Zombies, evil clowns lure 'scream addicts' for Halloween

Busch Gardens parks in Virginia and Florida will morph into “Terror-tories” with six haunted houses for Halloween.
Courtesy Busch Gardens
Busch Gardens parks in Virginia and Florida will morph into “Terror-tories” with six haunted houses for Halloween.

Halloween is just around the cobwebbed corner and so are the zombie apocalypses, the terror chambers, the haunted houses, the terrifying theme-park transformationsand the chance for attractions to cash in.

"We estimate there are 2,500 haunted attractions worldwide that entertain millions and employ tens of thousands," said John Eslich, president of The Haunted Attraction Association. "In the U.S. alone, it represents a $300 million industry that extends from right after Labor Day on into November."

About 20 percent of Americans made plans to visit a haunted attraction last year, according to the National Retail Federation. This year, there are fresh ways to get scared at home or on the road as theme parks compete to out-do each other and thrill-seekers plan getaways around visiting haunted attractions.

This season, 53.5 percent of haunt operators were planning to add attractions or categories while about 21 percent planned to revamp existing attractions, according to Selling Halloween, a business-to-business publication.

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And while both year-round and seasonal theme parks have long offered Halloween-themed activities as a way to stretch attendance and ticket sales beyond the busy summer season, "now people expect their local theme park to put on an event," said Jacob Sundstrom, staff writer at Theme Park Insider. "People are looking for these scares somewhere, and now it's the park's job not to mess it up," he said.

"People love to be scared," said America Haunts president Ben Armstrong in a release listing opening dates for about 30 haunted attractions around the country, including the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. "Even more so, they enjoy watching how people they know react to being scared," he said.

Ready to scream? Here are some haunts upping the scare-ante this year:

Knott's Scary Farm

Location: Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, California.

Season: Sept. 25 to Nov. 1. Tickets start at $39.

The new Special Ops: Infected attraction at Knott's Scary Farm pits guests armed with special laser guns against zombies that have taken over 6 acres of the park. Those who deftly dispatch the undead may have time and energy left over to see Elvira, the legendary Mistress of the Dark, who is overseeing a twice-nightly Sinister Circus of the Macabre show filled with requisite music and mayhem.

Beyond Elvira, Knott's Berry Farm has 11 haunted attractions, including three new mazes: Voodoo, set in the "cursed swamps" of the Deep South; The Tooth Fairy, set in "a world of deranged dentistry" and Trapped: Lock and Key, which, the park warns, has a shocking finale—and an extra fee.

Howl-O-Scream

Location: The Howl-O-Scream will invade three theme parks owned by SeaWorld Entertainment: SeaWorld San Antonio and Busch Gardens at Williamsburg, Virginia, and Tampa, Florida.

Season: varies by location, from Sept. 12 to Nov. 1. Tickets prices vary, starting at $50.

At Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, six haunted houses, including the Catacombs and Cut Throat Cove, plus five subsections, dubbed "Terror-tories," play host to buccaneers, vampires, fiends, villains and beasts. They'll be joined this year by creatures called Wendigos, who inhabit the mysterious forest called, what else but, Wendigo Woods. At Busch Gardens in Tampa, live shows and eight haunted houses, including the interactive Zombie Containment Unit 15 and the Zombie Mortuary, provide the thrills. And SeaWorld San Antonio will have five haunted mazes and five scary worlds, including two news ones: Psycho Path and Ports of Skull.

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Halloween Horror Nights

Location: Universal Orlando in Florida

Season: Sept. 19 to Nov. 1. Tickets start at $95.99, with discounts and promo codes available for Florida residents.

According to American Express Travel, Orlando is the top destination for travelers this Halloween, due in no small part to Universal Orlando and its annual Halloween Horror Nights festivities.

This year, in addition to live shows and scary street experiences such as the Bayou of Blood, there are eight haunted houses, including a new one in which John Carpenter's classic 1978 slasher-film, "Halloween," comes to life.

A slightly different version of Halloween Horror Nights takes place at Universal Studios Hollywood. There, the season runs from Sept. 19 through Nov. 2, with tickets starting at $52.

Some of this year's fresh frights come courtesy of legendary guitarist Slash, who has created an ominous original score for a new haunted 3-D maze set in a former ice cream factory now run by psychotic clowns. "I can't wait to see the fans' reactions and will be first in line to experience the maze myself," the ex-Guns N' Roses member said in a statement.

In addition to Clowns 3D Music by Slash, the park will also feature mazes inspired by Robert Rodriguez's cult film "From Dusk Till Dawn" and one based on the new film, "Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood," which opens in theaters in mid-October. There's also the retooled Terror Tram: Invaded by the Walking Dead and a new scare zone inspired by "The Purge."

Save Me:  Halloween savings
Save Me: Halloween savings   

"My favorite place is absolutely Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Hollywood," Theme Park Insider's Sundstrom said. "The sets are film-quality and the entire cast is very focused on the show they're putting on."

At some haunted attractions, cast members are told to just stand there and be scary instead of having an idea of where they fit into the show, Sundstrom said. "But Universal Studios does a much better job making sure everyone knows their spot and why they have it."

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DISCLOSURE: Universal theme parks are owned by NBC Universal a division of Comcast, which also owns CNBC.

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—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.