Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Dewayne Bevil, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

Halloween celebrations at Central Florida’s major attractions are gearing up earlier and becoming more elaborate to scare up a share of the $7 billion spent for the holiday nationwide.

“Halloween has become the single biggest promotional event in our industry,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services.

At Universal Orlando, Halloween Horror Nights is in the midst of a record 30-night run. Walt Disney World has created a new stage show featuring rarely used characters for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party events. SeaWorld Orlando and Legoland Florida have added dates for October celebrations geared to young visitors.

“Halloween has become one of the biggest investments in the park in terms of transitional theming,” Speigel said. “It costs a lot to put that on.”

Disney World dipped into its vault for inspiration for a new stage show for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, the after-hours, extra-ticket event at Magic Kingdom. The production called “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” is based on the 1993 film “Hocus Pocus,” starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as sibling witches.

“The thing that I love about the Sanderson Sisters is that they’re funny,” said Denise Case, show director. “And being that our event is the Not-So-Scary, it’s a wonderfully funny, lighthearted way to have that great Halloween presence with witches, of course, but they’re funny witches.”

The show is not a retelling of the movie. Instead, the trio interact with relatively scary Disney villains. The production uses elaborate new projections on Cinderella Castle, costumes patterned after the originals and decor that daytime guests do not get to see.

“All of the scenic elements for the Villains Spelltacular are loaded in for each event night and then struck at the end of the night,” Case said.

The more programming that is produced for the season, the more time the parks need to celebrate.

“They need to get as much time out of it as they possibly can,” Speigel said.

Legoland Florida has added two Friday sessions amid its regular Saturday-Sunday schedule for Brick or Treat, an event with trick-or-treating, costume contests and other Halloween activities. It’s included with regular admission to the Winter Haven park.

Visitors can encounter new characters and Lego figures at this year’s event, said David Brady, a park spokesman.

“We have two new characters based on minifigures that have been released in the past: mad scientist and Frank N. Stein. They’re Lego’s take on the archetypes,” he said.

“We have our master model builders working on a 13-foot, vampire-themed hearse that we’re going to roll out as a photo op during the event,” Brady said. The vehicle is an oversized version of a Lego building set no longer for sale.

Legoland also added exclusive pirate-themed fireworks and a scavenger hunt with prizes that change every weekend. The latter draws annual-pass holders and boosts event repeatability, Brady said.

“It’s a challenge to us: How do we make it fun and different each year?” he said.

In America, trick-or-treating surged in post-World War II suburbia, and the kids who benefited from that have boosted Halloween festivities as adults, said Robert Thompson, who teaches pop-culture courses at Syracuse University.

“I think a lot of those baby boomers … didn’t want to let that go when they grew up,” Thompson said.

But theme parks and Halloween are a natural fit, he said.

“What’s one of the first noises you hear as you approach a theme park? People screaming,” Thompson said. “One of the things that an amusement park produces is fear that is artificial and therefore safe: It allows us to engage in fear without the actual bad feeling of terror.”

Some parks, including SeaWorld Orlando, have Halloween experiences included in regular admission. Other attractions charge special-event prices or present seasonal add-ons. A Not-So-Scary tickets costs $68 to $79, depending on date. One evening of Horror Nights runs $101.99, although Universal offers discounts and multinight combo tickets.

“They are upselling the experience,” Speigel said. “Some of the parks … if you want to go beyond the normal experience and have entrance to some of the really exceptionally scary things, it’s another X dollars.”

Universal Orlando, which is marking its 25th year of Halloween Horror Nights, this year added a “scareactor dining experience” with dinner buffet, photo opportunities with Horror Nights characters and a digital-download photo from the event. It sells for $49.99.

Because of the way the 2015 calendar falls, parks have more opportunities to lure crowds.

“It really works well for the parks … when Halloween falls on a Saturday or Sunday,” Speigel said. “Then they get that last weekend, they squeeze it out.”

(c)2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Guests wait along Main Street USA for Mickey’s “Boo-To-You” Halloween Parade at Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.