Welcome to Halloweentown 

Taking a closer look at Orlando's obsession with everyone's favorite pagan holiday

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If you want to experience an authentic Mardi Gras, you have to go to New Orleans. When it comes to ringing in the New Year, New York City has no peer. Groundhog Day belongs to Punxsutawney, Penn. (as every Bill Murray fan knows), and there's no better place to watch Fourth of July fireworks than Boston. But even though millions of visitors each year celebrate Easter or Christmas in Central Florida, Orlando has never had a holiday it can claim as its own – until now. Increasingly, Orlando is earning a national reputation as the epicenter of Halloween-related entertainment, a mini-industry that has grown to nearly rival Christmas in seasonal economic impact. From a blip on the tourism calendar to a major mover of money along the I-4 corridor, Halloween is rapidly evolving into the City Beautiful's signature celebration – and the deepening dependence on All Hallows income has only become more evident over the past five years as the region struggles with economic stagnation. But, as I discovered by surveying several local institutions vying for Samhain celebrants' cash, how lucrative the spooky season is for various businesses depends on the resources they have to invest in giving patrons the most fright for their buck.

Orlando has no evident historical or cultural connection to the Halloween tradition (unlike, say, Salem, Mass.), so how did it become such big business? Obviously, the explosion of the holiday's popularity hasn't been exclusive to Orlando. According to a National Retail Federation survey released in September, Americans plan to spend $8 billion this Halloween season (or $79.82 per person) on costumes, candy and decorations. That's up sharply from $6.86 billion last year, and only $3.29 billion in 2005.

While that uptick in spending has been seen across the country, and many other cities (including Key West and Tampa) have built reputations as Halloween destinations, Orlando holds increasing appeal for those who want to go all-out for the holiday. This can be largely attributed to the fact that Halloween in Orlando is something of a spin-off of the theme-park industry.

Practically speaking, the parks draw a glut of artistic and acting talent to town. At one point, there was hope that Orlando might become an East Coast movie-making capital, but that fantasy evaporated in the 1990s when Hollywood's stars proved reluctant to relocate to Florida's humid (and anti-union) climate. At that same time, theme parks were looking for a way to deal with the cyclical nature of tourism – the volume of visitors to parks traditionally slacked in October, and it became clear that the best way for attractions to deal with the slow time of year was to draw in the locals. Since the parks already had the talent – actors, designers, creative types – required to build and staff elaborate haunted houses and other theatrical Halloween attractions, they could draw in not just tourists but also locals by offering them a value-added experience: Come to the park and experience not just the usual diversions, but also the most elaborate Halloween excitement your ticket can buy.

Two decades later, that entertainment engineering has been effective enough to lure thousands of international visitors to the region each Halloween, earning Orlando a place on Reuters' 2010 list of Top 10 places worldwide for "encounters with ghosts, ghouls or vampires."

But what is it about Orlandoans that draws us to Halloween? Much as Christmas encroaches on Thanksgiving, Halloween has grown to gobble up all of October; it's even starting to nibble on late summer. As soon as the back-to-school specials cease, Halloween merchandise slides onto the seasonal shelves of every Orlando drugstore and discount club, swiftly followed before August's end by billboards along I-4.

Before September was over this year, you could have already survived Audubon Park's Zombietoberfest and the undead art show at Thornton Park's Falcon Bar. And by the ides of October, nearly every bar, gallery and theater in town had a fiendish infestation; there was even Vampire Yoga in College Park. Clearly, the masked mayhem fostered by the parks has infected our city with an insatiable thirst for foam-rubber entrails and blood-bag Jell-O shots.

Perhaps Halloween's popularity among Orlando's local population can be explained in psychological terms. As a city built on perpetual childhood, our environment attracts and encourages residents with a propensity toward the adolescent exhilaration of darkness, a ritualized rehearsal of our own deaths disguised as bloody burlesque. And as a largely transient, fragmented population, many of us identify with Halloween's outsiders and oddities.

"There's something about the Orlando area that [attracts] the grim and grisly," theme park industry insider Jim Hill says. "I don't know if it's a reaction to the sweetness of Disney, but it's like when something really horrible happens in Orlando [the media] is on it in a heartbeat, they just go tooth and nail. It's just the notion of, how family-friendly can one place be? This is the reaction; you bury the needle in the other direction. That may be one reason why Orlando is so enthusiastic about the horror events. For one brief period during the year, you don't have to be family-friendly [and] tout 'bring the kids down here.' You can go the other way and say, 'We're going to a building that has severed heads, come on!'"

It's impossible to address Orlando's Halloween industry without acknowledging the zombified elephant in the room: Halloween Horror Nights. Though Universal Orlando didn't invent the haunted theme-park event – Knott's Berry Farm in California is currently celebrating the 40th annual edition of its famous Halloween Haunt – it has certainly elevated it. What began at Universal Studios Florida as Fright Nights on a single weekend in 1991 (with a ticket price of $15.95) has now grown to dominate the genre. It has earned trade newspaper Amusement Today's prestigious Golden Ticket Award for Best Halloween Event for the past five years, along with a raft of other industry accolades.

More importantly, HHN (as it's known to fans) has earned Universal something that was previously exclusive to Disney's attractions: a faithful base of return customers who are happily willing to pay for a similar experience year after year after year. To get a fan's perspective on how Universal sustains this devoted following, I spoke with Orlando resident Mike Cantone, a political consultant, 2012 mayoral candidate and self-described "brand-loyal" HHN regular.

"I've always been a fan of Halloween," Cantone says. "My birthday is Oct. 22, so … the haunted houses were always part of my birthday experience."

When the Virginia-raised Cantone moved to Orlando in 2008, he says he finally had a chance to check out HHN: "Halloween Horror Nights is this epic event that I'd always heard about," he says. "Ever since I went the first time, I've been going every single year."

Though the price of a ticket has risen significantly, Cantone is still a devoted annual attendee. In 2008, a single night's general admission cost $69.99 before tax and discounts; today, that same ticket costs $88.99, a dollar more expensive than a regular full-day ticket to the park. (Clever locals can get in for as low as $41.99 through online discounts and Coke can coupons.)

Universal doesn't publicly release attendance numbers, but anyone who has attended on a crowded Saturday night can attest that there are plenty of people willing to pay that and more to be terrified by the professionals.

Cantone says he attends HHN two or more times each week during the Halloween season using a "Frequent Fear" pass (starting at $81.99 before tax and discounts).

"I'll probably go seven to 10 times before Halloween," he says.

While he doesn't "go for the extra options" like Express Plus access (which can push pass prices up to $229.99), Cantone isn't done paying yet: "Every year I tell myself what I spend on my pass will be what I spend, but when you're at the park with the fun going on, it's hard not to buy drinks, refreshments, snacks," he says. "The options are right there, and they're well-marketed." And that's not even considering luxury options like "R.I.P." guided tours and behind-the-scenes experiences, which can cost anywhere from $55 to $225, in addition to admission.

The growing success (and prices) of HHN has also resulted in new opportunities for Universal's entertainment employees. Key creative members behind the current event – including writer-directors Mike Aiello, Patrick Braillard and Jason Horne – began at the park as hourly employees, and have paid their dues in local theater. Dr. Phillips alumna Laura Tyler, currently seen as a contestant on Season 3 of Syfy's Face Off, began her makeup career while still in high school as an airbrush artist in Universal's parks. On her way to reality-competition glory (she won the Oct. 2 episode's kid-monster challenge), the largely self-taught Tyler has gone from applying monster makeup at HHN and Who noses at Islands of Adventure's Grinchmas to crafting Chinese creatures for the increasingly popular Halloween activities at Hong Kong's Ocean Park.

This season Tyler is back home at HHN, now as a lead makeup artist; if you spot the roving band of chainsaw-wielding women when you're at the park, you'll see her handiwork. (The winner of Face Off will be revealed on Oct. 31; for more on Tyler, see the recent video interview on our Culture2Go blog.)

Despite ever-rising prices and chronic complaints about overcrowding, enough patrons have decided HHN's spare-no-expense scares and racier-than-Disney shows are worth the price to enable Universal's extension of the event each year. Unfortunately, the windfall reaped by the park from HHN doesn't seem to have trickled down to benefit the attendees this season. This time around, Universal has done away with their customary overarching iconic theme or signature character (like Jack the Clown or Bloody Mary, both retired after 2010), and the immersive outdoor decor formerly found throughout the streets has been downsized into nonexistence. Instead, it appears the budget went toward intellectual property licenses for the four name-brand haunted houses. In the cases of AMC's The Walking Dead and Vegas magicians Penn & Teller, it was money well-spent, resulting in, respectively, the scariest and most creative mazes in many years.

The clever detail of the other two houses (themed to shock-rocker Alice Cooper and the Silent Hill video game) will be mostly lost on anyone unfamiliar with the source material. Ironically, the non-branded maze modeled on a gargoyle-filled Gothic cathedral, with stunning architectural ambience, was my favorite walk-through this year.

When you combine the fact that there was one fewer haunt than last year and only two shows (a funny but stunt-free Bill & Ted satire and the juvenile 20 Penny Circus sideshow) with the fact there were no defined "scarezones" (instead, this year there was an intriguing but ultimately ineffective experiment with free-roaming bands of baddies; they barely crossed my path), as a paying guest I felt I was getting less for my dollar than ever before.

Cantone agreed, after standing in the rain on a wet opening night, that some of this year's mazes are "fun, but not necessarily as scary as they were in previous years." Still, he has no regrets about his annual contribution to Universal's coffers: "It always proves to be a good time," he says. "It's fun to get into the mood, and get a little scared, to bring friends and have a good night out. And I don't think there's any better place than Halloween Horror Nights."

Universal is not the only theme park that cashes in at Halloween. After witnessing the success of HHN's haul, other competitive theme parks added their own more elaborate events as well. The Magic Kingdom hosts the annual Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party for kids, Busch Gardens in Tampa hosts an annual Howl-o-scream, and admission to these events is also pretty substantial – tickets can cost from $63 to $80.

A cottage industry of smaller players also feed at this seasonal trough. From "Boo" nights at area zoos and church-sponsored pumpkin patches to neighborhood haunts like the 7th Annual Kissimmee Haunted House at the Berlinsky Community House and Altamonte Springs' Petrified Forest scare trail, Orlando organizations at every economic strata are hopping aboard the haunted hayride. Even arts institutions are in on the act: Leu Gardens will offer ghost stories in the dark on Oct. 26, the Enzian's Eden bar will host a sprawling Halloween carnival Oct. 27, the Mennello Museum celebrated Pumpkins & Pies on Oct. 20, and both CityArts Factory and the Orlando Museum of Art adopt Dia de los Muertos themes for October's Third Thursday and November's First Thursday, respectively. (And all of the above cost under $25; many were/are free.)

CityArts Factory's annual Day of the Dead-inspired "Monster Factory" exhibit (which shut down Pine Street last Thursday for a street party featuring performances by Yow Dance and Empty Spaces Theatre Co.'s Phantasmagoria) returned for a third year because it reliably boosts attendance in the Downtown Arts District, according to DAD executive director Barbara Hartley.  

"It's really become a counterculture. It's grown over the years … this is our biggest year," a face-painted Hartley told me as attendees arrived. "People love to dress up, [they love] the art. … It actually brings in a lot of the same audience, but [with] even greater turnout. There are more people from multiple backgrounds that just enjoy this time of year." And Halloween doesn't just bring CityArts more passive patrons, but also increases interest from artists and assistants: "It's people participating in the art, and the volunteers. They love it so much."

One of the area's smaller – and more affordable – Halloween adventures takes place at Titanic: The Experience, a walk-through historical exhibit featuring artifacts salvaged from the famed shipwreck. For the first time in several years, they recently resumed offering ghost tours of their I-Drive attraction. I last took the Titanic ghost tour in 2006, during the infamous Nights of Terror (a short-lived would-be HHN-killer featuring a trio of haunted houses and live entertainment; it folded unceremoniously in its first season amid a flurry of unpaid bills). Then, as now, Joe Zimmer serves as tour guide to Titanic's purportedly psychoactive collection. Zimmer, a former SAK Comedy Lab improviser and Houdini aficionado who used to debunk séances in New York, wasn't a paranormal believer before joining the Titanic attraction when it first opened 13 years ago. He was converted when, while closing the attraction one night, he "felt almost as if someone dragged a finger across the back of my neck. … It happened two more times as I was walking across the room."

Since then he's spotted a phantom "officer in a black suit" who fails to appear on security recordings, experienced invisible hands "tugging at the back of my jacket" and heard "footsteps at all hours of the night after everything is turned off."

I heard these stories and more from Joe when I took his tour last month, but no spooks appeared for me – perhaps because our overbooked group left no ectoplasmic elbow room. Joe's tale of seeing his flashlight turn on and off autonomously was certainly spooky, but the attempt to re-create the spectral stunt ("blink once if you're here, twice if you're not") was simply silly. When I wondered how the ghosts have followed the exhibit to what is now its third location, Zimmer points to the "energy" held inside the pieces on display, noting that "nothing ever happened in the Orlando Science Center" when the exhibit was there, or even at the current venue, until the new owners, Premiere Exhibitions, reinstalled authentic artifacts salvaged from the wreck last spring.

"When the artifacts came back in, I'm telling you," he says, "that's when the really wild stuff started happening."

Genuine phenomena or not, the new nighttime tour accomplishes at least one objective: attracting a new pool of patrons willing to pay a few bucks more than standard guests for the spook-centric spiel. "We get a real mixed bag in this place," Zimmer says. "The sort of people who really enjoy what we do on the ghost tour … you'll meet the same people in St. Augustine [or] maybe downtown. … I'd never expect some of these people to really dig it and go for it, but they do. The whole genre, the whole ghost thing, all those shows on TV – it's almost going mainstream."

So mainstream, in fact, that the economic benefit is even being felt in our region's increasingly desolate strip malls, which begin filling up – albeit temporarily – in the weeks before Halloween.

Those vacant storefronts, combined with the aforementioned surge in seasonal spending, fertilize a crop of pop-up Halloween superstores, which now sprout like mushroom spores at each summer's close. A decade ago, independent year-round costume shops like Madge Elaine's World of Entertainment (now closed) counted on Halloween for a sizable portion of their annual revenue. Today, temporary vendors fronting for mass-market retailers swoop in for a couple of months, swiftly setting up shop and then vanishing (or converting to Christmas commerce) come Nov. 1.

You'll find one of Central Florida's seven Halloween Cities (owned by Party City) inside a former A.C. Moore outlet just a mile east of Orlando Weekly's Colonial Drive offices. Across the street is one of Orlando's two Halloween Megastores, occupying a boarded-up Babies R Us. And a few blocks away, an ex-Michaels in the Colonial Promenade complex has been possessed by a Spencer's Gifts-owned Spirit store, one of nine in the region. (Apparently the craft-store crash has been a boon to the spook trade.)

You'll likely find a similar selection (gory zombies, slutty nurses, cinematic superheroes) at whichever shop you select, with some exceptions: Halloween Dreamz, a pair of independently owned pop-ups, advertises "the largest selection of plus-size costumes in Orlando." And when the season passes, all will vanish, leaving hollow shells that serve as silent witnesses of our wraithlike recovery – at least until they are re-haunted next August.

Like a haunted Hanukkah, for these next eight evenings, the streets of Orlando will glow with a flame that flickers from blood-red to cash-green, as a flood of fright-seekers spread their dollars from Lake Buena Vista to the Longwood Haunt, home of hayrides and zombie paintball. Our St. Patrick's Day can't compete with Boston's, and our New Year's Day is naught next to Pasadena's. But Halloween, that sadistic, secularized ceremony, is the one the City Beautiful has embraced as our own.

HALLOWEEN EVENTS

Through Oct. 27
Howling Halloween Hop on the Screamline Haunted Zipline for a chilling twilight journey, or try one of seven ziplines racing at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Various times Friday-Saturday; Forever Florida, 4755 N. Kenansville Road, St. Cloud; $85; 407-957-9794; floridaecosafaris.com.
The Longwood Haunt Two haunted houses, 30 fright-filled rooms and a graveyard with hay rides, a bounce house and Kill the Zombie paintball; proceeds benefit Kid's House of Seminole. 7-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 754 Fleet Financial Court, Longwood; $10; longwoodhaunt.com.
Hallowtease Halloween-inspired Varietease performance presented by Babybluestar Productions. 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; The Venue, 511 Virginia Drive; $12-$15; 407-412-6895; thevenueorlando.com.

Through Oct. 28
Brick-or-Treat Family-friendly Halloween events, including a LEGO pumpkin build, scavenger hunts, costume contests and more. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday; Legoland, One Legoland Way, Winter Haven; included with park admission; 877-350-5346; legoland.com.
SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular Kid-friendly music, games, trick-or-treating and more throughout the park. Noon-8 p.m. on select dates; SeaWorld, 7007 SeaWorld Drive; included with park admission; 407-363-2613; seaworldorlando.com.
Zoo Boo Bash Trick-or-treat in the zoo, haunted hayrides, a costume contest and face painting. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, 3755 N. U.S. Highway 17-92, Sanford; $8.95-$12.95; 407-323-4450; centralfloridazoo.org.

Through Oct. 31
An Old Town Halloween Four Haunt-Zones, entertainment, appearances by Florida Ghost Buster fan club. 7-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Wednesday, Oct. 31; Old Town, 5770 W. Irlo Bronson Highway, Kissimmee; free; 407-396-4888; myoldtownusa.com.
Downtown Orlando Ghost Tour Guided paranormal tour of historical buildings. 8 p.m. nightly; Downtown Orlando, Church Street; $30; americanghostadventures.com/downtownorlando.html.
Halloween Horror Nights 22 The park turns into your worst nightmare with elaborate haunted houses, streetside scareactors and the brand new 3-D haunted house "Penn & Teller New(kd) Las Vegas." Universal Orlando, 1000 Universal Studios Plaza; $88.99, $41.99 for Florida residents with promo codes from specially marked Coke products; 407-363-8000; halloweenhorrornights.com.

Through Nov. 2
Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party Wear your costume to the park for the Boo-to-You parade, fireworks and costumed characters. 7 p.m.-midnight on select nights; Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista; $50.95-$69.95; 407-824-4321; disneyworld.com.

Through Nov. 3
A Petrified Forest Massive outdoor scare trail and Halloween festival. 7:30-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday; A Petrified Forest, 1360 State Road 436, Altamonte Springs; $15-$20; 407-468-6600; apetrifiedforest.com.

Wednesday, Oct. 24
TCM Event Series Presents Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein Double creature feature presented as part of Universal's 100th anniversary. 2 p.m., 7 p.m.; various theaters; $12.50; fathomevents.com.com
The Devil's Rejects Wednesday Fright Pitcher series showing of 2005's Rob Zombie thriller. 8 p.m.; Enzian Theater, 1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland; free; 407-629-0054; enzian.org.

Thursday, Oct. 25
Halloween Bash with DJ Cruz & Suspence EDM and Top-40, beer pong games, oxygen bar, two-for-one drink specials and a costume contest with cash prizes. 10 p.m.; Boss, 39 W. Pine St.; free-$5; 407-497-2677.
Ignition Dance of the Dead with Mord Fustang, Doorly Halloween-themed EDM club night with dance and acrobatic performances, graphic artists and drink specials all night. 10 p.m.; Firestone Live, 578 N. Orange Ave.; $10; 407-872-0066; firestonelive.net.
Spooktacular Costume 5K Run/Walk Costumed runners and walkers compete in a three-mile route around UCF's campus; a portion of proceeds to benefit meningitis awareness. 5 p.m.; University of Central Florida, 4000 Central Florida Blvd.; free, donations accepted; roserunseries.com.

Friday, Oct. 26
Costumes for a Cause Guys With Ties Philanthropy hosts a costume party with free drinks to benefit Darkhorse Benefits and Rescuing Animals In Need. 8:30 p.m.; Vain, 22 S. Magnolia Ave.; $20, costume required; 407-835-3590; guyswithties.org/orlando.
Ghost Stories The gardens come alive with haunted storytelling. 7:30 p.m.; Harry P. Leu Gardens, 1920 N. Forest Ave.; $10; 407-246-2620; leugardens.org.
Halloween Costume Party Participants can win a $50 Kiwi's gift card. 10 p.m.; Kiwi's Pub & Grill, 801 W. State Road 436, Altamonte Springs; free; 407-788-7666; kiwispub.com.
Halloween Monster Ball II with Disco Jr. and DJ Koolaid Halloween-themed club night with DJ music and bottle service. 10 p.m.; Firestone Live, 578 N. Orange Ave.; $15-$20; 407-872-0066; firestonelive.net.
Walking Dead Pub Crawl Dress in your undead best for free drinks at five downtown Sanford watering holes. 8 p.m.; Downtown Sanford, East First Street and South Park Avenue, Sanford; $10; 407-318-0486.

Saturday, Oct. 27
Funk Off presents: Hal-O-Wrd Halloween costume party with music by DJs BMF and Nigel, live painting by Andrew Spear, costume contest and food offerings by the Over Rice food truck. 9 p.m.; The Orange Studio, 1121 N. Mills Ave.; $7.
Halloween Carnival Eden Bar hosts Halloween spirits and shots, Carnival-style games, food such as hot dogs and candy apples, and a midnight screening of horror flick V/H/S. 8 p.m.; Eden Bar at the Enzian, 1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland; free; 407-629-1088; enzian.org.
Falcon Presents: Miss Carrion Pageant Costume contest, music by DJ Stranger. 8 p.m. Saturday; The Falcon, 819 E. Washington St.; free; 407-423-2788; thefalconbar.com.
Funk Off presents: Hal-O-Wrd Costume party with music by DJs BMF and Nigel, live painting by Andrew Spear, costume contest and more. 9 p.m.; The Orange Studio, 1121 N. Mills Ave.; $7.
Halloween Carnival Halloween spirits and shots, Carnival-style games, food, candy apples and more. 8 p.m.; Eden Bar at the Enzian, 1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland; free; 407-629-1088; enzian.org.

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