L.A. Times examines the Knotts-Universal Halloween grudge match

A demon at Universal Studios for Halloween Horror NightsIn Universal Studios challenges Knott's for Halloween domination, Los Angeles Times business writer Hugo Martin takes a look at the attempt by Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios to cut away a slice of the pumpkin pie so long dominated by the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt. It covers some of the same ground that I covered in this interview with Universal Studios Creative Director John Murdy, back in 2007, but looks at the story from a business angle: Over 80% of theme parks nationwide are presenting Halloween events, earning between $150- and $200-million each October. Knott's Scary Farm remains the champ in Southern California, but Universal hopes to take their crown, by drawing horror movies fans with mazes based on franchises like SAW, HALLOWEEN, and MY BLOODY VALENTINE.

Martin interviewed me for the article; unfortunately, he did not use any of my quotes, which could have clarified some specifics. For example, Martin overlooks one important fact I pointed out : although Universal's Halloween Horror Nights hopes to use horror film franchises with marquee value to draw customers, the Knotts Halloween Haunt has been doing this for several years, offering mazes based on THE GRUDGE 2, BEOWULF, and QUARANTINE (which launched last year and continues this year). Knott's also has a STEPFATHER scare scene this year (admittedly not very good).

Occasionally, the details get a little blurred by the hype. Martin writes of Universal, "This year its Halloween Horror Nights mazes are based on the horror movies SAW, HALLOWEEN, CHILD'S PLAY,  and MY BLOODY VALENTINE. In truth, the maze "based on" CHILD'S PLAY is the year-round House of Horrors attraction, populated with actors dressed as Chucky; the setting, which suggests a classic Universal horror movie from the '30s or '40s (old castle, mad scientist lab, etc), has nothing to do with the CHILD'S PLAY franchise, except for a single section that resembles a toy shop.

When it comes to making the apples-versus-oranges comparison between the two theme park Halloween events, Martin correctly notes, "Several horror enthusiasts and theme park fans agree that Universal Studios has superior costumes, makeup and sets. But they say Knott's trumps its competitor with a greater number of mazes and total nights of entertainment."

But then Martin goes on to paraphrase Robert Niles (identified as "author of a website on theme park news") as suggesting that Knott's Berry Farm needs to "expand and improve on its product." This mistates the case: expansion is unnecessary; Knotts already has the largest Halloween haunt by far. Universal surpass them in terms of production value, but with thirteen different Halloween rides and mazes, Knott's Scary Farm offers a level of variety that Universal cannot match. This sheer quantity also allows the Knotts Halloween haunt to carry over perennial favorites from year to year while leaving room for adding new attractions; all Knott's Berry Farm really needs to do is introduce enough new material each year, so that audiences do not feel they are seeing only the same old thing.

Or to put it another way, even if you hate half of what you see at the Knotts Halloween Haunt, that still leaves you with five or six other attractions to enjoy. Although this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal is, in my opinion, the clear winner in the 2009 edition of the annual grudge match, if you are not a big fan of SAW, HALLOWEEN, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, and CHUCKY, you could be pretty much out of luck. With Knott's advantage of size, scope, and variety, it will be a while before Universal Studios can unseat them from their Halloween throne.