Right now, Disney's Epcot is in the final weeks of its second International Festival of The Arts, and will soon shift into its annual Flower and Garden show. Meanwhile, Universal concluded January with a star-studded Celebration of Harry Potter, then launched its Mardi Gras parade (which now stretches all the way into April). The crowds and dollars that all these winter and spring events draw to the theme parks are great news for their shareholders – if not the locals, who long for the days when we had the off season to ourselves – but none of them would be possible if it weren't first for the explosive success of haunted offerings every fall. So while October's fright fests may feel far away here in February, it was fitting that many of our attraction industry's top designers took time out of their busy special events schedule to spend last Saturday afternoon supporting Robbi Parsons Lepre, one of the women most responsible for helping turn Central Florida into the Halloween capital of the world.
In her nearly 40-year entertainment career, Lepre has worked on everything from circuses to animal shows, but the former director of Theatrical Services at Busch Gardens Tampa is best known as the co-creator of that park's Howl-O-Scream event, which has grown into a credible counterpoint to Universal's bigger-budgeted Halloween Horror Nights. About three years ago, Lepre tripped on a brick and the injury activated giant cell arteritis, a rare auto-immune disease that attacks arteries, starting with the eyes. After 22 surgeries left her blind in one eye and with limited vision in the other, Robbi returned to work for one final Howl-O-Scream before her position at Busch Gardens was eliminated late last year.
To help offset her overwhelming medical bills, Lepre's longtime friend Tom Geraghty, director of technology and innovation at Universal Creative, set up a GoFundMe campaign for her, the Robbi Lepre Wellness Fund, which has garnered over $18,000 so far. However, freelance designer and fellow friend Cindy White insisted they needed to raise funds faster, and contacted Universal scenic designer Kim Gromoll, organizer of the annual Entertainment Designer Forums since 2010.
Those popular discussion panels with park designers and silent auctions of unique memorabilia usually benefit American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. But the trio (with the assistance of colleagues Ray Keim, Brian Morrow and Scott Swenson) quickly worked to assemble a similar gathering at the Garden Theatre – dubbed Robbiween – so that the attractions community could come together for one of their own.
"I actually found out of Facebook when everyone else did, because they organized all of this without my knowledge, as a way to surprise me and make me feel treasured," Robbi told me as guests arrived for the event. "It's been fantastic for my well-being and morale to feel that love and caring."
If you missed Robbiween, here are a handful of highlights from the three info-packed panels exploring Halloween Horror Nights, attraction design and Howl-O-Scream:
TJ Mannarino (VP, Universal Entertainment)
"If we were smaller we could do a lot more with our haunts, but we know that we have to get a certain number of people through so that we can keep the guests waiting in line happy with the overall experience. Plus there's a little thing called 'legal.' ... Horror luckily has a lot of different paths; everybody does not get scared the same way."
Ashley Edelbrock (attraction designer, PGAV)
"The late Jim Wible always told me, turn your brain off and turn your paper upside down. That way you can't look at it from the same perspective. ... Always turn the paper upside down and look at it from an angle that you wouldn't normally. Don't keep north up, and think of it from the guests' perspective."
Rob Anderson (director, Howl-O-Scream)
"The scariest thing is to be separated from your group. We train our actors to watch the groups of people. You know that the persons at the head of the group and the end of the group are the brave ones. You don't have to go for them, you go for the people in the middle."
Joe Mertz (designer, Howl-O-Scream)
"The story really helps us put [haunted houses] together, but it doesn't always translate. ... If we have it and we use it for our inspiration in how we design everything, it keeps us grounded and it makes sense. You may not get it, but it's a positive experience for you because it has that story. ... I've been places where it's not there, and it's just 'jump out and say boo.'"
Michael Roddy (show director, Disney Parks):
"There's no course, no proven way to [become a haunt designer]. If you love it, create create create! Take classes in theater design, acting, music, art appreciation. ... We all have one thing in common: We love the horror genre, we're passionate about it. That's the essence of it. Learn skills that will help you tell whatever your brand of story. How you view horror could be the next great thing that scares the bejesus out of everyone."