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July 18, 2022

Dark Nights at Hersheypark, Lego Monster Party, & Nope

This week: Hersheypark announces Dark Nights Halloween event with haunted houses and Scare Zones; Legoland's Lego Monster Party returns; Nope Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood. Subscribe to all our offerings:...

This week: Hersheypark announces Dark Nights Halloween event with haunted houses and Scare Zones; Legoland's Lego Monster Party returns; Nope Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood. Subscribe to all our offerings:


Stories Mentioned:

Hersheypark adds haunted houses and scare zones in expanded Dark Nights Halloween event

Legoland is celebrating Halloween with a Lego Monster Party



Philip: From our studios in Tampa and Dallas this week this is Green Tagged Theme Park in 30. I'm Philip, and I'm joined by my co-host, Scott Swenson of Scott Swenson Creative Development.

Scott: Hello and welcome to Dallas Philip, it's a quirky city.

Philip: It is indeed something.

Scott: I have to ask you, why are you in Dallas?

Philip: I'm in Dallas for the Texas Haunter’s Convention. So, I'm glad you brought that up, Scott, because this week show will be a tiny bit different. We're going to hit some news and then maybe do a little discussion at the end, because it is a week where I'm traveling, and yeah, we didn't do too much of a deep dive, but there are plenty of big stories we want to talk about.

Scott: Sure, so let's dive in right now.

Philip: Yeah, our first story is the news that broke from Hershey Park this week. Hershey Park has added haunted houses and scare zones in their expanded Dark Nights Halloween event. That's pretty much it. No, I can read some descriptions, but that's pretty much it. So, the Dark Knights is an add on, it includes 3 scare zones and 4 haunted houses. The Dark Night's experiences will run on select dates from September 17th through October 30th, and the houses will open at 6:00 PM. There's the Haunted Coal Mine, there's The Descent, there's Creature Chaos, there's Twisted Darkness, and then there are the scare zones which are Midway of Misery, Valley of Fear, and Darkstone's Hollow. So, basically, they're going to keep the daytime more family-friendly stuff, and then they're going to the Dark Night and they're going to bring in, starting at 6:00 PM, the scarier elements. This is a big deal, this is huge, and it's not just a big deal for a brand of this size to be going into scary Halloween, but it also was a very large investment, and we know some of the people who were on the team, Epic Entertainment Group was a big piece of it. It's a big budget expenditure for a year one, to start like way off the gate with this many activations. They kind of did something that I think Scott you talk about, which is you start off very strong into your event, you want to leave that good impression if they're trying to make this a yearly thing, so they started off very strong.

Scott: That's right, and we've all heard the phrase you don't get a second chance to make a good first impression, and this is a perfect example of that. As Philip mentioned, we know that people with Epic Entertainment, which will be a huge supporter for this, they'll be a great team to work with. The thing I find very, very interesting about this particular announcement is people are trying to find what their new footing is in very, very different ways throughout the industry when it comes to Halloween. There are events that have been terrifying and more adult-themed that are shifting to more family-friendly, here is an example of a family-friendly daytime event now incorporating a late night separate ticketed, not-so-family-friendly event. So, it kind of shows that people are utilizing this opportunity where, in my opinion, it's not a bad time to test to see is this right. Because this is a wave where people are going to come, period. This is the post-terror of COVID scare, I'm not saying it's post-COVID, but I'm saying it's you know people aren't nearly as afraid and they're ready to get out. You know, the attendances are high, and people are buying tickets, so now is the time to really test without fear. I don't think you're going to get the best data, because again, people are going to come out and try out things just because they want to get out. I think Hershey's doing it the right way, and maybe I'm biased because this goes back to my Busch days where, make it a separate ticket, make it something that people can't accidentally stumble into. It's not just for the additional revenue, it's so that guests don't randomly bring their kids and go, "Oh this is scary, huh? Well, we've got to leave we want our money back." When you pay a separate ticket, you don't accidentally show up for an event that's a bit more terrifying. Like most business models, when you have a separate gate for a scarier event, the separate gate contributes less to the overall profit margin and more to covering costs of the changeovers and the things you need to invest in to make something that's not your family-friendly day product. I love this idea because what it does, what it will do for Hershey I'm assuming, is the same thing it's done for many, many, many other parks. It will open up their traditional family-friendly park to a completely different demographic and all of a sudden, they'll realize, "oh, we should come during the day, too." So, kudos to Hershey, I think it's the right thing to do. I'm sure it's going to be an awful lot of fun, I would love to come up and see it, so maybe I'll get a chance to come up and check it out.

Philip: I agree with all of that. I think the context to your point is also important because we just talked about, last week, you know the Queen Mary, transitioning from their Dark Harbor into Shaqtoberfest, which is the more family-friendly type of element. Then we talked previously about Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary and how they started off with it being family-friendly and then transitioned kind of through their run into a scarier thing. We'll just see, because these are both examples of exactly the same type of testing that you're talking about, of brands that are trying to figure out where their audience is, where the line is between the family-friendly versus scary. It's just interesting that Eastern State they had that brand recognition of being a scary event and they tried to family-friendly, and they found out that it was still more profitable, basically, to be doing the scary, and maybe that's because of the time, or maybe it's because of their history, I don't know, but it'll be interesting, because this is the inverse, right? It is that Hershey Park has been family-friendly for the whole time, they've never done a scary, so this will be, I don't know, it'll be interesting.

Scott: Again, I think that everybody likes to look at Halloween events in a microcosm, and you can't really do that. You know, like for example you mentioned Eastern State, Eastern State wanted to try to make their Halloween event a bit more on brand with their daytime product as well, and there is that ongoing balance of, do you want to reinforce the day product or do you want to go 180 from the day product to again introduce your experience or your attraction to a very, very different demographic? There is no right or wrong answer to that question. I think it's important to recognize that those are the kinds of questions you have to ask in order to... and there are other elements, other attractions that have made the decision to go away from, to go back to a more family-friendly for things like security reasons. There are people who have decided to go away from family-friendly, for profit reasons because you can sell alcohol, and alcohol has a huge markup. So, it just depends on what do you need? What does your park need and want at this point in time in its development? I think the pendulum will continue to swing back and forth, I think we will continue to see over the next few years... Because what ends up happening is, if you do a scary event and you want to try to ramp it up each year, you get to a point where the only thing you can do is literally, you know, kill people and eviscerate them in the middle of your plaza to get more and more and more and more.

Philip: Cough, cough, Mckamey Manor.

Scott: Well, yeah. Yeah, and believe me, there's more than enough of those. With a theme park, there's a ceiling that you have to get to. The same is true with family-friendly, you can only have so much sugar and unicorn farts before you go, "OK, this is done, it's no longer Halloween." So, it makes total sense that there are times when they will switch back and forth. The approach that Hershey is taking, I think, is really wise because now they're not losing any of the brand recognition that they've built with their family-friendly day product, and they probably realized, "you know what we can make this a second gate, or we can double dip on these nights, and introduce our park to a whole new demographic." Philip: I'm so curious about the data that they looked at when making that decision that, you know, you just mentioned. I'm so curious to know, I would have loved to have been in the room when they presented the data because there has been criticism for the event already. O1f course, there's always criticism, right? I mean, this is like the theme park world, and Hershey Park has rabid, like rabid, rabid, rabid fans, they are very protective of it.

Scott: They're foaming at the mouth.

Philip: They're yeah, they're just crazy. They'll be at Dark Nights actually, they'll be the scariest part. But it's interesting that there's been criticism about the event and how actually the theming hasn't tied into the chocolate town thing. Hershey, the past several years, has been doing the chocolate town renovation, they've been really trying to take more of a local amusement park with just the basic rides, and work in the theming into it so it's something you can only do at Hershey. Even if it's the same ride, but you know it, it has those brand elements. This does not have any of that, there's not a licorice evil character, you know? There's none of that. There are some pieces that are, you know, like The Haunted Coal Mine, that's using current assets, and like The Descent is the underground tunnels beneath Hershey Park, so there are traces of it, but they're not really tight into the overall IP. I think there is something to the criticism, but I wonder, whatever you think, Scott. I think that again it's back to what you said about the context, look at the situation. Is that needed for this situation? I think they might not also be sure if they want to tie it yet, because this is a first-year event. Do they want to tie it into the Hershey brand that is truly family, and make it suddenly, there's villains, like chocolate villains? That's a big brand decision.

Scott: Well, and chocolate villains still doesn't go... I mean still if here's the thing, if you try to be a servant to multiple masters, you're going to fail. So, you have to decide, "I'm going to drink the Kool-Aid and we're going to go completely dark." One of the things, again, based on personal experience back when we first started Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens, Tampa, there was a strong desire for us to somehow tie in the animal side to a Halloween event. The biggest challenge we had was, you know, the only way to make an adult event scary that involves animals is to make the animals attack, which is completely off-brand, I mean like 180 degrees off-brand for the conservation messaging during the day. So, that was when we made the decision, and the way we always thought about the house Howl-O-Scream event was, it's Howl-O-Scream which takes place at Busch Gardens. Now, what we started, those many years ago, now SEA, The Sea World Parks Entertainment, is now requiring all of their parks, all of their SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, to do Howl-O-Scream now because it is a business model that does work. I will admit that to board members it's scary in all the wrong ways to say, "here we are a family friendly park that's all about conservation and loving of nature and blah blah blah blah blah, and now we're going to have our main character for this Halloween event be a serial killer." I can see the same angst going on with the Hershey Park, but I also think it's exactly the right choice not to tie it back to the daytime brand because how do you make chocolate scary? You can't make a chocolate villain that's going to be scary to a grown up. The only way you can do that is, and this is a horrible idea, so let me just preface this by saying, this would be a horrible idea, but to somehow do some sort of psychedelic drugs that are found in chocolate.

Philip: [Worried Laughter]

Scott: So, you can do this whole trip house. Horrible idea. So, that's the antithesis of a good idea, that's not at all a good idea. I'm not suggesting it, I don't think it would be right. There are some people listening who just went, "Oh God, that would be so cool," but it wouldn't be cool, it would be a bad choice.

Philip: Back when the candy scare, like they check your candy.

Scott: Yes, exactly, for razor blades.

Philip: But that be terrible for the brand. Check your candy, but also eat Hershey candy.

Scott: Yeah, eat lots of Hershey candy, but check it, make sure there are no razor blades in it. Yeah, that's terrible. That's horrible, it's just a horrible idea. But you see the dilemma there, it's like you really want to be scary you sometimes have to go away from your day brand and recognize we can use some of the same assets, whether it's the underground tunnels or an attraction that you already have, repurposing all of that, that's great, that's smart. But to utilize a fluffy family brand and find ways to make it dark and terrifying to grown-ups, it may not be the way to go. I always tell people when, for example, we're doing a haunt about some evil character, whether it's a witch or a werewolf or a zombie or whatever, we are not promoting being a witch, we're not promoting being a zombie, we're not promoting... What we are saying is these are bad, so it's OK to have things that are bad that are in contrast to your good day brand, you know what I'm saying? I'm sure, actually, I'm very sure, that this was that is not their intent, they want to keep it separate and it will be a recognizable, independent brand as opposed to an extension of their day brand.

Philip: Yeah, just one note of clarity on there to finish this out, but there is one house that is called Creature Chaos, and it seems like that one might tie into some of their animal stuff because it says, "Join Professor Darkstone as he pits you against Pennsylvania’s most fearful and deadly creatures. Don’t worry, they’re in their cages…for now." Scott: But again, that's animal escape. That's what we could not do at Busch Gardens. It's one of those situations where they're utilizing their assets, but they're not trying to tie it to the core. I mean the core brand of Hershey is not Pennsylvania animals.

Philip: Yes, yeah, and I think that's the distinction. I agree, I think that's exactly it. So, OK, well that was fun. Keeping in the vein of Halloween, our next story is that Legoland is bringing back their Halloween event, their monster party. There aren't too many differences in this year versus last year, they have a new the Great Monster Chase 4D movie, they're doing the VIM dance party hosted by Lord Vampyre, they're doing a disco Dragon coaster which is a little bit of a retheme of that, and they're adding additional characters. I think the thing that was interesting is a little bit longer run in California, they're starting September 17th through October 29th, but they're only doing Saturdays. So, it's kind of like a little bit longer run, but only on Saturdays. In Florida they're starting, I think a week early, September 24th, because last year they didn't start until October. So, seems to me they're continuing down the event, they're keeping on the trends, they're keeping it to Saturdays, which we've talked about, the weekend play, you know earlier but on the peak day.

Scott: Yeah, and here's a perfect example of extending the day brand. They have chosen to take the Lego Day brand, which is an incredibly strong brand both from entertainment and even more so for retail, that already crosses over into an adult market. You know, if you go into a Lego store and you look at the Lego Death Star, that's something that No 5-year-old is ever going to complete. You've got to be, well, basically an engineer with a degree in order to put that thing together. I have a lot of friends who are Lego brand devotees who are grown-ups and don't have kids. So, this is a very strong understanding of their brand, and I've done just a little bit of work with Lego, tiny bit here and there, and they understand their brand probably better than any of my clients I've ever seen. They know what creative fun is all about, and it's because it's not just the brick, although that's what you see in everything, because it's so identifiable, but it's even...

Philip: They've done a good job reinventing it and making characters.

Scott: Making characters, making it creative, and making it fun, and putting the well-established Lego creative brand over the seasonal events.

Philip: OK, well we talked last week as well about the addition to the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour, which is the Nope set that they're bringing in from Jupiter's Claim, they're going to be adding that to the tour. They held an opening party, which I actually was able to go to so I could share a little bit of insights about that. I wasn't personally invited, but I actually went with a friend who's was, because I'm not important enough to be invited.

 Scott: So, you were the plus one, that's what you're saying?

Philip: I was the plus one, but that's OK, I will take it. Universal Pictures was the one that hosted it as their official preview party for the Nope movie. So, it was cast from the movie and other local celebrities, and then I was a plus one, which is fine because, you know?

Scott: You still got to go.

Philip: I wouldn't expect it. I still got to go, I still got to see everything, yeah.

Scott: You still got to go. Call me what you will I still got to go.

Philip: Exactly, and I did. It was funny because when I checked in, they were like, because I had my camera with me and they're like, "Oh, you're working?" Because it was clear, we checked in, like you get there and all the important people go to the red carpet and then all the rest of us go over to the table where they're checking your equipment and be like, "oh, you're working right?" So, it was funny, but anyway. It was a really good event that they did, and I got to see, walk around the set. I'm very curious to see how they're going to incorporate that into Halloween Horror Nights, again, keeping our like Halloween plan here, how are they going to incorporate that into it? The event they did itself was phenomenal, it was run by a few people we know Justin F1ix from JFI Productions provided some of the scripting and writing for the event, but basically, the event was an immersive experience that takes place in the new set. So, what happens is you start it in like the pre-party zone which was up on the in the back lot area, and then they drove you in shuttles over to the set, you got out, and there was a whole immersive acting experience. It kind of reminded me of the ghost town model actually, which was very interesting. You walked into Jupiter's Claim, all of the shops there were all manned, I mean everything was set-up as if it was it was a real walking in, you know, Old West Town. All the characters were characters living there, and you were doing freeform experiences. What happens is you show up, and the whole premise of the night was, you showed up and you were going around to different characters interacting with them to earn coins, basically to earn credits, and then you took the credits over to the general store and you could buy a T-shirt, from the general store with the stuff. There are different tasks, you can go find, deliver messages, or scavenger hunts, but there are also games of chance where you could try and win coins with games of chance. They had you know all the old style, they had an old-style candy area where they brought all candy out, they had pretzels, you know they brought in food as well, so it's this whole event. Then, throughout the night on kind of a time loop, the power would go out and you would kind of see little teasers from the movie that were worked into it. You could try asking the characters about to discover more about the mystery and a lot of them wouldn't talk to you unless you had completed certain quests or whatnot. So, for a one-night event, I was kind of shocked with the amount of scripting, the amount of cast, and the amount of writing that went into creating this immersive experience. Everybody that I talked to said it was only a one-night experience, that they were not planning on staffing that area for the studio tour or outside of it. I'm curious, I mean that could be true. I could see Universal Pictures kind of having the resources to say, "OK, you know we're going to write a whole script and do all the characters for just a one-time thing." I could see that, but it makes me wonder if all that development's already been done, if it might show up somewhere else.

Scott: Well, and at the very least, it's testing a concept. You know, if it's proof of concept...

Philip: That's also what I was thinking.

Scott: Yeah, if it's proof of concept, it's something that they may bring back, they may not. To your point, when it comes to opening a film, and especially a major studio blockbuster kind of film, the money behind these promotions is huge, and those of us in the theme park industry go, "wait, that's what we spend on a full attraction, and you're spending it on one night?" But that's just the economy of scale, they can make a lot more back if they get a good first weekend a movie. In fact, they can make more in a good first weekend of a movie than any theme park could make in their first year. So yeah, there you go. So, the idea behind it, I think, is super smart. Like I said, I still had the question about, they clearly have a great deal of confidence in it because they're putting it in really sight unseen by the guests, by movie guests, and getting a lot behind it. So, again, I think it was also a perfect opportunity to introduce what this new set piece and this new part of the studio tour is going to look like, and introduce it in a way that is stuff that I have been promoting for, at this point now, at least 10 years, where people come in, do stuff, become characters, become cast as part of the world

Philip: You're given a role.

Scott: You're given a role when you walk in. I'm glad you mentioned Ghost Town Alive, because again, giving credit where credit is due, that event really was, I won't even say the first experience like that, but it was certainly the first large-scale theme park that I was aware of that was doing that kind of thing. Sleep No More has done the same thing with Punchdrunk in New York, and so it's just nice to see that it's now reaching the level where it's kind of common occurrence. I just closed an event last night which was similar, called the Vault of Dreams, which was a high-end cocktail party. A two-night event high-end cocktail party at the vault Tampa, where the Vault of Souls also happens, and we did the same thing, but it was all based on twisted versions of the characters from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. So, the whole concept was you're attending a party thrown by these characters. It was a fun experience, and again very, very immersive, and the guests are eating it up. Yes, they're eating it up. So, it has become common practice. I mean, clearly, if a movie studio is using it to schmooze and hype their latest film, it has now become recognized as this serves a purpose and it really connects with guests and audiences.

Philip: I'm so glad you picked up on that. That was one of my biggest takeaways. I was like, "oh this is mainstream enough now that you would throw celebrities from a red carpet on a shuttle, shuttle them down to a set and have them walk into an emergent experience where they have to complete games of chance to earn coins to get a T-shirt." Because I think that is something that previously would have been completely... It's like a back in the day where they were like, "you can't make press work for alcohol, they'll riot. " It's like a thing were you're like, "wait you have to work to earn a T-shirt from this?" Like, I mean, they're celebrities, give them a T-shirt. But that's the fun of it, right? That's the thing, you've got to earn 3 gold coins to get a t-shirt.

Scott: And what people forget is they're celebrities, their agents can make a phone call and get them a T-shirt, they don't really have to earn the three coins. There's a perceived you know, immersive, fun, quality to this. I did a fundraiser for Lions Eye Institute several years ago, where we gamified the entire night and we divided the entire audience into four different houses of fashion because the whole evening was it's fashionable to care. As the highlight of the evening, we did a fashion show where all the models were legally blind, and we honored 2 fashion designers, 2 Blind Brothers, and if you're not familiar with 2 Blind Brothers, search them online, their clothes are amazing. So, what we did was we gamified the whole night so that every time you did something you got more buttons thrown into the jar for your House of fashion, and the House of fashion at the end of the night that had the most buttons in their jar got an extra take home dessert Bundt cake. So, it was a way to make the night fun, we were going to give away end-of-night stuff anyway. What ended up happening was, it actually kept people at the fundraiser longer, so they continued to make donations. The donations were, I can't give dollar numbers, but they were 175% of what they were from the year before. So, they went up 75% in one year just by keeping people there and making sure they had fun. I mean, here we are talking about this film, which we wouldn't have even covered had it not had this kind of immersive experience.

Philip: Yeah, yeah.

Scott: You might have gone to the party if it was just a cocktail party with, you know the standard buffet finger foods and you would have said, "yeah, I went to his party, it was fine." But here we are, we've already given them airtime for our billions and billions of listeners, we've already given them airtime for it just because they created a really cool immersive experience that impacted you and was worthy of chatter. So yeah, it's mainstream, it's the way to go, and I'm going to warn people in the industry, if you're not willing to embrace it, you're going to get left behind.

Philip: Correct. That was actually the last takeaway I wanted to mention from it. Again, as we try and do on the show here, we're trying to take these elements and make it applicable to people of different sizes. You don't have to have the movie budget or be Universal with this, essentially, it's the same thing we talk about all the time, it's an asset that they had, they put it in a new location, and then it's a velvet rope if you think of it that way. It's a velvet rope of a VIP experience, basically, they could have sold this and people would have bought it. That's the key, and that's what I wonder if they're not testing, but they could have definitely sold this and people would have bought it. You have this asset that's currently there and all you do is you drive people to it, you take people to it and let them have an experience around it, and then they leave. The thing is, people all the time say, "why can't we just reskin a ride? Or why can't we do a behind-scenes tour?" Or that kind of stuff. This type of stuff is so much less complicated than that because you don't have to deal with getting any attraction re-approved or going into the DMX system and reprogramming a show, or blah blah blah blah. That's actually relatively complicated, this is literally just repurposing an asset for an activity that is a velvet rope, and people loved it. And they didn't have to touch anything really, the sets remained set, the actors were in front of them.

Scott: Yep, they had it. Whether it's proof of concept for this particular set or you know, Universal Studios has a few of those movie sets on their property, so it could have been a test of concept for, you know, anything else. I'm curious to see where they go with that because I would love to see, for example, I would love to see a park where one whole section is just nothing, but you know you're going to go live in this world or you're going to go live in this. We're truly edging toward Westworld now, but see how you can do those kinds of immersive experiences in multiple locations, and it can clearly be done, and people talk about it.

Well, we've been talking about what all the people have been talking about, but unfortunately, our time is up now. So, thank you so much for listening to us again this week, share us with everybody. On behalf of Philip and myself, 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.