A lot of interesting things happening in the haunt world this year, another year that seems me returning to the big amusement park in Shakopee to work in a non-costumed capacity for my third consecutive year. I've said it before, but never quite like this: After the thrill of the haunting is gone, the friendships remain.
1. Jobs are plentiful in the industry this year. I'm not sure why that is, but I have seen multiple ads looking for help, from multiple attractions. ValleyScare has been adding staff members in the days since the season kicked off, and I've seen other haunts looking for help, too. Some sort of new attraction that is allegedly opening this weekend (details when I know more) is scrambling to find people, evidently.
2. So long, Frightmares. Without looking back at my blog, I can only guess that Frightmares at Buck Hill opened in 2009. I remember a few things about that opening season, whichever year it was.
First off, it was a rainy season. Weather hurt attendance on multiple nights that season at attractions. That meant that Screamtown, which is largely exposed to the elements, was a sloppy mess when it was open. The same went for Fail of Terror at the RenFest grounds. Their big haunted maze is indoors, but their grounds were so wet and messy it was difficult to navigate them because of the mud and puddles. I can remember working a rainy Friday night at the ValleyScare asylum and spending most of the night bored out of my mind, as we had a few hundred in the park the entire night.
A new attraction will always draw well, but a source I trust told me that Frightmares came in well short of projections that season, due in part to the weather.
The Frightmares management spent a bunch of money to build a haunted attraction from scratch, and they didn't go cheap in doing so, as I recall. They had cool mazes and some great special effects, no doubt. I can't say for certain how much they invested in creating their attractions, but the number that comes to mind is $500,000. That seems like a lot, but maybe not. Raw materials, props, professional design, construction and costumes for multiple attractions can add up in a hurry.
I know Frightmares expected to do gangbuster business that first seasaon, because they priced their attraction at a premium, and anticipated overflow crowds. They had three indoor and one outdoor maze, and probably live entertainment of some sort that first season. I know some sort of magic act and live bands were part of their marketing, I just don't recall how much of that was part of their first year. Regardless, I planned a group outing on a Wednesday night when ValleyScare was closed so that I could see it with a bunch of co-workers. In prepping for that visit, I read about the shuttle buses they were offering from the nearby mall, as parking at the ski hill isn't unlimited. By the time our group trip rolled around in late October, there was no info about shuttle buses on the website. Clearly they scrapped the shuttle bus servcie, and they did that because they didn't need it.
That first year, the cost was $20, if I recall correctly. And for $20 you received a wristband with four admission stubs, one for each maze. You could buy a second admission to their asylum or vampire house, or you could use your four admissions to go to the same maze four times, but it wasn't unlimited admission to the mazes in year 1. I've previously debated the merits of haunt buffets vs. one-and-done attractions. In the old days you paid your flat fee, went through the local haunted house in your town, and the show was over. In the 1990s that started to change with multi-faceted haunts, and that's essentially the expectation of paying customers. We'll pay $25 or $30 for an attraction, so long as we can line up as many times as we have the patience for. It's not entirely that way, but that seems to be the model at your biggest haunted attractions.
Did pricing Frightmares at $20, without offering repeat visits to their mazes, hurt the park? Probably not in its first year, but they figured out it wasn't in their best interset to go that route, as they were offering the unlimited access by their second year, if I recall correctly, for one flat rate.
As the years went on, there didn't seem to be any growth by the attraction. Their asylum burned down prior to the start of their season a couple of years ago, so they scrambled to put something new together, and I think they tried to play off of the fact the asylum had burned down. Maybe not. All I know is they slapped together a replacement within a couple of weeks, and that was the only significant change to their mazes that I'm aware of since the inception. Does that discourage people from making a repeat visit? Not sure, but if there's one thing I've learned in the haunt industry, you have to have something new to sell every year, or people are less likely to come back to your venue in successive years.
I had no idea that Frightmares wasn't coming back this fall until I talked with my former ValleyScare colleague Chuck this past weekend. He mentioned it during our 35-minute discussion outside of a comic book show inside the prison fences of the Minnesota State Fair. A company in Texas bought the whole kit and kaboodle and moved it to the Lone Star State. You can see for yourself at frightmares.com.
3. Holy crap we love zombie paintball. It's not a new concept in 2014, but the idea of having customers pay to shoot paintballs at people portraying zombies shows now sign of slowing down. That craptastic scam at Running Aces Harness Park was offering it at least a year ago, and Fail at Terror has it this year. The new owners of the Frightmares mazes that are now in Texas are also selling zombie paintball fun. And the folks at The Haunting Experience on Highway 61, which I enjoyed during my lone visit two years ago, are in their second year of selling it, as well. It's a $15 or more add on, it appears, and it must work, otherwise haunts wouldn't sell it. I've never fired a paintball gun in my life, and I have little interest in paying to do so. I guess I'll never know what I'm missing.
4. Money talks. Just about everybody wants to sell you a "fast pass" these days. And why not? It's free money for the proprietor. It costs next to nothing to offer, and if it's busy, you'll make extra money off the small percentage that wants to pay more in order to avoid standing in line at your mazes.
5. Is the bloom off the rose? I've had mixed feelings about the Soap Factory's Haunted Basement. They run a unique attraction in this market, and they've managed to make a lot of money off of it by offering something nobody else does. It's a business model that goes against conventional wisdom. Instead of pushing as many people through as they can, they sell the experience at a premium by personalizing it and therefore offering limited tickets each night they're open. It has worked well for several years now, as they get lots of free press and good word-of-mouth without having to do any real advertising.
And they'll do well again this year, without a doubt. But perhaps the novelty and the exclusivity has hit its ceiling. I'm not sure what they're charging this year, but their prices have certainly increased as they've tried to maximize their earnings. Not really a surprise, that's what businesses do, be it a for-profit operation or a nonprofit arts organization like the Soap Factory. Yet this year they sent out an email alert a day or two before opening weekend, offering discounted admission for opening weekend. I don't think that signals a financial crisis for the Haunted Basement, I think it's merely a sign that they've hit the limits of how much they can charge and still sell out their attraction. It's hard to know based upon one weekend discount, but it will be interesting to see where they're at in five years.
This much I know after a little research: Tickets are $25 to $27, depending upon the night, and there are time slots available on some key nights on the schedule yet this season. Not tons of time slots, but in the past they'd be all but sold out by now, but you can get a variety of tickets available on Halloween and a couple of the days prior, based upon a quick check just now.
With all that said, I'll close by saying there are local haunts I love, and a few I loathe. I don't hide my opinions, either. I may work at ValleyScare, but I'm just a guy with a seasonal job who is a consumer like you. I have recommendations, but it's up to you to decide what you like and what you don't like. If you enjoy the Halloween season, find time to visit an area haunt, be it an old favorite or somewhere you've never been. All of us working in the haunt industry love putting on a good show, and we couldn't do it without you!