Creating Terrifyingly Brilliant Guest Experiences with Phil Raybourn

Phil Raybourn

Phil Raybourn presented EDU Talk Fear Factors at IAPPA Expo, all about how to use Fear in a year-round attraction, and not just horror and gore-based fear either.

From the Haunted Attraction Network, I’m Phillip and this is the final part in our mini-series covering some of the haunt-friendly programming from this year’s IAPPA Expo in Orlando. We’ve already covered vendors, events, and networking, but there’s a final large part of the IAAPA experience, education. New this year were the EDU talks. Presented live on the show floors Edu talk stage, these 15-minute sessions, featured tips, tricks, and insights on different topics. One of those topics was for haunted attractions. 

Fear Factors: Creating Terrifyingly Brilliant Guest Experiences, was presented on the Edu talk stage by Phil Raybourn. Phil’s a freelancer now, but many hunters know him for his work with Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Here’s Phil recorded live from the IAPPA show floor. 

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Phil: Let me introduce myself, my name is Phil Raybourn from Raybourn Creative, we’re an entertainment partnership that specializes in concept development, narrative design, direction, and a lot of other things. But what we believe is one word can build a world. 

So, today what I want to share with you guys is the word fear, right? How many of you right now have a haunted attraction in the audience? A couple and others probably have worked, or are involved in some type of involvement in the Halloween season. And as you can guess by the title, the biggest draw, the biggest revenue draw, for parks and attractions during the year is Halloween, right? So why aren’t more people creating those type of attractions? I’m not necessarily speaking about horror attractions, and we’re going to kind of set that one to the side on this. But why aren’t people using more fear-based attractions year-round? 

Now, we can argue that thrill rides, drop towers, those are elements of fear, right? We’re all facing our fear of falling or facing their fear of speed. So there are elements of it that we see for those attractions, and those are huge attraction drivers for parks. But what we don’t see is an actual play upon fear. So, what I want to do today is talk about that and how we can use fear year-round. 

Obviously, there’s a draw for this, but no other type of attractions really played to that emotional connections with guests, right? Most vendors don’t even consider year-round fear attractions. Why? It’s not demand, because we know from demand that people want that type of environment. They want to experience that. We all go to these attractions because in some form or fashion we want to face our fears. So why don’t we see more of those year-round? 

How Fear Based Attractions Can Be Lucrative Year-Round

Some argue, “yes, it’s overkill. We don’t want to waste what we actually put for that particular seasonal event.” So, it’s a question that’s out there that I think really needs to be discussed more. So what I would like to do today is talk about how immersive fear-based experiences can be a lucrative year-round driver for revenue, if done properly. 

That’s the question we’ve got answer, what are we afraid of? Why are people afraid to do this year-round? Yes, there’s a niche for Halloween, but think about how other things could be used. The argument for too much will dilute the seasonal product. OK, that’s possible, but perhaps there’s a way to create attractions through story, and based on fears that wouldn’t necessarily dilute the offerings that we had during the Halloween season.

Let me give an example. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to go out to Las Vegas. There is a particular dining experience, a high-end culinary dining experience, called Blackout. During the experience, you go into a room that is completely in the dark and you eat a meal. You don’t see what you’re eating, you just experience it in the dark. That’s what I’m talking about, taking that fear of the dark, taking that experience, and being able to face it, but being able to flip it and pivot it. So, it becomes an experience about wonderful tastes and emotional connection to the food that you don’t necessarily see. So it’s a successful venture that is a year round attraction that’s playing upon fear to drive revenue for its guests. That’s what I’m talking about. 

Emotions are the basis for this. Most attractions have emotional connections in some form of fashion, whether it’s story based and the emotion comes from that, whether it’s a particular emotion that you feel upon a thrill ride fears the same way; it’s an emotional connection, that build of excitement, fascination. These attractions offer guest experiences that play upon that, and you think about happiness, joy, amusement appreciation, beauty, excitement, nostalgia, satisfaction, surprise, anticipation. All those are used currently, but we don’t see a big reliance on fear. 

Fear Is A Prominent Emotional Connection To Your Guests

So, it’s one of the most prominent emotional connectors for your guests. Think about it, we’re all afraid of something, and being able to see that fear, confront that fear, and use that in a way that’s positive and that we would have a positive reaction to it could be a great revenue driver for attractions. 

Think about skydivers. Skydivers, skydiving, that’s a fear of heights. They’re able to use that fear to drive that in a year-round attraction. Even the I-Fly, the indoor flying now, you’ve still got that, it’s still the fear of some people have of flying. So, it’s basically taking those fears and being able to use them in a positive way. 

There’s a demand for heightened reality right now. We see that with the IP attractions that we’ve got at the large attractions. You may have visited some, I know there’s an EDU tour going on right now for Volcano Bay, you look at Galaxy’s Edge, you look at the Harry Potter exhibits, you look at Meow Wolf, it’s all about that heightened reality. It’s being able to be a part of that heightened reality. 

Heightened reality plays really well with fear-based experiences. If you can create one in a way that lies upon this heightened reality that allows guests to experience a suspension of disbelief, it furthers the purpose of your story. It’s a built-in knowledge, or IP you could call it, of that particular fear that you’re using, right? If you say you have an attraction, it’s going to be full of the dark, everybody understands what that is before you go into the attraction. So you’ve got a built-in IP for what it is, that intellectual property about fear and fear of the dark, it’s already built-in, people understand that story that you’re trying to tell, so they have an idea going into it. 

Caveat that we need to say about this too, is that I’m not advocating creating fear-based experiences that guests don’t understand what they are. As a haunt designer and somebody who builds these attractions, it’s always really important to make sure with any attraction that you want to use a fear-based center for, that guests completely understand it’s a safe environment going into it. They know that they can go into it, they know they can experience it, and they know that there’s nothing in it that is really going to hurt them.

We can talk about creating fear-based attractions, but it’s really, really important that that safe environment is kind of underlying there, they understand. That’s why people when they go to theme parks they see, “OK I want to get on that coaster ride.” They know they’re going to be safe, they’re buckled in, they’re ready to go. So, having that safe environment is really, really important for those guests that want to be willing to face that suspension of disbelief. 

Fear In Experiential Marketing Campaigns

Fear stories are more than just a ghost story, right? Those year-round attractions, they’re not necessarily driven by horror. As I said, there’s many fears that you can use to base your attraction around. Think about experiential marketing campaigns, and this is where we’re really seeing a use of it year-round, and year-round attractions. Launching for movie and streaming platforms are really utilizing these fear-based, pop-up experiential marketing plans and experiences. 

Stranger Things, Fear Of The Walking Dead, and those are horror based, but they’re really playing upon those things you around because they’re able to drive revenue and drive attention for their product that they’re trying to come out with. So, we’ve really seen fear of being used in experiential marketing over the last couple of years, it’s not necessarily just at Halloween. We’ve seen that it can be successful. 

So again, back to that question, why and can and should we do more fear-based attractions year-round? This one is important to me, because I don’t even know if people realize that you’re actually doing this. There’s a fear of missing out right now that’s being utilized completely by merchandise venues and brand campaigns. I recently saw this with the 50th Anniversary Disney Stuff. It was the market that they were releasing, and people were just, in droves, going and grabbing this stuff up as soon as they were pulling out of the carts from the back, it was fear of missing out. So, they’re using fear as part of their campaign to make sure that they’re selling these merchandise pieces, whether intentionally or not, FOMO is actually happening. 

So again, people have been utilizing fear for years without necessarily realizing that they’re doing so. When people say, “oh we can never use fear year-round,” that’s what I really want to get to, because we’ve been doing it whether we realize it or not. So, if we can take story based experiences and create fear-based story-based experiences, we can actually turn those into year-round attractions that can drive revenue.

Using Fear Helps Create Take-Homes For Your Guest

Here’s the thing I want to leave you with before we open it up for questions. The take-home is the most important thing. Fear-based attractions, like emotional connections with stories, when you go and you experience a storyline and you’re going to take that back. Fear-based attractions are really prominent in that because of the take home. When you go and experience something like that it leaves you in an emotion, it leaves you with a connection to that particular story or experience. Whether you conquered that fear, whether you experienced it for the first time, it creates an underlying layer that literally you take home with you. It’s what you take home that’s more important because that’s that emotional memory that you won’t likely forget anytime soon. 

Today what I wanted to do is just really broach the subject and broach the questions, A, why aren’t more people doing this? B, that they should. And then what are the next steps and how can we do this to start seeing more of these attractions? They’re extremely popular at one time of the season and taking that popularity and spreading it out through the year. For smaller venues, smaller attractions, or even haunted house owners, figuring out a way to take that fear-based experience and spread it out through the year allows you to build your revenue based on one capital project. You built one thing that you’re able to spread out the entire year and it continues to drive revenue for you year after year. 

So don’t just face them, embrace your fears. That’s the main thing I want to leave you with today. It’s important that these types of environments, these types of fear-based attractions that we start seeing year-round because I think that that’s the next level. When you talk about experiential or experience-based entertainment you start seeing all of these pop-ups. Last night we had Ubisoft announce with Storyland Studio that they’re making this wonderful experience for their game product in France in 2025. That’s going to be based around video games, and yes, we have children’s games, but they’re also going to have Assassin’s Creed, which has a lot of fear-based product in that. That’s going to be a year-round product that’s offered to guests, and we’re going to see the revenue goes through the roof for that. Those types of environments, even if you’re not necessarily using a horror story, do not be afraid to embrace those fears and use those fears as part of your campaign to drive revenue for your story.

Question: How Can You Extend The Halloween Season?

You’ll see a lot of home haunters, and a lot of smaller haunts, have started to flip that, especially with the Christmas season. You’ll see some of them play with Krampus a little bit. Then into the Valentine’s season, they’ll play with the love hurts fear, or fear of not having a loved one or something along those lines. So, you’ll see that they’re starting to branch out into more of those year-round attractions. But it gets back to my point that the fear-based attraction does not have to be around horror-based. More so with the year-round attraction, they should be able to use those immersive environments but flip it in such a way that they’re able to play upon fears without necessarily being about the horror. 

Let’s say that you have an 11-year-old that’s never going to haunt, or you have kids that are kind of afraid of that, and creating kind of just a spooky environment for them to walk through, or really just taking those necessary fears and breaking away from the horror a little bit and utilizing it in that way to drive that.

It also goes back to the marketing campaigns too, is how are they marketing it? Because if they go out with the gore and the horror and say, “come see us in January!” People are going to go, “no.” So, you’ve got to flip it, right? You got to make sure to think about, “we want to get this story out, we know we’re going to base it on this. How do we tailor it to more of the general year-round stuff instead of this specific Halloween stuff?” If they’re smart, they’ll use it to build their brand for the next year, s they can do it in a way that actually begins to tell the story for the story that they want to sell in the following year. 

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