Universal Studios may have dominated Orlando's Halloween scene during the past three decades, but Central Florida has also been home to memorable independent year-round and seasonal haunts for nearly as long. From Terror on Church Street and Skull Kingdom to A Haunting in Old Town and A Petrified Forest, nearly every notable local haunt since the 1990s has had one thing in common: the contributions of Dan Carro, a freelance designer of haunted attractions around the globe who is currently Gatorland's creative director.
I recently caught up with Carro ahead of this weekend's return of Gators, Ghosts, and Goblins, the family-friendly daytime event that's included with regular Gatorland admission on Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 29, and learned how someone who dislikes gore and thrill rides ended up wrangling monsters inside a reptilian theme park.
Dan Carro's acting career began shortly after high school at downtown's original Terror on Church Street, but in his telling it wasn't initially an ideal fit.
"It was an acting job that I was able to get year-round, and I loved it," Carro says, "but I hated it because back then I hated horror movies and I was afraid of the dark."
Obviously, he's learned to cope with that phobia. Carro turned haunting into a career, going from Skull Kingdom and Pirates Dinner Adventure to Europa Park in Germany, not only as a performer but also as a designer and director. Despite being a professional park haunter, Carro professes not to really like two of the industry's staples: roller coasters and R-rated violence. "On a roller coaster, I'm not in control," he explains. "You're tying me to a chair and then hurtling me through the atmosphere, and I'm at your mercy. I don't love that."
In his haunted houses, on the other hand, Carro is in command, but his other "secret" is that he also doesn't "love blood and guts, or horror, or seeing bad things happen to good people; that's not why I do it. I like stories with heroes. The thing I discovered is that your heroes are judged by your villains. The thing I love about doing haunts is that my guests are the heroes, [and] I just have to be the best villain I can so you can rise to the occasion and survive it, and feel good about getting through it."
Although some might dismiss haunted houses as crass collections of cheap jump scares, Carro eloquently defends the genre as "the only form of theater where the patron is on stage, and you're interacting with the guest, and they are part of the story." That's perhaps best experienced inside Swamp Ghost's Monster Museum, the event's signature exhibit about Halloween traditions, which is personally hosted by Carro. "I talk to them all as if they are characters, like they're part of whatever is happening," he says of attendees. "They're not just passively walking through and having things happen to them."
In addition to the updated Monster Museum, this year's Halloween at Gatorland also features a couple of new haunt zones, including a Creepy Creature Carnival and the Frightful Frontier, full of cursed cowboys. Riders aboard the park's locomotive — temporarily rechristened the Cryptid Express — can try to snap photos of the Jersey Devil, Mothman and other X-Files antagonists alongside the train tracks. Kids can pose in a pumpkin coach alongside real-life creatures, or participate in a trick-or-treat costume parade.
The offerings at Gatorland are obviously far slimmer than at bigger Halloween events, both out of necessity (nearly everything is produced in-house by a core team of only three people, plus some assistants and vendors) and by design.
"I love the big parks too; it's not Halloween for me unless I go to Horror Nights or Howl-O-Scream," Carro says of the competition. "They're huge and elaborate and it's immersive, but it's not personal. They can't be; they have to be people-eaters. The thing that I love that we get to do is, every single guest that comes through I interact with, and I get to look in the eye and talk to, and get to see their reactions."
That emphasis on intimate interaction over shock-and-awe helps make Gatorland's event truly all-ages, instead of simply child-centric, according to Carro.
"A lot of family Halloween events say 'something for everyone.' They really mean it's appropriate for all ages, but it doesn't mean mom and dad and older kids are going to have fun because it's all little-kid stuff. We're very careful about making sure there's a mix of things that little kids are going to like, [but] then we also want to make sure there's some stuff that's pushing PG/PG-13, [that] adults and older kids and haunt fans are gonna love."
Carro closes by crediting Gatorland for trusting him to "get creative and come up with crazy ideas," praising Mark McHugh (the family-owned company's chief executive) for being "super-supportive" and accessible.
"That's not something you get to do when you work for a big park. How many places could you knock on the CEO's door and be like, 'Hey, can I bounce this joke off you?,'" Carro says. "It's a pretty special work situation that we have here, that we're very lucky to have."
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