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Sept. 16, 2022

Day 15: Planet Doom in Idaho Falls, ID

Day 15: Planet Doom in Idaho Falls, ID

Planet Doom is a 32,000 SQFT indoor attraction in Idaho Falls, where 100% of the profit goes to the local DARE program. We’ll learn all about the plans for this year’s event from owner Brent Wilson. Follow along to our Hauntathon:...


Planet Doom is a 32,000 SQFT indoor attraction in Idaho Falls, where 100% of the profit goes to the local DARE program. We’ll learn all about the plans for this year’s event from owner Brent Wilson. Follow along to our Hauntathon: https://linktr.ee/hauntedattractionnetwork

You can find more information about Dates and Tickets on their website.

Transcript

Brent Wilson: My name is Brent Wilson. I'm the general manager of Planet Doom. We are a 32,000-square-foot indoor haunted attraction in Idaho Falls. ID. Idaho Falls is the home of the Idaho National Lab. A lot of people aren't familiar with the INL, but it is the nation's preeminent nuclear R&D laboratory. We actually, in 1961 I believe, had a legit nuclear accident out in the Arco Desert 50 miles West of town. So, our theme is based around that. The idea is that there's been another nuclear accident, and it's opened a void where all your nightmares come true, you've now entered the void. It gives us carte blanche to have multiple themes wrapped into one, but I would say our prevailing umbrella theme is post-apocalyptic science gone wrong, just tying into local events and local culture.

Brent Wilson: So, our main theme is basically we have a mixture of like Victorian/postmodern apocalyptic science stuff. It's weird, it's really weird. I don't want to say cyberpunk, but it's a weird eclectic mix. So, when you arrive, you're going to see a 15-foot-tall Scare Factory Impaler, you're going to hear some tribal type music. When you enter the haunt, we've got a very dark queue line area, we have literally hundreds of vacuform panels from Nether Craft as you walk it. The vibe is kind of a New Orleans style crypt, like I said it's a very eclectic haunt. Then, as you come through the queue line and get towards our ticket booth, we have one of those chainsaw Charlie photo ops from Pale Night, we've got a Midnight Studio Effects giant, super creature for photo ops. Then as you exit the ticket booth and head into ticket redemption, we have from Nevermore Productions, one of their giant mausoleums. So, you actually walk into the mausoleum and you'll either get routed to fast pass or general admission. Then, we have a stage for queue line entertainment, and then you enter the haunt proper.

Brent Wilson: So, there's a section of the haunt where you're going to have crazy monsters from unit 70, and science lab stuff, and then there's a section of the haunt where it's going to be old school Victorian, traditional haunt stuff where we have a lot of distorted characters; characters that have human features, but their faces have become distorted from radiation poisoning or whatnot. So, it takes about 45 minutes to get through the haunt. About 85% is on the 1st floor, it's all handicapped accessible, and then we did reopen this year another 4,000 square feet on the 2nd floor. 

Brent Wilson: 100% of our proceeds goes to the Bonneville County Sheriff's D.A.R.E. program to help keep kids off of drugs. It's a cause that's near and dear to me, actually lost some close friends over the years, and so we are primarily a volunteer haunt. We do pay our actors that actually show up every night. We're open 18 nights, if they show up every night they'll actually get paid at the end. That's something that we've just been forced to do by the market. You know, the people that love it, do it for free, but not everyone loves it that much. So, this year we're going to be paying our actors at the end of the season.

Brent Wilson: I personally don't get paid anything. I'm actually the haunt's primary sponsor. I've got another business that supports my lifestyle and my haunt habit. So, I buy almost everything we need for the haunt and then I donate it to the nonprofit. Then I've got some really dedicated staff that support me. I've got Kelly Hess, who's our staff manager. We have about 85 actors when we're fully staffed, and she does a great job of bringing those in. Then we've got Lena Bean who's my kind of like build superintendent, she's a total Rockstar. Then Abe Hess helped with security and basically everything else. So we have a great team, and I couldn't manage a 32,000-square-foot haunt without them.

Brent Wilson: The haunt is going to generate 6 figures for the D.A.R.E. program on a year-to-year basis. Based on last year's numbers, I believe the nonprofit netted about $86,000. They need about $30,000 a year to run the program, so they're flush with money right now and we're hoping to hire another D.A.R.E. officer to go into local schools with the extra money.

Brent Wilson: The nonprofit took a huge leap of faith, we were able to purchase the building where we're located, it's a former grocery store. Not having to worry about whether or not you're going to get kicked out next year is huge for any haunt operator. So, the nonprofit was able to purchase the building with about 3 1/2 acres of parking to go with it. We got a great deal on the building, but the reason we got a great deal on the building is because the roof was destroyed. So, we spent about $400,000 on a new roof. That was a make-or-break thing because we have a lot of animatronics and electronics in the haunt, and when you have water leaking in the haunt it's a deal killer. So, they really took a leap of faith and sucked it up.

Brent Wilson: We started adding food vendors to our parking lot, and we've gotten to the point now where we can actually pay our mortgage and our roof loan with the income generated from the parking lot vendors. So, everything the haunt brings in is gravy, which is, you know, they took a leap of faith and it's paying off.

Brent Wilson: Our goal for this year, for the program, is to add another resource officer in the schools. That would be huge. One of our school districts in our community has strayed away from D.A.R.E., and our long-term goal is to wrangle them back in. They've gone with an alternate program. So, right now, we're working with District 93, which is a larger school district and a couple of other outlying communities. So, long term, we'd love to wrangle District 91 back into the D.A.R.E. program.

Philip Hernandez: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with D.A.R.E. How did that whole situation come together where you started to work with the D.A.R.E. program?

Brent Wilson: There actually is a haunt in our community that predated Planet Doom that generated funds for the D.A.R.E. program. It was called Doctor Slaughter's House of Terror, and they ended up closing a few years ago. At the time, I'd been a home hunter since literally I was a little kid, and I had a 3,000-square foot home haunt that was just outgrowing itself. So, Doctor Slaughter's announced they were closing, and a friend of mine took a picture of their marquee sign and she was like, "Brent, you need to jump in and take over." So, I did. I contacted the D.A.R.E. officers, and I was like, "hey, I saw an article in the paper that says you guys don't have any funding without the haunted house. Here's some YouTube videos from my home haunt, you know, I'd be interested in taking it over."

Brent Wilson: So, that was about six years ago, and so that's how I got involved with D.A.R.E., I really just picked up the torch. It didn't feel right calling the haunt Doctor Slaughter's, it was a completely different group of people. So, we re-branded it as Planet Doom. We're actually changing the name at the end of the season just to Doom Haunted Attraction, the whole planet thing just throws people off, they think it's an alien-themed haunt. So, we rebranded it, and we've completely rebuilt it. All of the original scenes from Doctor Slaughter's are gone now, and it's a completely new haunt. It takes years to rebuild a 32,000-square-foot haunt, especially when you're a nonprofit that works off of donations.

Philip Hernandez: Let's talk a little bit about what you all were working on, just a big picture.

Brent Wilson: We want to be a big city quality haunt in a small market. One of the advantages we have over other haunts in a small market is, this is not about money to me, I lose money on the haunt happily. So, we can throw the budget out. I mean, we have insane set pieces from Nevermore in the haunt, we've insane animatronics. So, I lose money every year at the haunt and I'm happy to do so. It's a labor of love, I don't do it for money. 

Brent Wilson: So, we can provide that experience whereas somebody else that might do 3000 customers a season won't have the budget for it. I've got another business that will just write checks and make donations for tax write off. It's a win-win, it's great for the nonprofit, it gives me my creative outlet.

Brent Wilson: So, our goal, we have some heavy hitters in the region, I mean obviously Fear Factory, and Nightmare on 13th, are phenomenal haunts, and I don't think we'll ever have their budget. Our goal is to be a primary market quality haunt.

Philip Hernandez: And just provide that value basically, not need to really worry about like hitting your EBITDA or whatever or having the positive.

Brent Wilson: Exactly, I don't even look at returns on investment. 

Philip Hernandez: But when you market to the consumer, what is your kind of unique selling proposition? How do you differentiate yourself in that market to the end consumer?

Brent Wilson: One thing we definitely do not skimp on is creative like photos and videos. We hire a professional photographer and videographer because no one expects to find a quality haunted town our size. So, if we can get, you know, social media photos and videos out there, if we can get commercials on TV, and people are like, "wait, this haunt is in Idaho Falls?" I think that's the best way we can get the word out. We've gotten to a point where capacity is a real issue. I mean we had Saturday nights in October where people waited 3 hours, and that's not acceptable. So, we talked about dynamic pricing, we're just going to try, this year, timed ticketing and we're hoping that helps with evening our throughput and capacity. Because I really don't know, given the configuration of our haunt and our building, how we could squeeze any more people in. We're running our groups on 75-second intervals, and if we go any shorter than that we're just going to get a conga line. 

Brent Wilson: Because of supply chain issues, Fright Props was not able, their vendor was not able to get us the throughput, I forget what they called it, the Fright Timer. So, we actually created one with a couple of peekaboo controllers. So, right now we've got an animatronic that gives the customers our rules, he's got a 65-second speech, then we add on another 10 seconds, and then a green light goes off in front of our queue line guy. So, we are now running the queue line much more efficiently than we were in previous seasons. I mean, it's been a learning experience. I've only been a pro haunter for five seasons, so I've learned a lot. Now, our throughput and our queue line are so much more efficient.

Philip Hernandez: So, basically, up until now, it's been improving your throughput. But even with the improvements that ceiling, I mean, there's only so many levers. Once you've optimized the best capability, then you have to either use dynamic pricing to discourage people from coming on the peak nights, you have to add velvet ropes, or just raise your overall ticket price. There are only so many levers you can pull with that.

Brent Wilson: Yeah, and we're not a high-income demographic, so I really don't want to raise prices. We'll see how it goes this season with the timed ticketing. I can tell you, last season we got 50% more customers on Saturday nights than we did on Thursday and Friday nights. So, we might have to resort to dynamic pricing. We're going to see how it goes. We don't want to raise prices, but we might have to if we can't discourage people from coming on different nights, we might have to. 

Brent Wilson: We do have a Halfway to Halloween event every May. Which, we generate a lot of money from that event. We had an event this past year in May, that did numbers comparable of Saturday nights in October.

Philip Hernandez: What other challenges are you foreseeing coming up in the next, like this season through next season?

Brent Wilson: A lot of the people in the age groups that work at the haunt, you know, the high teens, low 20s, these are people that have to work for a living and we're competing with KFC offering $15.00 an hour in our market. That's what we're up against. Our best scare actor is now working at Starbucks as a manager, making really good money, and he's like, "look, I need to give two weeks advance notice on any nights we're open." I'm like, "Oh, we can't lose you." But yeah, that's our big issue, a lot of these kids don't have the luxury of giving up 18 nights to the haunt, that's the challenge. One thing I find is as the quality of the haunt improves every season, it's easier to bring in actors, and they're more inclined to want to work at the haunt as the quality improves. It becomes a cool place to work. 

Brent Wilson: I have a full-time person on the build crew, and she's always in the haunt, six days a week, building year-round, and then our staff manager Kelly is there. We actually do actor training every Friday night all summer, so there's that component. We start building the first week in November. The creative side of building haunts is my favorite aspect, I like it more than operating a haunt. 

Philip Hernandez: Why is it important for you to make it like that level of an experience? I guess just playing devil's advocate here, if you're not getting people traveling and it's a small area, I can't imagine that you need to have stuff from Nevermore and vacuform panels. Like, it's not really a necessity for what you're doing, and for your price point. So, why is that important?

Brent Wilson: I've been building home haunts since I was literally eight or nine years old, and it got to the point where our home haunt in Florida, growing up we had thousands of people coming. Literally, thousands of people coming to walk through our home haunt. It's something I've always loved, I love haunts, I love haunting. How can you build a haunt and not want to make it amazing? If you love something, you give it 110%. I'm not doing this... I'm losing money at it and I'm happy to lose money at it. This is a labor of love, and I couldn't do a haunt and not give it my al, you know?

Brent Wilson: We'll be open 18 nights this season. Our first opening night will be Friday, September 23rd, and then we will be open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights through Halloween, and including Monday, October 31st.

Brent Wilson

General Manager of Planet Doom