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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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This season Tyler is back home at HHN, now as a lead makeup artist; if you spot the roving band of chainsaw-wielding women when you're at the park, you'll see her handiwork. (The winner of Face Off will be revealed on Oct. 31; for more on Tyler, see the recent video interview on our Culture2Go blog.)

Despite ever-rising prices and chronic complaints about overcrowding, enough patrons have decided HHN's spare-no-expense scares and racier-than-Disney shows are worth the price to enable Universal's extension of the event each year. Unfortunately, the windfall reaped by the park from HHN doesn't seem to have trickled down to benefit the attendees this season. This time around, Universal has done away with their customary overarching iconic theme or signature character (like Jack the Clown or Bloody Mary, both retired after 2010), and the immersive outdoor decor formerly found throughout the streets has been downsized into nonexistence. Instead, it appears the budget went toward intellectual property licenses for the four name-brand haunted houses. In the cases of AMC's The Walking Dead and Vegas magicians Penn & Teller, it was money well-spent, resulting in, respectively, the scariest and most creative mazes in many years.

The clever detail of the other two houses (themed to shock-rocker Alice Cooper and the Silent Hill video game) will be mostly lost on anyone unfamiliar with the source material. Ironically, the non-branded maze modeled on a gargoyle-filled Gothic cathedral, with stunning architectural ambience, was my favorite walk-through this year.

When you combine the fact that there was one fewer haunt than last year and only two shows (a funny but stunt-free Bill & Ted satire and the juvenile 20 Penny Circus sideshow) with the fact there were no defined "scarezones" (instead, this year there was an intriguing but ultimately ineffective experiment with free-roaming bands of baddies; they barely crossed my path), as a paying guest I felt I was getting less for my dollar than ever before.

Cantone agreed, after standing in the rain on a wet opening night, that some of this year's mazes are "fun, but not necessarily as scary as they were in previous years." Still, he has no regrets about his annual contribution to Universal's coffers: "It always proves to be a good time," he says. "It's fun to get into the mood, and get a little scared, to bring friends and have a good night out. And I don't think there's any better place than Halloween Horror Nights."

Universal is not the only theme park that cashes in at Halloween. After witnessing the success of HHN's haul, other competitive theme parks added their own more elaborate events as well. The Magic Kingdom hosts the annual Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party for kids, Busch Gardens in Tampa hosts an annual Howl-o-scream, and admission to these events is also pretty substantial – tickets can cost from $63 to $80.

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