By Noah Wullkotte
It’s going to be the most bizarre haunt season that we’ve ever seen before because of COVID-19. There are a lot of safety measures haunts can take in order to keep customers safe. The CDC seems to change their mind every other week and there’s so many contradicting opinions out there. It’s a confusing time for sure. I’m not a medical professional and I’m not telling you to do anything. But I know that if a customer sees that you aren’t taking any precautions then you’re going to lose business and you might get some bad publicity. Customers want to see that you’re sanitizing your haunt and taking some safety precautions. I don’t want to see a haunt shut down because they didn’t make any safety changes.
All it takes is someone to take out their cell phone and start recording. It will be all over social media that you’re doing little to keep customers safe and you don’t want that. If just one customer gets infected this season then it will give the haunt industry a bad name. But remember that no matter what you do there is going to be a haunt that doesn’t take anything seriously. There might be a haunt that takes every precaution in the world but a customer still gets COVID-19. Hell, they might have got COVID-19 from the local gas station, but told the media that they got it at your haunt.
Unfortunately some haunts won’t be able to afford to make safety changes and others won’t make any changes at all for one reason or another. Supplies might be hard to come by as well. It’s great if you’re able to make scene changes to your haunt this season, but I wouldn’t make it your top priority. The public’s safety should be near the top of the list. Remember that most customers aren’t going to care about seeing new scenes as much this season. They’ll just be glad to escape from reality for the night and go back to something normal that they love.
Nobody can predict at this point what the haunt season is going to be like and what regulations haunts will have to abide by. If there’s a new wave of COVID-19 in the fall then there might not be a haunt season at all. Business at haunts is going to be way down and the more pro active you are, the more money you’ll make. I’m not trying to scare anyone with this article. I’m just trying to think of everything someone might point out when it comes to COVID-19 safety practices. Remember that the precautions you take may be different depending on the type of haunt you own or how it’s built. So, let’s begin.
USE WARNING SIGNS
If there’s an area that you think needs a warning sign then place it there. Your website, parking lot, the ticket booth, entrance to the haunt, back of the ticket and many other areas need a large warning sign about the risks people are taking visiting your haunt. This includes COVID-19 risks. Also be sure to have a sign that explains what they should do while at the haunt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This includes social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, etc.
There should be a sign/signs with symptoms of COVID-19 to look for and to discourage people to enter if they have these symptoms. Don’t forget to have the signs well lit for everyone to see. Use an outdoor spotlight or whatever you think is necessary. Having glow in the dark tickets would also help customers to see the warning on the back. Hell, you could even have warnings played on your outside and inside speakers.
TAKE A CUSTOMER’S TEMPERATURE
Take a customer’s temperature before they enter the grounds. If their temperature is 100.4 degrees or higher then they’ll be unable to purchase a ticket and they must leave. Websites like eBay have a variety of no-touch handheld infrared thermometers that are backlit and they’re very reasonable. Please remember that some of your customers might be asymptomatic and not show any COVID-19 symptoms which includes a high temperature.
HAVE CUSTOMERS WEAR A MASK
A customer should wear a mask or some type of face covering (cloth mask, bandana, face shield etc). If they don’t have one, then they’ll be given a disposable mask for free when they purchase a ticket and they’re requested to wear it while they’re on the grounds. This includes the queue line, inside the haunt and until they enter the parking lot to leave. Offering a cloth mask at your concession stand with your haunt’s logo could be a big seller and the customer would be promoting your haunt on a daily basis.
Please advertise on your social media pages and website that customers must wear a mask when visiting your haunt and recommend that they bring a mini bottle of hand sanitizer to put in their pocket if they own one. If they don’t know about your safety practices then they’re more likely to show up not wearing a mask or having hand sanitizer. If they show up with both then you’re saving money because you don’t have to provide either.
USE DISPOSABLE GLOVES AND HAND SANITIZER
There’s no doubt that customers will be touching railings, walls, props and just about anything you can think of. So, hand out disposable gloves to every customer and emphasize that they should wear them when entering the haunt. It’s for their safety. At the exit have a trash can that reads, “drop gloves into trash can”.
A hand sanitizer station can be at the start of the queue line and/or near the entrance. Customers will be requested to sanitize their hands. It would be preferable to have a no touch sanitizing machine so the customer doesn’t have to touch the bottle. After the customer exits the haunt have a staff member that has a bottle of hand sanitizer for the customer to use or a no touch system. Each concession booth needs to have hand sanitizer. The days of having a Last Ride coffin ride simulator might be over due to safety reasons unless you sanitize before each use. You need to put your customer’s mind at ease.
Don’t have the hand sanitizer unattended because more than likely it will be stolen. If there are areas where you think there needs to be hand sanitizer then place it there. You can never be too cautious. Companies like Froggy’s Fog offer their own high quality hand sanitizer. If you’re offering disposable gloves then requesting customers to sanitize their hands before entering your attraction might be unnecessary.
Unfortunately gloves aren’t always recommended because many people don’t know how to put them on or take them off properly. Additionally, if someone wears the wrong sized gloves then they aren’t as effective. If you have multiple attractions then you’re going to have to buy a lot of gloves. I still recommend gloves, but it’s your call. It’s up to you.
UTILIZE PLEXI GLASS OR A PLASTIC BARRIER
The ticket booth and concession stands where staff is interacting with customers could have a plastic protective barrier to help protect customers and the staff. Please remember that this could backfire since some customers might wonder why you have protective barriers for areas like the concession stand, but not inside the haunt.
USE PREPACKAGED CONCESSIONS
Only offer food that is prepackaged and not cooked or homemade. If you offer utensils then be sure that they’re sealed in plastic. Employees need to wipe off the food packaging with a sanitizing wipe before handing it to the customer. If you offer haunt apparel then don’t allow customers to try anything on. Make sure that you wipe off the item with a sanitizing wipe or have the items wrapped in plastic. This advice also applies to novelty toys, homemade crafts, glow items and more that you might sell. If you decide to sell cooked food then be sure that the cook is wearing a mask and gloves while they’re cooking the dish.
REMEMBER PORTA POTTY AND BATHROOM BEST PRACTICES
The bathrooms and porta potties need to be spotless and cleaned frequently. It’s really that simple and please don’t forget to have hand sanitizer inside the porta potty. Limit the number of people allowed in the bathroom at one time and be sure to have a sign on the outside that has the number of people allowed inside. Also have a sign that reminds people to wash their hands. It’s pretty damn sad that you have to remind people to do that.
SANITIZE FREQUENTLY TOUCHED AREAS
It’s just common sense to routinely wipe down your most frequently touched areas like railings, tables, door knobs, various hard surfaces and more. Sanitize anything that customers might be touching inside and outside of your haunt. It doesn’t matter if there’s COVID-19 or not. Your haunt should be clean and you should be using these practices either way. You might consider first cleaning dirty surfaces with soap and water.
Sam’s Club and Costco sell cleaning supplies in bulk at reasonable prices. Home Depot and similar stores sell a pump sprayer for ten bucks. You just fill it with your sanitizer and get to work. I recommend good ole Lysol for disinfecting surfaces. If you’re filling your own spray bottle with hand sanitizer then make sure your bottle is a bright color like yellow or green. Your customers will be able to see you cleaning and that bottle will be easier to find if you drop it in the dark.
The bottom line is that if you feel that something needs to be sanitized then do it. Some haunts are considering different options this season such as fog disinfectant machines and UV Light to kill germs. Fog Disinfectant hasn’t had enough research done and there are conflicting reports on whether it’s effective or not.
PROP DOORS OPEN OR HAVE FOOT PEDALS
If there are doors that customers need to open then think about propping the door open or provide foot pedals to open the door. You want to prevent your customers having to touch a door knob or push open a door. Plus, having a door open will help with air circulation.
You can have signs in your line that ask patrons to social distance 6 feet or directional signs, but remember that many people won’t abide by this. You know your customers better than anyone. So, play it by ear. If you decide to force social distancing then don’t forget the bonfire area, the dinning area and any other place you can think of. Using small bonfires or outdoor heaters where only a few people can gather around might be ideal. It’s hard to social distance with a gigantic bonfire. Having small tables instead of big picnic tables would also be ideal.
ONLY GROUP TOGETHER PEOPLE THAT BELONG TO THE SAME PARTY
Do not put different groups of people together to go through your haunt at the same time. It’s different if one group ends up running into another, but don’t have different groups enter the haunt at the same time. Some people want to social distance from ones they don’t know.
REDUCE PHYSICAL CONTACT
If there’s anything in your haunt that could possibly brush up against someone or an interactive element where there’s physical contact then you might reconsider having it this season. This includes claustrophobia tunnels, props that hang from the ceiling that touch patrons, props that spray water, cloth barriers that separate rooms and much more. The reason for removing a prop that sprays water is because the customer might think they were just spit on or the water might not be clean. If you’re a haunt that uses actor controlled animatronics then have the prop lunge at the patron instead of making physical contact. Some of your customers are going to nervous about anything that might touch them.
If you usually have characters that drool, spit or release some type of bodily fluid then you might want to rethink that this haunt season. The way you have your queue line actors interact with customers may also need to change. Having a queue line actor use a prop that makes a sound or having them using a puppet could work and the actor wouldn’t need to get close or be physical. Setting up a small stage with side show performers like a fire breather, a sword swallower and so fourth could also be a good idea. This would also allow your customers to be far enough away from the performers. It’s harder to do this with queue line actors.
Please remember that most people that are visiting an Extreme Haunt or Extreme special event know ahead of time what they’re getting into. They know that they’ll be grabbed, pushed, picked up, verbally assaulted and so forth. Your fan base will more than likely be younger and less at risk when it comes to COVID-19. I’m not saying that you need to remove every interactive element of your haunt. But if you’re considering making some changes then that’s fine too.
If you’re an extreme haunt (touch haunt) or a regular haunt planning on having an extreme event then there are things to consider. You could possibly reduce physical contact. Instead you could ramp up the foul language, suggestive themes and have characters use threatening weapons or loud props. You could make your event more offensive and shocking than ever, but dial back the touch element.
Using a glow stick or glow necklace for customers that want to be touched isn’t a good idea. All it takes is an actor to accidentally grab a person that isn’t wearing a necklace. It would be very easy for that to happen if someone is wearing reflective clothes, has their phone on or whatever. If you plan on doing nothing at all then at the very least have more signage letting customers know that their space will be invaded and that it will get very physical.
REDUCE ACTOR SCREAMING
COVID-19 spreads further when there’s screaming. Some low budget haunts have young actors that play the part of the victim and some big budget haunts do as well. Instead of using lines of dialogue they might resort to screaming in a customer’s face. So, if you have scenes that feature a character that screams then you could have them use a script that furthers your haunt’s story instead. If this isn’t possible then have the actor wear some type of mask.
DON’T OFFER 3D GLASSES
If you offer 3D Glasses then they need to be brand new and sealed in plastic. Before handing it to the customer, use a sanitize wipe. One of the ways you can contract Covid-19 is through the eyes and 3D Glasses might pose a problem. There might be an issue if you have a paintball attraction where patrons need to wear goggles. It’s going to be hard to sanitize each pair of goggles if you have a large crowd. So, new glasses for each customer might be necessary.
REMOVE PHOTO-OP STATIONS WHERE THERE’S PHYSICAL CONTACT
You might need to remove photo-op stations where customers are required to stick their head through an opening or touch some type of prop. You can keep them, but a staff member will need to constantly sanitize the photo-op station. So, it might not be worth it to allow someone to hold a fake axe if you’re having to constantly clean it. If you used a printer to print out the picture then you might want to consider just emailing the photo to the customer. It’s more cost effective and you’re being less hands on.
CHANGE THE DESIGN OF YOUR MAZE OR USE ARROWS
Mazes can cause some issues if you’re trying to practice social distancing. If your maze is quite difficult then groups may end up being bunched up together in a small space and they might resort to touching their surroundings. The worst thing that can happen is if a group gets lost and ends up running into another group or staff members. So, you could make your maze less difficult this season. You could also use glow in the dark arrows pointing people in the correct direction at the very least.
USE LIGHTING IN PITCH BLACK AREAS
You don’t have to light up a pitch black room like the Fourth of July, but adding a little light might prevent customers from touching the walls to find their way out. It may also prevent people from getting lost and running into another group or staff members. The less contact customers have to make with their surroundings the better.
CUT BACK ON THICK FOG AND INTENSE STROBE LIGHTS
I’m of course not telling anyone to remove fog or strobe lights. You might consider dialing it back a little if you’re a haunt that has scenes where there’s tons of fog and disorienting strobe lights to the point where you’re struggling to see where you are. Customers will get confused and start touching things or they might get lost and run into another group or staff members. Plus, your customers will be wearing face masks. Adding tons of fog might cause some people to have breathing issues.
OPEN SCENES UP
If you have many tight spaces in your haunt then try to alter them in someway where it’s not as closed in. You might want to also consider removing areas where a customer needs to crawl on their hands and knees since they’ll be getting germs all over their body. Yes, I know that for many haunts these changes are impossible but I could see customers complaining about tight spaces. But if it’s possible then you should probably consider it.
LIMIT THE NUMBER OF ACTORS IN A SCENE
If you have a scene that has 5 actors then maybe decrease it to 2. If you usually feature 5 queue line actors on the outside of your haunt then maybe have 3 instead. The less people there are in a room or area, the less likely everyone will be close to each other.
UTILIZE AERIAL SCARES
If you have the space then think about incorporating various scares where the actor is in the air or gliding across the ceiling. It could be a witch, vampire, zombie or whatever you like. Props would work as well. Your performer will be practicing social distancing and many times it’s the most memorable scare of the night.
UTILIZE PLEXIGLASS SCARES
No, I’m not telling you to put your actors behind plexiglass. But if you’ve ever had a scene where you’ve used a plastic barrier then you might want to incorporate it this season. Examples include a maternity ward where an animated baby hits the plexiglass. It could be a mental patient banging on the glass as he loses what’s left of his mind. Just be creative.
RELOCATE YOUR CHAINSAW KILLER
Many haunts have a chainsaw killer that will chase customers throughout the haunt. Be sure that the actor is near the exit. The last thing you want is your customers getting so scared that they run into another group. It’s harder for that to happen if they are chased out of the haunt.
HAVE HIDDEN STAFF
Use employees throughout your attraction where it’s their job to make sure that everyone is social distancing properly. Have them wear dark clothing so they blend in with their surroundings. The security can play this role as well.
ALTER YOUR THEMING
Be careful how you theme your rooms this season. If your back-story involves a virus from China that infects millions of people then you should probably alter that in someway if possible. Cut back a little on scenes that are created to look like hospital rooms because this might upset people who’ve been affected by COVID-19, are nervous about COVID-19 or have a friend or loved one whose been affected by COVID-19. Think before you design that scene.
But it might be impossible for some haunts to change their rooms or themes easily especially if their haunt is modeled after a haunted hospital, asylum, etc. I’m not saying that you need to remove everything hospital related, but don’t have a COVID-19 themed haunt. You’re just asking for trouble. Don’t forget that your website graphics, promotional items and more might also include sensitive subjects that remind those of COVID-19.
THINK ABOUT THE AIR CIRCULATION
Limit your use of fans. If you must have a fan for some reason then make sure it’s blowing away from people. Open exterior doors if possible.
SPECIAL HOUR FOR SENIORS
Individuals who are 65 or older are at much higher risk. So, you could have the first 15 minutes, 30 minutes or hour be just for seniors. Many grocery stores and retail shops are doing this and it’s a great idea.
THINK ABOUT YOUR TICKETING SOLUTIONS
The best solution is to only allow credit card transactions instead of handling physical money, but I know that’s impossible for many haunts to do. Consider allowing customers to pay with Apple Pay and Google Wallet where they’ll just need to have their phone scanned. Many businesses use Square to process their payments and they can use a credit card reader that attaches to their phone for customers to swipe their credit card. Timed ticketing could be a solution for having few people together in the line at once. But nothing ever goes as planned and many people won’t arrive during their time slot. So, timed ticketing isn’t perfect. Disney World and Disneyland are using a virtual queue system which is showing lots of promise.
Using a system where you’re sent a text message when it’s your time to get in line is great especially if the haunt has shops or attractions where you can walk around and explore. Unfortunately mistakes are sometimes made and you’re waiting a very long time or you could be forgotten about. Hell, your cell phone battery could die before they text you.
LOWER YOUR TICKET PRICE/OFFER DISCOUNTS
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Noah, you’re telling me to implement all these safety practices which are going to cost extra money and now you’re telling me to lower my ticket price. Remember that quite a few of your customers aren’t going to have extra cash this season and to pay 20 or more dollars is a big deal for them. This is especially true if they have a large family. So, offer coupons, discounts, have a flash sale, reduce the parking cost if you charge and anything you can think of. This is a difficult time for many who are just trying to make it day by day.
OFFER REFUNDS IF SOMEONE SHOWS COVID-19 SYMPTOMS
Just imagine this. Someone purchases a ticket online and they end up having COVID-19 symptoms. Or they purchase a ticket at your location and realize they have COVID-19 symptoms. They ask for a refund and you refuse. They’re irate and to get their payback they spit on a staff member or customer. This is something you hope would never happen, but you just don’t want to take the chance. Offer refunds this year if someone asks because they have COVID-19 Symptoms.
USE DEDICATED COVID-19 STAFF
There are a lot of safety measures haunts are going to take. You should have a staff member or two where their only job is to make sure hand sanitizing stations are full, people are social distancing, masks are being worn and everything else is being taken care of when it comes to COVID-19. Having them wear a shirt that says safety team on the back could help you easily identify them. Be sure that if you use spray bottles for cleaning then make sure they’re yellow or green which makes it more visible. Customers would love seeing that a haunt is putting effort into keeping them safe.
BEEF UP YOUR SECURITY
You’re going to be dealing with a lot of customer complaints this season and there are going to be many customers that don’t follow the new rules you have in place. So, expect some people to get physical, yell in your face and so fourth. You had to deal with this in previous years, but it’s going to be taken to another level this season because of COVID-19. Be sure your security is well trained and you might need to hire more this season.
REMOVE CROWD PHOTOS FROM SOCIAL MEDIA AND YOUR WEBSITE
It’s very tempting to show off pictures of your massive crowd that has thousands of people wanting to get the living daylights scared out of them. But remember that if you aren’t practicing social distancing then those pictures are going to be used against you. It doesn’t matter if they’re old or brand new. Don’t add fuel to the fire.
When someone sees a crowd photo they might think that you’re putting your customers at risk even if the picture is 10 years old. This is also the case if you’re using photos showing customers or actors being touched. Wait until the media outlets get a hold of the photos. You’ll be all over the news and could possibly be shut down even if you’re not at fault. So, remove all your crowd photos from social media and your website.
HAVE A HOTLINE
If you’ve never had a hotline before then you should consider it this year. Have people dial a 1-800 number where you’ll have information such as times, dates, admission price and the safety precautions you’re taking concerning COVID-19. You could even have an extension just for COVID-19 info and safety practices you’re taking. Your customers will really appreciate that you’re putting the effort into reassuring them.
Customers need to have confidence that you’re keeping them safe. So, be up front with the measures you’re taking. Go into detail on your Facebook page about what you’re going to do concerning COVID-19. Don’t forget your Twitter page, Instagram and you could even create a Youtube video that can be embedded on your website. Allow your website visitors to sign up to a newsletter where you can inform them about the safety precautions you’re going to take.
If you have a phone number and email address then you’re going to have many people contacting you asking about safety measures you’re taking if you’re not transparent. When customers exit your haunt hand them a printed out list of safety precautions the haunt took to keep them safe. They’ll appreciate this very much and they’ll let others know. The word will get out about how safe your haunt is which will increase your attendance. This is a scary time and people need to have trust in their haunt.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read my recommendations for keeping your customers safe this season. Yes, I know some of this might seem drastic, but you have to remember that many people are going to be very nervous about visiting haunts this season. You have to reassure them by going above and beyond the call when it comes to safety measures. This is going to be one of those haunt seasons that we’ll never forget and I wish everyone the best.