Halloween, just a kid-focused holiday a generation ago, has grown up into a $5 billion industry, second only to Christmas in annual per capita expenditure. The explosion of Samhain spending is highly evident in Orlando; each of the area's big-league theme park complexes conjures cash flow from the commercialized cauldron. The PG-rated offerings at Disney and SeaWorld don't pull as much loot as Universal's adult-aimed event, but all give a bottom-line boost during what was once considered a dead tourism month.
I've got nothing against the major players' pumpkin parties. Already this year, I enjoyed Halloween Horror Nights enough to pay for a return visit, and I proposed to my fiancée after Mickey's Happy HalloWishes fireworks (cue violins and gagging). But still, I always root for each year's alternative; the scrappy upstart that's eager to snag the season's sweets. Some years, a worthy new haunt pops up but is limited by location or logistics (see Xtreme Paintball Experience: Zombie Adventure, Live Active Cultures, Oct. 30, 2008). Other times, ambitious plans fall prey to incompetent execution (see Nights of Terror, "Fear Factories," Oct. 19, 2006).
This year's contender is Gator Hollow, a successful stab at a spooky swamp stroll at good old Gatorland. In past seasons, they've held "wild" wildlife walks by lantern light, but this year the family-owned gator attraction crafted an ambitious and original actor-oriented experience that stands up to any other in town. Your adventure begins as soon as you enter Gatorland's gate and encounter a biohazard-suited "scientist" shooing you away from a nearby smashed spaceship. ("Please ignore the glowing object.") You'll be assigned a group number and ushered into a holding area populated with picnic tables. In this way, Gatorland eliminates the conga-line queues that plague other Halloween events. It's a brilliant plan as long as attendance is moderate; during "friends and family" dress rehearsals, they were calling a couple dozen people every 10 minutes or so. While you wait for your turn, try the fried gator nuggets ($9) with beer ($4).
When your time arrives, you'll be led along an outdoor path to a television screen showing the opening scene from the granddaddy of all zombie flicks, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Suddenly, Russell Fox of the Gator News Network interrupts the film with an emergency bulletin: An extraterrestrial craft has crash-landed in the swamp, sparking a government occupation of the area! Cut to an interview with eyewitnesses Bubba and Cooter (Florida's redneck answer to In Search Of) who are on a Blair Witch-y bigfoot hunt in the same wilderness.
No more time for TV now, because our X-phile expert is here to lead us to safety. He's prepared for any threat — "supernatural, extraterrestrial or nonsensical" — and has the skinny for us: Escaped alien radiation is raising zombies, who are natural enemies of E.T.s (of course). Lucky for us there's a 1950s "zombies and you" training film to watch; it's unlucky for our guide that the flesh-eaters arrive midfilm with the munchies (a very clever rear-projected effect). Just before the ghouls get us, another actor arrives to escort us to "Area 51 ," where an alien autopsy awaits.
And so it goes; as for the next 30-plus minutes you are led by a succession of actors through an increasingly surreal series of serio-comic scares. There's a whip-cracking pirate ghost, a "village of the damned" teeming with undead, a satirical satanic human sacrifice and (eventually) a Fortean wrestling match of Weekly World News proportions. In other words, if room could be found for some ninjas and giant robots, they'd have every kind of awesomeness imaginable.
What really sets Gator Hollow apart is tone; they've managed to strike a delicate balance between fiendish and family-friendly. There are plenty of frights, but they are more atmospheric than abusive, and the explicit gore is kept to a bare minimum. The pre-adolescent children on my tour screamed some but seemed to take it in stride, and I'd guess adventurous 8-year-olds could handle it without permanent scarring. That doesn't mean haunt veterans will go home bored. Gatorland's jungle of a property is unnerving enough in the dark and knowing the woods are crawling with zombies along with the usual snakes and alligators is just icing on the anxiety cake.
You'll be doing as much laughing as screaming. It's notoriously difficult to blend goofy humor and gory horror — only filmmaker Sam Raimi (The Dark Knight) really knows how — but Gatorland's cast and crew nails it. There isn't a big budget, but they've invested in performers who give goofy gross-outs with gusto. The actors aren't Emmy-worthy, but they succeed in the context of this tongue-in- rotting-cheek B-movie monster mashup.
Best of all, it's only $10 to take this trip. With a 40-minute running time (equal to all eight Universal haunted houses added together), Gator Hollow is by far the best haunt value in town. And you're likely to spend more time experiencing the action than standing in line for it, something you can't say at other firstname.lastname@example.org