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Sept. 22, 2022

Day 21: DARK at Fort Edmonton Park in Edmonton Canada

Day 21: DARK at Fort Edmonton Park in Edmonton Canada

DARK returns to Fort Edmonton Park on October 7th with a new maze and plenty of returning scares. Fort Edmonton Park is a living history museum, and the DARK event raises funds for its normal operations. We’ve been following DARK since its opening 5...

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DARK returns to Fort Edmonton Park on October 7th with a new maze and plenty of returning scares. Fort Edmonton Park is a living history museum, and the DARK event raises funds for its normal operations. We’ve been following DARK since its opening 5 years ago, and this conversation with Teresa Ryan is a very candid and wide-ranging one. We’ll hear about the new designs, but also about the event’s challenges and evolutions. Follow along to our Hauntathon:


Teresa Ryan: My name is Teresa Ryan, I am the Director of Experience Development at Fort Edmonton Park and the Creative Director of DARK. DARK returns to Fort Edmonton Park for its fifth year. We will be in operation for 12 nights this year, beginning on October 7th. You can experience haunts, scare zones, roving performers, food trucks, drink service, and we've got a graveyard if you want to dance. So, lots, it's a real festival atmosphere at DARK. So, we have one brand new maze, or haunt, this year, and we have two returning haunts that we've revamped and given sort of a new story in a sort of a new makeover. 

Teresa Ryan: Returning this year is Blood Harvest, and this is a story of what can happen when you make a dangerous deal with an ancient being. In an act of desperation, owners of an ailing family farm make a demonic deal and are now obligated to worship and to pay. In order to guarantee successful crops, they must pay with the blood of their victims. This is where the guest journey comes in. Guests come across this farm after their car breaks down a country road. They see a farmhouse, and they're hopeful that they'll find some help, but instead, they must escape the twisted farm. So, in this haunt, the demon, his earthly form is that of a terrifying scarecrow. So, strong Halloween vibes in this hunt. 3 So, that's an outdoor haunt. We sort of took our creative inspiration from the infrastructure, it's outdoors, we've got a farmhouse, a barn, junk field, so we really leaned into that when we started developing the creative. 

Philip Hernandez: Yeah, I was thinking as you were talking about it, that exact thing that it sounds like this is something that feels like it could be at Fort Edmonton Park because of the natural structures that already exist there. 

Teresa Ryan: Yeah, definitely taking inspiration from what we have. Speaking of taking inspiration from our infrastructure, we have another returning haunt this year called Under the Big Top. This is a behind-the-curtain look at what our menacing ringleader, RIP, is doing to make their circus horrifically unique. So, the journey starts out as a fun backstage look before it becomes seedier, darker, and dangerous, and the finale of this hunt shows guests what RIP is capable of as they make their way through their workshop, and they witnessed the horrific means of the mutilation and reconstruction of the circus performers.

Teresa Ryan: So, again, leaning into the infrastructure of what we have at Fort EdmontonPark, this hunt is located in our midway. So, certainly looking at that for inspiration, and it's built in a large, enclosed tent, which really allowed us to have some control over the design of the footprint of this haunt. This year we're really pleased to say that this haunt is now wheelchair accessible. We made a commitment to that this year, and we're also hoping that our brand-new haunt is also accessible. 

Teresa Ryan: Speaking of the new haunt, that is called 3 AM, and I think we all know at that time, that's when the veil between the living and the supernatural is at its thinnest. So, this is a perfect time for demonic dream weavers to basically suck you out of your home and bring you into their hellish portals. This haunt really explores those instances of when you wake up in the middle of the night and you're not really certain that things are as they should be. 

Teresa Ryan: We looked at things like sleep paralysis, paranormal activity, and just waking up to see parts of your nightmare that have potentially manifested into your reality. You're no longer sleeping, and neither are those demons, they're no longer sleeping either. So, guests’ journey and witness a transformation of an idyllic family home that essentially just sort of locks from the inside out. They'll go through rooms, portals, and really a nightmarish playground of where these sinister beings are. The ultimate goal for the guests, of course, is to wake up when their alarm goes off.

Teresa Ryan: Yeah, this haunt is unique in that we made a commitment to have no blood. There is no gore in this haunt. We're relying heavily on our art design, lighting, audio, video, and our actors to really sell this immersive story. This is a haunt that I really hope people will be thinking about when they get home and turn off their lights. 

Philip Hernandez: Why did you decide to go in that direction? Like why go with that genre of story? 

Teresa Ryan: Well, first of all, we recognize that not everyone is afraid of the same things. So, when we build our haunts, we try to sneak different elements in. So, Under the Big Top, midway, there's clowns, and we know clowns aren't always safe for some people. Blood Harvest really leans into that sort of slasher, bloody, supernatural story, and we just wanted to provide something different. I think, sometimes, especially when you're creating an immersive environment, you can actually, I think, you can impact people even more so. 

Teresa Ryan: You start to get a little desensitized if you're constantly seeing blood, gore, and knives, like the same type of action happen over and over again. We want people to feel it and we hope that the horrors will kind of seep in. Because we're building it in a home environment, I think this one really does have a chance to, you know, people will be thinking about it when they get back to their place. 

Teresa Ryan: The idea came from when you wake up in the middle of the night and you look at the pile of clothes and you think, "is that a pile of clothes?  Because it sure looks like a shape of something else." So, we started exploring things that make us uneasy in the middle of the night, and we tried to, you know, write it into this haunt. 

Philip Hernandez: Are you using any of the structures there as the backbone for this one? 

Teresa Ryan: Yeah, well, we're fortunate to have another large space. It's a reconstructed air hangar, an airplane hangar, so we were really allowed to build our vision from the ground up. You know, still not without its challenges, but we were able to, ourselves, decide what we want the size and the shapes of the rooms to be, and again, make it accessible for people with varying degrees of mobility. 

Philip Hernandez: Long-time listeners of the show will I think be familiar, should be familiar, with DARK, but for those that aren't talked to us a little bit about the location. Of course, you are at Fort Edmonton Park, and the event exists as a fundraiser right for the daytime offerings. So, can you tell us a little about that? 

Teresa Ryan: Sure. So, DARK is located at Fort Edmonton Park, which is a Living History Museum in Edmonton. One of the motivations for creating an event is revenue generation so that we can keep the doors of the museum open. So, DARK takes place on a shoulder season, basically when the museum is closed, which allows us to have access to this great playground to bring DARK to life. But really, our goal is sustainability. There's some business behind the spooky creations, and like I said, our goal is to really bring in the revenue to maintain museum operations. 

Philip Hernandez: While we're on that vibe, let's talk a little bit about how the event has developed over the years. From my perspective, I see two big trends and one is the development of the midway, and it also seems like you are doing a lot of, I would say like fan interaction, because we talked about during the pandemic when we were on the show as well, we kind of talked a little bit about the ways you were engaging online. It seems like you've kept at least that with the quiz nights that you're doing this year. Can you talk about the development over the years of this event, being in Year 5 now? 

Teresa Ryan: Yeah, for sure. So, you're absolutely right, DARK has grown over five years, and some of that is just based on the limitations that we are initially faced with. In 2018 when we launched this event, the Park, Fort Edmonton Park, was under an enhancement project. So, we had funding from 3 levels of government, we were going in, we were ripping up some of the infrastructures. What this meant is for our very first year, we were very strategic in where we were able to place the haunts because we had to think of our guest flow, get them around construction pits to a location where we can have a haunt. So, that was our first challenge here. 

Teresa Ryan: Year two saw us also coming off of that enhancement project, but we had a little bit more room, and that midway, like you said, was also part of the enhancement. So, suddenly we had this great new area that we've got a scare zone in that area, we've got a haunt, there are food trucks, so a whole new world became available to us as DARK.

Teresa Ryan: Then entering into the pandemic, we decided that we didn't want to lose momentum, we wanted to stay in the market.We moved everything virtual that year, and some of those virtual offerings have stuck. Speaking of accessibility earlier, this is an affordable way to stay participating in DARK, this is a way if you're still hesitant to come out and experience it, we still continue to offer some online experiences for guests. So, last year was really the first year that we had the footprint that we will have now going forward.

Teresa Ryan: So, we are able to look at guest flow, maybe look at our site capacity and this year you know take it to the next level again. We pushed what we could last year, this year we've expanded our footprint, we're bringing in some more amenities, more food trucks, just to try to get more people to experience that festival environment, but we're mindful to not overload the haunts, if that makes sense.

Teresa Ryan: But going back to some of your original thoughts about Fort Edmonton Park, it really is what makes us, one of the things that makes us unique in the market. We are located in Edmonton's River Valley. The site is darker because it's removed from all of the city lights, sometimes we even benefit from the mist that rolls in off the river on those winter evenings. The fact that we are a historic site in a Living History Museum, that just makes us spooky to some people, right? We have all these old buildings, and we have a large, secluded space, so it really enhances what DARK is. 

Philip Hernandez: We always talked about at the end of each year you should look at what went well, what didn't go well, what you're going to stop, what you're going to continue, and what you might want to start to do. Coming into this season, what has been some of those things for you? 

Teresa Ryan: I think we're still figuring out the best footprint and the best map for our guests to travel through.We tried something last year, again, I talked about the park being very large, but we try to concentrate the event up close to the front because we don't want guests wandering around, we want to create a contained environment to maintain that event energy. So, we tried one footprint and traffic area last year, didn't work. When we get some, got some rain, we had to quickly get some mats and put those down.

Teresa Ryan: So, this year we've decided that wasn't the best course of action and we've changed the footprint. It's just every year it's part of the creative process, it's not just designing stare zones and haunts and who our roving performers will be. We really look at the unique infrastructure of that site and figure out how to maximize, not only the footprint, but the buildings, and make it a really comfortable environment for the guests to get around too. We're definitely seeing an increase in interest in Halloween like across the board. 12 nights is reasonable, it allows us to play mostly on the weekends. 

Teresa Ryan: We were open for 13 nights last year, seven of those sold out, so we see that there is a demand, but we're being very careful about growing too big too quickly. So, with increasing our footprint a little bit this year, we can allow in a few 100 more people, so we'll be watching that. 

Teresa Ryan: One of our goals is to actually add an additional haunt, but until we can increase the capacity again is from that business standpoint, right? Can we bring in enough people to justify the spend of an additional haunt? That's a goal for us. 

Teresa Ryan: I would say another goal I'm I get a lot of feedback about people not wanting to come because they don't like haunted houses, or they're afraid. But I've met a lot of people that have joined their friends over the years, and they didn't go inside the haunts, but they stayed for the festival environment. I think that's something that we're doing, and I'd like to encourage more. So, possibly, I'm considering just a general admission ticket where people can come enjoy the festival atmosphere, the fire pits, the rave yard, and the food trucks, while their friends that do like the scary stuff can go into the haunts while they wait. So, that's probably something that's in the future for us too. 

Teresa Ryan: For years, Fort Edmonton Park ran a family event, a Halloween family event, and so that's one of the feedback we get, "when are you bringing back the family event?" We're not ready to do that until we are really solid and successful with what DARK is. There was a huge demand for an adult event, and so that's what we're working towards. We're working towards refining that, getting that footprint figured out, listening to our guests, and then there's room to consider where we will go down the road. But you know, with that said too, there's lots happening in our communities. We get questions for family events, and we just direct them maybe over to the zoo. 

Philip Hernandez: Is there anything else you would like to add in terms of future plans? 

Teresa Ryan: Now, as we are approaching this accessibility factor in our hearts, this is now part of the planning when we sit down to do it.We spent a couple of years working around construction pits, and just what the current state of the park was, and now we're in a position where we can start maybe having a little bit of control on that. So, you'll probably see more information about that at our haunts. Like I said, that general admission ticket, I think that will be very successful for us, as long as we do a good job on that festival environment. So, like you said, we started with haunts then now we're filling in those spaces with other activities, and if we do well with that, I think will be good with the general admission tickets as well. 

Philip Hernandez: Talk to me about inflation. Have you seen that impact at the park and had to raise prices? Then also about staffing, how has that been going, those two things? 

Teresa Ryan: It's been a challenge. I mean, it's been a challenge since the pandemic began. I think we've talked about it in previous years, about how important communication is and what message we're getting out to our guests. Definitely, when we started planning for DARK this year, we were planning in 2021 and so things like the inflation, war, all of this stuff wasn't on our radar. Every year we do factor in some kind of contingency or some kind of increase in rates, but we couldn't have anticipated the rates that we're seeing now. Some of that is, we know for sure it's lumber and building materials, but the other thing we're seeing is services, right?

Teresa Ryan: So, our Security Service quote has suddenly come in beyond what we were expecting. So, yeah, it's been a real challenge. We've had to make some decisions this year, we had to make some decisions about what we would keep and what maybe we would shelve for future years. We were looking to see one of our secret bars, but that's going to be shelved until next year. So, yeah, budget is always a living, breathing document, and this year, especially as numbers are rolling in, we're looking right across that budget sheet and seeing what we can pull backon. We've made some decisions with our scare-actors, maybe instead of having three in this area we're going to reduce it to two. So, these are all very serious considerations we're making. 

Teresa Ryan: However, we are not willing to compromise the product. So, this means constant conversations with our executive team, letting us know where we're at, how far can we push it? What can we push into a capital spend versus direct materials? So, lots of negotiating in the budget this year. But I'm also pleased to say that everyone that we're working with is just really happy to be back on board in the project. Creativity doesn't just live within haunt design, it also lives within our build and our budget. So, they're bringing a lot of information to the table, and again, partnering with our community festivals, even, you know, we're helping each other out, maybe we're just bartering and borrowing this year. But like I said, all of this without compromise to the event. 

Philip Hernandez: We're recording this in mid-September, you don't open until October 7th, sothat is quite a long time away, but in terms of demand, do you have any indicators yet for this year of how demand is going to be for you all up there? 

Teresa Ryan: Yeah, it looks fantastic honestly. Our tickets went live the last week of August, we didn't tell anyone, and we sold probably 300 to 500 tickets without even doing any campaigning. It's a great sign. So, then the following Monday we started campaigning and yeah, it's great. I'm so excited to welcome everybody back, lots of positive feedback from the community, and we'll just have to see. But we're off to an incredible start this year. 

Philip Hernandez: Was there anything I didn't ask you that you think was important to mention? 

Teresa Ryan: Philip, you asked me ahead of this interview to talk about any easter eggs. We all know people that have like, signature items or things that pop up in the haunts, but I wanted to make a nod to our new scare zone this year. So, our new scare zone is based off the city slogan that came to fruition here in Edmonton in the 1980s, and that slogan was City of Champions. So, this scare zone begins the guests enter through a decorative archway into a cemetery, and all of the headstone epitaphs and the roving scare actors were all a nod to our city's history. We do want to scare people, but really our goal is to entertain people throughout the entire evening, so some people will get it and some people might not, but it's our nod to Edmonton history this year. 


Teresa Ryan

The Director of Experience Development at Fort Edmonton Park and the Creative Director of DARK