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Disney vs. Universal: The Battle for Halloween

Image (c) Disney

It’s barely September, and kids are newly back in school. Yet Central Florida is already in the grips of something that most places around the world will not even think about for more than a month—Halloween. In some areas, the holiday conjures up images of homegrown haunts and children in cute costumes ringing their neighbors’ doorbells. But in the Orlando area, Halloween is big business, with Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando fighting for control of the multi-billion dollar Halloween pie. Other theme parks in the region throw their own Halloween bashes, and both home-based and commercial haunts are plentiful, but the real competition for the holiday is, as is so often true throughout the year, an epic battle between the two dominant theme park enterprises.

How did this come to be? With everything else they have to offer year-round, why are Disney and Universal locked in a clash of the titans to control Halloween, and how did this competition build into a holiday season that lasts nearly two full months—a feat rivaled only by the much-heralded Christmas season? Here, we will dig into the dusty annals of theme park history to find the answers. Along the way, we will also share some surprises and little-known facts about both parks’ celebrations.

Halloween in the United States

Image: Disney

To truly understand Halloween in Orlando, we first need to take a look back—way back—to see how Halloween has been celebrated over the centuries. Before there was Halloween, of course, there was All Hallows Eve. Going back even further, there was the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Celebrating the end of the Celtic year and the arrival of the new year, Samhain was a three-day celebration that lasted from October 30 through November 1. It was believed that the veil between the living and the dead was thinner at this time of year, and that ghosts could walk among us. Ritual bonfires, costuming, and seasonal theatrical shows were all part of the experience.

In medieval times, Christianity was spreading rapidly through the once Celtic lands. Many of the Christian festivals blended with earlier Celtic rites, both to reduce confusion and to encourage participation. November 2 was set as All Souls Day, and November 1 as All Martyrs Day. Eventually the two merged into All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Day, which was celebrated on November 1. October 31 became All Hallows Eve, a time to remember and honor the dead, while simultaneously donning a costume to avoid being recognized by their spirits. Of course, then even more so than now, specific traditions and celebratory rituals varied by region.

Early colonists brought their own All Hallows Eve traditions to what would become the United States. In New England, the holiday was largely ignored, as it was in conflict with the Puritanical belief system. This is a bit ironic if you think about it, since those same colonies—especially Massachusetts—retained a simultaneous fascination with, and fear of, witchcraft that ultimately brought us one of the most tragic yet most enduring symbols of Halloween, the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693.

Image in the Public Domain

In the southern colonies, All Hallows Eve traditions flourished. The settlers merged not only their own traditions, but those of the Native Americans surrounding them, into often elaborate festivities. Telling ghost stories, mounting large theatrical productions, song and dance, and even harmless mischief-making were all part of the fun. The holiday was beginning to evolve.

Over the next centuries, wave after wave of new immigrants brought their own spin to the celebrations. Perhaps no single contribution was bigger than the Irish tradition of carving turnips into Jack O’ Lanterns. Based on an Irish folk tale about Stingy Jack, who was not allowed into heaven or hell, and so roamed the earth with a burning coal inside a hollowed-out turnip, the Jack O’ Lantern has become an icon of Halloween—now created from a pumpkin rather than a turnip.

By the mid-19th century, Halloween had lost most of its grotesque and frightening roots. Instead, it was a community-centered party for all ages. Dancing and feasting were a big part of the fun, as were games and activities. Yet the holiday continued to grow and change. Over time, it began to focus more on children than adults. By the 1950s, Halloween parties had moved to schools and homes, with trick or treating as the last vestige of a community celebration.

Image: Universal

Of course, society changed rapidly over the next two decades. With the tumultuous changes taking place across the country and around the globe, old traditions were cast off as quaint and boring. The horror movie industry proliferated, quickly moving from the monster films of the 1950s to the violent and gory slasher flicks of the 1960s and 1970s. Against this backdrop, audiences were ready to embrace the older and more gruesome elements of Halloween.

The 1960s and 1970s

Ride-through haunts had long been a staple at fairs and amusement parks. A natural evolution of the “Tunnel of Love” and similar dark rides, these haunts began scaring riders at the end of the 19th century. With their silly yet startling motifs, they provided an excellent distraction during two world wars, and survived as innocent fun during the conservative 1940s and 1950s.

Yet Walt Disney did not add one to Disneyland right away. This was not for lack of interest, as even the earliest plans for the smaller park he originally intended near his studio called for a haunted house. In fact, he had been planning a someday-haunted attraction for roughly 20 years! The problem was an ongoing deadlock within the company—should the haunted house be silly or scary?

Remember, Disneyland opened smack in the middle of the conservative 1950s. Halloween was  a kiddie holiday. The fair-based dark rides were hugely popular, but they were inexorably tied to the carnivals and amusement parks of which they were a part—the exact image of which Disneyland was designed to be a polar opposite! If Disney was going to build a haunted attraction, it had to be done in true Disney style—fun for all ages, impeccably themed, and based on an airtight storyline.

Image © Disney

The battle raged right through Disneyland’s opening day and into the turbulent 1960s. New Orleans Square, a promised expansion to the park, would be a natural home for such an attraction. Walt put his foot down on the exterior design, refusing to allow a dilapidated building to exist, and eventually plans settled on a beautiful antebellum home loosely based on the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.

In 1961, Disney began handing out flyers at the front gates of Disneyland, promising that the new Haunted Mansion would open in 1963. Sure enough, the exterior was finished on time—but the actual attraction was still caught in design gridlock. It wasn’t until 1969, three years after Walt passed away, that the Haunted Mansion finally opened. In grand Disney style, the finished product was the perfect blend of silly and scary—a true masterwork for a company that was still getting its footing. A similar attraction, even grander in scope and scale, opened with the Magic Kingdom in 1971.

Across the country, however, Halloween was growing bigger, scarier, and more intense. The Junior Chamber International began its Jaycees haunted house tradition in the early 1970s, and the rise of the home haunt began around the same time. At Knott’s Berry Farm, the 1973 debut of Knott’s Scary Farm marked the first theme park haunted event with a three-night party featuring numerous static props and designer Bud Hurlbut in a gorilla suit. The event has grown and evolved each year, and now vies with Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights for best theme park Halloween event in the country.

Rather than trying to compete in an industry that fell far outside its purview, Disney decided to stick with what it did best. The company experimented with Halloween parties over the years, including one for resort guests at the Contemporary in 1976 and even a hard-ticketed party at the Magic Kingdom in 1979. Despite some success, however, Disney had not yet found its magic formula.

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