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Cover Story

Welcome to Halloweentown

Taking a closer look at Orlando's obsession with everyone's favorite pagan holiday

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If you want to experience an authentic Mardi Gras, you have to go to New Orleans. When it comes to ringing in the New Year, New York City has no peer. Groundhog Day belongs to Punxsutawney, Penn. (as every Bill Murray fan knows), and there's no better place to watch Fourth of July fireworks than Boston. But even though millions of visitors each year celebrate Easter or Christmas in Central Florida, Orlando has never had a holiday it can claim as its own – until now. Increasingly, Orlando is earning a national reputation as the epicenter of Halloween-related entertainment, a mini-industry that has grown to nearly rival Christmas in seasonal economic impact. From a blip on the tourism calendar to a major mover of money along the I-4 corridor, Halloween is rapidly evolving into the City Beautiful's signature celebration – and the deepening dependence on All Hallows income has only become more evident over the past five years as the region struggles with economic stagnation. But, as I discovered by surveying several local institutions vying for Samhain celebrants' cash, how lucrative the spooky season is for various businesses depends on the resources they have to invest in giving patrons the most fright for their buck.

Orlando has no evident historical or cultural connection to the Halloween tradition (unlike, say, Salem, Mass.), so how did it become such big business? Obviously, the explosion of the holiday's popularity hasn't been exclusive to Orlando. According to a National Retail Federation survey released in September, Americans plan to spend $8 billion this Halloween season (or $79.82 per person) on costumes, candy and decorations. That's up sharply from $6.86 billion last year, and only $3.29 billion in 2005.

While that uptick in spending has been seen across the country, and many other cities (including Key West and Tampa) have built reputations as Halloween destinations, Orlando holds increasing appeal for those who want to go all-out for the holiday. This can be largely attributed to the fact that Halloween in Orlando is something of a spin-off of the theme-park industry.

Practically speaking, the parks draw a glut of artistic and acting talent to town. At one point, there was hope that Orlando might become an East Coast movie-making capital, but that fantasy evaporated in the 1990s when Hollywood's stars proved reluctant to relocate to Florida's humid (and anti-union) climate. At that same time, theme parks were looking for a way to deal with the cyclical nature of tourism – the volume of visitors to parks traditionally slacked in October, and it became clear that the best way for attractions to deal with the slow time of year was to draw in the locals. Since the parks already had the talent – actors, designers, creative types – required to build and staff elaborate haunted houses and other theatrical Halloween attractions, they could draw in not just tourists but also locals by offering them a value-added experience: Come to the park and experience not just the usual diversions, but also the most elaborate Halloween excitement your ticket can buy.

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