Andrew Mellor discovers why the end of summer no longer marks the end of the ‘traditional’ season…

As parks and other types of visitor attraction strive to maximise their revenues and returns on investments, many are increasingly looking to extend their main season, some at both ends of the year, to attract additional numbers through the gates.

Naturally, there are various ways of doing this, some choosing simply to continue operating later into the year, perhaps with weekend only opening well into October, while others make use of the darker nights to hold firework events.

Increasingly, however, more and more venues are also taking advantage of Halloween and Christmas to add more operating time to their traditional opening periods. Halloween in particular has been an event which US parks have used for many years as a major draw late in the season and it’s a phenomenon that has now found its way further afield as a major attraction at parks throughout Europe and elsewhere. Christmas opening too has become a more popular option and opportunity.

Both Halloween and Christmas are utilised by parks over a timescale of several weeks, in the case of the former leading up to the day itself, while for the latter justifiably running well before Christmas and into the New Year. As a result, parks are able to add several more weeks to their annual operating schedules, squeezing the most out of their facility from a revenue point of view.

How far parks go to offer a Halloween or Christmas themed experience sometimes, but by no means always, depends on the size of park. Smaller venues tend to keep things relatively simple and larger ones transform sections of their park and attractions into very different experiences to the norm. Indeed, one or two even create a separate gate for their Halloween activities.

A case in point is SCarowinds in North Carolina, US. The park’s main season runs to the end of August, then opens over three days for the Labor Day holiday weekend and again on weekends from (for 2007) September 9 to October 28. The Halloween activities kick in at the end of September with the park’s SCarowinds Halloween event, continuing each Friday and Saturday night in October plus Sunday night, October 28, with SCarowinds taking place on each of the 10 nights from 7pm to 12am.

“SCarowinds is a very important part of SCarowinds’ operating season,” notes vice president of marketing Bob Hohenstein. “It continues to grow in popularity and the SCarowinds brand and accompanying product is well established with our guests and consumers within our markets. We will continue to invest in our SCarowinds product in 2007 and foresee doing so in the future.

“Admission to SCarowinds does require a separate admission ticket,” Hohenstein continues. “SCarowinds-2007 will have six mazes including two all-new mazes, Dead Inn and The Dream Factory-Home of Horror. In addition to these two new mazes, we’ll be upgrading the fright-factor at Final Summons, Alien Annihilation, Big Top Terror and Slaughter House. SCarowinds will also include three SCare Zones throughout the park – The Harvest, Vampire Woods and The Reaping.

“The entire park will be SCarowinds themed and all of our coasters and thrill rides will be running in the dark and fog! Plus, SCarowinds has tripled the number of SCare-actors that will be roaming the park within the SCare Zones and elsewhere to ensure our guests’ sense of eerie Halloween fear, fright and terror is always on edge. SCarowinds is simply not for the timid or the faint of heart!”

“The target consumers for the SCarowinds event are teens 12-17, young adults 18-24 and thrill seekers 25+, and SCarowinds is very clear in its advertising, marketing and communication that SCarowinds is not intended for children and youngsters.

“We do, each fall, hold our daytime event for children and youngsters called Howl-O-Fest,” adds Hohenstein. “This event is clearly targeted to children and their parents and takes place each Saturday and Sunday during the day and includes a variety of Halloween fun and activities aimed at this demographic. The event takes place in the Nickelodeon Central section of SCarowinds and includes trick or treating and the like. Our Howl-O-Fest event is free with park admission.”

Winter opening

At Bellewaerde Park in Belgium, Halloween and Christmas opening are important periods, although the park has a relatively late close to its main season, at the beginning of November. Winter opening for 2007 begins December 8, running through until January 6, 2008. So just how important is late season/winter opening for the park?

“Most of our costs are fixed,” explains general manager Filip De Witte. “By extending the season we can spread them better. We are virtually the whole year present in the market which gives us a better visibility. This event, together with the others (Halloween, etc.) enforce our image of a dynamic park regularly offering new experiences.

“Traditionally the Halloween event in Bellewaerde Park ensures record days. From October 20 up to November 4 the visitors can come to ‘shudder’ in the attraction park, with, on October 27, 28 and 31, Halloween Horror Nights up to 10pm.”

Alton Towers in the UK also extends its season into the winter months, it being particularly important to ensure guests at the park’s two hotels have plenty to entertain them during their stay.

“It is important for us to offer product over this season to entertain our hotel guests,” comments Rebecca Farrer, the park’s marketing manager. “Typically our product over winter is a mixture of event products (such as Santa’s Sleepovers at Christmas) and a ride offering over school holiday periods such as February half-term.

“Halloween is a key period for us,” she continues, “and this year we are running it over three weeks to incorporate the school holidays from across the UK. The event will give us a boost at the end of the season which is important both to us and to our local community.”

At Gardaland in Italy, commercial director Aldo Vigevani notes that Halloween events and Christmas opening began at the park in 2002 and continue to make valuable contributions to the park’s annual success.

“For us it is very important (to extend the season into the winter months) because in this country the park was perceived as more of a spring or summer type of entertainment. So we wanted to offer people a second choice in the year. People were coming not so frequently so we offer another option to the one everyone knows.

“We also wanted to be known as a place that whenever they come they can find something to entertain them. This was particularly the case in 2004 when we opened the hotel which is full at both Halloween and Christmas when we offer a different type of experience with all the decorations and theming. The park and hotel are very strongly linked and themed together to provide the same atmosphere and are very involving.”

At Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, US, media/public relations manager Pete Owens reveals that although the park doesn’t offer a Halloween event because it is “very family orientated,” it does do a harvest event as well as hosting the largest southern gospel event in the world – from October 5- November 3 this year – featuring many top 20 groups and all in a harvest theme. But Christmas is also a major time for the park.

“This will be the 18th season for Smokey Mountain Christmas,” he says, “which runs from the first week of November until the end of the year. Traditionally the park closes on New Year’s Eve but in 2008 we will open for several days in January 2009 too.”

So how important is it for Dollywood to extend its season into the winter months?

“It does a few different things,” notes Owens. “The region has become almost a year round resort so it affords us the opportunity to serve these families and extend the season, and also to even the season out so we are not so dependant on the summer months if they are poor. The shoulder season can make or break a season.”

Owens explains that the “base beauty of the park remains the same” during special event periods, with the primary difference over Christmas being the addition of millions of extra lights.

“The operating hours change,” he states, “so instead of being a day time attraction it’s a night time attraction with 3.5 million lights throughout the park. But we also have seven holiday shows and various parades, so it’s also about entertainment. Our Christmas in the Smokies show is a traditional Christmas show and is the signature show. We also introduced the Dollywood Babes in Toyland show last year.”

Similarly, back at Carowinds, SCarowinds guests are able to enjoy the whole park during the event.

“The demand for the product simply requires us to open the entire park and theme it accordingly,” says Hohenstein. “All of our coasters, thrill rides and major attractions targeted to our SCarowinds guests are open. Of course, our Nickelodeon Central section is not open.”

However, it was a different story when SCarowinds introduced Christmas opening in 2005 for the first time, the response being disappointing.

“First, let me tell you that the WinterFest event that SCarowinds executed in 2005 was an absolutely spectacular product. The guests who enjoyed WinterFest could not have been more complimentary and excited about the holiday experience. Unfortunately, the financials for the event did not justify its continuation here in the Charlotte market.

“There are a number of reasons why we did not see the consumer response we had hoped to. Consumer leisure time schedules are absolutely jam-packed during the period of Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, both in terms of personal and family obligations as well as holiday related professional obligations. Also, it’s the holiday shopping period. Consumers are focused on gifts for family and friends and the financial resources involved with shopping. Asking them to spend additional discretionary income on WinterFest was difficult for the consumer to respond to.

“Additionally, media ‘clutter’ during the holiday period is fierce and indeed media is quite expensive during the fourth quarter. Consumers are bombarded with advertising and the like and to ‘break through’ is incredibly difficult and requires extraordinary spending. Finally, the number of free Christmas and holiday events that take place not only in the Charlotte market but all markets each Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s time frame are very difficult to compete with.”

Theming the scream

One park where it’s not a case of extending the season because it is open 365 days of the year is Ocean Park in Hong Kong. But Halloween and Christmas are still extremely important times of the year.

“Halloween is very important to our park as it is the biggest event produced and attracts over half a million guests looking for a good scare every October (on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays),” notes Christine Lau, public affairs manager at Ocean Park Corporation. “Halloween is also the only event that requires a separate night ticket.
“We predominantly target the teens and young adults,” she continues, “but as we are ultimately a family park, we also ‘dress up’ our Kid’s World with Halloween themed attractions that the kids can enjoy in the day time. We also have trick or treat candy passing moments on the weekends.”

Gardaland’s Vigevani reveals that the park’s Christmas and Halloween events are very important to the park and continue to grow in volume.

“Halloween was not known in Italy until quite recently and so is very new. In the beginning few people knew of Halloween but now it is very popular. But few came to begin with and the same applies to the Christmas period. Attitudes to the park were more of a spring/summer image as people didn’t think to come in the winter, so we’ve taught Italians to visit in the winter.”

Not surprisingly, there is some similarity between parks when it comes to specifics for Halloween and Christmas opening, with general theming being carried out to varying degrees and attractions, restaurant menus and retail outlets, for example, being suitably adapted to help create the desired atmosphere and provide some alternative offerings.

“The park is strongly themed both at Halloween and Christmas,” reveals Vigevani. “As Halloween is not part of Italy’s heritage we do things like pumpkins, skeletons, new shows and specific menus in restaurants with new recipes or additional items and ‘food for witches.’ But we don’t do any blood, guts and gore as it would be too much for Italians!

“What is also very important is the impact on merchandising and all our shops offer lines relating to Halloween. And it’s the same at Christmas, with trees, snow, lights, changes to most of the shows and the menus, different merchandise and so on.”

At Alton Towers, Farrer reveals: “There are three distinct products this year over the October 13-November 4 period. We are opening some mini attractions for kids such as The Pumpkin Patch, Trick or Treat Doors and a chance to meet some of our Halloween characters; older kids can experience our scare mazes and the thrill of rides in the dark; and teenagers and adults can look forward to the return of the Terror of the Towers maze, which is truly terrifying! Plus, this year we are opening a corn maze, the Field of 1000 Screams.

“The hotels will also be offering a selection of Halloween attractions,” she continues, “including a scare maze just for hotel guests, Room 13, upgrades to some truly horrible Halloween bedrooms and lots of live entertainment. All in all, there will be something for every member of the family!

“We have been careful to position the event so that it will appeal to all age groups. There really is something for everyone – as per our Halloween tagline, ‘be as scared as you dare’!”

2007 marks the seventh Halloween event for Bellewaerde Park where De Witte comments: “For the seventh edition of the Halloween event, we go further with the Halloween concept of last year, a Phantom House, an adapted 4D film and the six main areas with typical decorations! There are six sinister characters who are each lord and master in their own area. Even some existing attractions are adapted especially for this autumn event. Beside this complete metamorphosis, the park offers a pallet of extra animations and activities, which make the Halloween event complete and surprising.”

A new experience

Of course remaining open for longer and during the winter months, while also changing the feel of the park with different theming, attractions and so forth, is also an opportunity to attract guests back to a venue for a different type of experience. And in some cases such special events and occasions bring in visitors who may not visit during the main season.

“Indeed, the winter opening is a new experience, “explains De Witte. “We are the only park in Belgium opening in the winter period, so the audience is larger than our traditional audience.”

Alton Towers receives a “real mix of customers” during the winter season, both loyal customers who return year after year and families looking for time together, away from home, while at Gardaland, Vigevani notes that, especially at Christmas, there are new people who visit. “It is an opportunity for them to sample the park,” he says.

Not surprisingly at Ocean Park, considering the number of overseas visitors to Hong Kong, there are always new visitors coming to the venue.

“There are always ‘new’ guests,” says Lau, “as half of our visitations are overseas guests on group tours or as freedom travellers. Some local guests certainly will be attracted to come at Halloween, but our five annual events, i.e. Halloween, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Easter’s Animal Close Encounter and Summer Splash, always register high attendance.”

And at SCarowinds, the Halloween event certainly brings in new visitors. “There is no doubt that our SCarowinds event draws new guests to the park,” observes Hohenstein. “Our research and anecdotal evidence tells us this during each SCarowinds event.

SCarowinds is also an excellent driver of incremental visits to the park by guests and season pass holders who have indeed visited the park at another point during the operating season.”

Pete Owens at Dollywood notes that, “certainly for our season pass guests it’s a repeat visit,” while he also says that the park’s Christmas period does attract visitors who may not usually come.

“People from as far away as the UK come, while Americans come as a tradition for their one time in the year, as a ‘get in the (Christmas) mood’ type of visit.” Indeed, the popularity of Dollywood’s Christmas opening can be seen in the fact that approximately 20 per cent of its annual visitor numbers (around 2.5 million in 2007) come through the gates at this time.

Obviously many other parks around the world also take advantage of the Halloween phenomena and of opening at Christmas and for many, particularly larger operations which can really “go for it” and transform much of their facility, it is well worth the effort. But sometimes there’s more to it than just bumping up numbers.

“Winter opening isn’t about adding visitor volume, but providing customers with additional reasons to stay over in our hotels,” explains Alton Towers’ Farrer. “We are a theme park resort and much more than a theme park – we have two year-round themed hotels, a spa, a waterpark and an Extraordinary Golf course – and winter is the ideal time to underline this.”

“The ‘noise’ and buzz these events generate help to draw attendance and give our guests new reasons to return a few times each year,” says Lau, “as there are always new happenings and extra attractions during events.”

Owens notes that winter festivals are very weather dependant, as is the summer, although opening in winter does offer the opportunity to extend the season and to recoup some revenue if the summer has been poor.Vigevani mentions other benefits to winter opening too.

“Most importantly it provides an opportunity to widen the season, while there is also the economical issue with revenues. The wider the season, the more economically viable the park becomes. Also, we want to continue to strengthen the brand image and position. We work better if people realise we offer more than just spring/summer opening. In this way the park increases its numbers and image/publicity.”

There is no doubt there are clear benefits to extending the season, or adding periods during the winter to provide a different kind of experience. Halloween and Christmas are ideal opportunities for such openings, and in the main seem to give the parks what they want. Clearly the larger venues are truly able to make the most of Christmas opening, especially those with hotels on site, but there are certainly smaller facilities too offering grottos and a smaller scale experience, which can also make it a worthwhile venture.

Halloween enables many more to add on a few extra weeks of opening, on an increasingly growing scale and so done well, on a scale suited to the individual facility, there are definite rewards to be had.