A Haunter in Christmas Town: How to Do a Changeover from a Halloween to a Christmas Event
This blog is based on Episode 37 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast, which was broadcast as I walked around Christmas Town at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Christmas Town, for those of you who don’t know, is the theme park’s big Christmas event. Normally, I wouldn’t do a show about a Christmas event. However, on our Facebook group, somebody asked if I’d ever done a show about organizations or haunts that have a changeover and do different holiday events. Busch Gardens is one of the many theme parks that does a quick changeover between Halloween and Christmas, so I thought I’d check that out and give you a report.
So, there I was at Busch Gardens, celebrating Christmas, and it was absolutely packed. I recorded the podcast on November 16th, which was the first night of the event. That may seem too early to be thinking about Christmas, but people were absolutely champing at the bit to get in there and get the Christmas season started. They were just as excited as they were at Howl-O-Scream a few weeks earlier, and the Christmas event is even bigger.
Years ago, when I worked at Busch Gardens in Tampa, we were able to set up some permanent power drops and lighting, and there was an overlap between the end of Howl-O-Scream and the beginning of Christmas. If you looked closely, you’d see they were already starting to light the trees and plug stuff in so they could just lift and shift from one event to the other. Once Howl-O-Scream was set up, work started on Christmas Town shortly thereafter—in the shadows, as it were, of the big Halloween event.
Another example of this transformation from Halloween to Christmas happened at the Lowry Park Zoo, now called Zoo Tampa, which used to set up its Santa Claus House behind the walls of its haunted attraction. All they had to do was take the walls out, and it was ready for Christmas. That always worked really well, because, of course, for Christmas, you want a broader, more open space.
Visiting Santa is Just Another Form of Meet-and-Greet
One of the biggest similarities of a Christmas event to a haunted attraction or a haunted house or haunt general is, believe it or not, a Santa Claus experience, because it’s basically a character meet-and-greet experience. At Busch Gardens’ Christmas Town, the Santa Claus experience is huge. Again, full disclosure, the reason I know that is because I helped install it for the first time, years and years ago. The cool thing about it is that the guest experience seems very personalized even though they’re able to get a bunch of people through in a relatively short amount of time.
Now, of course, everybody wants to see Santa Claus at a Christmas event, just like everybody wants to see the biggest, most wretched monster during a Halloween event. But with Santa, you want the experience to seem as intimate and personalized as possible. In Welcome to Santa’s House, which is what the Santa experience is called at Christmas Town, guests go up to the front of what appears to be the Claus Cottage, and the kids ring a doorbell. This triggers a rotating audio clip of everything from a choir singing to “Jingle Bells” to “ho ho ho”—it has a whole bunch of different sound effects. An elf welcomes them, and they go into the foyer, where they see the elves decorating Santa’s Christmas tree. They meet Mrs. Claus. Then, one at a time, families are taken to meet Santa Claus in his own personal study.
What’s interesting is that Santa has multiple studies. Guests walk down a hallway lined with separate vestibule doors, and their elf escorts them into one that has a full-length mirror on it. Everybody has a chance to make sure they look really, really good before meeting Santa. They knock on the door with the floor-length mirror, and it opens to reveal Santa sitting in his study. It’s really pretty magical. The kids get their picture taken with Santa. There are multiple studies, so, without giving too much away, you can imagine that the Santas can see a whole bunch of people. You know, the same way Santa Claus can get around the entire world in one night, he can see thousands of people in one night of Christmas Town, because he’s magic.
After meeting Santa, everybody exits—in true, theme-park style—through the gift shop. In this case, they exit into the photo-viewing area, and they can purchase their photos with Santa right then and there. The elves are great, and everybody gets a chocolate chip cookie at the end of the night that Mrs. Claus has baked, so it’s pretty cool. Again, if you think about it, it’s sort of like a haunted attraction that’s meant to be heartwarming rather than heart-stopping. It centers around this personalized, wandering-through-a-storyline experience.
Another experience at Christmas Town at Busch Gardens is a meet-and-greet with the characters from Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. In years past, this has included Rudolph and Yukon Cornelius and Bumble and Clarice. It was in a different location this year, but it’s always an interesting experience because of the scenery and photographers and getting to see these iconic, classic characters. This, too, has all the things we have in a haunted attraction. It’s got scenery, it’s got lighting, it’s got music. There’s Christmas music playing in the background everywhere you go.
One of the longest lines at Christmas Town was the one for hot cocoa. Most people wouldn’t think that would be a big seller in Florida, but, when it’s in the upper 60s there, folks consider that chilly. So, they want that hot cocoa.
Food is a great way to generate additional revenue, whether it’s hot cocoa, hot cider, or beer. Yes, at Christmas Town, they have beer, they have a full bar, they have spiked hot chocolate, they have spiked hot cider. All of these beverages tie into the overall brand of the event but still fulfill those creature comforts.
Technical Similarities Between Haunts and Christmas Events
As I walked around that evening, another thing I noticed that made this event reminiscent of a haunted attraction was the constant maintenance that went on throughout the course of the night. As haunters, we have to constantly fill fog machines or make certain that all the lighting and animations are working. The same is true in a Christmas event like Christmas Town. Overall, it’s the same sort of maintenance protocol. You’ve got to do a check when you open, and you’ve got to constantly roam and make sure that everything continues to work the way it’s supposed to. Granted, instead of making sure the blood keeps flowing, you make sure the snow keeps falling. Instead of making sure that the monster groans and moans are coming out of the speakers, you make sure that “Jingle Bells” continues to emanate throughout the park.
Not only are there technical similarities, there are also actor similarities. There are a bunch of seasonal actors in Tampa who perform at Howl-O-Scream as well as at Christmas Town. Basically, they go from being monsters to being elves or from being that creepy old man to being Santa Claus—potentially another creepy old man, but a creepy old man in a really cool suit with a very white beard. Anyway, Santa is one of those haunt actors.
If you have a haunt with actors and are thinking that maybe you should do a Christmas event, you’ve already got a casting pool—as long as they’re willing and able to clean themselves up. Sometimes haunt actors are very adamant about only doing horror, which is completely fine. But, if you’ve got people who are all about telling stories and creating emotional experiences for guests, Christmas is just another way to do that.
At Christmas Town, I saw people who’ve worked either for Howl-O-Scream or with me at Undead in the Water. So much of what’s involved in a haunt or a Christmas event is exactly the same, only with a different face. This made me think, it’s not just, “Let’s move on in the season,” it’s, “Let’s move on in the season and utilize all this stuff we’ve already got.”
Atmospheric Performers at Haunts and Christmas Street-mosphere
Another thing I found at Christmas Town that was similar to haunted attractions was the number of atmospheric performers and performances. There were elves and princesses and snowmen all over the place. They’re just so much street-mosphere, and that’s kind of the same as our queue-line entertainment. They were engaging guests, taking photos, keeping people smiling, and having a great time—which is exactly what the atmospheric performers do at haunts. Our queue-line folks are there at haunts to get people in the mood and to make them forget they’re waiting in line. At Christmas Town, the performers were out and about making sure that, as people moved from one thing to the next, they didn’t feel like they were waiting in line. The lines were long the night I was there, but all the street-mosphere made guests forget that. As guests looked up at the beautiful lights when they were riding the train and did all the Santa stuff and shopping stuff, the street-mosphere kept them smiling in between. Replace smiling with screaming, and that’s what our haunted-attraction queue-line entertainment does.
How to Do a Changeover in Record Time
I had a chance to talk to the tech staff at Christmas Town and I asked them, “How do you handle the changeover in such a short period of time between Howl-O-Scream and Christmas Town?” What they shared with me is that Howl-O-Scream came down in about two days, which is amazing. Granted, they do leave some of their haunted houses up, which are offsite and out of the view of guests, and all the trees are prewrapped. They actually start wrapping the trees even before Howl-O-Scream opens, and they’re sitting in the dark until it comes time for the Christmas event. The install of Christmas Town was completed in seven, 11-hour shifts. It was one of those quick installs, and everything looked great. If you think you can’t install your haunt in the time you have, think about covering about 300 acres with Christmas lights in roughly 77 hours. That’s amazing.
The point of this particular episode is, even if you’re a haunter and you think you’re not a Christmas kind of person, I’d strongly recommend that you check out your local Christmas events. You can learn so much about anything from ticketing to how to handle guest arrival to parking. We want to make sure arrival and departure are easy for guests, whether it’s a haunted attraction or a Christmas event or whatever. Check out a local Christmas event and figure out what you really like, what works really well for you, and think about ways you can adapt those things next year when you want to do a brand-new haunt.
So, I’m going to close with the hidden track for all of you who remember vinyl-record albums, and I’m putting it in here for purely selfish reasons. If you’re looking for a special holiday gift for that haunter who has everything, why not give them a book of dark and scary stories and poems? Yes, this is my book, Awake in the Dark, and you can be sure your haunter friend doesn’t have it, because I haven’t sold that many. If you’d like to be someone who has a copy of that book or any of my other books, including Follow the Story, which is the haunter’s guide to using storyline as the backbone for creating any event or haunted attraction, you can visit ScottSwenson.com/books. All of the information and links to purchase those books are there, and I’ll be happy to sign them. If we’re not in the same town or country or city or whatever, you can reach out to me with a quick email and say, “I live in so-and-so, and I’d love to have a signed copy of one of your books.” I’ll send you a sticker with an inscription and a signature that you can put in the front of the book. Okay, that’s really more of a hidden commercial than a hidden track, but hopefully you’ll forgive me.