Discovering What’s New and Trending in the Haunt and Theme Park Industries
Episode 38 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast was recorded at the 2019 IAAPA Expo, which is sponsored by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, and is the world’s largest trade show for the attractions industry. The Expo is held annually in Orlando, Florida and, at this most recent event, I taught two different seminars. I was very busy at this particular IAAPA, not only because I taught two seminars but because I co-sponsored and presented an award at the Brass Ring Awards. Of course, there was also a bunch of parties and networking things to go to.
First Evening—Slice Creative Network Event
On the first night of the Expo was the networking event for the Slice Creative Network. Slice is this phenomenal organization that’s all about theme-park creatives and finding work for them—networking to find projects we can work on together. Folks from different theme parks who are hiring show up at this mixer, which is held every year. This is just one of the many things that Slice does to support independent creatives like myself. I’ve been a member of Slice for several years, and it makes total sense to be a part of this organization if you’re involved in any of the theme-park creative disciplines—writer, director, audio designer, graphic artist, visual designer, or whatever. There’s always a need for people like this in the theme-park industry.
The mixer was held in a bar in Orlando. I always go to these things thinking, “Yeah, I’ll go for an hour or two, see the people I need to see, and then head out.” Well, that didn’t happen. It started at six, I got there about 6:30, and people were coming and going throughout the evening. Some of these people I knew from back in the days of Busch Gardens, and many of them have become independent contractors. I started chatting and chatting, and the night ended with a conversation in the parking lot at 11 pm. So, I was talking nonstop for four and a half hours.
Second Day—Seminar, “A Growing Fear,” a Book Signing, and Initial Excursion to the Trade Show Flow
The next afternoon, I did a presentation called “A Growing Fear,” which was all about trends in the haunted attraction industry and in theme parks, past, present, and future. I was excited, because I don’t usually get to do haunt stuff at IAAPA. Normally, I try to do things that are more applicable to more people. This year, I submitted two proposals, one of which was a Halloween one. This was sort of selfish, because I wanted to do something that was Halloween-based. I also submitted a second one, which was all about entertainment, which I did the next day.
This seminar was incredibly well attended. I was honored that so many people were interested in it and wanted to check it out. After it was over, I did a book signing, and a bunch of people bought my book, which is really exciting. I got to chat with many interesting people who are involved with everything from theme parks to museums to outdoor adventure parks to all kinds of incredible stuff.
For those of you who know nothing about IAAPA, the trade show floor is one of the most wonderful and weird trade show floors I’ve ever seen. It has everything from people who build roller coasters to Dippin’ Dots to folks selling toilet paper. It’s anything and everything that has to do with theme parks. It takes up the entire convention center in Orlando, so going from one end to the other is a hike. You can’t see the whole thing in a day.
There were only a few entertainment booths on the floor. Most of the vendors were on the hard side of what a theme park is all about. This show isn’t like LDI, which is all about lighting, or TransWorld, which is all about Halloween—mostly blood, guts, and gore. However, some of the larger vendors from TransWorld come to IAAPA, because many theme parks have a Halloween event.
Just to give you a snapshot of the trade show floor, there was everything from miniature golf equipment for family entertainment centers to a vendor of kitchen knives (culinary is a big part of the theme park industry) to a bunch of insurance companies and a bunch of companies that focus on lighting, especially Christmas lighting. There was a guy who had an entire company that does nothing but sell confetti cannons for parties.
Virtual Reality and Escape Rooms Are Big
The TransWorld booth was advertising their show, but I didn’t see too many other haunt vendors. Haunters might be thinking, “Why on earth would I want any of these things?” But if you think about it, these technologies are the building blocks you can use to create your own experiences in your own haunt. One thing that was really big at this Expo was virtual reality, VR stuff. I think we’re hitting the apex of that right now, because it’s everywhere. There’s more virtual reality than you can shake a stick at, and a lot of it now is VR and motion-based combined.
There were quite a few vendors and manufacturers who were focused on escape rooms. I think they’re trying to break into the theme-park market, and I’m hoping that happens, because I really do believe this is the next wave of entertainment. It’s not virtual reality or augmented reality, it’s real reality. It gives people the opportunity to create their own stories and find their own ways through the world that’s been created for them. That’s basically what haunters do, too.
Besides the escape room vendors, there were a couple of haunt prop fabricators that did custom and specific work. The wonderful, haunted, creepy, puppeteer guys from VFX were there throwing bungee heads at people and scaring the heck out of the international, corporate, theme-park folks.
Movable, Accordion Walls and Low-Tech Carnival Games
There was a vendor that I’ve seen for many years at the IAAPA Expo that’s always fascinated me. It’s a company called Screen Flex Portable Room Dividers. These are air walls or folding walls that accordion and collapse upon themselves. I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if you could theme those out and reconfigure your haunt? They’re all on casters, so they roll. You could reconfigure your haunt as guests enter so you change the layout about three or four times every night. You’d have to reduce your theming or have heavily themed areas and then a maze section that guests wander through that you’d constantly change. I’m not sure if it would work, but every time I see Screen Flex Portable Room Dividers, I think there’s something there. We could find ways to rebuild a haunt as we go so every fifth guest or every 20th guest has a completely different experience, and they never quite know where they’re going. I know there have been haunts that reconfigure the pathway as guests proceed to try to separate people.
Another thing I saw at this Expo are what I’d call low-tech games—carnival games made of wood that aren’t electronic. They’re lower in price and certainly something you could add as additional revenue. If you’re doing a carnival theme, you might as well have carnival games out front. You could splatter some blood on them, and have a character run it.
New Experiences in Food
There’s always food at the Expo—usually different kinds of French fries and ice cream and mini melts and Dippin’ Dots and that sort of thing. My new favorite unusual thing this year was an ice-cream bar from Margaritaville Ice Cream that was manganero flavored. This is a mango ice cream bar dipped in a habanero pepper glaze. It was amazingly good—sweet, spicy, and savory all at the same time.
I talked the manganero vendor about how they came up with this concoction, and I came away with a good lesson for all of us in the creative industry. Initially, the original flavor designer was like, “Nope, don’t like it, can’t do it, shouldn’t do it.” But the vendor says it’s amazingly popular. So, sometimes, when you throw out all the rules and try something that “will never work,” you discover something that’s absolutely brilliant. So, whatever your haunt is, make sure that every now and then you throw in a manganero so that you can find your next great adventure.
Second Evening—TEA Mixer
On the second night was the Themed Entertainment Association mixer at Hard Rock Live, which is where the TEA event is held every year. There was every level of every model of every theme park attraction you could possibly imagine there. The only downside was we were all yelling at the top of our lungs to be heard, so it was just getting louder and louder. Still, I got to chat with some folks and talk about possibilities for future projects.
Third Day—Continuing the Exploration of the Trade Show Floor and Second Seminar, on Edutainment
The next day, I completed my exploration of the trade show floor before teaching my second seminar, which was about edutainment. This isn’t a hot theme, but I think it’s important to talk about how education and entertainment could work together to make them both more effective and how they can help the overall wellbeing of theme parks, zoos, aquariums, or whatever.
On this tour of the trade show flow, I saw interactive vendors and people who were combining technology and physical action to make something unique. This also seems to be a trend that’s moving forward.
Third Evening—Brass Ring Awards and the Quantum Creative Studios Mixer at the Skeleton Museum
I had excellent turnout at my edutainment seminar, and that evening was the Brass Ring Awards, where I presented an award. After that was another mixer party. It’s nonstop at the IAAPA Expo.
The Brass Ring Awards are IAAPA’s way of recognizing excellence within the industry. This includes everything from human resources to marketing to live performance. This year they added a Halloween competition, and that award was for an outstanding Halloween event or element. The three top elements were pretty cool. One was a Halloween ice show from somewhere in Europe that was creepy and Celtic in theme. Another one was “Traumatica” at Europa-Park in Germany, which took the theme-park, Halloween idea of Marvel-izing the universe and making each of its haunted houses different factions of an overarching story. All of the storylines of the houses tied into one giant story, but they also stood on their own. The makeup and costumes were amazing.
The winner in the new Halloween category was a haunted attraction at Walibi in The Netherlands called “Below.” I’m not sure what the rules are in different countries, or different worlds, but this was remarkable. Basically, the entire story took place in a sewer. Guests climbed a hill and then went down in an elevator into what was supposedly the “sewer.” They entire haunt was flooded, and guests had to put on waders. It looked like there was maybe two feet of water throughout the whole thing. When the monsters came charging out of the gated-off sewer tunnels, there was all this sloshing and noise. Being in water also meant guests couldn’t run away, or at least not quickly.
Based on what I saw, this was clearly the winner, because it was by far the most unique. We’ve certainly not seen anything like this here in the States—a haunted house that you have to slosh through. So, that was the haunters’ highlight, in my opinion, for the Brass Ring Awards. It’s great that Halloween is being recognized by IAAPA and by the Brass Ring Awards.
There was one last party to attend—the Quantum Creative Studios’ party held at the Skeletons Museum in Orlando. It had a dark and creepy theme. The museum is filled with skeletons of all different kinds of animals, including humans, and they’re all posed so you can see what the skeletons of various animals look like. It was really cool and a great setting for a party.
The theme of the party was that all of us guests had passed away and, as we came in, we got name tags that told us how we died. I got my foot stuck in a railroad track. What a way to go, watching this train barreling toward you. I got to hang out with a bunch of my haunter friends. Philip Hernandez from Gantom Lighting and the Haunted Attraction Network was there along with Amy Hollaman from 13th Floor and Ted Daugherty. That’s what’s really cool about these kinds of events. There are parties where you get to see people from all over the country. Amy is up in Colorado now and Philip, well, Philip’s all over the world, because he travels a lot, and Ted is LA-based. We had dinner together and then went to the party. Even though it wasn’t a haunter’s event, there were a bunch of people who’ve done haunted attractions there. Although there wasn’t much haunt stuff on the trade show floor, there was a lot of interest by theme parks in doing and expanding their haunts, especially internationally. It’s fascinating, because the approach to Halloween in other countries is very different than it is here. They don’t think of it as just putting a couple of pumpkins and skeletons around. They do things full out, and we had a great conversation over dinner about how the new Asian haunts, especially, completely change things out to create something completely new.
The Skeleton Museum brought to mind using places that may not necessarily be haunt-related but could be. The museum wasn’t scary nor designed to be scary, but when the skeletons were lit up with UV LED, they looked really cool, and it made for an elegant and creepy party setting.
The “IAAPA Celebrates” Party at Universal’s Islands of Adventure
On the evening before the last day of the IAAPA Expo was the “IAPPA Celebrates” party at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and I got to see some things I hadn’t seen before. This was an after-hours, private function for IAAPA members, and I had a chance to ride the new Hagrid ride, which has some really good storytelling, lots of surprises around every corner, and some unique elements for a coaster ride. I also got to ride Kong for the first time, and that was cool.
I got to see the projection-mapping show on the Hogwarts castle, which I’d never seen before. I’d never seen the Christmas version. It was breathtaking and heartwarming and, again, wonderful storytelling. It gave us a glimpse into what all of the students at Hogwarts would be doing during the holiday season. What was amazing is it had the same warmth and charm that the films have without being big and splashy. It was elegant and smooth and pretty darn cool.
But I really want to give kudos to the staff at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. They were top-notch when it came to guest service. Members of the staff were recognizing individuals throughout the night and saying, “I hope you enjoyed that ride,” or “Welcome back to this area,” or whatever. If you ever get the chance to do an after-hours, sponsored event at Universal, take it. Their culinary department is incredible. You always hear me talk about consistency in theming and consistency in storytelling, even down to the food selections for each area. The culinary booths and tables that were set up for Islands of Adventure were themed to each specific area. There was English food in Hogsmeade, and there was paella in these oversized woks that were something like five feet across in Jurassic Park. They had hummus bars in the Middle Eastern areas. The tables in Jurassic park were made of planks, lit from inside, and looked as though they’d been clawed by dinosaurs. It was one of the coolest parties I’ve ever been to. And it was the staff—both at Islands Adventure, including everybody from the ride team to the culinary team, to the folks at IAPPA—who made it a very special night.
Trade Shows Are Great Places to Network
On my last day, I was back on the show floor, and the last day is always kind of a light day. I like to think of it as family day. People who come to this expo from around the country and around the world will bring their kids for the final day so they can experience what the trade show is all about.
This is the only trade show I go to that has rides set up on the convention floor, so I got to ride a new Zamperla ride, which was really, really cool.
As you’ve heard me say many times, trade shows are a great way to network, a great way to meet people, and a great way to learn more about the industry—not only your industry but related industries. If you’re a haunter, you can learn a bunch from the theme-park industry. There are many, many people who actually dabble in both. Owners of museums and zoos and aquariums are getting into the haunt industry. I found that out because I talked to a lot of folks from a lot of different places while I was there. By learning what’s available, you learn what you can apply to your own business in your own industry.
So, if there’s one takeaway from this Expo it’s to get out and go to conventions that are accessible to you, whether that be a haunt convention, a Christmas convention, or the big events like TransWorld and HAuNTcon and IAAPA. Go to the smaller conventions and trade shows to find out what’s available to you in your industry and what you can take from some other industry and apply to your own. You’ll meet and hang out with people that you may potentially be working with in the future. You get to know them on a personal level before you actually start to do business with them.
In closing, I want to say that one of the purposes of this podcast and blog from the IAAPA Expo is to share with you my point of view and what I experienced at this event in the hope that you someday have the opportunity to do the same things I get to do.