Christmas at Gaylord Palms 2018 review

Christmas has arrived at Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee near Disney World! The Gaylord resorts are well-known for their world class dining, entertainment, and luxurious rooms, Gaylord Palms presents its annual ICE event featuring the endearing Christmas classic A Christmas Story. In addition to the life-size exquisitely designed ice sculptures, Christmas at Gaylord Palms also offers guests fantastic shows, games, food, Christmas-themed drinks at the bar, a Cirque show, and gorgeous dancing lights display in the main atrium. There is no shortage of events and offerings to uplift your holiday spirits! Fortunately, I had the privilege of attending the media event for this highly anticipated celebration, and I am looking forward to sharing my experience with you in hopes that you make time for this most festive event to brighten all your holidays this season.

When attending an event at the Gaylord Palms, the best way to begin your evening is with a dining reservation at one of the award-winning restaurants. My friend Paula and I made reservations at Old Hickory Steakhouse to start Christmas at Gaylord Palms. I cannot recommend this restaurant enough. From the exemplary service to the steak grilled to medium rare perfection, this dining experience will enhance your Christmas at Gaylord Palms exponentially. Our server recommended bold pinot noir to pair with our center cut fillets along with creamy mashed potatoes and grilled mushrooms. With three atrium designs at the resort, you will get the sensation of dining outdoors in the cool air without the bugs and humidity. Some tips for planning you dining experience at Old Hickory: the meat and seafood sections are sold without accompanying side dishes, but you have the option to select family-style sides including many options from potatoes to mushrooms to vegetables and more. Whether you select a boldly seasoned steak or mouthwatering seafood, you will greatly enjoy and vividly remember your time at Old Hickory.

After dinner, we headed for the St. Augustine atrium to take in the Cirque show and dancing lights! Unfortunately, I misread the schedule and thought that checkin was from 7-8pm, so we missed Cirque. But on the plus side, that gives me incentive to return this season to enjoy the show. Ever since Disney pulled the plug on the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in exchange for shallow map projection shows at Hollywood Studios, I make sure to visit all the dancing light shows in the area because that feeling of being looking at or being surrounded by choreographed displays of thousands or millions of lights cannot be replaced. There is a high degree of immersion, dimension that cannot be replicated by the projection of light onto a building. There are several different musical numbers for the lights, and each one takes full advantage of the space and creates Christmas splendor with each and every twinkle of each and every light dancing during the show.

In the lower level of the convention center, the Alpine Village awaits you! While the Cirque and dancing light shows are complimentary with your evening, the majority of the offerings for Christmas at Gaylord Palms are located in the Alpine Village, which requires additional admission. In this wintery village, you’ll find snow tubing, Santa’s snow throw, Mrs. Claus, the Sweet Shoppe, Christmas market, and the flagship attraction ICE featuring A Christmas Story. Because this was the media event, Gaylord Palms provided us with quite the spread of handcrafted sweets from the artisan chefs at the resort. After sampling the delicious treats that the resort so magnanimously provided for our enjoyment, we decided to try our hand at the snowball throwing midway game! Until I held a snowball in my hand, I would not have believed that was possible given the village is not kept below freezing. But sure enough, I received a bucket of snowballs to throw at the targets. I didn’t hit a’one. Perhaps you will have better luck!

Next to Santa’s Snow Throw is the snow tubing attraction. Up until now, no one had ventured down the slope. So, I decided to break the ice, snow to speak ;). Here’s a tip, in case the ride greeter neglects to tell you to pick up a tube on your way through the queue, pick up one! I literally walked past the greeter twice and they never told me to pickup a tube and neither did they hand one to me. So, thank you ride attendants at the top of the slope for accommodating me by giving me one. Once I slid down the snowy slope, then many more guests flocked over to the snow tubes! For those of us who live in Florida, this is a rare opportunity to have some snowy fun indoors! It is so much fun! So don’t miss out on the slopes in Alpine Village.

Next to the slopes is the Italian ice stand, but my friend Paula and I were still stuffed from dinner and the holiday treats that we had to turn down that offering. I will make it a point to get one when I return. Near the entrance to ICE and close to the Marketplace are Mrs. Claus house and the Sweet Shoppe. Both of these houses offer shows! With Mrs. Claus show being an hour long, we did not have time to enjoy that one, so it’s another offering I want to experience when I return. The show in the Sweet Shoppe wasn’t starting again for over a half hour, so we took this time to experience that movie that plays for 24-48hrs every year on a TV channel. A Christmas Story!.

Bring gloves! I always encourage guests to bring gloves because it is incredibly cold. However, as much as I preached to my friend to bring gloves, guess what I didn’t do? Bring gloves. Haha. Pretty much, my hands were completely numb by the time we passed THE END. When I say A Christmas Story, you likely have several individual scenes that instantly come to mind. Fortunately for you, each of those scenes are captured by the artisan ice sculptors. Only Hemingway could find the words to describe the beauty of the experience. Prior to entering the frigid exhibit, you get to learn about how the history of ice sculpting and how the team of sculptors create the amazing sculptures that successfully translate the iconic movie to live experience. Just before walking down the ramp into the arctic temperatures, you will be given a parka; however, I also encourage long pants and warm socks. From the moment you walk into the first room, you will be awestruck by the sheer size and beauty of the ice-tastic creations.  These are not just your average ice sculptures that you may find at weddings, galas, or even theme parks; these are quite literally life size representations of entire scenes (characters, setting props, and all) from A Christmas Story. And not just white or clear ice, these sculptures are in living color! As I walked through the flagship attraction at ICE, I was amazed at how effectively the movie was captured. I really did feel that I was watching the movie from start to finish. Since it’s a movie that also has some memorable lines of dialogue, there are signs with those quotable moments. Returning as the final display on the tour during the experience is the absolutely stunning ice nativity. I’ve seen a lot of still nativities in my day, but this one is always the most beautiful! You may even find yourself singing O Holy Night along with the background music.

Closing out our evening, Paula and I took our seats in the Sweets Shoppe for the live comedy show featuring a hilarious crossover between Babes in Toyland and The Nutcracker as told by two incredibly funny performers as the Sugarplum Fairy and Nutcracker. Highly interactive, I was reminded of the line from a Rocky Horror Picture Show live shadow cast when the live cast yells “this movie sucks without audience partici–” and Dr. Frank responds with “–pation.” Because the show itself is funny, but the entertainment factor is increased ten fold by engaging the performers and playing along. Although you can sometimes tell that an actor is or isn’t having fun in a movie, picking up on how much an actor in a live production is far more noticeable. And these two were having a blast! The Sugarplum Fairy and Nutcracker were genuinely interested in my enjoyment and truly displayed enthusiasm for their show. Do not miss this show. It’s only 20mins, and I imagine it will have multiple showings each evening. I love the addition of a comedy show to Christmas at Gaylord Palms! So much is stunning, inspirational, heartwarming, and more; but you know what, sometimes you just want to laugh too! And you will laugh a lot during this performance! The actors even asked me if I wanted to take a pic with them on stage. How incredibly nice of them! Do yourself a favor, and make time for the show. Oh yeah, don’t forget to say hi to the gingerbread man out front too.

Opening Friday, November 16th, Christmas at Gaylord Palms featuring ICE should definitely be on your list of events to attend this year. If you dine at one of the restaurants, your parking will be validated (and parking is not cheap). You may be familiar with A Christmas Story but you’ve never seen it like this.

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Theme Park or IP Park?

With all the recent, present, and future changes coming to the legacy theme parks of Central Florida and Southern California, are we witnessing the next evolution in theme parks? I’ve been tossing around the idea of exploring this trend, and those same feelings were echoed recently on the No Midnight Podcast (a Disney-centric podcast that unpacks history and discusses current happenings in the parks). After listening to the episode, it’s become clear that this anecdotal observation I’ve made is shared by others. As I love exploring the history of the parks from a scholarly perspective (as evident in my past articles and book), this is a topic that deserves consideration.

In order to truly explore this trend that some of us in the theme park blog and podcast communities have observed, it’s important to take a brief look at the development of the very concept of a theme park. And before you think that Disneyland was the first theme park concept, think again. Contrary to popular belief, Universal Studios Hollywood was the first to pioneer the idea of a theme park. More than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25. More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse guests into the magic behind the screen. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures. The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers through the still world famous studio tram tour.

Combining inspiration from what Laemmle began 40 years prior, visionary Walt Disney made the decision to create an entire land that would immerse guests into the world (or land) of Disney. More than an amusement park, Walt Disney set out to create a multi-dimensional experience complete with continuous coherent storytelling from the architecture to the attractions and restaurants themselves. Even before the park would open its doors in 1955, Walt Disney produced a television special that sought to energize enthusiasm for the groundbreaking concept that took the stories, settings, and characters from the screen and translated them to exist in the real world. Disneyland was so popular that Walt began to develop an idea that would forever change the theme park business forever. The “Florida Project,” as it was called, would eventually become Walt Disney World. Sadly, Walt passed away before the park would open, but Walt Disney World is the manifestation of Walt’s ultimate dream. Disneyland was first and is the park that Walt built, but Disney World is truly what Walt envisioned when he dreamt his innovative idea inspired by his imagination.

In the mid 20th century, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Busch Gardens parks, SeaWorld parks, and later in the 20th century Universal Studios Florida were all opened to eager crowds! Each of these parks had a distinct theme, a specific story into which guests were immersed. With the cases of Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks, the storytelling was also accompanied by a conservation message. Attractions were built that matched well with the theme of the respective land. It’s important to note that, for the most part, there was significant thought put into an attraction fitting into the design (architecture) of the land in order to never take the park guest out of the overarching theme of the area FIRST and the whether or not a particular intellectual property (IP) works in that land second. Make the attraction fit the theme, not retheme the area to match the attraction. Whereas I am oversimplifying this practice or concept, the point is to get you thinking of how theme parks processed new attractions for the longest time; that is, until Universal Studios Islands of Adventure redefined themed entertainment.

Entire volumes of articles could be written on how Islands of Adventure (IOA) redefined themed entertainment; but for the sake of argument, the impact will be streamlined. Prior to IOA, theme parks, including Disney and Universal, were largely built with theme first and properties second. Now, themed entertainment designers are busy taking major IPs, placing them in the park, and then rethemeing around it. Each land or area is themed to the attraction versus the attraction designed to fit the theme of the park area. But in doing so, does this negate the very concept of a theme park, traditionally speaking? What happens when the movie is no longer relevant?

Unlike the other theme parks, at the time, Universal’s IoA was different in that it took popular IPs with entire universes (or worlds) if you will, and built vast lands in which there are attractions based on the movies/books represented. Prior to this, the closest examples were Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios. But even with the two aforementioned examples, they weren’t concerned with lands of the movies, but integrating the movie properties into the backlot look and feel of the park. With Disney-MGM (now Hollywood Studios, until it changes again) and Universal Studios Florida, the theme was a combination of Hollywood and the magic of motion pictures. So individual movie or TV properties were included as part of the them park experience, and guests were prevued to studio audience opportunities or the ability to audition to be on a show (think Nickelodeon Studios). The theme was “the movies” or “Hollywood.” From the architecture, to street names, to real-life locations, both of these parks that incorporated different movies or TV shows into the layout and design. The location was largely Hollywood, but could include New York City, San Francisco, a canyon in Arizona, or Amity Island. The attractions were built into the existing landscape versus selecting a property then changing the environment to match the IP. As these “movie parks” have been moving away from the magic of moviemaking to more immersive experiential environments, the “theme” has been changing rapidly. One could draw the conclusion that the “theme” of these parks is now an anti-theme. An anti-theme in that there are a variety of experiences that do not exist within a themed landscape that connects them together.

The theme of Islands of Adventure was just that, islands of adventure. Each island around the lagoon was a different land inspired by a different IP. Personally, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Seuss Landing are my favorite islands! Arguably, Jurassic Park was the centerpiece of the then-innovative concept as it was the biggest fandom represented. Today, that crown rests on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (since 2010). Not only was IoA the first to pioneer this concept of individual themes within the park, it was the first to create an immersive world in extreme detail. And it was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that completely changed the theme park game, rewrote the rules, and began the trend away from “theme” parks to IP parks. Instead of a collection of attractions around a shared theme (or collection of themes), now parks are trending toward a park that is a collection of disconnected IPs. While Magic Kingdom has the different themed lands, the overall theme of magic kingdom was largely fantasy and adventure not connected to any specific singular IP. And in each of the lands, there were attractions that fit the theme of the lands, some of which had movie counterparts. But the focus was not on the individual movies as much as it was the idea of escaping to, being transported to a world of high flying adventure or whimsical fantasy.

Ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Disney and Universal parks (mainly) but also joined by Movie Park Germany and MotionGate Dubai are principally concerned with attaching movie and literary IPs to the park for the guests. Reminiscent of the space race between the US and Russia of the mid 20th century, the race for theme parks is for IPs for the parks. This pattern continues into the film distribution and production company interests for new content–content that will lend itself to successful translation from screen to park. It’s more important than ever for media conglomerates and umbrella companies that have theme park and distribution interests to know what movies or entire franchises make for viable theme park lands and attractions. I cover this very topic in my study and book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks, which you can buy an Amazon! Just because a movie or entire franchise is popular, does not mean that it is material for a theme park. For more on that topic, checkout the book.

While building entire lands based upon a popularly established IP to create an immersive environment looks and sounds like a great idea to draw the enthusiastic crowds and significantly increase revenue, there is a darker side to this that will not be realized or observed for years down the road. With the more traditional theme park design, attractions can be changed out of the show buildings far more easily than having to retheme and rebuild an entire land. But why would thinking about the ability to change a land be important? Because it is not unreasonable to arrive at the conclusion that a particular IP may not continue to be popular after an IP has had its run. Although not as big as Star Wars or Harry Potter, the former A Bug’s Life is an example of the lengths a park has to go to to remove and rebuild. Razing to the ground and rebuilding is always more costly than building a’fresh. But this does not seem to detour the parks from moving from the traditional theme park concept to an IP park. A collection of IPs that a company either owns or licenses. In the concept of a collection of IPs, is there actually an over all theme? There appears to be more evidence to suggest that theme, in the traditional sense, is lost when focusing on attaching IPs.

With the continuing trend to focus on IP acquisition instead of original themes, it would appear that the traditional theme park may be dying in exchange for IP park. Take Disney’s Hollywood Studios for example. The theme was “Hollywood” or movie-making. What is the theme now? Well, to be honest, the answer that query is vague at best. You’ve Star Wars land on one side of the park, Toy Story in the middle, and a little bit of Hollywood in the front. No consistency in theme. With the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Aerosmith being licensed from CBS (Sony), and the facade of the Chinese Theatre licensed from TCL, the theme is NOT Disney IPs. Same with Universal Studios, the theme is not Universal IP because other than the first two installments, all others are Paramount. Not to mention that Simpsons is Fox. Even the headliner Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Warner Brothers (AT&T). Looking at the Disney and Universal parks, I am left in a state of confusion when attempting to understand the theme of the respective parks. So, since a consistent and coherent theme cannot be identified, I am left with the conclusion that there is no theme–just a collection of original and licensed IPs.

While many may not see the differences between the concepts of a theme and IP park because, on the surface, they both look indifferent from one another, the difference seems to be the story or the diegesis of the park, as a whole, from entry gate to back of the park. So, it’s not a matter of semantics. Going from IP to IP, the experience is disrupted, and reminds you that you have not actually been transported to any of these worlds. Part of what makes the traditional theme park a powerful conduit of creating an experiential continuous story is the ability for the park to consistently suspend your disbelief. To understand the difference a little better, think of it this way: the trending IP park concept is a series of “theme parks” joined together by a unifying gate. Instead of the overarching unifying theme that connects all the areas of the park together in one coherent, continuous story, the IP park is a concourse that takes you to different themed lands. So, the importance is not in the theming of the park as a whole, but in the individual lands within the gate. Think of it as a mall. A mall is a “single gate” structure (whether indoor or outdoor mall) that has many different stores. No two stores are the same (even if carrying similar products). The entryways and hallways/concourses are glorified conduits for transportation to and from the various anchor and supporting stores. That’s not unlike the IP park. Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, Toy Story, Pandora, and Star Wars lands are examples of your anchor stores with the other areas as supporting stores.

There is a magic that is lost in transitioning from the theme to IP park. Not that the newly emerging IP heavy lands are lacking in a great experiential factor–obviously, that is not the case–but the park as a whole demonstrates a perpetual identity confusion. If you cannot state the theme of a park in a single statement (much like the logline of a movie), then it is does not have a theme, but a collection of IPs with individual themes. Each of the IPs (whether original or licensed) are incredibly fun, immersive, and innovative, but just because you have a collection of IPs does not mean they make a theme park. More like a theme mall. Whatever the case, it appears that there is a trend away from the conventional theme park to the emerging IP park and any studio-based theme park is transitioning away from any connection to Hollywood or the magic of moviemaking. We are at a transitional stage in themed entertainment, and we will see an increasing number of separate IPs housed around a series of concourses to each experience.\

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail full review

If you’re searching for the most intense local haunt in Central Florida, then you need to head to Plant City to face the terror of Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail. By far, of all the events that I have attended this season, Sir Henry is definitely the scariest out of all of them. From the scareactors wandering about the common areas and queues for the mazes (and yes, I do mean mazes) to the ones within the dark corridors and pathways of the trails, each and every one is uniquely terrifying. Sir Henry, with featured now perennial guest Ominous Decent (whom joined Sir Henry after Hurricane Irma destroyed its original home in Bartow, FL), is made up of three trails, a laser tag arena, and an escape room. Amping up the scare factor, small groups are admitted into the mazes, leaving plenty of space between you and the groups in front and behind. No scares are spoiled like in more conveyer belt type houses. In addition to the attractions, there are shows performed in the presence of the statue of Sir Henry. While resting between mazes and enjoying the food truck offerings, you will be entertained by a group reenacting the Thriller dance and the Lipstick Players performing Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show. So much to do and see at Sir Henry. And with various ticketing options, this haunted attraction is the most scream for your buck. Oh yeah, be on the lookout for Vex. She is a wandering scareactor host who is always happy to answer your questions.

Returning for a second year to Sir Henry is Ominous Decent. New for this year is Twisted Souls, a maze that takes you through the ranch and slaughter house of a family that may just want to serve you up for dinner. Although there are returning set pieces from last year, this year’s maze is reimagined with new twists, turns, dead ends, and haunts. Of all the trails at Sir Henry this year, this is definitely the most frightening of them all. The attention to detail is incredible and nightmare inducing. Each and every trail at Sir Henry has a story posted out front for you to read the background of each and every trail. Although the signage is something that many guests may walk past, take your time to read it. Just like the preface of a book or trailer of a movie sets the tone for the experience, so does this narrative. The general theme of Twisted Souls is hillbilly horror. And within the livestock corals and humble abode of the family, you will encounter unspeakable terror and will wonder if you can escape with your very life.

After narrowly escaping the hillbillies of Twisted Souls,  my friends and I headed for The Carving. Again, there is a great story to read before you ender the terrifying field. From the entrance to the queue to the make itself, there is a noticeable attention to theming. The sinister jack-a-lanterns are incredibly creepy and truly set the tone for what you will encounter in the field. While my friends and I were waiting in the queue, none other then SIR HENRY himself came over to greet us. How many horror attractions have a consistent icon who wanders about, greeting guests? I cannot think of one. I love how Sir Henry walks around greeting his guests. This shows such an attention to the guest experience. Truly adds a personal touch. Instead of a ranch ran by cannibalistic hillbillies, this maze takes you through a field and village of deadly villagers that seek to carve up more than just pumpkins. With only some small candles and the stars to light the way, this is a dark maze. I love how it feels as though you are helpless in the middle of a forest. Because you are actually outside in a field and forest, speckled with foreboding cabins, this maze achieves an intense feeling that no amount of theming in a sound stage can fully replicate. You may even encounter low hanging shrubbery and even thorns. It’s a legit wilderness. Perfectly spaces out and paced, the haunts and scares are terrifyingly effective. Whereas this maze is not quite as scary as Twisted Souls, there are plenty of times that I was scared. And I do not scare easily.

Lastly, before experiencing the laser tag and escape room games, is Silent Walls. What is scarier than an orphanage with a sordid past? Answer, not much. With a serial killer on the loose, do you have what it takes to survive a maze through the house, grounds, and hospital with a murderous boogeyman running around? The entrance of this house is actually a house! You get to enter the orphanage through the front door and enter the dimly lit foyer. Every room is frightening and no amount of psyching yourself out or preparation will protect you from the boogeyman. The boogeyman may be any of the characters you encounter in the house, on the grounds, or in the hospital. Don’t trust anyone. The corridors are narrow and twisted. One wrong turn and you may wind up the next boogeyman victim. Like with the other mazes at Sir Henry, this one also boasts spectacular attention to production design and detail. Not all the scares are jump scares, and that is true of all the mazes at Sir Henry. Some of the frightening imagery is right there in front of you when you enter a room. The combination of jump scares and morbid characters gives this house an extremely strong presence. There is an atmosphere of dread and terror the whole time in the house. This level of fright exists from start to finish.

In addition to the three main attractions, there are two other offerings at Sir Henry this year. Laser Tag and an Escape Room. Both of them are included with the VIP ticket or available as a separate upsell. But you should opt for the VIP ticket since the VIP line access is included. Moore on that in the following paragraph. Providing guests with a break from the macabre, the laser tag setup is team v team in a small arena with cars and barricades. Plenty of places to protect yourself. It’s a lot of fun! I happened to be the highest scorer in my group despite dying 5 times haha. It’s a five minute game, and you will have a blast. Across the common area from laser tag is the escape room. Be prepared to wait for a while. Instead of loading the game with, say 6 people at a time, it’s loaded by party. So, it may take a while to get to your group especially if there are many groups of 3-4 people in front. Won’t talk about the room because that would give away the mystery. But it’s a lot of fun!

Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail has gotten so much right. In fact, their haunts beat out anything that I have experiences this year in terms of the level of scare and (non IP) production design. You DO NOT want to miss this season of Sir Henry. You will have a great time! Now, for some areas of improvement as this attraction continues to grow in popularity. The VIP queue needs to actually move faster. The problem with combining the VIP queue access with the ticket package that includes laser tag and the escape room is that most guest get that VIP combo package. So, the VIP line moved just as creepily slowly as the regular (standby) queue. Solution: Have the base ticket (3 trails), a combo ticket (three trails+laser tag+escape room), and make the VIP queue access a separately purchased premium offering. That way, you can add it to the base or combo ticket package. With it being a separate charge, fewer people will opt for it, therefore the VIP queue will actually more more quickly. I also suggest that Sir Henry add another food truck or two that gives guests different options. Lighting for the two shows in front of the statue needs to increase. And Sir Henry needs to work on how to communicate the actor changes with the hosts in the greeting positions so they don’t snd guests through while actors are changing (delaying the experience while IN the attraction). On the topic of hosts, the queues need to have a greeter at the entrance of the queue.

Although I still have a couple more local haunts to hit before calling it a season and switching gears to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this is on track to be my favorite experience this year. Most scare for the buck, definitely. If you live in Orlando or Tampa, you don’t want to miss this Halloween attraction!

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Scream-A-Geddon 2018

You’ll want to experience the horror again and again. Scream-A-Geddon, located in Dade City, Florida is definitely worth the drive. No question. If you’ve ever wanted to visit one of those haunted house or Halloween events that you find in all those shows on The CW, then visit the houses and offerings of this “horror theme park.” With five exceptional houses, including a haunted trail, plus zombie paintball, and the fact you can make a homemade s’more over the open camp fires, this is by far a don’t-miss local haunt in Central Florida.

From the moment you enter the haunted grounds of Scream-A-Geddon, you will be faced with terrifying wandering scareactors standing in your way between you and the haunted houses and mazes. After confronting ghostly dolls and sinister clowns, you may have worked up quite the appetite. Good thing there are many food options. Of all the delicious “fair food” options, my personal favorite is the s’more kit. That’s right! Scream-A-Geddon offers many camp fires (not for warmth, it’s Florida haha) but for roasting marshmallows and making that quintessential autumnal treat. I had so much fun! Like, for real. I cannot remember the last time that I had the opportunity to make a real s’more with crispy graham crackers and an official Hershey bar.

After savoring every bite of my freshly made s’more, my friend Michael and I made our way over to the Zombie Paintball entrance! Taking the place of the former haunted hay ride, this is a premium offering requiring an additional nominal charge. But I assure you, it’s well worth it! We were ushered past the fair queue of guests to the bus and were greeted by the paramilitary commander who instructed us to take our seat on the bus. I was particularly excited about this opportunity because I had never shot a gun before. At least one that wasn’t attached to the shooting gallery at Magic Kingdom. Once seated, the bus began to take off. The commander informed us of our directions to kill the zombies before they overtake the town. With a great production design including set pieces from the former Haunted Hayride plus new additions and florescent paintballs, this attraction is highly interactive and immersive. It’s a not-to-be missed attraction at Scream-A-Geddon this year.

After taking-out more than a dozen zombies, we jaunted over to a new house for this year. Demon’s Revenge. Such an incredible haunted maze. Unlike the houses at HHN and HOS, the houses at SAG where you are on a figurative conveyor belt navigating the house, SAG only sends through small groups. This enables you to experience more scares without seeing them up ahead and the opportunity to get lost in the maze. Although it is ultimately difficult to get completely lost in the maze, there are plenty of twists, turns, and dead ends that you may encounter. Fortunately, whilst remaining in character, the scareactors will redirect you if you do stray too far from the path. The overall theme of Demon’s Revenge is an old church building that is now overrun with an evil witch’s coven. The costumes and effects are fantastic! You’ll find dragons, Poltergeist-like giant ghosts, and more in this claustrophobic labyrinth of narrow passageways and everything that goes bump in the night.

When we narrowly escaped the coven, and navigated our way out of the old church building, we walked over to test our wits against the Dead Woods. Unlike the simulated woods that are created at HHN and HOS, this horror attraction takes you through the woods–literally. Within only the stars and a glowstick as your source of light, you make your way down the dark pathways through a village inhabited by a cast of characters that typify hillbilly horror. Not one or two cabins in the woods await you, but several that you must pass through without becoming dinner–uhh, I mean asked to stay for dinner. Dead Woods returns for another year of effective scares! The concept of a haunted woods is something that I feel truly adds to the Halloween experience. Something about it feels like Halloween. It may have still been in the 70s or 80s as we braved the Dead Woods, but everything else about it screamed Halloween!

Another returning house this year is Infected: Ground Zero. But just because it is returning for another year of terror, that does not mean that you can plan for it to be the same. What IS the same, is the returning option for additional interaction with the scareactors. By opting for the glow necklace, you give the attraction permission to get up close and personal with you. This can be anything from a creepy body check to being placed in a body bad or even having your hair buzzed off to check for deadly spores (okay, you’re not really going to lose your hair). Another effective layout! Much like with the other houses, this one too feels like a legitimate maze. Be careful which way you go through this infectious diseases camp. You may find yourself face to melting-off-face with those who have already come in contact with the deadly disease.

Across the midway stands Blackpool Prison. A prison more notorious than Leavenworth, Alcatraz, or Shawshank. This prison is filled with the most vile of criminals, many of which are serving time for violent crimes. Like with Infected, this house is also an interactive one, when wearing the glow necklace. Enter if you dare, because you may not be able to break out of this prison. From the moment you enter the dark, dank prison walls, you will be confronted by ruthless and sinister prisoners. By wearing the necklace, you may also find yourself dragged into cells and forced to crawl through small openings in the walls in order to find the exit. In order to keep things warm at the winter, there is a furnace in which you may be thrown. One cell leads to another, with no end in sight. Terrifying imagery and scares await you around every corner, and where you least expect them. An A-class haunted maze experience.

Lastly, Rage 3D was a new addition for 2017 and return with its killer clowns this year. The 3D classes truly enhance the experience of this house. The production design is fantastically colorful! But the surreal effects do not stop there. By far, this is the best clown horror house I have ever been in, and I’ve been to some great ones at HHN and HOS. Next level scary! Scary because you are a little disoriented the entire time, all the while clowns are jumping out at you. You even have to pass through a mirrored room with both fake and real clowns, and you never know which is which. Walls will fall in on you and you’ll have to walk through a spinning tunnel. The lighting and color effects are what impresses me most about this house. Of course, the clowns are nightmarish themselves!

There you have it! Now that you’ve read about it, you need to experience it for yourself. Visit Scream-A-Geddon‘s website for details and tickets!

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Visit Scream-A-Geddon‘s website for details and tickets!

Universal Studios Florida: the Hollywood that Once Was

It’s no secret that Universal Orlando Resort’s history is rich with television and film production. But where has it all gone? The short answer is that republicans took over the state government in 1998 and began chopping away at the incentives for filming in the state. If you look at the former (mainly TV) productions that used to film at Universal Studios Florida, you’ll notice that the late 90s and early 2000s are when the numbers began to drop to nearly nothing of consequence, save a TV episode here and there. Correlation may not equal causation, but this evidence to support the republicans killing off Florida’s film business may be anecdotal, but no less significant. All kinds of shows and TV movies were filmed in the sound stages and in and around the “working studio” theme park. Recently, Jennifer Beals was announced to be the sheriff in the new Swamp Thing TV show, and that prompted the idea to explore the history of productions in the park since the original 90s Swamp Thing TV show was filmed where the Men in Black attraction is located. Call it nostalgia; but knowing what used to flourish may prompt voters to think about who’s moving into the governor’s mansion this November. More than the politics of showbusiness and state legislature, delving into the variety of shows that once called Universal Studio Florida home proves to be an interesting and fun journey.

Headlining the most high profile productions to use the theatrical and television production facilities at Universal Florida is Nickelodeon Studios. Not only was it the most recognizable name using the production facilities, it was also incorporated into the park’s operations in order to further immerse the Universal Studios guests into the magic of TV and movies. In November 1988, Nickelodeon moved to the sunshine state and built its colorful office building with the big orange Nickelodeon sign on the front and eventual slime geyser in the forecourt. Although the production facilities were in use prior to the theme park officially opening, the official opening of the studio coincided with the theme park on June 7, 1990. The official opening allowed park guests to take a tour of the studio and guests could even audition for or join the studio audience during tapings of shows. Double DareFigure It Out, Legends of the Hidden Temple, GUTS, All That, and others are among those that regularly filmed. Shows like What Would You Do? often brought the cameras into the park in order to interact with guests. Sound stages 18 and 19 along with seasonally leased Stage 21 were home to some of your favorite Nickelodeon shows from the 90s. When the studios were in operation (many regard this as Nickelodeon’s golden age), more than a dozen kid/teen sitcoms, twenty game shows, and five children’s shows were shot at the main studios. Operating throughout the day were tours of of the facility for Universal Studios Florida guests; but during tapings, interested parties could signup to be in the studio audiences and kids/teens could even audition for the game shows when taping.

Well, what happened? After the republican legislation took over Florida in 1998, and the film incentives were greatly reduced, Nickelodeon along with Universal and Disney-MGM Studios began to book fewer and fewer shows. Furthermore, with the transition Nickelodeon was going through from live action game shows to more traditional sitcoms not intended for live studio audiences in the way Clarissa Explains it All, All That, and others in the early-mid 90s were, the studio shifted its focus back west. Eventually, Nickelodeon built new studios in California. So, it was a combination of lack of state film incentives and changing the direction of the content that were responsible for the eventual closure of the studio operations in 2004; and eventually, the administrative offices were moved to Santa Monica in 2005. From hundreds of employees to double digits, and eventually none at all, Nickelodeon employed many showbusiness professionals in Florida. And since the closure of the studio, the opportunities have greatly dwindled. Returning the state film incentives could recreate film and television opportunities. The story of Nickelodeon from 1988 to 2004 represents a kind of Hollywood that existed that was responsible for careers and unique theme park experiences.

Not only was Nickelodeon responsible for the “Hollywood of the east,” as Universal Studios Florida was considered from the time it opened for about 8-10yrs, there were a number of other shows that were also filmed there. Where many Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) houses are now located, used to be the stages where television and film was made. While Nickelodeon and Universal were the only “permanent” residents of the studio property, other shows and movies taped there throughout the early to mid 1990s.

Although the filming of this next movie for Universal Television (released on Showtime) was supposed to wrap before the park opened, early park guests had the rare opportunity to watch Anthony Perkins reprise his iconic role as Norman Bates in Psycho IV. That’s right, the last installment in the Psycho franchise was taped right there at Universal Florida! Until 1998, the Bates House and Motel were located where Barney is now. Park guests could get up close and personal with the standing sets much in the same way they can at the world famous studio tour in Hollywood. In an effort to have a working studio theme park concept, high profile productions were needed to cement the idea of Hollywood made here. Showing a production on a famous set in the park was a brilliant way of taking park guests behind the magic of the movies. The park’s slogan at the time was “ride the movies,” so this took that concept further, and allowed park guests to “experience” the movies. Not only was a Hollywood movie getting made at the brand new Universal Studios Florida, it became an attraction and popular photo opportunity for the next eight years. For those who missed the filming, park guests could still get up close and personal with Hitchcock’s most famous movie at Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies.

A couple of multi-season different shows called Universal Studios Florida home for the duration of their respective run. SeaQuest DSV (starting season 2) and Swamp ThingSeaQuest moved from Los Angeles to Orlando in 1995 for the filming of the second season. Other than some scenes that were shot in and around Orlando Tampa, most of the show was filmed in Sound Stages 20, 24, and 28. When the park offered a backlot tram tour, park guests could occasionally see into the sound stages when not not closed for filming. In nearby Sound Stage 21, the Universal picture Parenthood was filmed. Office building 22 housed the permanent and rental office space for the various productions on property. On the other side of the park where Men in Black is now located, was the Swamp Thing set. Although not part of the studio tram tour, guests could book additional tours of some of the active sets on property. Over the years, there were many other television shows and movies filmed at Universal Studios Florida. Knowing that movie and television magic was being made right there in Orlando added an intrinsic value to the experience of the theme park in its early years. It truly felt like Hollywood was right here in Orlando.

Those who love movies and theme parks were in awe of all the attractions and movie magic on display at Universal Studios Florida. And if you are a kid of the 90s, you remember all too well the closing of Nickelodeon shows “recorded in front of a live studios audience in Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios Florida.” And your parents likely remember the neon logo at the end of Swamp Thing and SeaQuest. What could be better than a movie-themed theme park that was also a bustling studio for a movie and TV fan? Not a whole lot. Unfortunately, when Florida switched from a Dem to a GOP governor in 1998, slowly the number of productions began to dry up as the state ended its desirable incentives. Sound stages were empty or primarily used for Halloween Horror Nights, Nickelodeon turned into Blue Man Group, sound stages destroyed for Rip Ride Rockit and more from the early 2000s to today. Very little is left of the Hollywood that once was. Still there are buildings in the park that sand testament to the role the theme park played in the many productions that took place, by in large, from 1990-2000. So much history–right here in Orlando! Hard to believe all the movie magic that was made part of the experience of visiting Universal Studios Florida.

If you live in Florida, and would like to see movie magic return to the Sunshine State, think about who will push for those state-level tax and other financial incentives to generate a renaissance of opportunities for those who love movies so much that they want to be part of making them.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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