In a business built on thrills and chills, it’s not shocking to learn that some adventure parks are making a killing with Halloween-themed events. Demand for Halloween-themed fun is incredibly high, and aerial adventure operations are ideal venues to provide a unique, memorable experience.
Operators take a variety of approaches to amp up the freight factor come fall, from hiring scare actors and installing animatronics to using darkness as the primary attraction. Efforts range from big budget to low budget, and from super scary to kid-friendly.
The reasons operators have launched a Halloween event or theme, and how they got started, vary, too. Regardless of the approach, though, or why or how it came to be for certain operators, all agree that it’s well worth doing.
A NATURAL FIT
“Adventure parks can be intimidating; it’s not every day that the average person is zip lining through forests and over rivers or dangling over suspended obstacles,” says Chrissy Very, senior regional site manager at Go Ape, which runs “Frights at Height” at various park locations each fall. “What can feel ‘scary’ on its own organically lends itself to Halloween events.”
Go Ape’s Halloween program evolved out of a non-themed evening program launched in 2015. “We had incredible demand for daytime activities, and didn’t want to end the fun just because the sun went down,” explains Very. “Plus, experiencing a ropes course at night feels entirely different than the same course during the day. It seemed a natural path from invigorating night-time zip lining to increasing the ‘scare’ factor and aligning with our audience’s want of haunted attractions in October. Halloween has a mass following.”
Go Ape adds actors and animatronics to its regular Treetop Journey course, along with Halloween lighting and décor.
Very says that the security of the parks’ continuous belay systems allow guests to fully immerse themselves in the Halloween experience. “They know they don’t have to worry about their own safety,” she says, adding that the scare actors “lend unexpected twists and turns throughout.”
Many parks take simpler, less elaborate steps at Halloween. Existing programs as well as extant attractions can be re-themed for the holiday, according to Colleen Tyler, assistant general manager at The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring, Md.
The park’s long-running “Glow in the Park,” which offers evening visitors an opportunity to zip line and clamber the ropes course amid neon lights, is adapted and enhanced for “Halloween Glow in the Park” with scary music and decor as well as costumed staff. A costume contest and candy handouts encourage guests to dress up for the event.
Halloween Glow in the Park is held on the Friday and Saturday nights closest to Halloween—although not on Oct. 31 itself. “It’s hard to get people to come out on the day of Halloween,” explains Tyler. The regular Glow in the Park events held throughout the year are successful, she says, but the Halloween-themed nights—begun in 2020—usually sell out.
There are plenty of variations on this approach. At Take Flight Aerial Adventure Park in Kittery, Maine, Zombie Zip “walkers” guide guests through the park’s six-station zip line course in the weeks leading up to Halloween. Likewise, the Halloween Tree Top Tour at Empower Adventures in Middleburg, Va., is the usual tour augmented with glow sticks, music, and—during the day—a Pumpkin Drop where guests aim gourds at targets as they zip line above.
The Creepy Glow program at The Adventure Park at Storrs in Connecticut and the HallowGlow Glow Nights at Michigan’s TreeRunner Adventure Parks closely parallel the parks’ usual glow night events, further demonstrating that Halloween events needn’t be built from the ground up.
FILLING A VOID
The UK’s Zip World, which operates seven adventure parks in Wales and England, got into the Halloween game when it saw the opportunity to offer something special. It launched the haunted carnival-themed “Ffear Fforest” event in 2018 at its Betws-y-Coed location, and added a “Monsters of the Mine” version at a second park in 2022.
“There was no one doing large-scale, immersive Halloween events in the area, and we knew we had a special location that is super creepy in the night,” says Zip World brand manager Wesley Earl. “We felt that adding some theatrics and characters would really draw people in, because it was more authentic than what other people were offering.”
Zip World incorporates several attractions into Ffear Fforest. The ropes course becomes “The Nets”, for example, infested with killer clowns who also roam the park’s mountain coaster and grounds.
“There isn’t a set path; you could encounter a character at any point,” says Earl. “This enables us to create a really immersive and personal experience that’s different for everyone.”
BIG OR SMALL PRODUCTION?
Animatronics and actors, or tea lights and scary music? Different operators take different approaches, and all seem to work.
Operationally, the amount of adjustments parks need to make depends largely on how ambitious their Halloween plans are. Adjusting an existing glow event is pretty seamless, whereas Go Ape’s more elaborate events have more of an operations impact.
Scaled back. Bahman Azarm, founder and CEO of Outdoor Venture Group, which operates The Adventure Park at Storrs and five other locations, describes the experience on offer as “more of a Halloween theme than a Halloween event,” focusing primarily on decor rather than added attractions. It’s an approach that has evolved since the company launched its first Halloween nights at its former West Bloomfield, Mich., park in the mid-2010s.
“We hired a designer and staff and bought animatronics to create a walk-through experience on the ground, mostly aimed at kids under age 12,” Azarm recalls. “It worked out well, but it took a lot of time to set up and a lot of manpower to run.”
More simplified Halloween-themed nights seem to work equally well at getting people to come to the parks during times where they otherwise might not, he says. Like Storrs’ regular glow nights, the Halloween offering typically sells out.
Simply scary. Parks don’t need to make a huge upfront investment to stoke the spook, according to Michael Cellini, co-owner of Mountain Ridge Adventure in upstate New York, who says darkness has proven to be the scariest element of his park’s Halloween experience.
“When people get out of their cars, all they see is a path of tea lights leading into the dark,” he says. Once on the trail, the only navigation is via a “bloody line”—pink masonry tape strung on both sides of the three-foot-wide path through the woods to the top of the zip line course. Zombie guides lead groups of 12 guests every 20 minutes, ensuring an eerie silence to go along with the lack of light.
After seven years of hosting its Zombie Zips at Mountain Ridge Adventure, Cellini says he’s learned that dim lighting also mitigates the need to go overboard with detailed décor. “Our first year, I was pulling teeth out of animal carcasses to display, but people walked right past them,” he says.
Go all out. Go Ape’s Very, however, feels the key to a successful Halloween event is to “go all out,” she says. “The outdoors—and frequently, indoor parks—are immense. You get out what you put in, and to make it truly immersive, bring in all the figurative bells and whistles. Lights, actors, décor—get creative.”
Of course, the additional hours and production of a nighttime operation calls for additional safety considerations.
“Our days extend into the evenings, and our staff stay later,” says Very. “We typically shut down for an hour or two between our daytime and night activities to test all equipment and shift gears. We provide light throughout the course and high-traffic areas, and our staff have reflective vests and light sources, as well. We hire scare actors to ensure we are delivering a high-quality experience to our guests. Additional training is provided to staff to ensure they are equipped to manage safety in a darker environment.”
RAISING THE FEAR FACTOR
Halloween glow events tend to be family friendly, but some operators get serious about being scary.
Mountain Ridge Adventure, for example, warns up front about its Zombie Zips: “Intended for mature audiences. This is not your Disney-esque horror. This is the real deal and will scare the **** out of you.” Guests follow a half-mile, bone-strewn “terror trail” through the dark to the park’s 10-station zip line, with costumed “zombies” acting as guides and zip line attendants as well as providing scares along the trail.
Tell a scary story. Storytelling can be just as important as special effects in creating an immersive Halloween adventure park program. Zip World’s Ffear Fforest, for example, harkens to the mysterious disappearance of a group of carnival guests: “Legend says that each Halloween, Mr. Wallace comes back to town, and lures unsuspecting guests to the Fforest to attend his cursed carnival, but very few make it back out,” according to the attraction’s website.
At Zombie Zips, guests are told they need to follow the trail to a tower to escape the horde of ravenous undead, says Cellini. As the story goes, “Back in the ’70s, 18 people went missing in these woods, and the only means of escape is to jump on this scary steel cable,” he says.
“It’s more of a ‘Blair Witch Project’ vibe than a haunted house or hayride, with the occasional screams from the zip line off in the distance,” says Cellini.
The zip lining itself is done in near-total darkness, adding another layer of “fun scary” to the experience, notes Cellini. “Guests have no idea how high they are or how far they are going,” he says.
Things like extra staff, costumes, scary statues, lighting, and hay bales cost money, of course. Mountain Ridge Adventure charges a small premium for Zombie Zips: $59 last year, compared to the usual $54 admission fee. And whereas the park’s normal pass allows for multiple zip line rides over a two-hour period, the Zombie Zips ticket only allows for a single time through the experience, which typically takes about 1.5 hours.
“It typically sells out; it’s profitable, but not as much as our daytime experience,” says Cellini. “But it’s fun to do and is kind of an end-of-year party for us.”
Other parks just absorb any extra costs and keep ticket prices the same for Halloween as for normal operations. “We have Halloween decor as part of our normal operation during this period, but we don’t charge any premium on tickets,” says Candie Fisher, president of Outdoor Venture Group. “Our Halloween-themed Glow in the Park events are the same price as our standard Glow in the Park.”
Marketing boost. Even without yielding up, though, it’s still well worth the effort. A unique event like a Halloween experience can make a splash in the marketplace and raise awareness of an operation generally.
“The Halloween theme drives press coverage and awareness, which gives us some earned media boost and drives volume during the Halloween season,” says Fisher. “It also gives people a reason for an additional visit if they have already come out to the park, and is something fun to talk about in our marketing communications and social media. The key is starting the promotion of Halloween events right after Labor Day.”
“From a marketing perspective, a lot of people learn about us because of Zombie Zips,” says Cellini.
Follow a plan. Regardless of what Halloween theme you choose, Zip World’s Earl advises park operators to “have a clear direction you want to take the experience.”
“Even if budget doesn’t allow you to fulfill the production you dream up, don’t let it hold you back,” he says. “Do what you can with the budget you have, don’t overspend, get as much content as you can, and then invest back into the event next year. Focus on repeat business, and give people a reason to come back.”