As a family-friendly destination, Walt Disney World has a predicament on its hand each year as Halloween arises. To fully embrace the holiday in its traditionally horrifying flair would be to confuse its market and awkwardly juxtapose something gory with something decidedly not. To shy away from any recognition of the holiday, though, would be to miss an opportunity to define what Halloween means in the context of a Disney vacation. No, this may not be the rest of the world’s version of Halloween, but the Disney translation does an admirable job at adapting a concept familiar to everyone within the mold of what guests expect from a Disney experience.
For the most part, Disney takes the spooky rather than scary route for its Halloween activities. This is a practice dating back to the development of the Haunted Mansion in the ’60s. The Imagineers struggled with finding the appropriate tone to take with the attraction because it needed to feel cryptic, but it also needed to be at home in a park inhabited by the likes of Princess Aurora and Mickey Mouse. In fact, the big cheese is often employed as a mediator between the Halloween holiday and media produced by Disney. Since Mickey is an immediately recognizable symbol of optimism and positivity, associating his likeness with Disney’s Halloween offerings instantly gets the point across to the consumer of the tone Disney is going for. When we see Mickey’s House of Villains listed on Netflix, we expect silliness and gags, not legitimate scares. When we see an advertisement for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, we envision a lighthearted evening in the park filled with trick-or-treating, not a terrifying series of scare mazes that will leave us just plain fearful. That market exists (and is a successful one, at that), but it is not the audience Disney chooses to aim toward.
That is not to say it has never done so, though. A few spots in Disney history are notorious for their somewhat off-kilter approach to entertaining guests by scaring them. Snow White’s Scary Adventures was perhaps the most bizarre of these, using the image of an iconic princess to disguise a truly horrifying experience inside, which for a long time didn’t even include any appearance by Snow White herself.
At least guests knew what they were getting themselves into (maybe) with ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, the souped-up previous iteration of Stitch’s Great Escape! that starred not a cute, blue experiment, but a grotesque and scary (read: scream-bloody-murder scary) creature from outer space. The attraction walked a controversial existence as an excellently executed attraction, but admittedly something that felt extremely out-of-place at the Magic Kingdom, and probably threw many surprised guests for a loop.
The attraction that epitomizes what Disney can do with a Halloween theme is undoubtedly The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. It just gets it right on every level (pun intended). You’re scared, but it’s from the sense of anticipation the story creates rather than from an in-your-face scary moment or character. It’s bold, but not too bold to take away its fun undertone. It’s family-friendly, but at no point reaches the “kiddie” label. It’s a near-perfect attraction, hailed for its attention to detail and inexplicable ability to instill a sense of fear, while somehow still knowing it’s all in good fun.
As of late, Disney’s more recent Halloween efforts have been geared toward intellectual property that has been in its stable for years but slowly emerging as popular franchises on the rise. Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas, both coincidentally released in 1993, have grown more endearing with age after both performing less than spectacularly at the box office. Jack Skellington is one of the parks’ most popular character greetings each Halloween. The Sanderson Sisters just made their park debut this year in their very own show, Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular, in which they play host to Disney’s most famous villains (another growing franchise in itself, which we discussed in July). I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more from all three of these properties in the years to come.
(Images © Disney.)
Do you enjoy Disney’s approach to Halloween? What would you love to see next?
Blake studies Electronic Media and Film at Appalachian State University. He enjoys making his family of six watch the parade in Frontierland and then sprint to Main Street in time to see it again. You can find him on Twitter @olddirtyblake or at BlakeOnline.com.