Pandemic has squashed most Halloween plans, but demand for alternative celebrations is booming
Many San Diego events have been canceled, but others have been reimagined for a socially distant audience
Last year, more than 5,700 costumed candy-seekers spent Halloween night at the annual event known as Trick or Treat on Maryland Street. But on this Oct. 31, for the first time in 24 years, the quarter-mile stretch of homes in University Heights will be as quiet as a graveyard.
Event founder Andy “Mr. Halloween” Cameron and his Maryland Street neighbors have agreed this year to cancel their event due to state and county health authorities’ strong recommendations against door-to-door trick-or-treating, haunted houses, non-family parties and any other close-contact gatherings that could lead to a COVID-19 super-spreader event.
But the pandemic hasn’t frightened everyone away from celebrating this year.
All Hallows’ Eve is an $8 billion industry in the United States, and retailers are bullish on the public’s desire to mark the occasion in some way. A recent survey by the National Retail Federation found that 96 percent of Americans plan to purchase Halloween candy this year, 75 percent will buy decorations and 65 percent will be shopping for costumes at stores like Spirit Halloween, which has optimistically opened a record 1,400 locations nationwide this year.
But another national survey released last week by See’s Candies found more sobering results. More than 56 percent of those surveyed said their families won’t be trick-or-treating this year and 30 percent plan to turn out the lights and not distribute candy.
In San Diego County, virtually all of the traditional large-crowd holiday events — such as the WCKD Village costume party for grown-ups in the Gaslamp Quarter, guided ghost tours in Old Town, the Haunted Trail in Balboa Park and the Gaslamp Quarter’s Haunted Hotel — have been canceled. But in their place, many creatively reimagined alternatives are popping up and operators say consumer interest is high.
Scream Zone, a 24-year-old walk-through haunted attraction that drew more than 31,000 visitors to the Del Mar Fairgrounds last year, is back this month as a 20-minute drive-through event that has been such a hit it has sold out virtually every time slot for its entire run, which began Oct. 1 and concludes Oct. 31. Both car passengers and the 40 or so costumed actors who appear beside their vehicles in the fairgrounds’ stables area, are required to wear masks and no touching is allowed. About 140 vehicles an hour pass through the experience, according to fairgrounds marketing director Jennifer Hellman.
“Things are going awesome,” Hellman said. “The reviews have been fantastic. We’ve had people tell us to keep it, even after the pandemic is over. People are really enjoying seeing things from the car.”
Meanwhile, in Old Town, one of the nation’s most famously haunted homes — the 163-year-old Whaley House — is offering tours of the virtual kind through Oct. 31. Usually in the month of October, the historic museum draws up to 9,000 ghost-seeking visitors, but it’s been closed since the pandemic struck in mid-March. Instead, the museum’s operator, the Save Our Heritage Organisation, is raising money for the home’s upkeep with a new filmed tour led by SOHO historians Dean Glass and Robin Lakin. For a $10 streaming fee, viewers can virtually visit the halls, stairwells, rooms and grounds of the 1857 Greek Revival home that Travel Channel has called the most haunted house in America.
“So many people love to come every year for Halloween, both from here and from out of town. We couldn’t host it in person this year so we thought this would be a good way to raise some money for the museum, which is a nonprofit,” said Glass, who said he has seen ghosts several times during his 16 years there.
Cameron, who started the Maryland Street event in 1997, is a scenery and technical designer who annually decorates his and 17 other neighbors’ homes with elaborate props, sound and lighting effects each Halloween. Over the years, more and more homeowners on the street have joined in the celebration that now includes costumed performances by many residents in their front yards.
But this year, the 53-year-old Cameron said residents agreed that there was no way to reasonably control the enormous crowds that flock to the street on Halloween. The event’s most famous star is Norbert, a white steam-snorting animatronic dragon that is so popular with neighborhood kids, it has its own mailbox at Cameron’s home. So to announce the cancellation, “Norbert” penned a letter asking neighbors to turn out their lights and not distribute candy, because even a small crowd, by Maryland Street standards, would likely violate social distancing measures.
Cameron usually spends three months setting up the display each year and said he feels at loose ends without the round-the-clock work required to pull off the massive event.
“As soon as fall turns and it’s just a little be cold, I get itchy. This year I’m not working my butt off like I’m used to doing, and it’s been a little strange,” he said. “But everybody gets it. If we did absolutely anything this year people would come and stay, so the only way for us to be safe at all is to shut the whole thing down.”
It’s been a harder pill to swallow for brothers Jim and Tom Papageorge, who have been hosting their “Great Pumpkin” attraction every Halloween since 1964 at their family’s College-area home. Tom, who teaches audio design at Grossmont College, spends all year working on the props and technology for the free 15-minute tour. And on Halloween nights it’s a tuxedo-clad Tom, who heads the consumer protection unit for the San Diego district attorney’s office, who leads tour groups of 25 adults and children at a time.
Jim Papageorge said breaking the family tradition for the pandemic has been so difficult, they’ve decided to look at it in another way.
“We’ve been tearing our hair out for the past three weeks struggling over this decision, so we’ve decided we’re not canceling it, we’re just postponing it 365 days,” he said. “We’re not going away and it’s not over. It tears our hearts out because we’ve done it for 55 straight years. But we’re talking about life and death and the Great Pumpkin will not endanger people’s lives.”
In San Marcos, Casey Rummerfield, 59, has decided to forge ahead with his 28-year tradition of decorating his house and yard on Shadow Hills Drive for the holiday. Each year, about 400 trick-or-treaters turn out to admire the display in his front and side yards and inside his garage. Many who attend are young parents who visited when they were children.
Rummerfield, who calls himself a “Halloween Phantasmechanic,” said this year’s display will include new digital projections, a “Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas” graveyard display, portraits that change when you walk past them, a smoke-belching dragon named Red and numerous pop-up scare effects.
To follow social-distancing guidelines, Rummerfield, his wife Lori and daughters Wendy, 26, and Carly, 20, will be handing out free Halloween-themed disposable masks to visitors. He is also setting up hand gel sanitation stations, a one-way walking path to avoid face-to-face encounters and bloody footprints on the walkway to mark the required 6-foot distance between observers.
Rummerfield said if the county drops into the more restrictive purple tier for the COVID-19 case rate, he won’t hand out candy, he’ll close his garage door and he’ll encourage visitors to admire the display from their car windows. But not being able to interact one-on-one with kids will be heartbreaking.
“Right now tonight while watching TV, I can hear kids and their parent outside oohing and aahing out in the front yard. That is what I am most proud of, the wonderful reaction of the community,” he said.
Over the past 10 years, Oceanside resident Tom DiCioccio has seen the number of trick-or-treaters at his doorstep skyrocket to a high of 710 last year. He’s not expecting even half that this year, but he’s still planning to buy 500 pieces of candy, just in case.
To make children’s visits safer this year, he has created a front-yard display inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock film “The Birds.” The narrow front walkway to his house has been blocked off with crime scene tape, a giant cotton spider web and an archway packed with fake crows and seagulls. He plans to sit outside behind the spider web, and will use gloves to deliver bagged candy to kids through a six-foot PVC pipe he has wired to the stair railing that leads to the sidewalk.
“The neighbors stop and tell me how great it looks and how especially this year it’s so great to make so many people smile,” DiCioccio said. “But I really can’t blame some parents for not bringing their kids out.”
Legoland Carlsbad and SeaWorld San Diego theme parks have been closed since March, but both are doing small-party, time-ticketed events on weekends through the end of the month. SeaWorld’s Spooktacular event includes a pumpkin scavenger hunt and a candy trail. And Legoland is offering visits to its Miniland area, character interactions and a virtual costume contest. Park spokesman Jake Gonzalez said turnout for the event this month has been “very positive.”
Petco Park is planning an 18-stop Halloween Trail for candy and small toys, as well as family-friendly spooky movie screenings on Thursdays-Sundays through Nov. 1. And Birch Aquarium has “remixed” its annual Haunted Aquarium event with socially distant outdoor activities themed for ages 2 to 10.
The county’s biggest Halloween party for adults, WCKD Village (formerly the Monster Bash), is returning this year as a pop-up restaurant experience called Carnevil. Rather than the outdoor, pop-up dance party for 2,000 revelers, producers are offering hourlong seated family-friendly dining “experiences” at a Fifth Avenue restaurant. Organizers say they can safely seat 100 people per evening seating through Nov. 1.
Business has been down this year for San Diego Ghosts, which offers guided ghost tours of San Diego, but company project manager Josef Kruger said the company has launched two digital tour options this month for San Diego fans wanting to get their scare on. By downloading the “Junket” app, locals can find a 60- to 90-minute self-guided, GPS-assisted ghost tour of Old Town for $10. The company has also produced a video tour of San Diego’s most haunted spots that can be streamed live from the GhostFlix portal on its website at sdghosts.com/ghostflix/.
One Halloween-oriented industry that has been able to carry on with strong sales and very few changes this season is the old-fashioned pumpkin patch. Merchants are reporting strong business from families who are planning to make their Halloween celebration more home-centric this year.
The county’s oldest pumpkin patch is at Bates Nut Farm in Valley Center. Sherrie Ness, whose great-great grandfather Gilbert Bates started farming the property in 1921, said she usually gets about 100,000 visitors during the month of October each year, and she thinks it will be about the same again this year. Because virtually all of the farm’s outdoor offerings are naturally socially distanced, visitors haven’t had to do much more than wear masks to be protected.
Ness said she canceled the children’s costume contest for safety reasons and has taken several steps to ensure social distancing and safety, like installing hand sanitizer stations and limiting how many people can enter the store at once. She said most customers have been fine with the new rules.
“People have been really good,” Ness said. “You’ve got that 10 percent of the population who will tell you to go take a hike, but most people are so happy to be here, even if they have to wait a little longer.”
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