Backed by a strong promotional campaign, the theme park hopes to send a shiver through not only its guests but also executives of Knott's Berry Farm, who for two decades have had the lucrative Halloween business to themselves. Universal is also hoping that its ghoulish Halloween Horror Nights, scheduled for two weekends in October, will appeal to high school and college-age youths, a market segment that Universal executives say has so far eluded them.
The park, owned by MCA Inc., is a combination movie lot and theme park in Universal City. With the intention of making the Halloween promotion an annual event, the park is sinking several million dollars into it and is hiring more than 300 performers for the six-night run.
Knott's has done "a wonderful job," but "they don't have the facility" to outspook the 425-acre movie theme park, said Terry Winnick, Universal's general manager.
Knott's, meanwhile, is hiring 800 performers as part of its annual Halloween Haunt, which converts part of its Buena Park tourist attraction into "Knott's Scary Farm."
"Halloween Haunt is a proven product," Knott's spokesman Stuart Zanville said. As for the challengers at Universal, he said, "they are an unknown quantity."
Over the years, Knott's Halloween Haunt has regularly sold out and has been so successful that the theme park schedules it on 11 nights over three weeks, from early October through Nov. 1.
"This event is a big money-maker for Knott's," Zanville said, and is "very successful in terms of attendance and revenue at a time of year when parks traditionally have a dip" after the peak summer season.
Both parks will use a formula pioneered by Knott's and followed by amusement parks across the nation. For a teen-age audience familiar with horror movies, the parks will create frightening mazes, dress their performers as monsters and zombies, and re-theme their rides for the occasion. Each park will charge $27 admission the day of the event.
Magicians Penn & Teller headline at Universal this year, while TV horror hostess Elvira makes her 10th appearance at Knott's.
Knott's Calico Mine Ride becomes the Temple of Sacrifice, complete with ghouls who jump out at guests along the way. And the Kingdom of the Dinosaurs ride is transformed into the "Kingdom of the Lounge Lizard," complete with a Tyrannosaurus rex dressed in an Elvis-esque white jumpsuit.
Universal, for its part, is offering Dungeon of Terror and Mutation Pit. The latter features "oozing coffins, torn torsos, eyeless victims, half-ossified bodies"--and what Don Burgess, director of special events, describes as "the gentleman who shoves sharp objects up his nose." The park is hoping to attract as many as 20,000 horror seekers each night.
Younger children are not encouraged to visit either horror exhibition.
"This event is not for the weak of heart," Universal's Winnick said. One interesting, publicity-driven twist is a promise to have a team of psychologists standing by to counsel overwrought guests.
Like Universal, some theme parks across the nation have gone after the teen-age market. Others have begun offering Halloween parties as alternatives to trick-or-treating, said Tim O'Brien, an editor for the trade magazine Amusement Business in Nashville.
"Some will have real scary haunts, and some will have family haunts," he said. "A lot of (park operators) are positioning it as an alternative to turning your kids loose on Halloween."
The Halloween promotion is not Universal's first. Its Florida theme park in Orlando tried it with such success that one guest last year recalled that the greatest horror was the long lines of guests outside each attraction.
The Universal City park put on haunt nights in 1986 but did not continue them the next year because the park was undergoing a rapid expansion.
By returning to a Halloween theme, Universal hopes to take advantage of what has become a major party event for adults as well as trick-or-treating youngsters, said Michele Reese, park executive vice president.
"It's a market we should have been in for a long time," she said. Until now, most of Universal's guests have been out-of-town adults and families. It has tried without much success to attract more local residents, especially the high school and college crowd. Knott's and Disneyland in Anaheim both say that their attendance is about evenly split between tourists and local residents.
For two decades, Knott's Berry--make that Scary--Farm has had the Halloween fright market to itself. But this year, Universal Studios Hollywood is jumping in with its Halloween Horror Nights. Here is how the two promotions compare:
Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt
Entertainment Elvira's Rocktober Spooktacular. Comedian John Paragon as Ramon Azteca. Magical Madness of Larry Wilson. The Incredible Hypnotist, Tony Angelo. Dr. Cleaver Strikes Again, and Again and .... Laser Music Madness. The Hanging. Re-themed rides, attractions Uncle Ernie's Mad House. Revenge of the Dead. Temple of Sacrifice. Lair of the Vampire. Mother Noose's Scary Tales. Terror Mountain. Kingdom of the Lounge Lizard. Toxichem. Camp Spooky. Ghost Town.
Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
Entertainment Penn & Teller, the Bad Boys of Magic. The Chainsaw Maniacs. The Amazing Falkenstein, a mentalist. Ghoulia Wilds' Roadside Cuisine. Voodoo Gurus. The Living Deadheads Revue. The Zombie Spooktacular. The Burn & Bury Swap Meet. The Wild, Wild, Wild Witch Hunt. Chucky's Insult Emporium. Club Fright. Re-themed rides, attractions Terror Tram. Tower of Torture. Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue. King Kong. Backdraft. ET. Death Globe. Maze of Maniacs. Dungeon of Terror. Carnival of Carnage. Mutation Pit. NOTE: Halloween Haunt is open Oct. 9, 10; 16, 17; 23, 24, 25; 29, 30, 31, Nov. 1. Admission: $25 in advance, $27 at the gate. Or call (714) 220-5005. Halloween Horror Nights is open Oct. 22, 23, 24; 29, 30, 31. Admission: $27. Or call (818) 622-3801.
Sources: Knott's Berry Farm, Universal Studios Hollywood
Researched by DALLAS M. JACKSON / Los Angeles Times