The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

Knott's 'Haunt' vs. Universal's 'Horror Nights': Theme parks prepare for Halloween battle

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Summer is over, and with Halloween only weeks away, Southern California theme parks such as Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios Hollywood are gearing up for the annual throw-down in which they pour large sums of money into the construction of elaborate haunted mazes and the hiring thousands of actors, posing as monsters, to chase guests around. 

It's the season for the annual Halloween Battle Royale. So far, both parks are winners.

Knott's Berry Farm, in Buena Park, uses this time of year to kick off "Haunt," their signature "Knott's Scary Farm" Halloween event.

“I think we bring in more people during the year in fall than anytime of the year now,” said Eric Lynxwiler, park historian for Knott's. “People look forward to this. They have countdown calendars on their iPhones, waiting for Haunt to start up again.”

RELATED: Check out more photos of scare actors at Knott's Berry Farm on KPCC's AudioVision

Knott’s isn’t the only game in town, and over the years, other theme parks have copied its formula.

In Los Angeles, Universal Studios is offering up serious competition with its annual "Halloween Horror Nights" event. (KPCC asked to speak to someone from Universal Studios Hollywood about their Halloween Horror Nights, but received no response.)

Haunted house expert Larry Kirchner  opines that Universal Studios has a superior Halloween product to Knott’s because the park works with studios to get more detailed, realistic sets, based on popular movies and TV shows such as "The Walking Dead."

Grandaddy of Halloween Haunts

Knott’s calls itself the “granddaddy of Halloween haunts,” and it's seen by many in the industry as the first major theme park to make a big deal out of the spooky holiday.  It started in 1973, when members of Knott’s marketing department wanted to get more visitors to come to the park during the fall.  

“It was only going to be three nights, but the demand was huge,” Lynxwiler said.

Today, the Halloween Haunt has become an elaborate event, lasting from September to November. Knott’s said it hires more than 1,000 people to pose as monsters and help with the execution. The park has staff that work year-round on Haunt, dreaming up the mazes that they say are sometimes based on their nightmares.

Knott’s declined to say how many people attend  each year or how much money they budget for it. 

Kirchner — he runs — said he estimates that more than 250,000 people attend each year. Visitors pay for admission, even if they have a season pass.  Tickets costs $62 at the gate.

Then, there’s the audition process for the park’s “monsters," where applicants are asked to perform a scene — such as, “you’re choking on acid but you really like it.”  If you do poorly, you don’t make it to the next round.

Some of the people who landed the coveted  monster roles have day jobs as nurses, retail clerks, students, a veterinarian and even a police sergeant, according to Craig Harreld, area manager of live entertainment and Haunt’s former creepy cat sheriff.  After they’re hired, the actors undergo “scare school” — a training process to get into character.

“What other job can you go to in the working sector where you can scare people and get paid for it?” Harreld said. “You do that now at a company, and you wind up getting in trouble, you get a slap on the wrist. You scared Suzy in cubicle 'A,' and you get sent to HR.”

Knott’s said it puts lot of effort and attention to detail into its mazes. For example, in the new Black Magic maze, visitors are invited to experience what it would have been like if Houdini had been able to cross over to the afterlife. They’ll walk through a room full of fake skinned rabbits, homicidal magician's assistants and an actor swooping through the air in a harness.

Universal Studios is closing in

Universal Studios Hollywood has also become a notable player in the Halloween experience market. Kirchner said if Knott’s doesn’t pay attention to Universal, they could lose market share. He believes consumers are more into the quality of that theme park's haunted house mazes, versus the quantity.

“When you look at the movie industry, or the video game industry, or even the haunted house industry, things are just getting more and more, where things have to be extremely detailed, extremely thought out and that plays a big factor,” Kirchner said.

Knott's is “going to have to ramp up what they do even more, or they are going to slowly start to see Universal pull away from it,” Kirchner said.

Kirchner builds haunted houses for a living, and he has done work for Universal and theme parks under Knott’s parent company, Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., but not for Knott’s specifically. 

Lynxwiler pointed out that one of the perks of going to Knott’s is that the park doesn’t have to go to other branded properties for characters and concepts.

“We’ve got all original ideas, meaning that when you walk into a maze you have no idea what kind of monster is going to be chasing you,” he said.

Knott’s said it has been upping its game, offering additional scare options for visitors if they are willing to pay more money. Last year, the park launched a special maze called Trapped, which limits entry to no more than six people at a time and costs $60 per group. The group has to choose among startling options in order to advance to the next room. One of last year’s options was eating insects.

But Kirchner thinks the parks better be prepared for a showdown. Already, Southern California theme parks have edged out mom-and-pop operations, he said.

“When you got two big monsters colliding with each other, they go all out,” he said. 

Maybe there will be enough Halloween horror fans to satisfy both theme parks.

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