Scaring up some competition 

As Universal Studios Florida's "Halloween Horror Nights" thrive, you can't help but feel kind of sorry for the Walt Disney Co. Due to the company's aggressively family-friendly image, the Mouse really isn't allowed to cash in on the public's increasing hunger for ghoulish thrills and chills. At least not in an obvious fashion.

Mind you, Disney's Miramax Films division -- through its Dimension Films arm -- has profited handsomely from America's obsession with all things horrific. Dimension's "Scream" trilogy is the most successful horror-film series in Hollywood history, grossing more than $400 million worldwide. And Dimension's "Scream" parody, "Scary Movie," was one of the biggest hits of this past summer.

But the Mouse doesn't dare exploit its corporate ties to these films, for fear of further besmirching the already beleaguered corporate image. So you won't find any Scream merchandise on sale at Downtown Disney or a Scary Movie house of horrors at Disney/MGM.

At least not this year.

But 2001 could prove to be a different story. Tired of Universal hogging all the Halloween fun (and profits), look for the Mouse to begin giving its theme parks a macabre makeover next fall.

In preparation, Disney has embraced one of the oddest films the company ever made: "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas." This silly, scary, stylized stop-motion movie was produced by the Mouse House in 1993. (Though it should be noted that studio execs were so creeped out by the characters Burton created that they insisted "Nightmare" be released under the company's Touchstone label, and not Walt Disney Pictures.) Critics raved about the film. But since "Nightmare" did only OK business and its merchandise didn't sell that well, Disney wrote off the project as a well-intentioned failure.

What a difference seven years makes. Thanks to DVD and home video, "Nightmare" is now a cult classic. That first wave of merchandise now sells for 10 times its original value on eBay. Eager to cash in, Disney's launching a limited rerelease of "Nightmare" this month. Look for it at (surprise, surprise) AMC's Pleasure Island 24 complex.

Disney put a refurbished version of the film out on video and DVD earlier this month. A second wave of "Nightmare" tie-in merchandise also hit stores earlier this year. Now Burton fans can stock up on Jack Skellington ties, T-shirts and coffee mugs.

But "Nightmare" fans would be well advised not to blow through all their dough on merchandise this year. That's because next year the really special "Nightmare" stuff arrives, as Jack and Sally step off the screen and actually set up house in that theme-park favorite, the Haunted Mansion.

As part of a truly bizarro combination Halloween/Christmas promotion, the Haunted Mansion will close in August 2001 for a radical retheming. When it reopens on Oct. 1, the residents of Halloween Town will have joined the 999 "happy haunts" that already reside in the ride. For the next 100 days, Jack and his creepy crew will be "making Christmas" inside the Disney favorite.

(Florida fans, take note: Only Disneyland's Haunted Mansion will be Skellington-ized in 2001. Should the Anaheim redo prove to be a hit, the Orlando Mansion will welcome Jack and Sally for the holidays in 2002.)

In early 2002 the Disneyland Mansion will close again so the "Nightmare" elements can be removed. It will then reopen with all its original otherworldly theming. Should the public embrace the seasonal retheming, look for the holiday makeover to become an annual event.

But Jack Skellington and his ghastly group won't be the only creatures to eventually creep into the Magic Kingdom. 2001 will see the debut of a whole new family of fiends with the arrival of Pixar's next Disney release, "Monsters, Inc." This computer-animated film reveals the secret life of all those things that supposedly lurk under our beds.

Disney is so certain that Monsters, Inc. will be a monstrous hit that they've begun promoting the project a year in advance of its November 2001 release. A trailer for the film -- featuring the voices of John Goodman and Billy Crystal -- debuted this week in front of every "Toy Story II" video. (Web savvy folks can view the trailer without buying the video by downloading it directly from Apple's website.)

The Mouse will use its parks to heavily promote this project, with plans for a "Monsters, Inc." parade that will roll daily through Disney-MGM Studios starting in November 2001. This parade -- as well as the creepy character costumes Disney plans to create to people this street pageant -- eventually may serve as the centerpiece of an expanded "Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party" back over at the Magic Kingdom starting in October 2002.

Additional plans call for a two-tiered Halloween celebration by 2003, with family-friendly frights at the Magic Kingdom as well as the original Disneyland Park, and more serious scares at Disney/MGM Studios as well as the soon-to-be-opened Disney's California Adventure Park in Anaheim. The Mouse isn't entirely sure how it's going to go about staging its authentically frightening events at these parks yet. Sources say the Imagineers are exploring the idea of temporary attractions (horror mazes, stage shows, etc.) based on the Scream series as well as Scary Movie.

You know -- just like the entertainments found at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.

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