With attendance restrictions and new coronavirus safety guidelines, including compulsory mask wear and social distancing, theme parks have had to redesign their Halloween celebrations this year.
The fall break has become the premier event for theme parks, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Parks Services.
“A bad Halloween or a shallow Halloween can change or shorten a park’s season,” Speigel said. “We’re so broken this season we’re just bringing our revenue and attendance to the lowest level we’ve ever seen.”
Halloween events, which range from haunted houses and fear zones to kid-friendly parades and trick-or-treating booths, have become incredibly popular with guests in the US and abroad. These events Often pad the bottom line for theme park operators to like Universal, Disney and Six flags.
Halloween events were initially an opportunity to expand operations in regional parks into the autumn months. Roller coasters are less attractive in colder weather, and with school back in class, families cannot go to parks on weekdays in the fall.
Over time, it developed into lucrative month-long festivals. Theme parks in the US bring bales of hay, giant jack-o-lanterns and cobwebs as early as August to kick off the spooky season. As a rule, Halloween events take place outside of traditional parking hours and require a separate ticket purchase. The parks make money both from the guests who come during the day and from those who arrive at sunset.
These events, especially those with multiple haunted houses, attract guests for several nights. Six Flags found in a call for prizes last year that visitors often come to the park three to four times to experience the event.
A really good time
Some parks, like Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios, and Busch Gardens owned by SeaWorld, are all about blood, fear, and screams on Halloween. These parks design elaborate labyrinths full of creepy creatures and lots of fear of jumping.
Knott’s Berry Farm, which started the Knott’s Scary Farm Event in 1973, was the first park to come up with a Halloween-themed event. Unfortunately for the park that is owned by Cedar Fair, California hasn’t lifted restrictions on reopening theme parks in the state, making it impossible to host its annual Halloween event.
“As the original creators of the first-ever Halloween theme park experience, our guests have expected a lot from our annual Knott’s Scary Farm event,” Knott’s Berry Farm said in a statement to CNBC.
“In evaluating what to do this Halloween season, our biggest challenge was figuring out how to create and deliver an experience our guests can enjoy while making sure they stay 6 feet apart, wear a mask at all times and disinfect everything to a high degree – surfaces in contact, adding disinfection stations, non-contact transactions, and limiting contact in the park, “it said.
This year, the park features Knotts Taste of Fall-O-Ween, an alfresco dining and retail experience. Currently Knott’s Berry Farm is capped at 10% to 15% of normal attendance and has sold out its tickets every day they were open.
“We were ready to safely open our park when we got approval and it was disappointing not being given guidance on how to entertain more of our guests who look forward to Halloween at Knott every year,” said a park representative .
And it’s not the only one. Last year, SeaWorld saw visitor numbers grow 2.2% in the fourth quarter, despite adverse weather. The company said its Halloween event was one reason for the upward trend.
Water world owns Busch Gardens with parks in Virginia and Florida. Florida Park, Tampa Bay by Busch Garden, began planning its annual Howl-O-Scream event back in February.
“Over the past 20 years Howl-O-Scream has become a staple of Halloween fans, drawing thrill-seekers to the Tampa Bay area from around the world,” Busch Gardens said Tampa Bay in a statement. “The event is eagerly awaited each year. Many fans are excited to start making plans in the spring to attend this fall.”
A creepy wolf-like creature from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s new outdoor fear zone Lycan Landing.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
The team had to quickly adapt to new security protocols and create an experience that was socially distant. All scared actors wear protective face coverings and stay further away from the guests than usual.
Instead of traditional indoor haunted houses, the park has 10 open-air fear zones that guests can venture through.
Universal Studios also saw a sharp increase in pedestrian traffic and revenue in the fall months. The ComcastThe company-owned company hosts an event called Halloween Horror Nights annually, which helped boost sales at its theme parks by 3.2% to $ 1.6 billion in the fourth quarter of last year.
“Over 900,000 people went to Universal just for Halloween,” said Speigel of last year’s celebrations.
Due to reduced capacity and the continued closure of the California-based park Universal has canceled its Halloween Horror Nights event in July. This year would have been its 30th anniversary.
Universal Studios did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
Last year the park had 10 haunted houses, including those with characters from “Us”, “Stranger Things” and “Ghostbusters”. This year there are only two haunted houses that can be visited during the day instead of after work.
Without the Halloween marquee, Universal has developed other, socially distant ways for guests to enjoy their vacation. The park added a scavenger hunt called the Scarecrow Stalk, 13 scarecrows and skeletons that can be found throughout the park, and the Halloween Horror Nights Tribute Store, which has four themed rooms filled with creepy goods and specialties.
“We’re seeing theme parks adapt as best they can to keep in touch with their park guests,” said Eric Wold, an analyst at B. Riley FBR. “While the experience may not be considered as exciting for some guests, we would expect parks to make the most of it while still providing an enjoyable experience for attendees.”
While other parks dive deep into fear, Disney leans on “Hocus Pocus,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and dozens of iconic villains to provide families with a “not-so-scary” experience.
In 2019, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products revenue grew 8% for the quarter to $ 7.4 billion year over year. This unit includes all of Disney’s national and international theme parks, cruise ships, hotels and tours, and merchandise.
In the past Disney has hosted a number of parades, fireworks shows, and entertainment in the park. That year, the company also had to get creative with its celebrations with attendance restrictions and collection restrictions.
Disney has small processions of iconic Disney characters that perform throughout the day, and the Dapper Dans from Magic Kingdom have been transformed into The Cadaver Dans to perform undead a cappella for guests.
In addition, Disney has made many Halloween-themed merchandise available online for guests who cannot venture into the parks this year.
Halloween items are available in Disney Parks and online at shopDisney.
“We know how much our guests enjoy living these special moments with their families, and so more than ever we are giving them the opportunity to celebrate the seasons with Disney magic,” said Jill Estorino, Disney President and CEO Parks International.
Disney’s ability to offer more consumer products and retail experiences isn’t something all theme parks can do. Especially for parks that are not open all year round.
And the problems that theme park operators are seeing this year are unlikely to go away anytime soon.
According to a weekly report by Morning Consult, only around 21% of consumers will feel comfortable returning to amusement parks by October 5.
“That won’t go away,” said Speigel. “We will see this in 2021. People are just not ready, there is still this fear.”
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.