Why Florida slays California
Right Coast park Halloween events are out for blood
Forget the coaster wars. When Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider, who hails from California, and Arthur Levine of About Theme Parks, who is from Massachusetts, tangle, it’s coastal wars. The veteran park journalists will be tackling topics and defending the alleged superiority of their respective regions in a series of concurrent articles. Befitting their professional demeanors, the exchanges will be collegial and respectful. Oh, who are we kidding? The gloves will be coming off for knock-down, drag-out, cage match fights to the finish. The duo start by taking a stab at theme park Halloween events. Who will draw first blood?
When Robert writes about West Coast Halloween events, he no doubt will cite Knott’s Berry Farm as the birthplace of theme park haunts. And he’d be right. He’ll probably also contend that 49 years after the pioneering event launched, Knott’s Scary Farm has yet to give up the ghost and is still great. While there is some truth to that, I’ve got three words for you: Halloween Horror Nights. And four more: na-na na-na boo boo.
Simply put, nothing can touch Universal Orlando’s seasonal event. It is not only the best theme park Halloween haunt, it is arguably the biggest, best, and most sophisticated Halloween event anywhere on the planet.
Arthur's About Theme Parks is a reader-supported, ad-free publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber. Free subscriptions are also available.
Check out what Robert Niles has to say in his Theme Park Insider post, “Why California Scares Florida's Theme Parks.”
Now celebrating its 31st year, HHN has perfected the park haunt formula. It typically features ten elaborate haunted houses, about half of which are based on popular film and television franchises. We’re talking about some of the biggest names in horror, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and The Shining. The balance of the houses feature original content. With their wigged-out storylines and inspired vision, some of Universal’s homegrown mazes are often even better than the brand-name ones.
HHN also offers fog-filled scare zones with their own detailed backstories, a live show that doesn’t skimp on production value, and a wonderful, horror-themed nighttime spectacular on Universal Studios’ lagoon that incorporates colored fountains, lasers, and huge-scale digital projections on water screens and buildings.
Universal Orlando is able to present the world’s best Halloween event because of its considerable financial, creative, and other resources. With its well-earned reputation, HHN attracts gazillions of visitors (who, in turn, add to the park resort’s coffers). Try as they might–and, admittedly, they make a valiant effort–the Knott’s folks just can’t compete with the Universal juggernaut.
“But, but,” Robert and his Left Coast minions must be sputtering in response, “we have HHN too.” Yes, Universal Studios Hollywood offers its own version of the event. And it, too, is great, often featuring many of the same houses as its sister park in Orlando. But, it has fewer houses, fewer scare zones, no digital projection extravaganza, and is presented fewer nights. The California HHN didn’t even begin until 1997. And, probably because of the stiff competition from Knott’s, it did give up the ghost, going dark from 2001 to 2005.
Other Florida parks don’t skimp on their Halloween events. Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is especially noted for its long-running gorefest. After presenting its kid-friendly Spooktacular for many years, sister park SeaWorld Orlando got in on the PG-13 shenanigans last year by kicking off its own Howl-O-Scream.
Up and down the coast, there are tons of other great park Halloween events. For example, Busch Gardens Williamsburg also has ‘em howling and screaming. Phantom Fall Fest at Kennywood, Dark Nights at Hersheypark, and SCarowinds at (where else?) Carowinds are just a few of the many more. And all of the Six Flags parks, including Six Flags New England, Great Escape, Six Flags Darien Lake, Six Flags Great Adventure, Six Flags America, and Six Flags Over Georgia present Fright Fest.
We’ve got plenty of seasonal fun without the blood, guts, and chainsaws, if that’s more your thing. The granddaddy of calmer, gentler park events, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, returned to Walt Disney World this year after taking a pandemic break. Legoland Florida as well as Pennsylvania’s Sesame Place and Idlewild are among other parks that appeal to families with young children during the spooky time of year.
You can run, Mr. Niles, but you can’t hide from the facts. We’ve got more park Halloween events, and they are bigger and better–including one that is the absolute best in class–than anything in La La Land. So there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with some undead fishermen in a New England fishing village who apparently intend to reel me in and drag me under Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake.
Okay park fans, are you Team East Coast for Halloween haunts (which, of course, is the obvious choice), or are you Team West Coast? If it’s the latter, how can you possibly justify it?