Life post-COVID may be full of uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean that 2020 can’t be full of fall celebration and Halloween frolicking. The show must go on, albeit, with precautions.
Jeremy Hastings, creator and owner of The Dead End Hayride in Wyoming, is grateful his business of boo has been able to pivot and adopt to the ever-changing landscape.
“When COVID started to pop up, we obviously didn’t know what was going to happen. But we were kind of hanging on to the fact that the State Fair never cancels, so we’ll just look to see what sort of measures and due diligence they put in place for the State Fair, and we will emulate that,” he explained. “And then when the announcement came that the State Fair was canceled, we’re like OK, we need to watch what the Renaissance Festival is going to do. When they canceled, we were like OK. We kept saying OK. OK. OK,” he laughed. “We (and) other pumpkin patches and corn mazes were going to have to write the playbook.”
As luck would have it, another out-of-state haunted venue volunteered to help. Hastings said a Salt Lake City haunted house opened for a “halfway to Halloween” event, complete with a 30-page COVID preparedness plan. They were able to open up and run their event successfully and safely for one weekend. Afterward, the venue offered their playbook plan up to others in the haunted house industry, complete with a list of what worked and what didn’t.
Armed with that information, Jeremy and his dedicated year-round team at The Dead End Hayride also paid close attention to theme parks across the country that were opening up and what measures those businesses were taking. Hastings, an eternal optimist, said there were times that he wasn’t 100% sure they were going to be able to have a Halloween season or not.
“It was a struggle against the virus, and a struggle against the unknown,” he said, “A week in COVID is like a year during any other normal time. In any business, we rely on consistency and being able to predict what the customer behavior is going to be. Just the uncertainty and not knowing what the future holds in the year 2020 is the hardest part.”
Some of the high-level changes that Hastings and his team started with was capacity. On average, they hosted several thousand people in a night, so they had to cut that by 50%. “We knew the biggest struggle was going to be social distancing people both on our hayride and in our queue lines, where people line up to go on the hayride,” he explained.
Hastings said it was time to get creative. They came up with a system of queue line pods: Members of a social group who came together stay in close proximity with one another but are distanced from other groups. The queue line holds 250 people, but all spaced apart. The Dead End Hayride opened Sept. 25, so they now have a couple of weekends under their belts; customers are responding very well with complying with masks and the queue pods, Hastings noted.
Another new detail in the season of COVID is there are no tickets available at the door. Tickets must be purchased online, and only a certain number of tickets will be sold per half-hour time slot. Hastings warned that time slots are filling out days in advance, so anyone waiting until last minute might not get the day of their choice. Hastings also dialed back his monster actors by 15%. “No one lost their job, we just didn’t hire as many seasonal staff as in the past,” he said.
All in all, Hastings is counting his haunted blessings. “I think people are really thankful to be out and about,” he said, “And with our reduced capacity, I think the show is better. I’ve always struggled with the really busy days in years past. The more people, the faster we have to send them through. Since we’re (at) 50% reduced capacity, it’s almost the perfect number of people, where the show itself is fantastic.”
— Submitted by Kelly Jo McDonnell