Top ten Halloween theme park events

Theme parks around the United States are getting in on the Halloween fun this week, with special events featuring everything from horror-filled haunted houses to magic shows to trick-or-treating for kids. Here’s a look at our top 10 Halloween theme park events:

1. Halloween Horror Nights: Universal Studios Florida, Orlando, Florida
Universal’s Halloween scarefest, which tops lists of horror attractions year-after-year, is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. But rather than make it solely a look back, Halloween Horror Nights XX blends new with the nostalgia. There are eight haunted houses, six streetside “scare zones” and two shows. Be sure to catch a glimpse of Fear, the towering character Universal says is the creator of all the scares of the past 20 years. Tickets are $74.99, with discounts available for Florida residents.
Scare level: This event is geared toward adults and older teens. Trust me, it’s not for children.

2. Halloween Haunt: Knott’s “Scary” Farm, Buena Park, California

Now in its 38th year, Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween Haunt is the granddaddy of all theme park Halloween event. Unlike many theme park events where rides are open, but don’t differ from the rest of the year, Knott’s re-themes 13 of its rides and turns the ride queues into “walk-through mazes.” There are also seven live shows at Knott’s “Scary” Farm and more than 1,000 monsters, mutants and goblins standing in the shadows waiting to jump out and scare. Tickets are $50 in advance, with several discount packages available.
Scare level: This event is for adults and older teens. Knott’s Berry Farm also offers “Snoopy’s Costume Party” during the day for the younger set.

3. Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party: Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Florida
Mickey, Minnie and all their friends don Halloween costumes for this special event at the Magic Kingdom on select nights each year. Families are allowed to come in costume and there are trick-or-treating stations set up throughout the park. Highlights of Disney’s Halloween party include Mickey’s “Boo-To-You” Parade that features a pre-parade appearance by Sleepy Hollow’s Headless Horseman, and the Hallowishes fireworks show. There’s also a live show at Cinderella Castle featuring many of the Disney villains, including (new this year) Dr. Facilier from “The Princess and the Frog.” Tickets are $59.95, with discounts available for passholders.
Scare level: This one’s for just about everyone, though children who fear Disney villains or the Haunted mansion ride could be in for a few mild frights.4. Fright Dome: Circus Circus, Las Vegas, Nevada
Every year, the haunted houses at Las Vegas’s Circus Circus offer some serious scares, and this year, there are three all-new houses including My Bloody Valentine, Flesh Feast and a house that pays homage to the “Saw” horror movies. Fright Dome is also known for its live shows featuring cutting-edge magicians, and for its celebrity visitors – Paris Hilton, Holly Madison, David Copperfield and other frequent Vegas visitors tend to visit Fright Dome each year. Tickets are $34.95.
Scare level: Definitely not for kids or the faint of heart – this is one of the scariest events around.

5. Howl-O-Scream: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Tampa, Florida
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment holds Howl-O-Scream events in Williamsburg, Virginia, San Antonio, Texas, and Tampa, Florida, but we choose the Florida event for this list. The Tampa event typically adopts a back story that adds some edgy fun. This year, the protagonist is Sylvie, the lead singer of a rock band known as My X. Sylvie is out to get revenge on, well, her ex, and just about anyone else that stands in front of her. Besides the eight haunted houses and five scare zones at Howl-O-Scream, you can also see a concert featuring Sylvie and her band. It’s that follow-through with the back story that puts Howl-O-Scream on our list. Tickets are $74.95, with discounts for Florida residents.
Scare level: Teens and adults only for this one.

6. Hersheypark in the Dark: Hersheypark, Hershey, Pennsylvania
Where better to get a sweet Halloween treat than in America’s favorite chocolate town? Hersheypark opens its “rollerghosters” and other rides at night for a Halloween celebration each year. Kids 12 and under can trick-or-treat at eight stops in the park, and there are three family-friendly shows, including one by Halloween band “Bunsen and the Burners.” Hersheypark’s eateries even update their menus for the fall, offering soup in bread bowls, turkey legs and autumn-inspired desserts. Tickets are $38.95, with several discount packages available.
Scare level: This one’s truly for all ages.

7. Halloweekends: Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
Cedar Point tries to balance fun and scary during their Halloweekends. While there are plenty of scares in four haunted houses and five scare zones, but much of the rest of the park is filled with pumpkins, sweet treats and family-friendly Halloween fun. All the scary sections are marked so that those not wanting quite the fright can stay away. Cedar Point puts a heavy emphasis on shows – with nine Halloween shows during the event. And for the kids, there are Peanuts shows, a costume contest and the Monster Midway Invasion Celebration Parade. Tickets are $45.99, with discount packages available.
Scare level: There are plenty of frights for horror fans, but just as much fun for small frys.

8. Brick or Treat: Legoland, San Diego, California
Legoland offers Halloween fun for little ones at Brick or Treat, with a costume contest, dance party and fall-themed Lego building activities. New this year at Brick or Treat is a live stage show where kids can find the secret to turning scary monsters sweet, and a new light show, “The Spirits of Halloween.” There’s also plenty of trick-or-treating action at Brick or Treat, with seven-themed trick-or-treating stations along a trail. Tickets are $30.
Scare level: This one is all treats for little ones, with no tricks in sight.

9. Fright Fest: Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Illinois
Six Flags puts an emphasis on shows and music at this year’s edition of Fright Fest, with a new “Full Moon Rocksplosion” show and parade, as well as a new “zombie dance party.” There’s also “scary-oke” (which is what they should call it every time I take the stage), and the classic “Love at First Fright” show is back for a 20th year. Fright Fest also offers four haunted houses, as well as kids activities including trick-or-treating and a Halloween-themed “The Wiggles” show. Tickets are $36.99 online in advance.
Scare level: There’s something at Fright Fest for everyone.

10. Count’s Spooktacular: Sesame Place, Langhorne, Pennsylvania
The preschool set can have a frightfully fun time with Sesame Street characters with one very famous vampire (and no, his name isn’t Edward). The Count von Count hosts a Howl-o-Ween radio show, as well as an “un-haunted” maze at Sesame Place theme park. There are two additional Halloween shows starring Sesame Street favorites such as Elmo and Big Bird, as well as hayrides and trick-or-treating. Tickets are $33 online in advance.
Scare level: Only for the little pumpkins.

Halloween Horror Nights XX: Becoming a scareactor

Creepiness is all about eye contact.

That’s what I learned after a night spent as a Halloween Horror Nights “scareactor” (rhymes with character). Universal Orlando invited me behind the scenes to see what it is like to be one of the nearly 1,000 employees hired each year to scare up guests during the theme park’s Halloween festivities.

And what I found after two shifts on the streets of the park is that the best way to scare is to get close, and look ’em in the eye. It seemed to be natural instinct for people to try to avoid looking at my face.

Of course, this was the face I was showing them, so I can’t really blame them for looking away. (Another life lesson learned: There are no pretty zombies.)

But when I looked them in the eyes, I got inside their heads. They shielded their faces, turned and walked the other way, or, in the best cases, shrieked and screamed.

I would not describe myself as a horror afficionado, but eliciting those screams was surprisingly satisfying. I guess that’s what keeps hundreds of the same scareactors coming back to work the event year after year.

The scareactor experience (which Universal has cleverly named “Boo Camp”) started in wardrobe, where I was assigned a garishly colored, blood-stained Mardi Gras costume.

Then it was on to the makeup chair. My makeup artist, Tabitha, mixed up a blood-colored epoxy to attach a prosthetic wound to my face.

My face and hands were airbrushed in purple, black and red with white highlights, which Tabitha said would make everything pop on the dark streets.

Voila! I was officially Zombie-fied. The whole process took about 20 minutes.

I was given a bloodied rubber brain from the bucket of body parts, and then an acting coach came in to help us find our inner zombies.

The back story in the scare zone I was going to work is that my Mardi Gras parade float had been attacked by zombies, and I was infected.

“Your brain is only working on eating flesh,” he said, and I raised the prop brain in my hands to my lips.

We were also told two cardinal rules from the scareactor playbook, designed to minimize the chance of guests’ instincts to fight kicking in:

  • Get in guests faces, but back away quickly.
  • And never, ever touch a guest.

With an inspiring cry of “Let’s go scare the hell out of ’em,” it was time to hit the streets for a 30-minute shift.

It is hard work. Scareactors are constantly in motion, gliding through their assigned theme park scare zone, sneaking up on people and working for those screams.

I lumbered. I grunted. I posed for dozens of pictures with park guests who leaned over to pretend that they, too, were eating the brain in my hands.

And, after some experimentation, I found my preferred technique — walking straight into a crowd of people to get in the face of an unsuspecting person somewhere in the middle of the group.

In what seemed like about 15 minutes, my 30-minute shift was over and it was break time. Then we headed back to the streets.

At the end of the night, it was time to remove the makeup. (I couldn’t stop for gas on the way home with that face, could I?) With a big assist from a container of baby wipes, it took about 10 minutes to scrub off the airbrushing and peel off my prosthetic wound.

My fun but exhausting zombie day was done. I fell into bed that night and dreamed of…

Wouldn’t it be cool if I dreamed of zombies? But alas, I was so tired I don’t remember.

Here’s my video look at the experience:

Halloween Horror Nights continues through Oct. 31 on select nights at Universal Orlando Resort. Check out the event Web site for ticketing information.

Couple to wed at Halloween Horror Nights

April Richardson and Adam Cohen (that’s the blood-drenched, happy couple in the picture at right) are the winners of a wedding package at Halloween Horror Nights.

The Vermont couple, who describe themselves as “lifelong fans of Halloween,” will wed on the steps of a haunted house at Universal Orlando on Oct. 15.

April, a graphic designer, and Adam, a pharmacist, met six years ago and got engaged this May.

“Getting married at Halloween Horror Nights would join our two loves in the best possible way,” April says.

If you entered and didn’t win, you can still get a horror-filled wedding. Universal is offering wedding packages with a chainsaw drill team, 10 “scareactors” as wedding guests, transportation in a hearse, and Halloween-themed menus.

For more information on the wedding packages, check out Universal’s wedding Web site.

Halloween Horror Nights is in its 20th year. The event runs on select nights through Oct. 31, with eight haunted houses, six scarezones and two live shows. More information on ticketing and travel packages is available at Universal’s Web site.


Universal Orlando offering new wedding packages during Halloween Horror Nights

If your idea of the perfect wedding involves his and hers coffins, chainsaws and a ride in a hearse, then you’re in luck, because Universal Orlando is now offering wedding packages during Halloween Horror Nights.

The new horror-filled wedding packages include options such as having a “chainsaw drill team” at your nuptials, and taking a post-ceremony hearse ride through the fog-filled streets of the event.

As for the food at your romantic evening, you can serve your guests “Deadly Romance” spring rolls, “Bride of Frankenstein Lady Fingers” stuffed jalapeno peppers, and “Creepy Wellingtons.”

Halloween Horror Nights runs on select nights Sept. 24 through Oct. 31 at Universal Orlando.

To celebrate this new way to tie the knot, Universal Orlando is offering one lucky couple a free Halloween Horror Nights wedding.

To enter, send a Halloween-themed picture of you and your eternal beloved to All entries are due by noon Eastern on Monday, Sept. 20. Check with Universal for a complete list of contest rules.

Harry Potter ride seats modified for larger riders

Universal Orlando has modified some seats on ride cars for the new Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and many people who couldn’t ride the centerpiece attraction at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter should be able to now.

When I saw the Wizarding World of Harry Potter during an early preview in May, the ride was not in operation, but the “test seats” outside the ride were working. Would-be riders can sit in the seat to check it out before entering the ride queue. The seats have an over-the-shoulder harness that has to be pulled down and “click” three times. You get a green light if it does, and a red light if it doesn’t.

After watching folks check out that seat, it was evident that the Harry Potter ride would not accommodate riders of size.

But new seats were introduced over the weekend. Now there is also a yellow light on the test seats. If you get yellow, as some rounder or taller guests will, you will be asked to wait until a ride car with modified seats comes around.

Theme park employees told Orlando Attractions Magazine the seats are allowing more people to ride the marquee ride:

Team members we talked to said the modified seats have helped tremendously. They said before they had to turn away hundreds of guests, but over the two days since the modified seats have been in place, they’ve only had to turn away one guest.

The modified seats are on the inside and outside positions on a handful of the ride cars. The seat itself is not any larger; it’s the locking mechanism on the harness that has been changed. Universal says it is safe for both larger and smaller riders to sit in the modified seats.

[Image credit: Flickr user calleecakes]