On Feb. 12, an icon of the Orlando tourism industry passed into history. Skull Kingdom, the massive walk-through haunted house near the corner of International Drive and Universal Boulevard, closed its doors in November. Last week the building and all its contents went up for auction.
But it appears the auctioneer's gavel was unable to pound the final nail into the attraction's coffin. Like one of the vengeful spirits it once used to scare visitors, Skull Kingdom refused to go gently into that good night, and the fight over its fate may turn out to be grislier than any of the mangled corpses it once housed.
The saga began in 1996 with K. Trevor Thompson and Jim Doyle. Veterans of the Niagara Falls museum industry, Thompson and Doyle came to Orlando to build a Guinness Book of World Records attraction. As reported in Haunted Attraction magazine, they encountered Tahir Ansari, a local real estate speculator with a prime piece of property in the heart of the tourist district: a large corner parcel opposite the Wet 'n Wild water park, only a short distance from Universal Studios. Ansari put up the $1.4 construction budget (which eventually ballooned to $2.8 million), Doyle designed the attraction, and Thompson served as general manager until leaving to run the Skyventure skydiving simulator across the street.
The massive 16,000-square-foot castle they constructed became an instant landmark, with its imposing skeletal facade and fireball-belching flame cannons on the turrets. But the ominous exterior concealed a disappointingly "family-friendly" interior. Doyle, who had no experience designing haunted houses, included incongruous elements (like a shooting gallery) that became operational nightmares. On opening day — June 13, 1997 — so many patrons demanded their money back that the attraction was closed for eight days of renovations.
While they were able to inject some scares into the experience, and regular upgrades continued until recently, the damage to their reputation was done. Reaction to Skull Kingdom was mixed within the haunted attraction industry. The "Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts," a nonprofit organization for the preservation and promotion of classic attractions, voted it a "Top 10 Favorite Walkthrough Attraction" in 2003, 2004 and 2005. But legendary haunted house designer Leonard Pickel, writing in Haunted Attractions, pointed to the poor access to the parking lot and bizarre layout decisions (you couldn't access the gift shop from the lobby) that crippled its earning potential.
Going, going, gone
Whatever promise the castle once might have held was long gone by the time I drove up on the morning of the auction. The iconic flamethrowers had been extinguished, the waterfalls that framed the skull were brown and fetid, and the faux stonework had crumbled to reveal yellow Styrofoam beneath. The lobby boasted murals cribbed from a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual and goofy dime-store dummies.
The tour itself began strong, with a video-based Pepper's Ghost (the 19th-century stage illusion behind the ghostly ballroom in Disney's Haunted Mansion). That was followed by an impressive demonic animatronic and a dropping-floor effect. Unfortunately, it was mostly downhill from there.
The bulk of the castle consisted of well-worn gags salvaged from Terror on Church Street; nearly 75 percent of the props and décor in Skull Kingdom was bought at auction when that far-superior attraction shuttered in 1999. With a few exceptions — like an eerily beautiful, Giger-esque alien lair — the sets were unimaginatively themed and amateurishly executed. The overall effect was an uncomfortable mix of quality and camp that wasn't quite bad enough to be good.
But even a low-end maze can provide high-end scares; the cast is the key. A haunt lives and dies on the quality and quantity of its actors. Haunted house actors are a unique breed and often exhibit a Stockholm Syndrome—style relationship with their vocation. What other artist can count on being physically assaulted by their patrons — except perhaps street mimes? Having been a house manager for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, I've seen firsthand the abuse these actors take and the perverse sense of pride they take in enduring it (and dishing it out in return).
A prime example is one of Skull Kingdom's last employees. Robert Sandler, known as "Creepy Rob," is an unnerving character fond of bad puns and "moving quickly without making noise." He led the pre-auction tours wearing cadaverous greasepaint and a moldering tux. An 18-year veteran of haunts including Terror on Church Street and Old Town's Grimm House, he reminisces warmly about making girls piss their pants and then slip in their own urine.
Though the cast used to comprise six to 10 actors and peaked at 15 to 20, for the last 18 months Sandler had often been the only person on duty: taking a group's tickets, locking the front door and then leading them through the house while providing all the scares. Now that it is closed, he plans to help the new owners dismantle it and possibly follow the remnants to their new home.
The sale attracted about 20 people, only a half-dozen or so of whom were serious bidders. Attendees included Greg Davis, vice president of the new Terror in Orlando attraction under construction at the corner of Carrier Drive and International Drive, and John Zweifel, creator of the amazing miniature White House at the Citrus Tower.
Some were former employees who came out of a sense of nostalgia, and who would have been glad to bid a few bucks on a favorite prop. But they didn't have the chance, because this was a "one bid buys all" auction; a single buyer would get the building and everything in it, from the giant skull to the toilets. Just about the only thing not included was the Pepsi machine. The only catch: a 15-day deadline to remove anything salvageable before the bulldozers come.
After several hours of inspection, when the auction finally occurred it was anticlimactic in its brevity. Auctioneer David A. Norton of Norton Auctioneers, a specialist in amusement park sales, conducted it in a rapid-fire patter better suited to cattle. There was a false start when the price got up to "40" before the high bidder realized that was in thousands and had to apologetically back out.
In the end, the owners of the Daytona Lagoon water park won for the bargain-basement price of $26,000. But no one expected what happened after the final "Going, going, sold!" Almost immediately, Skull Kingdom manager Zia Burney ushered everyone outside. An argument between Burney, Norton and the winning bidder followed; the police arrived to mediate.
Ed Kennedy, Daytona Lagoon's managing director, was the only principal willing to talk on the record. (Burney did not return calls as of this writing.) According to Kennedy, Skull Kingdom's owners "balked" and were attempting to void the deal based on the low price. This despite the fact that the auctioneer had announced no minimum bid, and advertising specified "selling absolute, regardless of price!"
After hours of haggling, there seemed to be a handshake deal for $32,500, says Kennedy, much less than the $100K Skull Kingdom's owners were reportedly looking for. A few days later the deal was still in limbo due to problems with lien, says Kennedy.
Nevertheless, he is "ecstatic" about the salvage opportunity, saying that many of the items are antiques with significant "nostalgia value." He plans to move as much as possible to their park in Daytona Beach, where they will become part of a new seasonal attraction.
"I'd like to be `at Skull Kingdom` right now, taking it apart," he says, and hopes to begin soon. But for now the castle sits silent while the legal wrangling plays out.
Between Universal's high-intensity frights and Disney's mesmerizing illusions, there seems little room in the market for an old-fashioned spookhouse. Orlando is littered with the corpses of failed haunts: Terror on Church Street, Mystery Funhouse, the Haunted Mansion on 192 — and now Skull Kingdom joins them in the attraction graveyard. In March, former employees will gather for a wake and raise a final glass to the kingdom that once was. The one thing you can count on: When the next attempt emerges, so too will the haunt vets, looking for more victims to email@example.com