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montage of Skull Kingdom, Terror On Church Street, and Mystery Fun House brochure art

Central Florida is haunted. Anyone who’s driven 192 or International Drive knows the ghosts.

Plaster peaks of coming-soon golf courses that never came. Trendy bars with strangely cock-eyed facades. Car museums the conspicuous size of shopping malls. Gift shops that look like buffets. Buffets that look like dinner theaters. Dinner theaters that look like gift shops.

In a tourist town, let alone the tourist town, it’s the circle of life. New attractions replace old, leaving only garish architecture and sun-stained signs for the fossil record. Over the last few decades, both Disney and Universal have come up with multi-million dollar reasons for visitors never to leave their respective enclaves. The casualties have only gotten bigger. Wet ‘n Wild closed in favor of an on-property waterpark at Universal and, later, more hotels. Crossroads shopping center and its 30 businesses, some veterans since ’88, are in-process of becoming a Disney Springs exit ramp. And who needs year-round haunted houses with the country’s premier Halloween party just down the highway?

Anyone who drove 192 or International Drive in the 1990s remembers the ghost houses.

The gothic ruin just off I-4. The Victorian funeral parlor stranded in the middle of Old Town. The other castle on Irlo Bronson. Kissimmee and Orlando used to keep monsters gainfully employed even in the off-season. Local Halloween events may get credit for pushing the art of the scare, but the fundamentals were forged and field-tested in a dead department store not twenty minutes away.  Sadly, the nature of haunts means that archival material and coverage is scarce, even in the internet age - Terror in Orlando, located on International Drive where Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition is now, opened sometime in 2007 and closed in early 2008 without leaving a single photo or comprehensive review. The following attractions are memorialized for their impacts on the form and distinct profiles against the crowded tourist corridors. Their histories have been compiled from digitized newspapers and travelogues, as well as accounts of those who witnessed the horror first-hand, both the terrified and terrifiers alike.

Terror On Church Street

Terror On Church Street terrorized by an inflatable spider
Image: Master Production Entertainment

In 1986, an experiment in fear was unleashed upon the unsuspecting populace of Buenos Aires. The haunted walkthrough was called “El Torreón del Monje” and designed in answer to a stray nightmare of TV producer Fernando Quenard: “What would happen if the statues in a wax museum suddenly came to life?” The results screamed for themselves.

In 1988, the first official Pasaje del Terror opened in Bilbao, Spain.  Its combination of theatrical light, sound, and staging was revolutionary. Its ringer cast of Hollywood’s most famous maniacs, irresistible. More installations followed quickly in Madrid and Barcelona. It wasn’t long before the chain spread across the rest of Europe and returned to its South American roots. Soon, “pasaje” became shorthand for “haunt.” Soon, Pasaje would receive its first, last, and only translation.

On November 8th, 1991, a week and ten minutes removed from Universal’s first Halloween party, Terror On Church Street tore the calendar off the wall.  Horror had moved in permanently, at least for a while, and Church Street Station would never be the same.

Upon its 1974 founding by entrepreneur Bob Snow, Church Street Station proudly offered what Disney would and could not - adult entertainment. Five unique nightclubs offered a little something for everybody - Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium, Apple Annie’s Courtyard, Lili Marlene’s Aviator’s Pub, Phineas Phogg’s Balloon Works, and the Cheyenne Saloon. Visitors paid one price for the lot, coming, going, and partying as they pleased in a lavishly themed Dixieland environment. As the ‘80s turned to ‘90s and three nearby amusement parks became five, however, Church Street started looking quaint instead of competitive. Snow rejected a buyout from Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl and instead sold his stake to Baltimore Gas & Electric. The entertainment district needed a fresh edge.

It came in the form of death itself, a pale vision borrowed from The Seventh Seal - the Pasaje mascot, drooling blood high above the corner of Church and Orange. Orlando’s historic F.W. Woolworth Co. building received a makeover in red neon. If the new duds didn’t catch passing eyes, then the line of eager victims wrapping the block would. Actors playing top-hatted barkers and roach-chewing monks kept the mood rowdy. The spooky sales pitch wasn’t just savvy, it was necessary - as one of the first permanent haunts of its kind in the United States, nobody really knew what they were in for.

Terror On Church Street divided the former department store’s two floors into 23 rooms, a 20-minute walk besieged by, depending on the night, up to 30 actors. Those who resisted the regularly placed chicken exits and braved it all witnessed, among other nightmares:

Pig-faced Moreau beasts. Winged gargoyles. Xenomorphs. Robert De Niro’s Frankenstein. Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. The animatronic cast of Puppet Master. The animatronic star of Child’s Play. Bodies hung like sides of beef. Linda Blair lookalikes puking in bed. The Red Death itself.

Scares were reworked every three months, but the tricks never went out of style. All senses were weaponized. Lighting played tricks with triggered two-way mirrors. Targeted speakers brought danger to the back of the neck and compressed air made its hair stand. Some scenes were hot. Some walls were wet. Some floors were soft. Before anything living stepped out of the dark, guests were deeply, fatally disturbed. When the living things did finally step out, well...

The Eternal Dwellers Theater Company, under creative director David Clevinger, wrote the book on scare-acting or at least translated it for the American printing. Though many of the actors were scene-specific, they improvised according to guest feedback, stalking them as needed. Most of them didn’t have haunt experience - case could be made that “haunt experience” didn’t exist yet. What made the scares scarier and the overall Terror more terrifying was their theatrical background. The Eternal Dwellers played characters first and jack-in-the-boxes second.

Pasaje del Terror landed one of horror’s most iconic characters as spokesman but hired him to play an actor first. Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates in the flesh, signed on to promote the international chain in print and on the air. He only appeared on brochures for Terror On Church Street, supporting its ominous slogan “Beyond The Limits of Fear” with a personal threat:

Anthony Perkins on the Terror brochure
Image: Master Production Entertainment

In territories where Pasaje was still Pasaje, he starred in black-and-white commercials that laid bare the chain’s fundamental appeal: “This is not a movie and I’m not the star this time - in Pasaje del Terror, you are the star.”

In the suddenly stardom-obsessed Orlando, the gimmick worked and how. For 364 days a year -  the monsters had Christmas off - Terror chased out pleasantly traumatized customers chainsaw-first from 7 p.m. to midnight and occasionally even later. The Eternal Dwellers started taking over the Street for annual Halloween events. Branded apparel was available from the adjoining “Little Shop of Terror” and, in an early bit of internet haunt advertising, the Terror On Church Street website.

Out front, the ghouls deemed it “North America’s Largest Terror Attraction.” Though it was the most ambitious Pasaje to date, that may have just been hype. There was another, more accurate slogan amongst the advertising, even if it would only sound sarcastic with age: “Orlando’s Most Fatal Attraction.”

 For all its retrospective failings, Disney’s Pleasure Island left a mark. Any resort guests old enough to consider decamping for Church Street suddenly had an entire nightclub district no more than a complimentary bus ride away. Bob Snow heard the screws turning, telling the Orlando Sentinel upon its 1986 announcement, “Disney doesn’t do anything halfway, and if they can build a better mousetrap, then we are going to be hurt.” He saw it coming and got out of its way. In 1985, the Station drew 1.7 million visitors. By 1998, it hovered around 550,000. The following year, the true fatal attraction would open nine miles south - Universal’s CityWalk entertainment complex wasn’t just closer to Church Street than the competition, it was cooler, too.

Hip crowds flocked to the newer clubs, still highly themed but devoid of the old-fashioned charm that put watering holes like Rosie O’ Grady’s on the map. Terror On Church Street, once boasting 200,000 guests annually, was starting to lose its line. The blood-and-guts business was facing stiff competition of its own. The same nine miles south, Halloween Horror Nights was starting earlier and lasting longer, sucking up peak-season tourist dollars. In 1992, a stroll through Terror cost $10. A ticket to Universal’s party ran double but offered double the haunted houses, not to mention all the additional entertainment. The disparity only got wider across the decade. Despite the resistance and rumors of its replacement by a movie theater, the owners signed a new five-year lease on the Woolworth building in 1998.

Despite the new lease, Terror closed suddenly in May 1999. Raised rent and lowered foot traffic finally did it in. A new consortium representing Church Street Station bought the name and almost everything inside for $43,700 at a bankruptcy hearing. As part of a planned rejuvenation of the area, a second incarnation of Terror, now legally detached from its Pasaje roots, opened on the third floor of the Church Street Exchange.

The revived Terror On Church Street had everything working against it. The walkthrough was shorter and, on account, less ambitious. Fewer rooms - 16 down from 23 - meant fewer actors, the secret ingredient that made the attraction what it was. Most mortally, it had no outdoor presence. No façade. No wandering barkers. No place of honor for the Pasaje mascot. It was a store in a mall with all the independent appeal therein.

It lasted two years before closing, unmourned, in May 2001. Little if any documentation exists of it online. The remaining 19 employees lost their jobs. One of them anonymously diagnosed Terror 2 for the Sentinel: “It was hopeless.”

Remaining sets and props were sold off to another operation detailed below. Cast and crew scattered to the wind, though some would find further work locally in the industry. Alan Ostrander, character designer for Terror and founder of AEO Studios, attempted a spiritual successor in 2014 with Nightmares at the Majestic but permit problems sunk it days before opening.

The enduring legacy of Terror On Church Street can be seen everywhere costumed fiends lunge at paying passersby, and not just in Central Florida. There’s no way of knowing how many haunters were inspired by its revolutionary spirit. Terror was the prototype. Everything that came after, one way or another, took pointers from it.

The flashier rivals down the highway certainly did. 

Skull Kingdom

Skull Kingdom from across the parking lot
Image: Flickr, user: Bob B. Brown (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/) - photo cropped

In the summer of 1997, a fortress rose in the shadow of the Sheraton Universal. Fire belched from each of its cardinal turrets. An enormous skull pinned the entrance between fangs the size of toddlers. Waterfalls cascaded along the bedrock. Stone demons offered basins of fire to whatever dark powers ruled within.

This 16,000 square-foot icon was Skull Kingdom, as iconic to I-4 motorists as any given billboard. Memories tend to blur on its signage, though. Some will swear the front promised “A Haunted Family Attraction.” Others, simply “A Haunted Attraction.” Across its nine years of existence, the Kingdom promised both and that’s exactly what did it in.

Founders K. Trevor Thompson and Jim Doyle had the qualifications. The former was vice president and executive consultant of the Guinness World Records Museum in Niagara Falls. The latter was vice president of design and development for the parent company now known as Ripley Entertainment. They came to Orlando scouting for a Guinness outpost. Instead, they struck gold. Real estate speculator Tahir Ansari owned a prime piece of tourist corridor - the heavily trafficked corner of Universal Boulevard and International Drive, catty-corner to Wet ‘n Wild.

The three struck a deal. Ansari paid. Doyle designed. Thompson operated.

On June 13th, 1997, the newest castle in Central Florida opened to the public. Kane Hodder , fan-favorite Jason of Friday the 13ths VII through IX, was enlisted to commemorate the occasion.

Skull Kingdom closed the following day for a week of last-ditch renovations.

As many disgruntled guests eagerly pointed out, the creative team’s experience with museums did not translate to haunted houses. There was no script for actors and, in some cases, no costumes. The walkthrough was interrupted by forced photo-ops. Ancillary experiences like a shooting gallery and face-painting studio took up valuable floor space, but further muddled the target demographics. The only way to browse the Haunted Gift Shop for that “Regular or Decapitated” coffee mug grandma would just adore was to pony up $11 for admission and brave the half-hour gauntlet to get there.

Management turned to cast and crew. For the first of many times, the Skull Kingdom players made the most of it.

Detailed costumes were paid for out of pocket. The plainest rooms and hallways were remodeled on personal time. The haunt had a strong opener - a Pepper’s Ghost illusion punctuated by a falling floor - and the rest could be made up with fake blood, sweat, and tears. For a while, it was. The biggest improvement came with the death of Terror On Church Street - the already-shopworn sets and props made up three-quarters of Skull Kingdom.

Like its forebear, the Kingdom saw updates, though irregularly. Across its life, visitors could expect to see Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, skeletons with wings, animatronic demons, assorted Cenobites, Ghostface, Chucky in the flesh, a Colonial Marine with matching Xenomorph, and all manner of store-brand boogeymen.

a brochure for Skull Kingdom
Image: Skull Kingdom of Orlando, Inc.

“Family” disappeared off the marquee, but the damage was done. Those with kids stayed away from the obviously evil building. Those without, looking for a good scare, left alternately satisfied and confused. The location, the very reason it was built at all, took its toll - visibility matters, but a readily accessible parking lot is worth its weight in gold. As attendance slowed, costs were cut. At Skull Kingdom’s peak, 15 actors roamed the two-story haunt, though it ran just fine with six to ten. Necessary cast was winnowed down to three, with hasty costume changes covering the difference. In its final years, three became one, the lobby attendant, who would have to lock the front doors behind each group of customers.

The make-or-break moment came in the early 2000s, when Skull Kingdom changed hands. Thompson had already left to run SkyVenture, now known as iFLY, across Universal Boulevard. Doyle returned to Ripley Entertainment. The new operator wanted to make good on the slogan that had been haunting brochures for years - “Full of Fun & Fright!”

The gift shop was replaced by a buffet show called “Chamber of Magic.” The temptations of endless pizza and bottomless beer did little to attract tourists who could easily find the same closer to their hotels with a less disturbing atmosphere.

The cast of Skull Kingdom that stuck around, to their immortalized credit, made do. In 2003, 2004, and 2005, the attraction placed in the Top 10 Walkthrough Attractions as voted by keepers-of-the-flame DAFE, an organization of Dark Attraction & Funhouse Enthusiasts. The spirit was still willing, even if the tourism industry was weak; Skull Kingdom’s proximity to Universal - five minutes with traffic - did it few favors, even though Halloween Horror Nights gained steam in the post-9/11 doldrums.

The Kingdom closed without fanfare in November 2006. It was auctioned off lock, stock, and body part on February 12th, 2007. The owners expected $100,000. The lot went to Daytona Lagoon waterpark for $26,000. The gap was wide enough for the sellers to cry foul, arguing with the buyers until Orlando police arrived to supervise. Daytona Lagoon nominally sweetened the pot.

Skull Kingdom was sold for $32,500 and destroyed in two weeks. Soon after, plans to redevelop the plot into housing and parking for local workers fell through. Fourteen years later, the former site of the International Drive fortress remains a vacant lot.

It was all foretold back when the attraction still advertised in hotel lobbies. On the front of the pamphlet, right below “A Haunted Family Attraction,” the absentee Skull Lord bid welcome with a poem:

“Come in if you Dare but we warn you Beware

There are Ghosts and Ghouls, that are Scary

Some people will Laugh, some will Scream

We advise you all to be Wary.”

Everybody who saw Skull Kingdom was wary, just the wrong kind.

 
 
 
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