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From Halloween to Alien Encounter: Disney theme parks vary scares worldwide as cultures collide

From Halloween to Alien Encounter: Disney theme parks vary scares worldwide as cultures collide

For centuries, Halloween has been embraced around the globe with different cultures approaching the holiday with widely different celebrations. Some see it as a religious occasion, aiding the deceased in their passage into the afterlife, while others treat it simply as an opportunity to party.

In the worlds of Disney theme parks, celebrations vary just as widely worldwide, from the ultra scary events overseas to the not-so-scary here in the United States. While they’re all under the Disney umbrella of wholesome theme park fun, Halloween experiences at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California couldn’t be any more different from those found in Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris – but why? Where does Disney think the scare fits into their brand of family-friendly fun and why isn’t there more of it in the United States?

Disney’s stance on the scare factor in their U.S. parks is clear. Spooky Halloween events like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Orlando’s Magic Kingdom are a hit, offering trick-or-treating, costumes, fireworks, and other live entertainment without attending guests ever having to be afraid of being afraid.

Costumed children smile with Minnie Mouse in front of The Haunted Mansion. Nothing scary here.

Even with the most ghost-filled of Disney attractions, The Haunted Mansion, Disney emphasizes smiles over scares, with 999 happy haunts and grim grinning ghosts. And the screams heard emerging from one of Disney’s most popular attractions, the Tower of Terror, are often coupled with laughter, a result of a thrill ride wrapped in a ghost story, not produced by anything particularly eerie.

In California, the annual Halloween Time festivities at the Disneyland Resort offer mostly fright-free fun, with Christmas blending into Halloween as part of the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay and the nighttime Mickey’s Halloween Party offering a similar experience as the Not-So-Scary party in Florida.

Disneyland's Haunted Mansion Holiday may look a bit creepy outside, but bouncy music and colorful characters entertain within.

But overseas, Disney has a very different Halloween experience in store for their guests.

Disney’s Haunted Halloween at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort features a horror-filled set of attractions that would shock audiences used to the United States version of Disney’s Halloween. But for Hong Kong, it’s exactly what guests want.

Unlike the kid-friendly environment of the U.S. events, Hong Kong Disneyland targets teenagers and young adults for its frightening festivities. Anita Lai, Manager of Marketing Publicity at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, described how Halloween has caught on and is perceived in Hong Kong:

“Halloween in Hong Kong doesn’t really have much of a tradition, but, like many western celebrations, this world city has picked up quickly and embraced the creepy celebration with the very best events. Halloween celebration in Hong Kong has been growing rapidly in the last 10 years, starting with teenagers and young adults looking for frightful fun with friends. And then in the past 5 years, the kids and families also start celebrating too, catching up with the western traditions of trick-or-treating. However, the main stream of Halloween in Hong Kong is still about scary and eerie experience.”

So when the “Dark Side of Disney” is unleashed in the form of the Main Street U.S.A Ghost Town, Haunted Hotel, and Cursed Jungle in Adventureland, it’s not a surprise – though there are plenty of startles to be found.

Hong Kong Disneyland's Main Street Haunted Hotel takes guests into the darker side of Disney in a traditional haunted house style experience.

Adventureland is home to Hong Kong Disneyland's Cursed Jungle. This photo alone is scarier than anything seen in Disney's United States Halloween events.

Characters within the Cursed Jungle are most definitely not related to the Fab Five.

Though Hong Kong Disneyland’s Halloween event does include family-friendly laughs in Fantasyland, a dance party in Tomorrowlnad, and the Glow in the Park parade down Main Street, the scares are what draw the crowds.

But some cheery sights are still seen amidst the eerie atmosphere in Hong Kong Disneyland.

Likewise, Disneyland Paris hosts a careful balance of the eerie and the cheery. Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party takes place for four nights during October, the final being tonight, offering a similar experience to the same-named events in Orlando and Anaheim. Then Disney’s Halloween Party takes place after hours on Halloween night, introducing into the park more scary street characters, such as Jack Skellington and Sally from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Disneyland Paris successfully balances family-friendly Halloween experiences including traditional Disney characters...

But it is the Terrorific Night event that offers a decidedly different and far more frightening experience than all the rest. Taking place on two nights in 2011, “gruesome creatures and monstrous characters” invade the Walt Disney Studios Paris theme park.

...with the far more intense Terrorific Night, aimed strictly at adults.

Even more intense than the scares in Hong Kong, Terrorific Night offers Disney guests a chance to scream their heads off in a night filled with gore, violence, and other extreme elements common to many haunts in the United States, but not at Disney’s parks. Disney promises the Terrorific Night “is set to make even the most fearless guests scream in terror.” Proving its popularity, both Terrorific Nights have sold out, showing there is a strong audience for this type of event, even amongst Disney fans.

These overseas haunted house-type experiences are truly unlike anything guests can experience at Disney theme parks in the U.S., but are entirely expected as part of the worldwide Halloween celebrations. So why hasn’t the scare made its way to Disney’s theme parks in Florida and California?

Hong Kong Disneyland’s Anita Lai explains, “While different Disney Parks will have different guests mix, at the end of the day nothing is more important than coming up with the best experience based on what we understand from the guests.” But is Disney truly focusing on what guests want, or are they simply content with repeating the same entertainment year after year, simply because they continue sell tickets?

Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party has remained relatively unchanged over its 10+ years of being offered, showcasing fireworks, a parade, candy grabs, and costumed characters. And while the party continues to remain popular year after year, even spawning the similar hard-ticketed California version last year, not all Disney fans are necessarily thrilled with what is being offered.

In a recent informal poll of our Inside the Magic readers on Facebook, 83% of respondents said they would like to see a scary Disney event come to the United States for Halloween, similar to what’s offered at Hong Kong Disneyland. With six major theme parks in the U.S., Disney certainly has room to spread Halloween beyond the borders of the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Park. Of the 83% who want to see a scary Disney event in the U.S., 70% believe it should take place outside these two fantasy-filled parks. And that may be for a good reason.

The Haunted Mansion is currently Disney's scariest attraction at the Magic Kingdom, but still features nothing but happy haunts (despite this maid's demeanor).

After all, aside from the playful spooks of The Haunted Mansion, the thrills of the Tower of Terror, and perhaps Snow White’s Scary Adventures, there are currently no attractions at Walt Disney World or Disneyland that are designed exclusively to feature scary elements. But there used to be.

The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter downright scared Disney guests for the roughly 8 years it existed at the Magic Kingdom. And it was designed to do just that. After all, it had “TERROR” written into its title.

The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was Disney's sole departure from family-friendly entertainment at the Magic Kingdom, showcasing a larger-than-life animated alien seeming to break free from its containment tube and attack guests.

Disney’s Imagineers long debated exactly how scary an attraction could and should be when destined for installation into the Magic Kingdom, the family-friendliest of all of Disney’s theme parks. Tradition dictated that all experiences in the Disneyland-style park should be accessible to all audiences and Alien Encounter was distinctly aimed at anyone but young children – a new concept for the park.

Alien Encounter’s original show writer Daniel Molitor recalls:

“The scary experience was always key to the project. [Imagineer] Tom Fitzgerald was the project’s initial champion, and he was the one who first developed the basic idea for the show. [...] As for the degree of scariness, there were always conflicting camps within [Walt Disney Imagineering] regarding how scary it should be, what the creature should look like, etc. One camp [...] wanted it to be a teen-oriented attraction and very scary. This was the direction that was routinely pitched to [then Disney CEO] Michael Eisner, and which he backed fully.

[...]

The show was given the green light by Michael Eisner, who saw the potential of giving teenagers something of their own in the Magic Kingdom. [...] The attraction was always sold as something that wouldn’t appeal to everybody, but then, we argued, neither did It’s a Small World. Teens simply didn’t go on that classic ride, and it was our position that young kids shouldn’t go on Alien Encounter.”

This Alien Encounter promo shot is not an exaggeration as real screams of fright emerged daily from Alien Encounter in Tomorrowland.

Alien Encounter premiered at the Magic Kingdom in 1994 in a soft opening. But despite its existence in the most family-friendly of all Disney theme parks, it wasn’t intended for all audiences. But that never stopped children from entering.

Molitor elaborates on the attraction’s soft opening:

“In the very first running of the show with paid guests, which was also the very first time Michael Eisner sat through the finished show, those of us on the installation team were horrified when operations started letting very little kids in! I mean, three and four year-olds! Sure enough, as soon as the lights went out in the main show some little kid started wailing at the top of his lungs, screaming “I want out! I want out!” And kept on wailing throughout the rest of the show. It was horrible!”

After a reworking, the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter officially opened in its final show form, where it continued to delight teenagers and adults for years, meanwhile terrifying young children – the audience that many felt the Magic Kingdom is truly targeted toward. The attraction was closed in 2003 to ultimately be remade into Stitch’s Great Escape, featuring the lovable but mischievous little blue alien from “Lilo and Stitch.”

And today, Stitch’s Great Escape sits in Tomorrowland, consistently drawing small crowds throughout most days, still too scary for young kids, but far too immature and crude for many teenagers and adults to enjoy.

Today, Stitch's Great Escape offers crude laughs in the same theater that once housed Alien Encounter.

And therein lies the dilemma when it comes to Halloween events and scary attractions in the United States, a culture where the vocal minority is often heard louder than the pleased general public. Catering to one audience ultimately alienates another. And despite all warnings and messages to the contrary, Walt Disney World and Disneyland will always be seen as family-friendly theme parks. Even if a large percentage of guests want to see the “Dark Side of Disney” brought to the U.S., it only takes the thought of one terrified child crying on his mother’s shoulder to make Disney think twice about offering the same events that are currently available in their overseas parks.

Molitor adds, “Oddly enough, the original Snow White’s Scary Adventures got more complaint letters than Alien Encounter, so it wasn’t just that it was too scary for the park. It seemed to generate a love it or hate it response.”

But like Alien Encounter, Snow White’s Scary Adventures is now being replaced, this time with an even more extreme opposite attraction, as a new Disney Princess meet-and-greet is slated to be installed into its longtime home as part of the ongoing New Fantasyland expansion, eliminating another experience with any hint of scares to be found.

It doesn’t necessarily mean a scarier Halloween event or new attraction couldn’t or shouldn’t happen within the United States Disney parks. It would simply have to be marketed just right. And it already has begun to trickle in slowly into Disneyland.

Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy is a Halloween Time version of the classic Disney indoor roller coaster that’s considerably scarier than the traditional attraction. Offering loud sounds and startles accompanied with striking visuals, it’s definitely not intended for younger guests.

The Ghost Galaxy overlay of Disneyland's Space Mountain, borrowed from Hong Kong Disneyland, may be an indication of scarier experiences to come.

And, no surprise, Ghost Galaxy first premiered in Hong Kong Disneyland before making the transition to California two years later. And since its United States debut in 2009, it has drawn big crowds and repeat visitors to Disneyland Resort, excited for the new spookier offering.

It’s exactly that type of response that those in charge want to see in order to warrant a change from the current routine of Mickey’s Halloween Parties – to see that it would literally pay off for the parks. Molitor makes the point that with both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, “Disney owns its parks outright, whereas the overseas parks are partnerships with investment corporations. While Disney has overall approval of what goes on in the parks, the money side pays for it and obviously money talks. Halloween events are very popular with teens and teens spend money.”

And it’s quite clear that there is money to be made from over-the-top, horrifying Halloween events in the United States. The haunt industry continues to boom, with Disney losing guests in both Florida and California to theme park competitor Universal Studios, whose intense Halloween Horror Nights event draws thousands of scream-seekers each year and continues to win awards as one of the nation’s best Halloween events.

But Disney’s decades-old tradition of offering family-friendly entertainment is difficult to break. Guests visiting Disney’s theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim for Halloween can expect to find plenty of smiling Mickey Mouse-shaped pumpkins, bright colors, and bouncy music – but very few scares. Right now, a trip overseas is necessary to experience the potential of Disney’s darker take on the holiday, whether it be at Disneyland Paris or in Hong Kong. And though Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy begins to show signs of creepier attractions making their way to the United States, it’s not likely guests visiting Disney’s U.S. parks will have a chance experience anything but a happy Halloween.

Do you want to see scarier Halloween experiences come to Disney’s United States theme parks? Comment below!


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