The history of Halloween in Orlando’s theme parks

Halloween events have proved to be monstrously popular at Orlando’s theme parks, prompting fans to spend hundreds of dollars for tickets to be frightened and/or delighted.

That wasn’t always the case. Walt Disney World’s first haunted celebration at Magic Kingdom was actually before its second-ever Halloween in 1972, when it promoted free admission for paying park visitors to get into its Haunted Mansion attraction, no E ticket necessary. SeaWorld Orlando also had modest promotions its opening year in 1973, when it gave pumpkins to children in attendance.

These were one- or two-day events, touted as “pre-Halloween” when held before Oct. 31, back before Halloween developed into a season of its own.

Enthusiasm built gradually but steadily over the decades. This year, Disney sold out all 37 dates for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, its elaborate after-hours/separate ticket event at Magic Kingdom. Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, which started as a three-night occasion called Fright Nights in 1991, scheduled 43 HHN evenings this year. And SeaWorld expanded its second-year Howl-O-Scream programming and shaped it to coexist with its long-running, family-friendly Spooktacular event.

“I think this year is just very special, because everybody missed it. Just seeing everybody, that nostalgia is there,” said Ray Smale, general manager of entertainment at Magic Kingdom, where the Not-So-Scary event had been shelved since 2019 because of pandemic precautions.

“Every time the Headless Horseman goes down Main Street, people go crazy because it’s back,” he said.

The Not-So-Scary Halloween Party includes stage shows, trick-or-treating, an event-exclusive fireworks show and parade filled with Disney characters, preceded by the horseman of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” fame. Prices for single-night tickets ranged from $109 to $199, depending on the date, in 2022. The event began Aug. 12, its earliest launch since its history.

In the early years of Walt Disney World, Halloween celebrations were limited — costume contests, “Sleepy Hollow” showings, character appearances — and primarily at Walt Disney World Village, the shopping complex called Disney Springs now. And, in what might give 21st century bean-counters pause, the bulk of the activities there were free to the public.

“Halloween is important to the industry and the operators,” said Dennis Speigel, CEO of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services. “It’s a cash cow. It’s a people generator. And it’s an experience that, strangely enough, everybody likes.”

Central Florida attractions glided through the ‘80s without becoming significantly more spooky. Halloween festivities happened at civic organizations as fundraisers, as well as at schools, nightclubs, hotels and churches. Circus World opened a “Circus of Horrors” haunted house for two days. Water Mania hosted walks through a “Haunted Forest” behind the Kissimmee water park. Disney hosted in-park concerts in October (including performances by Melba Moore, Billy Idol and Stacey Q).

When Not-So-Scary arrived in ‘95, it was considered Disney’s reaction to Universal’s introduction of Halloween Horror Nights in 1991. The first round of HHN featured one haunted house, Dungeon of Terror. It was promoted as “a Halloween party to die for” in advertising, and tickets were $15.95.

Bigger plans loomed. Next, Universal Studios became home to Robosaurus, a giant mechanical dinosaur that split junk cars in half, the comedic “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” stage show, themed scare zones and other intense activities as the number of haunted houses grew for Horror Nights. The intense mazes, filled with unnerving scenes and lurking “scare actors,” and Universal’s marketing, earned a PG-13 reputation.

It was a building process, said Michael Aiello, senior director of creative development for Universal Orlando.

“Every year had something that led to what the event has become,” he said. “Like, in 1999, that was the first 3D house, Universal Creature Features.”

Jack the Clown poses for the Orlando Sentinel in 2015, the 25th year of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.

In 2000, Universal gave Horror Nights a face.

“That was when Jack the Clown came into existence,” Aiello said. “That event shaped how the next 10 years of that event would be formed under a central figure that would then kind of paint and apply texture to the overall feeling of the event.”

This year, HHN has 10 haunted mazes and five scare zones plus some spooky productions in its lineup. Wait times in the house standby queues typically are longer than an hour each.

Universal has continued to incorporate intellectual properties — previously established films and television shows — with its original ideas.

“We started getting a real good sense of where the event wanted to start to live and really what our guests were telling us they wanted to see,” Aiello said. “I think that really happened for the 22nd year of the event. That was 2012, and that was ‘The Walking Dead,’” an AMC show about modern-day zombies that intrigued audiences and had presences at Horror Nights for multiple years.

The posted price for single-night HHN tickets in 2022 is $84.99. Universal offers a slew passes for multiple trips to the event, plus options to skip the line, for a price. Its Ultimate Frequent Fear Pass, loaded with express powers, allows buys to go every night for $819.99.

A creature reaches out from the bushes at SeaWorld Orlando's Howl-O-Scream event.

Last year, SeaWorld Orlando added Howl-O-Scream and its frightfulness to its lineup and kept Spooktacular which started in 1993.

Spooktacular has been a daytime event with offerings including the Spooky Kooky Snapshot Safari, Penny Penguin’s Merry Maze, Bayside Haunted Circus ski show, the Zombie Zelebration beach party, Shamu’s Halloween Thriller Finale fireworks and bagloads of in-park trick-or-treating.

Howl-O-Scream, in contrast, is the park’s foray into horror, this year presenting five haunted houses and seven scare zones, complete with shrieks and sinister sirens. Like Universal’s Horror Nights, it’s after regular hours and it offers multi-night passes, express-lane options and other add-ons.

On Howl-O-Scream event nights, parts of SeaWorld Orlando go through transformations to jump-start the scares.

“It does require a lot of moving pieces every single day to flip the park, whether it might be uncovering set pieces or changing out menus or anything along those lines to be able to create the event,” said Kyle Smith, manager of creative show operations.

“We cover certain things up so that our daytime guests, while they might see some existing set pieces and décor still out and about, it’s nothing that is going to be perceived as a scary environment for anyone that might not be into the haunted attraction,” he said.

Doubling up on Halloween gives SeaWorld visitors an all-day opportunity, he said.

“We’re constantly adding new consumer events throughout the year,” Smith said. “Adding Howl-O-Scream on top of our already existing Spooktacular was a huge, huge feat for us to be able to do, not only for staffing wise, but creatively and coming up with new concepts, especially for us never doing a haunted attraction before.”

Admission to Spooktacular is included in daytime SeaWorld Orlando admission. Single-night tickets for Howl-O-Scream top out at $62.99, with an “unlimited visit” ticket selling for $139.99. SeaWorld also offers a night-and-day ticket and a combo deal with the Howl-O-Scream event at sister park Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Expanding the offerings makes sense to attractions owners, Speigel said.

“With all of the crazy external forces that seem to be impacting our business … that’s why you’re seeing some of them doing crossover — the scary and the not-so-scary,” he said. “It gives them a broader base to build that attendance.”

It is the “single-largest industry promotional event,” he said. “And we’re talking it goes from Disney all the way down to the smallest mom-and-pop operators around the country.”

A graveyard scene is part of Gators, Ghosts and Goblins, the daytime Halloween event at Gatorland.

Gatorland introduced its Gators, Goblins and Ghosts event four years ago after trying a scary after-dark event in the past that didn’t work out, Mark McHugh, the attraction’s president and CEO, said.

“There was just too much competition in the marketplace for nighttime events,” he said. The family-driven daytime crowd is a better fit, he said.

Theme Park Rangers

Theme Park Rangers


The latest happenings at Disney, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and other Central Florida attractions.

“That’s our niche. That’s where we’re really successful. And it’s just snowballing in the community,” McHugh said. “Each year it just gets better from an attendance standpoint and better from our entertainment standpoint.”

Legoland Florida, which targets the youngster market year-round, has seen growth in its weekend Brick-or-Treat event. This year, it runs for 12 days and its first day was held in September for the first time. Nick Miller, director of operations for the Winter Haven theme park, said it boosts attends in fall and throughout the year.

“Guests love it. Locals love it. We get a very, very high annual pass space that loves to come in and experience many days of Brick-or-Treat,” he said.

Legoland Florida performers take the stage during Brick-or-Treat, the theme park's Halloween event.

“We also do the fireworks, which is always a hit with the kids,” Miller said. “It’s not something we do every night. So it’s special when we do.”

The Halloween events are moneymakers, so Speigel expects them to hang around.

“I have seen a lot of the regional park operators literally hang their seasons on how well Halloween does,” he said. “It’s one of those events that it’s not totally recession-proof … but close to it.”

Email me at [email protected] Subscribe to the Theme Park Rangers newsletter at or the Theme Park Rangers podcast at