Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights

A horned demon haunts the entrance to Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights. Hundreds of amusement parks nationwide operate extra Halloween attractions, often with elaborate mazes and "scare zones." (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / September 29, 2009)



The Halloween battle of the theme parks has begun.

For decades, Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt has reigned supreme as Southern California's ultimate theme park for Halloween frights. The Buena Park amusement park started the after-hours tradition more than 30 years ago and is credited with inventing the Halloween mazes duplicated by theme parks nationwide.

But this year, officials at Universal Studios Hollywood say they are extending that park's Halloween Horror Nights and relying heavily on its movie connections to knock Knott's from its monster perch.

"At the end of the day, we hope to provide the best scare," said Xiomara Wiley, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Although nearly every amusement park in Southern California ramps up for Halloween at this time of year, Universal Studios and Knott's stand out.

Each hires hundreds of temporary actors, charges a separate fee for the after-hours Halloween attractions and adds elaborate displays, including mazes, fog machines and stages for stunt shows and magic acts.

"The tradition at Knott's Berry Farm and the quality has kept them No. 1," said Larry Kirchner, a spokesman for the Haunted House Assn., a national group based in North Carolina that promotes businesses with "haunted" or Halloween themes. "Universal is constantly trying to catch up to them."

Nationwide, more than 300 amusement parks operate extra Halloween attractions, generating $150 million to $200 million in revenue annually, according to the Haunted House Assn.

Standard attractions include elaborate mazes and "scare zones" full of monsters and maniacs who jump out of dark corners.

The business seems to be growing. An informal survey taken in September by the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions found that 81% of theme parks, zoos, aquariums and other entertainment venues planned a Halloween or fall-themed event this year. More than half of those surveyed said such attractions were added since 2000.

"The parks are really coming out strong with Halloween this year," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., an industry consulting group based in Ohio.

In Southern California, Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia has doubled the number of haunted mazes from two to four and is adding a third scare zone this year. The Disneyland park in Anaheim added ghosts to the Space Mountain ride this year and launched a new Halloween fireworks display. Legoland in Carlsbad recently added five "party nights" with costume contests, dancing and entertainment for kids ages 12 and younger.

Most theme parks refuse to release attendance numbers, but the Haunted House Assn. estimates that Universal Studios Hollywood and Knott's Berry Farm each draw at least 300,000 paying guests to their annual Halloween attractions.

Knott's Berry Farm began redesigning rides for Halloween in 1973. But it wasn't until 1977 that the park added the first walk-through maze, a labyrinth that conceals scares around every corner.

Knott's has expanded the Halloween events to 28 nights and 13 mazes with names including Terror of London, Uncle Bobo's Big Top of the Bizarre and Club Blood. Nearly 1,000 actors were hired this year to staff the mazes and scare zones. Many of the rides are also redesigned with a horror theme.

Knott's Berry Farm won't say how many people visit the Halloween attractions each year, but park officials say the Halloween Haunt has drawn about 7 million visitors since it started in 1973. Now the event is responsible for about 15% of the park's annual attendance, officials say.

In 1997, Universal Studios Hollywood, a subsidiary of one of the world's largest entertainment companies, briefly tried to run a similar Halloween horror fest. But the theme park couldn't make the venture profitable and ended the Halloween attractions in 2000. In 2006, park management gave it another try, opening four mazes and other attractions for eight nights.

Each year since then, Universal Studios has extended the event. This year it runs 16 nights, up from 13 nights last year. Since it relaunched the event, the park has borrowed property rights to depict movie characters in its mazes. This year its Halloween Horror Nights mazes are based on the horror movies "Saw," "Halloween," "Child's Play" and "My Bloody Valentine."

Universal Studios has also taken advantage of this year's Oct. 23 release of the newest "Saw" movie, with an advertising campaign designed to draw people to both the movie and the theme park. It also issued an iPhone application that gives directions to the park and tips on wait times and show schedules.

The goal, park spokesman Eliot Sekuler said, is to take over the title of Southern California's most popular Halloween attraction -- a title Knott's Berry Farm has held for years.

"We plan to play to our strength," he said.

Another of Universal Studios' strengths is its access to talented makeup artists from the film industry. At a concrete bunker behind the theme park, an army of makeup artists paints blood and gore onto the fake wounds and gashes of actors dressed as freaks and ghouls. An ax-wielding mutant with four eyes paced near the doorway recently while a horned demon looked for his trident.

Knott's Berry Farm spokeswoman Jennifer Blazey insists that the makeup, costumes and sets at her park compare favorably with those at Universal Studios and other competitors.

"I challenge people to come and compare for themselves," she said.

Several horror enthusiasts and theme park fans agree that Universal Studios has superior costumes, makeup and sets. But they say Knott's trumps its competitor with a greater number of mazes and total nights of entertainment.

Robert Niles, a former Disney theme park host and author of a website on theme park news, said Universal Studios can unseat Knott's Berry Farm as Southern California's king of Halloween fun if Knott's fails to expand and improve on its product.

"If you are riding on your laurels, that's the easiest way to get knocked off the top," he said.

Sarah Cooper, a 22-year-old from Whittier who has visited both parks, gives her vote to Knott's Berry Farm. As she walked out of Knott's on a recent night, Cooper said she prefers the scares she gets from that park's live actors to the special effects and elaborate sets at Universal Studios.

"I'll take this place because you don't know who will jump out at you," she said.