most markets. It's a lot of looking at the local interests and demographics and matching that up with the tourism numbers that are coming in. Essentially he's saying, if it's a place that gets a lot of tourism, some percentage of that tourism will be interested in horror, and so it's just kind of an equation in that way. 

Philip Hernandez: It's a very interesting experience because it's so long, the capacity is only 30 people per side right now, and priced at $45 to $55 per ticket per person. So, it's the same vein that we're talking about, of kind of doing this year-round horror experience in here, working with IP, the importance of IP, the importance of story. So, I thought it was fantastic, though. I mean, it really is immersive. I mean, you show up and there is not a sign that says EscapeIT anywhere. You arrive at the parking lot and you are outside the Derry Public Works Department that says Derry Public Works on the side, you enter the Derry Public Works Department, and you go in just like it's a regular works department. You meet with a public works representative and she's like, "oh, are you here to help us find the missing children?" You get assigned to help find the missing children from the Derry Public Works Department, and that's what starts your journey. You're going through the movie, but you're doing it kind of in a parallel way, like an adjacent story. You're not running into the Loser's Club, you're doing a parallel story where you're trying to do investigative work for the Derry Public Works Department. So, it's good. It's done well.

Scott Swenson: Yeah, it sounds great. It's funny because I've been in the preliminary research for a couple of different haunt-like experiences in Vegas. I agree with Jason and the fact that there are certain markets that I think haunt will work. On paper, Vegas looks like it is one of them, and yet it still hasn't quite caught on. There are some, but it's not been tremendously ongoing or tremendously successful, or expansive. I'm curious. I hope it works because, from what you said, this sounds like it's a great experience and it's something that should continue to move forward. What will help is, of course, the IT IP is strong and recognizable, and recognizable whether you are a haunt fan or not. So, I hope he's right, but like you said, there's a lot of data out there that makes it look like Vegas is a phenomenal market, and yet no one's really cracked it yet.

Philip Hernandez: I think that's that was kind of his point though, exactly what you said, creating horror experiences where you're not necessarily targeting haunt fans, you're targeting people that like the IP, and that's kind of the reason IP is so important. I tend to agree, I just think that's an interesting take on it, and like all these trend lines, I think, are related basically. 

Philip Hernandez: So, Springtopia Fest, we also talked about this and reported this story earlier when the news first broke about it. I just went before we are recording this. So, just immediately before I got on the phone with Scott, I just came back from the event, it was their opening night. Of course, Springtopia Fest is a pop-up event that's in a parking lot of a mall, it is 7 themed lands with amusement park rides added on, and it's about roughly 200,000 square feet. Their Spookyland is a land within Springtopia Fest, and it is 2 mazes and kind of a scare zone that joins in the middle of it. So, again, we're putting scare mazes in, but we have this more generic, fun architecture built up around it. It's similar to all these things we're talking about where there's this attempt to make it a broader appeal, and in all kind of all of these examples that we're seeing.

Philip Hernandez: Thing I thought was interesting about this Springtopia Fest is that it's actually produced by the Valley Fright Nights team, which I didn't know before going there, and before talking to the team there. The Valley Fright Nights was a summer event that debuted last year and was a summer scare maze event that was standalone. What they're now doing, again, it's the same type of thing, they're producing this whole Springtopia Fest event that is like a celebration of spring that has a spooky element to it, and they plan on bringing back their valley Fright nights event for year two in July, at the end of July as well. 

Philip Hernandez: It's just interesting because this year they partnered with Fever to be able to put on the event. So, clearly, there's the ability to get the partners and bring this all together. I talked to them about how they chose the different zones, and they said really they were just looking for something that was novel, the novelty component, like what have people not done before? There's usually a petting zoo, but there's not like a puppy-specific area where it's only puppies.

Scott Swenson: And everybody loves puppies.

Philip Hernandez: Everybody loves them, yes. It was a very popular area.

Scott Swenson: It sounds a lot like a more immersive and a little bit more robust version of what I used to refer to as the Instagram Museums. It sounds a lot like, let's capture this for social media, let's get our TikTok videos, it's a content creator's dream because you've got multiple lands, multiple backgrounds, multiple experiences, and you can get a whole bunch of video clips and posts, a bunch of content. I will be honest, of the three, this is the one that I, based on my likes and dislikes would be least interested in. I'm not saying it's bad. I'm just saying I'm not the target market. I accept and embrace that. It's interesting. The only thing that concerns me about the approach of, "well, we just want to do things that weren't really done before," is sometimes when you try to be something to everyone, you're nothing to anyone. I'm not saying they've crossed it, I cannot say that because I was not there. I think that is the concern with both this story and the story about Screen Break. Are they trying to, on paper, be... There's one thing to broaden your demographic, or broaden your market, which I agree with, however, broaden it in an adjacent way. Don't try to be everything to everyone. Because, again, then you don't really target anybody. I'm not saying that's what you're doing, that's my cautionary tale there. 

Philip Hernandez: I agree with that. I do think that it is tough, right? Because when you're trying to make each zone novel, then to your point, it's like, how do we make a through line that makes sense? Even if you're celebrating spring, Spooky isn't really... Like Santa and scare mazes aren't necessarily part of spring, so it's a little bit... I think that theming narrative is tough to balance. 

Philip Hernandez: I think of all of them, I think Screen Break did the best job, because again, I think it's closer to what you're talking about. They have the assets already, they already have a piece of the market, which is haunt fans that go there for that event, as the President mentioned in his talk about the expansion of Frightfest. They're basically taking it and saying, what if people could come to enjoy our mazes in the offseason without being worried about it being so scary that they couldn't bring their younger nephews or cousins? You know what if we made it a dialed-down version in the offseason where we just have fun? Teens having fun. It felt like a teen dance, especially the Grave area. I was like, I can't even hear my thoughts right now, and there are a lot of lasers. The monsters are just dancing with people, they're dance challenging people. 

Philip Hernandez: So, I think that's the closest one I think. I think when I got there, I was like, oh, this is much more strategic than I had originally reported on, because just the idea of how do we get them more interested in coming to Haunt? Well, we show them a toned-down version in this time period and kind of ease them into this culture. So, I thought that was, of all of them, that seems the most strategic.

Scott Swenson: Yeah, I think we need to continue to follow this because I'm curious to see, by doing a toned-down version, is it creating a new product or is it a gateway drug to an existing product? And I'm not sure which the answer is because I've seen it go both ways. So anywho, Speaking of going. It's time for us to go. That was one of the weakest segues I think I've ever done in my entire life?

Philip Hernandez: Wa Whaaa.

Scott Swenson: It was spooky. That segment was so bad it was scary. So, we're going to end our show on being scary. On behalf of Philip Hernandez from Gantom Lighting and The Haunted Attraction Network, and myself, Scott Swenson and Scott Swenson Creative Development, this is Green Tagged Theme Park in 30, and we will see You next week.


Scott SwensonProfile Photo

Scott Swenson

Owner/Creative Director

For over 30 years, Scott Swenson has been a storyteller, bringing stories to life as a writer, director, producer and performer. His work in theme park, consumer events, live theatre and television has given him a broad spectrum of experiences. In 2014, after 21 years with SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Scott formed Scott Swenson Creative Development LLC. Since then he has been providing impactful experiences for clients around the world. Whether he is installing shows on cruise ships or creating seasonal festivals for theme parks, writing educational presentations for zoos and museums or directing successful fund raisers, Scott is always finding new ways to tell stories that engage and entertain.