My number two son called me from Ringling College last week. It is always a joy to hear from him. However, as a college student who is away from home for the first time, it is a rare treat. Of course, I have the typical parental internal reaction whenever he calls, “what’s wrong,” I think to myself. “Dad”, he begins, with some excitement in his voice, “a few of my friends are coming up to Orlando next week. Can you get us tickets to Halloween Horror Nights?”
As someone who sells attraction tickets as an added value to the vacation rental homes I offer with my Florida Dream Homes business, I have access to a plethora of free tickets to almost any attraction in the Greater Orlando area. But I have to explain to my son that I can’t get free tickets to Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) at Universal Studios. As I hang up the phone, sorry to disappoint my son, I muse on the fact that I can’t get tickets. Last year, I paid full price for both my sons to enjoy a night at HHN. What is it about this event that makes it so widely successful that Universal does not feel a need to preview it for their off-site ticket sellers?
Before I explore that question, let me tell you a little about HHN for those who are unfamiliar with the event. It takes place at one of the two Universal theme parks–This year it is at Universal Studios. It begins on September 26, and runs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for the next six weekends. On these days, the theme park closes its doors early for the regular guests, then reopens them at 6:30pm for HHN when it will stay open until either midnight or 2am depending on the date.
Inside the theme park, most of the major rides remain open. However, there are several additions that create that special HHN effect. The theme park creates “scare zones” where low light levels, fog, and costumed characters lurk and jump out in an effort to create screams and terror. The usual theme park live shows are replaced with special HHN themed shows, and, best of all, several very creative and high tech haunted houses are created to be walked through by the guests. The entire event is usually themed around a specific scary story for that given year.
HHN retails for $69.99 plus tax per ticket. But you can always buy a coke product and receive up to a $33 discount when you use a code on the product to order your tickets in advance. (Florida residents get the largest discount.) Parking is the same as for the theme park and costs $12. Costumes and masks are not allowed to be worn by guests. (I believe this is both a safety precaution as well as an effort to not confuse costumed characters with the paid actors.) Every time I have gone to HHN the part of me that enjoys the technical aspect of live theatre observed the strict rules that appear to be followed by all themed employees of the theme park. For example, I have never seen an employee physically touch a guest. I also observed that they are quick to stop if a guest appears to have a serious adverse reaction to their attempts at a scare. I have spoken with some of the Universal Studios reps and they have confirmed my observations, emphasizing that the safety and enjoyment of the guests is paramount (if, indeed, I can use that particularly word when referring to Universal Studios, sorry guys, but I did use a small “p”!)
HHN is not for the squeamish nor faint of heart. It is certainly not for small children. My 13 year old daughter is just getting to the point where she might feel comfortable (hmmm, perhaps that is not best expression to use) going to HHN. I have seen some youngsters, perhaps as old as eight or nine, enjoying the event, but I count them as the exception.
Getting back to my original question, what makes HHN so successful? First, people really love Halloween. For example, at a private school that my wife and I helped to found, the yearly Halloween Haunted House was our biggest single fundraiser. I also recall a time, almost 30 years ago, when I was working at Rental World in Lansdale, PA. The owner of the store, Hal Kodikian, is one of the most astute businessmen I have ever had the honor of calling my friend. One year, he spent thousands and thousands of dollars purchasing Halloween costumes to rent. Since the Halloween season (back then) was less than two weeks long, I asked him why he was willing to risk such a large investment. “Because my friends in the business tell me it’s worthwhile,” he replied. A quick visit to his website confirms that Rental World is still renting costumes.
Ironically, this morning I was watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton. Part of the story revolves around the “Feast of Fools” an event that has a lot of similarities to Mardi Gras and our current customs regarding Halloween. In one scene, two of the characters have a conversation about the human nature that is both attracted to–And repelled by–the ugly, malformed, and suffering of others. Could it be that our nature is hardwired to be unable to resist the opportunity to run to the fire or gawk at the accident by the side of the road?
Whatever the reason, there is no question that Hal Kodikian is correct when he says that Halloween sells. The Universal website warns that some HHN nights are complete sellouts. The Universal rep does not give away free tickets. The theme park is able to get two full admission prices on the same day–One from the regular guests who have to leave early and the second from the throngs who attend HHN. All of this attest to both the creative genius behind HHN and the reality that Halloween sells.
HHN is in its 18th year at Universal Studios. They also offer it at their theme park in California. Both Sea World and Disney offer their version of Halloween events. Sea World has their “Spooktacular” and Disney has “Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party.” The former invokes images of Shamu in a sheet and the latter seems geared towards two year olds. Frankly, I know nothing about either event, except that their very names make it unlikely for me to do any further research on them.
In general, I like Disney much more than Universal or Sea World. But when it comes to Halloween, Universal seems to have gotten it just right. And, yes, it sells. Please enjoy HHN and post a comment here to let us know about your experiences.