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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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More importantly, HHN (as it's known to fans) has earned Universal something that was previously exclusive to Disney's attractions: a faithful base of return customers who are happily willing to pay for a similar experience year after year after year. To get a fan's perspective on how Universal sustains this devoted following, I spoke with Orlando resident Mike Cantone, a political consultant, 2012 mayoral candidate and self-described "brand-loyal" HHN regular.

"I've always been a fan of Halloween," Cantone says. "My birthday is Oct. 22, so … the haunted houses were always part of my birthday experience."

When the Virginia-raised Cantone moved to Orlando in 2008, he says he finally had a chance to check out HHN: "Halloween Horror Nights is this epic event that I'd always heard about," he says. "Ever since I went the first time, I've been going every single year."

Though the price of a ticket has risen significantly, Cantone is still a devoted annual attendee. In 2008, a single night's general admission cost $69.99 before tax and discounts; today, that same ticket costs $88.99, a dollar more expensive than a regular full-day ticket to the park. (Clever locals can get in for as low as $41.99 through online discounts and Coke can coupons.)

Universal doesn't publicly release attendance numbers, but anyone who has attended on a crowded Saturday night can attest that there are plenty of people willing to pay that and more to be terrified by the professionals.

Cantone says he attends HHN two or more times each week during the Halloween season using a "Frequent Fear" pass (starting at $81.99 before tax and discounts).

"I'll probably go seven to 10 times before Halloween," he says.

While he doesn't "go for the extra options" like Express Plus access (which can push pass prices up to $229.99), Cantone isn't done paying yet: "Every year I tell myself what I spend on my pass will be what I spend, but when you're at the park with the fun going on, it's hard not to buy drinks, refreshments, snacks," he says. "The options are right there, and they're well-marketed." And that's not even considering luxury options like "R.I.P." guided tours and behind-the-scenes experiences, which can cost anywhere from $55 to $225, in addition to admission.

The growing success (and prices) of HHN has also resulted in new opportunities for Universal's entertainment employees. Key creative members behind the current event – including writer-directors Mike Aiello, Patrick Braillard and Jason Horne – began at the park as hourly employees, and have paid their dues in local theater. Dr. Phillips alumna Laura Tyler, currently seen as a contestant on Season 3 of Syfy's Face Off, began her makeup career while still in high school as an airbrush artist in Universal's parks. On her way to reality-competition glory (she won the Oct. 2 episode's kid-monster challenge), the largely self-taught Tyler has gone from applying monster makeup at HHN and Who noses at Islands of Adventure's Grinchmas to crafting Chinese creatures for the increasingly popular Halloween activities at Hong Kong's Ocean Park.

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