The orcas are in for the night. Sesame Street is barricaded off and closed for traffic.
These usually familiar sights of SeaWorld Orlando are now replaced with things more sinister: A chainsaw-toting man, zombies shuffling down the park’s paths, and a blood-splattered camper on the camping trip from hell.
Welcome to the newest Halloween event in Central Florida. SeaWorld Orlando’s Howl-O-Scream is the park’s first-ever special ticketed spooky event and features four original haunted houses, interactive bars, two shows and scare zones. It debuted Friday and runs late-night through Oct. 31.
Down the Interstate, Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights is celebrating its 30th year in business. The event draws a massive cult following and big crowds. Meanwhile, Disney World has sold out tickets for its family-friendly Halloween event, the After-Hours Boo Bash, according to its website.
Visit Orlando once tried to brand Orlando the “Halloween Capital of the World.”
Is there room for more competition this October?
Yes, says Carissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
Baker said Disney and Universal selling out some of its tickets is a sign that demand may exceed supply for Orlando’s Halloween events.
“This could be a response to the pandemic,” she said. “People are just really ready to finally go back to theme parks.”
Universal’s HHN, which has more than double the number of haunted houses as SeaWorld’s, stands out for its sophisticated production that makes visitors feel like they’re in the middle of a movie set, Baker said.
But Universal also can hit the pocketbook harder. This month, single-night HHN tickets range from $71 to $95, while SeaWorld’s inaugural event costs $42 to $55 per person in September.
SeaWorld’s Halloween event may not have the stunning haunted houses that HHN has, but Howl-O-Scream already has a track record, after running haunted houses at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and other SeaWorld Entertainment properties for two decades, Baker said.
“It’s already an established brand,” Baker said. “The design may be a little bit different, but I think that the scare factor is quite high.”
Howl-O-Scream’s creative director touted SeaWorld offering “a different vibe” than what’s already available for Halloween at other theme parks.
“It’s important for us to carve out our own niche and establish a legacy-based event, and I think that there’s more than enough room for it,” said Patrick Braillard. “We’re able to do certain things here that they don’t do at other places.”
For instance, people can pay extra to press a button to scare those inside a haunted house.
Some of the scare actors also perform in a unique way, he said.
At Friday’s opening, scare actors slid on the ground past arriving visitors, sparks flying from their special metal knee pads. An aerial trapeze artist performed above zombie bartenders pouring drinks inside one of the bars.
Park officials aren’t releasing attendance figures for Friday’s opening night, but it’s clear several thousands of people visited the park that night.
“The guests have certainly started to show up,” Braillard said. “If you were talking about the last year and a half, I think there’s a pent-up demand to celebrate.”
With crowds comes the need to hire more employees, too — arguably the biggest challenge facing theme parks right now, Baker said.
SeaWorld Orlando has hired 500 scare actors plus others for entertainment, according to the company. Other regular park employees picked up extra shifts at SeaWorld, which is only operating the Mako roller coaster and the Infinity Falls water ride during Howl-O-Scream. In future years, more rides could be running during the Halloween event.
Meanwhile, SeaWorld Orlando is also keeping this year’s kid-friendly Spooktacular Trick-or-Treat festivities, a Halloween tradition during regular park hours for years.
Baker said the park is playing off its advantages, which could help the company rebound from the pandemic’s economic crisis.
The park isn’t reliant on international travelers — a market that dried up during the pandemic — so the full Halloween schedule of events for children and adults should draw on the park’s loyal local fan base and help SeaWorld’s finances recover, Baker said.
“Central Florida loves Halloween,” she added.