Scott and Philip celebrate their 2 year anniversary by reflecting on Lost island's early closure and the opening of Halloween Horror Nights
Scott and Philip celebrate their 2 year anniversary by reflecting on Lost island's early closure and the opening of Halloween Horror Nights
Philip: From our studios in various locations around the State of Florida, this is Green Tagged Theme Park in 30. I'm Philip, he's Scott. And Scott, happy 2-year anniversary of recording this show!
Scott: I know! Here we are finishing our second year. It's hard to believe. It's interesting because, when we first set out to do this, we decided we want to do a show that we felt was unlike anything else that was out there, and I think we've been pretty true to our intent. We didn't want to report about what was happening, we wanted to report about why it's happening, and to help everybody sort of prepare for the trends and prepare for where we were going. Of course, we started in the midst of a pandemic, and so that was kind of one of the situations where it was helpful and useful information. I don't know about you, but what's interesting to me is, I've actually dug in a little bit deeper and discovered this is something that is good for us all the time. We should always be prepping to look forward.
When we first started, when we first started, I was just completing my Crisis Management Certificate, and it was always like, instead of trying to get prepared, you should always stay prepared. So, I think this is a good learning from that and I'm hoping that people are still continuing to get stuff from our shows that will continue to help them, looking forward. So, hopefully, the next whatever isn't going to hurt them as much. I don't know. I'm just thrilled that you and I get together every week and get a chance to sit down and chat about an industry that we are both not only intimately involved in but also truly care about and has provided us with not only a livelihood but also a great deal of fun. Hopefully, all of you listening enjoy it too.
Philip: Yeah, I agree, and kind of in celebration of our two-year, and looking back and reflecting, the theme for today is "Earlier". Today is more of a themed episode where we're going to talk a little bit of some news, but as usual, we're going to work the news into, as Scott just said, larger whys and the larger discussion points about it. So, a little bit different, we're not going to be as many news stories, a little bit more free-range discussion. The first one, which is probably maybe like our only clinical news story.
Scott: Yeah, but we got to talk about it.
Philip: Yes, that Lost Island Theme Park, which we praised when they first opened, because of their dedication to theme and storytelling, they had to close early, they closed their season early. It sounds to me like there are two main reasons. One was a lack of attendance and the other was staffing issues.
Scott: Again, things that we have talked about ad nauseam. It is unfortunate, as I recall, and it's funny, I phrase it that way because when we do shows and I know what we've talked about, I just don't always remember exactly what we said about certain things. Because, again, the industry is constantly changing and we're constantly changing our perspective on it. But, I think we've wasted concern early on that Waterloo Iowa is not the ideal place to do a heavily themed theme park and we kept saying throughout the initial reporting, "Boy, I hope they do well."
I love the fact that they tell great stories. I mean, they've even created their own language, and their own not only spoken language, but also written language, that is only spoken on one of these lost islands. So, that commitment to theming of course is very near and dear to my heart, I don't think that's the reason that they had to close early. I think, as Philip said, it's a challenge with staffing and attendance.
So, people have to get to Waterloo, IA, which if you fly there, there's still an hour drive, at least, from the airport, if not more. So, it was one of those it looked really good on paper, I'm guessing, because they could get lots of land for not a ton of money, but there's a reason for that, and that's because it was very difficult for people to get to. I'm hoping that this will draw some additional attention to what they're trying to do so that more and more people will seek it out, find it, and enjoy it.
Because they are not, at least at this point, saying that the park is closed. What they're saying is they're ending their season early. In fact, when you go to their website, the landing page actually says, "thank you for a great season, we'll see you in 2023." So, they're trying to position it as though they're just closing early. I hope that's the case. We will continue to to to follow this little theme park that could, we hope.
The way I look at it is, I'm having trouble staffing things in major metropolitan areas, so I can just imagine what the staffing issues are in Waterloo, Iowa. Now, granted Waterloo, I don't want to make it sound like Waterloo is out in the middle of cornfields and this theme park, there's more to Waterloo than that, but it's not a tourist Mecca, let's put it that way. It ain't Orlando, and that could be an advantage too, I don't know. But, I think the staffing is the biggest issue here. Some of the numbers that they reported were pretty rough, but it would have made for a great day.
Philip: An average of 300 people, I think.
Scott: Yeah, they said 250 to 700, with an average of 300, like you said Philip, so that's almost like a private party.
Philip: Truly, yeah.
Scott: So, what I'm hoping is, that those really low numbers of people thoroughly enjoyed themselves, recognized what the park was trying to do, so that when it comes back next season that they will recognize, "you know what? We got to really support them, otherwise, this kind of stuff is going to go away."
Philip: I do think that there's no reason to believe they're not going to come back, I mean the parks says they are coming back. I think that, again, when we look at all the things we've been talking about on the show, I think that it was just unfortunate timing. We've talked a lot about how there was a demand surge, of course after the pandemic, etc., especially for this summer, this was like the summer of record kind of thing. But, as we've talked about, there's a recession, there are supply chain issues, staffing issues, so even though there's increased demand, there's just a lot of factors at play and I just don't think it's a normal season.
So, I hope they do come back. If their plan is to develop into a destination, it's going to take time. You don't build a destination overnight, and you need the infrastructure for it. Also, as we'll get into just our next kind of section, there are some things that people will, even when there's a recession, even when there's their income is shrinking, or their disposable income shrinking, there's something people will always make room for, and I'm not sure that traveling to a new theme park in Waterloo is one of those things.
Scott: Well, yeah, and we've talked a lot and you just mentioned it, this is the summer of record-breaking attendance at certain places, but it's the sense of coming back, not the sense of discovering something new. So, I think there is where timing worked against them. Yes, there was a great deal of demand to go out and experience things and get out of the house and engage in the real world. But, the majority of that was focused on, "let's go back and do this again because it was so much fun and we haven't done it in a long time." So, taking that first leap, most people have taken that first leap to go someplace that they loved. Whether that is a park or a specific event, it appears to kind of be the trend here, certainly in the case of Lost Island.
Philip: That is an excellent segue into maybe the next section, which is kind of discussing, of course, the opening of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando. That's why I am in Florida, I went out to the media night, which was the first day, September 2nd, that Friday opening. Which, of course, is crazy, because now we have these major Halloween events that are opening for two months now, September 2nd through Halloween, that's a full two months of Halloween. Just in terms of logistics here, the opening weekend sold out for the event, which I kind of feel like, that alone, sets the dichotomy. Here you have one that is, "oh, we can't say open due to demand." But then a few weeks later, I mean here it feels still like summer, it is 90 degrees during the day, it's still very much that summer weather, and we are sold out on opening weekend.
A to Z there was demand, I mean the parks are packed, it was a 90 plus, almost 240-minute wait for the weekend, and we're talking completely packed. They stopped selling Frequent Fear Passes because they were sold out for this weekend, they had to put a pause on the Multiple-Night tickets, you couldn't even get Express Multiple-Night. I feel like there were some things in there where that could have been a ticketing error because I'm not sure why you would turn away like $800.00. But, everything, the tours were sold out, the Express, I mean, it was just crazy. It was complete insanity this weekend, which is still happening as we record this on Sunday, tonight it is sold out, and it was crazy. `I know we went yesterday as regular guests and it took us 2 hours to get from the line to get into parking into the park, it was two hours. It was an hour in line just to get through the parking, to pay your parking, and then in. It's a thing. The demand here is very strong.
One thing I wanted to bring up, talk a little bit that I thought was interesting. I went to a media night and media night was kind of its own bag of crazy for different reasons, of course, because you're working the whole time. But we have been posting walkthroughs of the mazes and, of course, I started with the walkthrough of The Weekend because that was the anchor for this year. The other thing I'll mention about The Weekend is they did a new water show this year called Ghoulish Halloween Tale for their Lagoon Show, and they worked The Weekend also into the finisher. So, you hear kind of hear the main motif, note motif, music motif, from that and put into the the the finale of the Lagoon Show.
When we posted the walkthrough of The Weekend, there were a lot of negative comments, I would say, from guests. Basically, the criticism being, "what does The Weekend have to do with Halloween? They're not like a horror icon XYZ, blah blah blah." It's an interesting point, it's a valid point, but I think it goes back to something that, again, earlier that we have talked about on the show multiple times and is one of Scott's go-to brainstorming techniques, you can make anything scary. Like life is scary. Everything can be scary. All you have to do is just say a thing gone horribly wrong. I think that's essentially what they did with The Weekend.
The premise is the artist gets hooked up to a machine that harvests his nightmares, and so you're seeing the nightmares. So, the first scene is in the machine with cables and like extracting the nightmares, and I'm like, "yes, it's so it's basically a nightmare gone horribly wrong. That's it." So, I respect, of course, the feedback from the guests. But I would say, since everything is so early now, it has to be a little bit more of a general event because it's such a long event, you know?
Scott: Yeah, and I'm not sure whether it's the earliness of the opening that leads to appealing to a more general audience, or whether it's appealing to a more general audience that requires us to open the attractions in the events earlier. I'm not sure which is which. I will say you know the whole idea of, "something, something gone horribly, horribly wrong," is a great way to create a haunt. There's also something to be said for a recognizable intellectual property, and Horror Nights especially, Universal in general, has always put a great deal of value and gotten a great deal of return from investing in those kinds of intellectual properties. Is The Weekend traditionally, or do we think of it instantly as, a Halloween property? No, probably not. But, you can just see them sitting around going, "who's a huge artist that has a huge following that can fall into that slightly creepy realm?" Everybody during the halftime show, during the Super Bowl halftime show here in Tampa, said "what the heck is that? That's just creepy as all get out." Well, somebody must have seen that and said, "hey wait a minute, we can make it creepier," and just ran with it.
Philip: I honestly, I think that's great. Again, as we talked about on the show, it's very difficult for theme parks to experiment, for these big events to experiment, and XYZ, but I'm sorry, they set the tone for the Halloween industry because of the guest. We're always looking at the guest expectation when they walk into a haunted event as colored by what's going on in pop culture and what's going on in the wider Halloween sphere. So, yes, the release of a Halloween movie, they release of Hocus Pocus Two, all of these things are going to impact the guest's impression of Halloween. Us, as hunters, we're in our own little world, right? But our guests are in the regular, the muggle world, and they're bringing in all those to it.
I think that this is an experiment in a direction where big events might need to go in. So, I think this was, someone had to do it. It's kind of like, obviously Universal leads in Halloween the way that Disney leads in some other areas, but someone had to do it, and it's always the person at the front of the pack. This is the biggest Halloween event in the world, it is truly, and they're the only ones that could pull off experimenting with a general IP artist, trying to make it a horror thing, to see if that will work. Because if that will work, then that's a whole opportunity for endless partnerships that they can roll out, and then that also then can trickle down to independent operators.
Scott: Well, one of the discussions we had, and I mean even up to 10, 12, even 15 years ago, back at at Busch Gardens in Tampa is, "How much more over the top, gory, terrifying can we get? What other direction can we go?" Because I mean, ultimately, haunts are supposed to be entertainment.
Philip: Exactly. I feel like people forget that. That's the thing, they don't have to be scary. We've talked about that, look at Vault of Souls.
Scott: Well, I will say that Vault of Souls still has people who are absolutely terrified by it because it's different because it's quiet, it's not jumping out at you, it gets into your head, and it kind of freaks you out.
Philip: Yes, but how scary it is depends on the person, right? Scaring is relative, but entertainment isn't.
Scott: What I'm seeing, not just in Universal, but we reported on the Shaq haunt out in California, at Queen Mary, right?
Philip: Yes, it's in the Queen Mary Harbor, so it's not on the boat at all, it's actually in the harbor.
Scott: But it's at the location of the Queen Mary.
Philip: It's adjacent to the Queen Mary.
Scott: Yeah. So, we talked about that and that's, to me, even more of a stretch for Halloween. It's like, really? OK. But if you think about it, it's a little tricky to continuously get gorier and more over the top.
Philip: There's a ceiling, yeah.
Scott: I mean, eventually, we're going to have real human sacrifice in the middle of a haunt. So, they have to kind of test things, and to Philip's point, you won't really know whether it's going to work or not until you try. If something the size of Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights is willing to try something, then they're trying it on the grandest level possible, there will be a trickle-down appeal.
Honestly, I've already seen it in events that haven't even opened yet, just based on either their preliminary marketing or even in some cases, like for example Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens in Tampa, the store has opened. So, the merchandise store has opened before the opening of the event itself, and one of the new sweatshirts is pink glitter. Now, back in the day, if we had done pink glitter anything for Howl-O-Scream we would have been like, "what? This is so off brand." Considering that they are attempting to appeal, I'm assuming to a broader audience or a different audience, I think it's OK. It's not my personal choice, but I think it's OK.
I will also say that there is something to be said for trying, because the same thing doesn't scare everybody. You've heard that over and over again, the same thing doesn't scare everybody. The same thing isn't exactly what everybody wants to go. So, before we started to get down and dirty with Howl-O-Scream to make it scary and ferocious, we tried to make it a party back in the day. That was going up against Horror Nights, which was going as "dangerous" as possible. So, it didn't work then, but now maybe it will work. This may also be in response to, as Philip said, what's going on in the world. Do we have enough dangerous in our real worlds that party is the way we feel more comfortable going when it comes to Halloween? Definitely a suspension of disbelief.
Although, what I think is interesting is, and I don't know whether this ad is running around the country, but one of the Halloween Horror Nights ads here in Florida is called The Skeptic. It's this this woman walking through with a friend and the first thing she says is, "I can't believe you get into this stuff, that's fake, that's not real, that's fake." She turns the corner, and she runs into Michael Meyers, and she all of a sudden thinks that he for some reason is magically real. So, I think that even that has a little bit more tongue-in-cheek approach to it. Their other main ad here in Florida is, of course, promoting The Weekend and that experience, and it's all about taking selfies in the bathroom. So, it's interesting that the trend has gone to a more broader appeal and more of a party appeal.
Philip: I do want to give a few more bits for the context, because the context does support what you just said, even though you didn't know, because you didn't go, but you just got there anyway Scott, that's how good you are. So, the queue line for the maze is really like a party. I mean it's obvious they knew it was going to be the longest line. So, the queue line is very large, and they put up a show rigging above the queue line. So, the queue line's almost like you're sitting in the middle of show rigging, his music is playing, there are projectors, and so it's like you are at a party, just the line is a party. They've made the whole line a party, and I thought that was a brilliant stroke.
I also thought too, the other argument I would make with that Michael Meyers thing, everything you pointed out is that I know maybe to some people it might seem... I can't believe I'm defending this in this way, but I know to some people it might seem that it's completely just the IP and kind of without thought, but if you take a step back and look at it, what's happening is, his nightmares are being brought to life and that essentially is what's happening in some of those commercials too. Where can you believe these things are real? Or where can they be real? In your dreams, in your nightmares.
So, the other anchor to the event is classic Halloween, retro Halloween. So, that's my one kind of critique about it is, I think that The Weekend almost overshadows the Pumpkin Lord and the retro Halloween vibe. Everything else, including the Lagoon Show, everything, is all retro Halloween. I mean, but even then, I think that you can see the theme and the motif of nightmares through everything. Because retro Halloween, it's like that nostalgia of your childhood nightmares, that's kind of what's coming out. Then, The Weekend just makes complete sense where you could almost imagine that his, as an artist, some of his nightmares were inspiring some of the lyrics in his songs, right? So, you can kind of see that, and you're going into his nightmares.
Then, of course, the other critique that people have, of course they're willing to look the other way with this one, is The Nightmare Fuel, which debuted last year, which I talked about last year on the show. I said it was one of the best theme park stage shows I've ever seen. I still stick to that. They didn't really change anything this year. If anything, in every scene where there was fire, they doubled the fire. If you had asked me if that was physically possible, I would have said no. I will just say that, even though everybody’s hands were full of fire, they added head pieces so you could double the amount of fire. So, everywhere there is possible to put fire, there is fire.
Even in that one, it's the same through line. There is a main character, he goes on stage, the whole premise is that he says, "Every Halloween I'm haunted by these nightmares, and it just feel so real." He goes to sleep, he wakes up, you're in his nightmare, the nightmares come into life, he dies in his dream, wakes back up, and then the book he was holding as he was ready to go to sleep, he sees it's singed, because there was so much fire, all those head pieces. The book is singed and then he realizes, "oh my God, it might be real." OK, that through line then carries through to Lagoon Show, then carries through The Weekend. So, I think in the defense of it, it does make sense as much as you can really expect for a event that size to make sense.
Scott: Well, and it's interesting because having not experienced the event, what I'm about to say is 100% on conjecture, and its conjecture based on what I've seen happen in the past at Universal and at other parks as well. My guess is that The Weekend was a late addition. My guess is that they had the Pumpkin Lord all set up and ready to go, and then the opportunity came for The Weekend, and they jumped on it and found a way to make it fit.
The only reason I say that is if you think back quite a few years now to Halloween Horror Nights where the the marketing icon was the Storyteller, that whole event was a completely different and unified theme, and it was all about the flow of blood. That was one of those situations where one of the teams was working in that direction, another team was working on the icon, and the Storyteller emerged. So, they were then required, and for good reason, to incorporate Storyteller into whatever else they were doing. The Storyteller was forced fit into one of the haunts, it was forced fit into one of the shows. So, it kind of sounds like this is a similar situation, but it sounds like because they had that experience before, they were much better suited to find a way to make it all work and make it all thematically come together.
Philip: Yeah, I would say your hypothesis, I don't know for sure of course, we both don't know, but I think that would make a lot of sense. We talk a lot about follow the money as well. Well, follow the merch, too. I think there's maybe one shirt that is a Weekend shirt, but the annual pass holder shirt is the Pumpkin Lord, right? The Pumpkin Lord has a coaster, he has a jar, he has a lot of merch as Pumpkin Lord, and also all the other merch is nostalgia Halloween, which all fits in with Pumpkin Lord, that's his domain. So, I would say, if you follow the merch, "oh, there's 1 shirt for The Weekend, and then there is everything else with Pumpkin Lord." Everything, and there's a lot of merch.
Scott: Well, and that's because merchandise has a longer lead time. When you're getting merchandise in those numbers, you've got to start designing, ordering, if you're going to get them at a price point that you can afford to not sell, because, let's face it, seasonal. So, merchandise doesn't always sell, so you have to find a way to carry it over. So, yeah that makes total sense to me, it does not surprise me in any way, shape, or form. But I'm glad that they have been able to find a way, if this is indeed true, and once again I want to say this 100%, this is complete conjecture, we're making this up, but it is based on what they've done in the past and it's based on what we've observed. So, I guess it's fair to say, Philip, based on your observation, it appears as though the weekend was a late addition, but they did everything they could to incorporate it into the existing Pumpkin Lord mythology of the event.
Philip: I would say, you know what? Again, I said this last year and I'm going to say it again, thinking earlier I said this last year, with Nightmare Fuel I'm going to say it again, I will say to get into the event, in a time where a lot of parks are riding that demand wave, just kind of really doing whatever they get away with, I want to give kudos to the park for taking the extra step. They didn't need to be like, "oh, The Weekend really needs to make sense as a nightmare. Maybe he's being inspired, like he's being terrified by the Pumpkin Lord who is infecting his dreams, giving him nightmares." They didn't need to do that, right? Same with Nightmare Fuel. They didn't need to make a story.
Honestly, you put what basically is a burlesque show on fire with acrobats, no one going to complain that there's not a story. So, they add a story into it to make it fit, They didn't have to add twice as much fire this year, all that is increasing the expense. It's not like they added twice the seats to it, they just added, added, added for really just no discernible monetary reason that I can find. I will tell you, I have never seen a crowds... So, people were standing ovation at this show, every show. I was like, what?
Scott: They increased it for marketing so that the word-of-mouth marketing skyrockets, because again, I'm not sure whether they were as confident that it was going to sell out as we think they might have been. Clearly, they weren't necessarily prepared for it either.
So, my guess is that the whole purpose in doing that, you're right, it's going to cost more money, not necessarily going to generate more money, except it is going to generate more buzz, it's going to generate more word of mouth, and get more people to come out and experience the event. Again, since they're starting earlier, they got a lot more tickets to sell, so they need to do that.
Philip: We're at the very end, last thing I want to say for those, because this is another trend too, we've been talking a lot. They did plus, plus, plus their food and beverage, and not just in the amount of offerings and in how themed the offerings are. Everything is very well-themed, but they also added facades to every little kiosk for food and lit the facades. They put thematic spooky lighting and made everything spooky, there's even a meat locker walk-through shop experience for food now, where you can go in and get meat that is it wrapped like meat, they're Rice Krispie treats, right? But you can get like raw meat and eat the raw meat for photo OPS.
Then, of course, the Tribute Store they plus, plus, plus attributes or even more. It has photo Ops in it this time, which I feel like, for a throughput capacity, is a questionable decision.
Because there's a line now, of course. There’s a line now, of course, and sometimes the tributes store line is as long as the maze that it's next to. I had a 40-minute wait yesterday to get into just the store.
Our listeners, take these, look at these examples, these are great examples of things you can do to sell more, because that's really... people are buying stuff like crazy, so that's important.
Scott: And based on Wizarding World, they don't care about queues going into shops. You know, people waited 2 hours to buy a wand. You know, there you go. The thing is, if there's a line that means that people are willing to wait for it. All right, going back to our theme here that just means you got to get into the line earlier.
So, ironically enough, here we are, two years into this show, and we do a show all about "Earlier" and we actually run long. So there you go. Anyway, that is the end of this week's Green Tagged Theme Park in 32. On behalf of Philip Hernandez and myself, Scott Swenson, thank you so much for listening. And here's to another 2, 4, 6, 8 years. OK, we'll see you next week.
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.
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