Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The screams aren’t just coming from roller coasters anymore.

They’re in the haunted houses, spooky train rides and shadowy corn mazes.

Area theme parks are stretching their season from the traditional summer months to October, opening haunted houses, scary rides and shows and trick-or-treating paths to lure customers looking for a Halloween scare.

“Traditionally the amusement park season went from about Memorial Day to Labor Day for parks outside of warmer climates,” said Beth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria. “What the parks have done over the last couple decades is they have extended their seasons.”

Six Flags America’s Fright Fest extends the Largo park’s season for four weekends in October. The event includes the park’s roller coasters, a haunted train ride and two haunted houses.

“There’s a big guy with long nails — he was following me,” said Mirabella Klebart, 7, of her visit to the Hall Manor haunted house. “And a guy with a saw kept looking at me,” she said after she and her family arrived at the park this month from Dover, Del.

Even adults are crashing a holiday that used to be exclusively for miniature princesses and superheroes.

“My heart is still racing,” said District resident Rosaland Reid after going through the haunted house. “I thought we’d never get out of there.”

Fright Fest has been a feature at the park each October since Six Flags bought it in 1999.

“It allows us as a company to extend our season. Six Flags Fright Fest has become so popular, it’s a natural extension of the existing summer season,” said Chris Haenn, spokesman for Six Flags. “It’s good business and good fun.”

The company does not disclose attendance or revenue numbers.

Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in Buena Park, Calif., was the first in the industry to host a Halloween event in 1973, Ms. Robertson said. Since then, Halloween events have spread across the country.

“It’s obviously a moneymaker for the parks. And it gives season pass holders a little extension on their fun at parks,” Ms. Robertson said.

The National Retail Federation predicted consumers will spend $3.3 billion this year on Halloween decorations, candy and events, including theme park visits.

“Halloween has become its own phenomenon. It used to be one night on October 31, now you see people decorating their homes. Halloween as a holiday has grown and so has the park fun like Fright Fest. It’s a natural extension of the holiday,” Six Flags spokesman Mr. Haenn said.

Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, puts on a seven-week event, Howl-o-Scream, that brings in nearly 15 percent of the park’s 3 million guests each year, said spokeswoman Diane Centeno.

The event features eight Halloween shows, four “scare zones” and five haunted mazes along with the park’s well-known roller coasters.

“It’s a very different experience coming to the park in the summertime versus coming out again in the fall,” Ms. Centeno said.

For Paramount’s Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va., a Halloween event is a way to draw people who don’t like 50-foot drops on roller coasters but can handle monsters in a haunted house.

“It’s a great way to broaden our audience,” said Susan Storey, a Kings Dominion spokeswoman. “You can come in June and July and it’s sunny and fun. Now, it’s a whole new product. It’s a brand new park and gives guests an opportunity to come for a second visit.”

The lights are shut off on the park’s roller coasters and other rides get spooky decorations, such as a slow-moving antique car ride that looks tame during the summer but travels through haunted woods in October.

Hershey Park in Hershey, Pa., also uses Halloween to extend its season. Hershey Park in the Dark and Creatures of the Night at Zoo America next door run for three weekends.

“If we’re only opened for our traditional season, that’s not very many days. We have to take a look at other seasons,” said spokeswoman Kathy Burrows.

The park’s activities include a trick-or-treat trail and a concert featuring a band named Howling at the Moon.

“Not all adults and not all teenagers want scream in the dark-type events,” Ms. Burrows said. “And some teens are not really thrilled about seeing Mr. Music and the zoo.”

Even Prince George’s Stadium, home of the Bowie Baysox minor league baseball team, extends the season for some scary fun. The stadium rents its space for a haunted house put on each October by Tulip Gulch Productions, a Halloween production company based in Bowie.

About 2,000 people have had a scare at the stadium so far this October, said Baysox spokesman Ryan Roberts. A portion of the proceeds goes to charity.

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