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July 2012

Scary Good Prospects

Many ski areas are finding that October can be a profitable month thanks to elaborate and frightening haunt attractions for the Halloween season.

Written by Moira McCarthy | 0 comment

It was the autumn of 2000 and Nashoba Valley Ski Area, having seen the success of a non-resort program called “Spooky World” just down the road, had decided to throw their witches’ hats into the Halloween venue ring.

What happened that first night was more frightening to the owners than the guests: Just seven visitors sauntered through the gates.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” says resort owner and operator Al Fletcher Jr. “We had a bunch of black capes and some masks, and our ‘scares’ were pretty basic. We had no skills within the staff as to what we really should be doing. So, yeah, a crew of 40 basically serviced seven customers that first night.”

But that was then. Now, 12 years later, Nashoba has one of the most robust “haunt” programs in the nation, welcoming well over 2,000 guests each night the area is open during the fall season.

The key may just be in the difference between those two words, Halloween and haunt. As Fletcher and his team learned (and as all mountain resorts that have been successful in this arena know): this is not just about Halloween, it’s about frightening experiences. We’re not going to use the word “cult” for the masses who visit resorts with haunts, but we will say this: haunting is an art form, and an art form those guests expect to be understood, embraced and, yes, elevated. They’re picky and they know it. The resorts that embrace that are the resorts that succeed.

For Fletcher, that meant hiring a true haunt pro, and then “starting small, or medium, so you can work your way up and get it right.”

Fletcher was able to hire one of Spooky World’s top folks, who not only guided the resort to what it should be doing, but also helped build the program, and the staff, bit by bit. It was a big investment, Fletcher says, but one more than worth the risk.

“You absolutely have to get someone seasoned on staff,” he says. “You just have to do it, even if it costs extra. From that, we gained a world of knowledge and we’ve improved and grown annually.”

In fact, this past season, Nashoba’s Witch’s Woods Haunted Hayride and Screampark generated $750,000 in revenue—during a season that used to generate close to nothing. And that number does not include the area’s substantial bar and restaurant revenues, which also now boom at that time of year.

Of course, there are expenses. Nashoba now has a haunt crew of 160, including haunt managers, walkaround specialty actors, haunt stagers and the equipment needed for that, carnival rides, games and more. But still, autumn, once a quiet time, is now another high season for the area.

Witch’s Woods at Nashoba Valley now hosts more than 2,000 guests a night for a scary good time.

More and more resorts across the nation are embracing autumn haunt programs, and finding that if you stage it, they will come. And most resorts are looking to make mountains the place to go by using their existing infrastructure (such as lifts, slides and coasters, base lodges and summit lodges) to make their haunts unique.

At Cranmore, president Ben Wilcox admits that Nashoba’s success was part of the reason Cranmore now has a robust haunt season as well. “Nashoba really caught my eye,” says Wilcox. “I went there and saw about 4,000 people on site and thought, ‘Wow. This is incredible.’”

Coincidentally, Wilcox had some Mount Washington Valley friends who are haunt enthusiasts. This cabal had created an annual party in nearby Jackson that had gotten, well, out of hand. They worked year round on their “haunts” and took their party very seriously. Realizing they were onto something (and something that Wilcox understood he and his crew had no expertise in), Cranmore hired these friendly haunters to create what is now the Ghoullog, Cranmore’s annual haunt that attracts up to 7,000 guests in late October, a time of year when Cranmore once stood silent.

“Our first year we had 300 to 400 people a night, so instantly, we knew we were onto something,” says Wilcox. “We are up over 7,000 now on the season, and while we’d like to do from 8,000 to 9,000, we have nights we are capped out now. We know that 1,000 in a night is our limit, and we are happy with that.”

Wilcox said by hiring his old pals, Jim Chickwak and Lance Davis (all three are former ski tuners at Conway’s Jack Frost Shop), he brought to Cranmore not just an understanding, but an embracing of the haunt world that the resort would never have had otherwise.

For instance, he says, every good haunt has a script that the crew lives by (see sidebar below), and a team of haunt pros. “You really have to make sure you have a core group that gets it,” says Wilcox. “It’s theater, it’s performance. And you need people who get that. We have them. Other resorts shadow us and say, ‘we’re going to do this and use our events department.’ I’m like: ‘yeah, that’s not going to happen.’ Unless you happen to have that twisted, demonic person who obsesses over this stuff on staff, that is.”

And his haunt leaders have the passion and twisted personalities to make this a hit. “These are two passionate guys who take seriously every detail to make sure it is a haunt event and not a Halloween event,” says Wilcox.

Of course, haunting a ski area is a pretty cool task for devotees of the haunt world. When his two pros came to him with their script before Cranmore signed on, Wilcox offered a suggestion: What if they used the chairlift and the mountaintop Meister Hut as part of it? “They were like: ‘are you kidding me?’ I’m not sure I’ve seen two guys happier,” says Wilcox.

To haunt the resort, the duo buys many of the props at trade shows, or from other haunt locations that are selling their used gear. Some props are created by artists on-site. Cranmore stores them all during “off haunt season” in a storage area at the base. Even walking through that room mid winter and mid daylight can give you a fright. “It’s a lot of crazy stuff created by some truly twisted souls,” Wilcox says.

Considering the source, Wilcox insists the haunt crew abide by some strict rules. “Like, no scaring on the lift,” he says. “We realized right off it’s really important that people feel safe on the lift.” But the interweaving of the script, new subplots, and the mountain itself has thrilled haunt enthusiasts. “It’s a huge draw,” says Wilcox. “Even our local hotels are getting big boosts from it.”

Buck Hill, Minnesota, is relatively new to the haunt season. But just three years into it, the area is already drawing huge crowds. “We have a very mature business on the ski side; we don’t see much growth there,” says GM Don McClure. “So we looked at the off season, and saw something there, some potential.”

Buck Hill realized it was in a good geographical location (close to population centers and far from a big-time haunt destination), and did the right thing: hired some top haunt talent to get things going. Now the area has three large “haunts” for guests to experience, including a 3-D show, a “pitch black” show and some more traditional ones.

A giant (and we do mean giant) black tent houses most of the haunt. Guests are walked through well-staged rooms, corners and spots as frights scare them along the way. The area likes to have fun with its themes, as is evidenced with this season’s back stories (for a taste, visit, the area’s devoted website to the haunt.)

McClure got some eerily prescient advice from the Nashoba folks when he met them at a haunt trade show (see sidebar below for details on shows). “They told me it’s not going to grow as fast as you think, but be patient with it,” he says. “They said, it will come with time, and when it does, it will be one of your most profitable centers.”

But first, patience. Buck’s first season had its own kind of horror: eight inches of rain mixed with early snow. Now, with two solid seasons under its belt (and with 15,000 visitors last season alone), Buck is at the break-even point of its investment, and ready for it to take off into other profit center areas.

One thing that surprised McClure and his team was who showed up. They expected teens (as Wilcox says, Cranmore is like “date central” during Ghoullog time), but the crowd that comes to take in the scene also includes college kids, plus folks in their 20s, 30s and even 50s. “The demographics are way broader than we ever imagined,” says McClure.

And it’s not just locals. “While we are in a great location, we have people coming from more than 100 miles away for this. It’s amazing,” he adds.

That wide-area appeal stems, in part, from the total entertainment package: Buck Hill offers a point of difference to a basic haunt by hosting live bands every weekend, and keeping a hopping band and food center open at all times.

McClure’s piece of planning advice to any resort considering a haunt: check ahead of time with your local and state permitting folks. Because the set-up was new to even the permitters, he says, it took some time to work out safety issues and permits. “Better to be with them from the start and work it all out as you go along,” he advises.

At Buck Hill, intricate set designs create the mood for the haunt, while (right) F&B prospers as well.

Wisp Mountain Resort already had a steady autumn visitor base, but adding “haunt” attractions increased that base. The area has seen a steady 10 to 20 percent visitor increase each year, weather depending, says resort director of skier and rider services Michael Valach. “Each year it grows,” he says. “And instead of the revenue clock shutting down at 4 or 5 p.m., it goes on well into the night.”

At Wisp, the mountain haunt staff works at offering new surprises and themes each year, keeping return haunt guests on edge. But always, the staff keeps the scary stuff tied to the resort somehow, so that the guest feels like the haunt is, well, almost real. For example, past themes have included “vacation rental gone bad” and the “haunted lodge.” A touch of reality amps the scare.

The keys to the area’s frightening success, he says, are quality staff (particularly the actors, who really need to be actors who understand their roles), and “making it fun. You have to give them a scare, but make them laugh, too. Emotionally, we like to bring them up, bring them down, bring them up and down again. It really is an art.”

The area’s Mountain Coaster runs during haunt time, too. Initially , the area wanted to haunt the coaster, but state regulations would not allow it. Now, as guests wait in line for the coaster, actors mixed into the line help keep the fun going, and the Coaster ride is the grand finale of the visit.

Wisp also stages a kids’ version of its haunt, with softer scares, from 1 to 6 p.m. That helps support the area’s family-friendly theme.

If all that sounds like a bit of work, it is. But Valach finds that the haunt industry is much like the ski industry, in that operators “seem to work together to grow the industry.” This means that as some haunt sites mature, they are more than willing to sell used props to newbies. Wisp has found it can often secure quality haunt items at a discounted price. For the most part, he says, Wisp (like most resorts) opts to purchase rather than rent—although it has rented a few items from resorts that are
temporarily retiring a prop.

As for knowing what props work and how to train employees to be true haunters, he swears by the haunt shows (see sidebar below). There you can learn, see, and sample.

Wisp’s haunted shack relies on employees/wannabe actors for its frights. Right: The area also incorporates its Mountain Coaster into the haunted theme, capping off the evening for guests.

Resorts that are already into haunts are thinking bigger and better, and those who are not, might consider a jump into this spooky world.

At Cranmore, the haunt crew is working to integrate some of the resort’s other attractions, such as a giant swing and bungee at the base, into the Ghoullog. They also are considering some VIP haunts, one rated more for younger kids, and another an even more “extreme haunt” for the über enthusiastic.

One thing is for sure: fall is heating up, and no longer a time that scares resort execs with its lack of revenue. “It just gets better and better,” Wilcox says. “It’s really remarkable.”

A good haunt story is vital to the success of the scaring season. Haunt enthusiasts know to look for story details ahead of time—and the Internet has made that all the simpler. Core visitors like to read up ahead of time and imagine what they’ll be seeing. In fact, haunt enthusiasts not only check out the stories ahead of time, they look for story ratings—much as you might look for movie reviews—mostly at

Each resort has its own way of setting the scene. At Cranmore, the story each year revolves around an imaginary town that was infected by a virus, supposedly at the hands of an angry young resident. Visitors can go on line at to get the feel for the tale.

On-site, guests queue up for a haunted area at the base of the mountain replete with actors, props and frights. Trained actors placed in the waiting lines and around the grounds talk up the story and get guests into the theme. They foreshadow the haunt, acting like locals who are all a part of the story. It works, says Ben Wilcox, for two reasons: people are itching for a fright, and they are sucked into the story, the setting and the adventure.

Then you can ride up the hill—in the dark, of course—on a chairlift to explore the asylum. Later, you can take the mountain coaster and/or zipline down, where you’ll still be mixed in with actors who plan frights.

At Wisp, setting the story line begins the moment a guest steps foot on the property. “We try to set the story line for the haunted house theme in the waiting line and even on the bus on the way to the house,” says Michael Valach. “Every single actor is trained on the theme and on their unique way to carry that story line to the guest.”

Guests who have just arrived and are wondering what they’ll be seeing might get chatted up by a person they perceive as another guest, but who is actually a part of the haunt. The chatter isn’t in the form of “Oh, this is going to be great they have some great scares,” but rather is in the persona of a character who really exists within the plot. Savvy guests catch on right away; newbies figure it out soon enough, and right off, the crowd joins in on the story. Think of it is as a kind of “Maria and Tony’s Wedding” only really scary, really dark and really fun.

Wisp sought out two year-round employees with acting skills, management skills and an enjoyment of haunts and tasked them with the design and operation of the haunted house. For actors, Wisp uses summer staff, weekend college students and local theatre lovers and students. All of them are interested enough to be trained in truly understanding what a haunt is all about.

Nashoba Valley also sets the stage online (, with introductions to each haunt. The site includes little hints such as, “You will notice that your driver sits in the center of the tractor, far away from the sides where they would be vulnerable to attacks.” Of course, guests are seated on those sides, and actors mixed in with them are sure to comment on that fact.

Think of this like seeing a trailer for a movie. You get a taste for what you are in for, imagine more, and then head in to see what unexpected frights are in store.

And if it all sounds strange, remember, the revenues can be scary good.

Outfitting a Haunt A haunt expo is a great way to get up to speed fast. A best bet for newbies is to attend a show or two, then choose some benchmark resorts; get to know them, learn what they are doing and how you can tailor that to your own site. Here are a few shows to consider:

HauntCon. Of course there’s a “Con” for haunt: there’s a “Con” for everything now, right? HauntCon alternates between East and West Coast locations. This year HauntCon took place in early May in Pittsburgh. The 2013 West Coast location will be announced on its website soon. HauntCon offers educational workshops (on everything from how to decorate and build, to how to teach and train actors and staff), a tradeshow where you can check out wares and compare prices and brands, attraction tours (so you can be put right in the middle of what it is you are attempting to do) and, of course, networking. It even has a costume ball.

The MidWest Haunters Convention. Held annually in Columbus, Ohio, the convention this year took place June 8-10. Resorts with haunts up and running rave about the classes at this convention, from lighting workshops and make-up instruction to prop management, creation and use—this show covers it all. Resort managers who have attended with their haunt staff say it’s well worth the trip to get you up to where you should be.

Trans World Haunted Attraction Trade Show, St. Louis, Mo. Chock full of programs, events and new information and tools. Held each year in mid-March, the 2013 event is set for March 7-10 and will include seminars and programs for resorts new to haunts or even just considering them, to ones for seasoned pros looking to take things to an even higher level of haunt. You can start learning ahead of time, too; become their fan on Facebook and you’ll be treated to video lessons and examples of great haunt ideas.

International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). While haunt is not the central focus, you can learn quite a bit at this popular attractions show. Dozens of suppliers attend.