Dozens of jack-o’-lanterns formed an archway welcoming visitors into “The Wicked Growth: Realm of the Pumpkin” house at Halloween Horror Nights 2021.
One pumpkin stood out from the rest. Instead of a jagged, toothy grin, he sported wide eyes and a mouth set into an anxious line.
Halloween Horror Nights enthusiasts instantly latched onto the nervous gourd after a fan posted a photo to Twitter during an August event preview. The official Halloween Horror Nights Twitter account replied, “that’s lil’ boo.”
Initially adopted by fans as the event’s unofficial mascot, Lil’ Boo has been embraced by Universal Orlando and features prominently in merchandise for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights by name.
His creator, Emory Alvarado, could not be prouder of her squash son’s success. But as his candle glows brighter, the transgender Venezuelan-American artist is advocating for independent artists like herself and to show others there is space in the theme park design industry for diverse voices.
“I’m so happy to see this little pumpkin take off, but I just don’t want people to forget about me,” the 28-year-old said.
Alvarado carved Lil’ Boo in 2017 as part of a job with a local scenic shop, which she declined to name, that has contracts with the theme parks. She publicly identified herself as his creator last fall and began selling her own artwork of Lil’ Boo.
She did not design Universal’s merchandise with the character and does not profit from it, even as it reportedly flies off the shelves. Alvarado has been outspoken about her financial difficulties as a freelance artist and said she has difficulty paying rent.
Alvarado said she recently reached a licensing agreement with Universal that officially allows her to sell her Lil’ Boo art, permission that she said is rarely granted to theme park designers over their creations. She declined to discuss the agreement further at Universal’s request but said she is “really happy” with the company’s use of the character.
Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said Universal initially bought and acquired the rights to Lil’ Boo from the scenic company Alvarado worked with. When Universal realized Alvarado was selling Lil’ Boo art, it approached her to negotiate.
“We felt the right thing to do in this specific case was to create a separate, more limited, agreement with Emory allowing her to continue what she was doing,” he wrote.
Alvarado knew from a young age she wanted to be a theme park designer. Growing up in Orlando, she was always drawing existing attractions and dreaming up new ones.
A self-taught artist, her theme park credits include scenic work with Disney and Universal, creating props and sets for Pandora — The World of Avatar and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. She also worked on sets for SeaWorld’s Howl-O-Scream Halloween event last year.
Her former job as a scenic painter at an Orlando workshop led to Lil’ Boo’s creation in 2017.
The shop had a contract with Universal to make props for Halloween Horror Nights, and Alvarado was part of a team carving prop pumpkins for a scare zone themed to the 2007 horror movie “Trick ‘r Treat.” Her group was given stencils with specific designs but allowed to improvise slightly, Alvarado said.
She started coming up with her own quick designs after noticing others were carving faster. She said she was scolded for not sticking to the stencils, and exasperated, she carved an anxious little pumpkin showing how she felt.
“Lil’ Boo’s face, to me, reads like he’s saying, ‘This is a lot. This is just too much,’” she said.
Lil’ Boo, who at that point was nameless, was displayed in a tree in the 2017 scare zone to little fanfare. Alvarado said she recognized her other pumpkins at subsequent Halloween Horror Nights events but lost track of Lil’ Boo until last fall.
She thinks people love the character because of his relatable fretful expression, “like a little meme.”
Alvarado made her own merchandise featuring the character as he became popular, including pumpkin-carving stencils, postcards and a book detailing his backstory. The design’s rise to theme park social media fame inspired countless photos, an unofficial meetup and fan art, which she considers an honor.
“For me personally, the greatest accomplishment as an artist is to inspire other artists,” she said.
It is important to Alvarado that theme park companies credit the artists behind beloved designs, though the industry largely discourages creators from publicly discussing their work. Freelance artists especially appreciate recognition, she said.
For instance, The Kings Dominion regional theme park in Doswell, Va., publicly credited Alvarado for the murals she painted in its Jungle X-Pedition area earlier this year.
“I would love to see theme parks in the future having a list of credits, like on their website, a QR code on their maps, or whatever,” she said. “If [interactive experience company] Meow Wolf can do it, I think every theme park can.”
Alvarado also wants to help pave the way for future artists and designers from underrepresented communities.
The industry still is mostly comprised of white and male employees but many companies are working to change that, said Monai Rooney, executive director of the Big Break Foundation.
The organization works to educate companies on inclusion, diversity and equity and help eliminate the systemic barriers to industry jobs for workers from marginalized groups.
For example, not all prospective applicants have the resources to earn a college degree, yet most companies require one. This is an obstacle Alvarado said she encountered herself. She did not attend art school because her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, made it hard for her to learn in a classroom setting.
“There are incredible, talented artists and innovators and creators worldwide just looking for opportunities to share their art,” Rooney said. “So we also need to be good stewards about reaching out into the community, into the world and seeing how we can apply that within this industry in non-traditional ways.”
Alvarado said she is grateful for the platform Lil’ Boo has brought her and will continue using it for advocacy.
“I’m saying to all the other trans girls, trans men or non-binary people, and all the other Latino kids [and people from] impoverished communities, ‘Hey, you can get to this point,’” she said.
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