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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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I heard these stories and more from Joe when I took his tour last month, but no spooks appeared for me – perhaps because our overbooked group left no ectoplasmic elbow room. Joe's tale of seeing his flashlight turn on and off autonomously was certainly spooky, but the attempt to re-create the spectral stunt ("blink once if you're here, twice if you're not") was simply silly. When I wondered how the ghosts have followed the exhibit to what is now its third location, Zimmer points to the "energy" held inside the pieces on display, noting that "nothing ever happened in the Orlando Science Center" when the exhibit was there, or even at the current venue, until the new owners, Premiere Exhibitions, reinstalled authentic artifacts salvaged from the wreck last spring.

"When the artifacts came back in, I'm telling you," he says, "that's when the really wild stuff started happening."

Genuine phenomena or not, the new nighttime tour accomplishes at least one objective: attracting a new pool of patrons willing to pay a few bucks more than standard guests for the spook-centric spiel. "We get a real mixed bag in this place," Zimmer says. "The sort of people who really enjoy what we do on the ghost tour … you'll meet the same people in St. Augustine [or] maybe downtown. … I'd never expect some of these people to really dig it and go for it, but they do. The whole genre, the whole ghost thing, all those shows on TV – it's almost going mainstream."

So mainstream, in fact, that the economic benefit is even being felt in our region's increasingly desolate strip malls, which begin filling up – albeit temporarily – in the weeks before Halloween.

Those vacant storefronts, combined with the aforementioned surge in seasonal spending, fertilize a crop of pop-up Halloween superstores, which now sprout like mushroom spores at each summer's close. A decade ago, independent year-round costume shops like Madge Elaine's World of Entertainment (now closed) counted on Halloween for a sizable portion of their annual revenue. Today, temporary vendors fronting for mass-market retailers swoop in for a couple of months, swiftly setting up shop and then vanishing (or converting to Christmas commerce) come Nov. 1.

You'll find one of Central Florida's seven Halloween Cities (owned by Party City) inside a former A.C. Moore outlet just a mile east of Orlando Weekly's Colonial Drive offices. Across the street is one of Orlando's two Halloween Megastores, occupying a boarded-up Babies R Us. And a few blocks away, an ex-Michaels in the Colonial Promenade complex has been possessed by a Spencer's Gifts-owned Spirit store, one of nine in the region. (Apparently the craft-store crash has been a boon to the spook trade.)

You'll likely find a similar selection (gory zombies, slutty nurses, cinematic superheroes) at whichever shop you select, with some exceptions: Halloween Dreamz, a pair of independently owned pop-ups, advertises "the largest selection of plus-size costumes in Orlando." And when the season passes, all will vanish, leaving hollow shells that serve as silent witnesses of our wraithlike recovery – at least until they are re-haunted next August.

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