Halloween does what it can to spread the trick-or-treating and parties across the country as fairly as possible, but some cities just get more of the treats.Halloween is a pretty sweet time of year for Hershey, Tootsie Roll and whoever makes slutty Spongebob Squarepants costumes, but towns that know how to throw a party tend to get the most goodies.
About 44% of Americans 18 and older plan to put on a costume this year, and more than 34% of all Americans plan to hit a Halloween party, according to the National Retail Federation.
That party percentage has been climbing steadily since 2005, when only 25% of Americans could commit to bobbing for apples, drinking pumpkin beer or dancing to the Thriller album. This year’s party invitees include 59% of Americans 18 to 24, 50% ages 25 to 34 and 46% of Americans who make $50,000 a year or more.
That’s a lot of cash to throw around during the holiday, and a handful of cities are banking on those costumed carousers and their crews to come to their towns and spend some cash. Some will let you march down their avenues with 60,000 new friends, some offer three nights of shows featuring Snoop Dogg, Soundgarden and Social Distortion and some will remind you that it’s clothing optional.
We put on our best mild-mannered reporter costumes and went around the country searching for Halloween party cities. We came back with candy-corn-stained teeth, a skull-crushing hangover and this collection of five holiday celebrations that bring in tons of costumed customers and pillowcases full of cash.
Oct. 1-31, Salem, Mass.
Does it really matter that Salem’s witches weren’t the fun flying-broomstick types who play Quidditch and occasionally get crushed by windblown Kansas houses? If not, does it matter that Salem’s witches were 14 women and five men hanged and, in the case of Giles “More Weight” Corey, crushed to death by stones because children called them witches and consenting adults didn’t approve of them being homeless, church-averse or slaves, among other things?
No? Then let’s party!
Salem has plenty of candlelight Samhain circles, seances, Crucible readings, hanging judge re-enactments at the House of Seven Gables and other witchy activities, but the town takes its horror business very seriously. Late-night ghost tours, haunted houses and haunted harbor tours are supplemented by monster movies at the local Czech cafe and appearances by Kane Hodder (who played Jason in the Friday the 13th series, Doug Bradley (Pinhead from Hellraiser), Tony Moran (Michael Myers from Halloween) and Bill Johnson (Leather Face from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) at Salem’s Nightmare Gallery monster museum.
There’s a 6.66-mile run, lots of choreography from groups dancing the Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the zombie dance from Thriller, costume contests and balls, carnivals, concerts, Budweiser – sponsored beer gardens and fireworks filling the monthlong slate. Even in a town where the streets are stocked with performers year-round and the Witch Museum is always welcoming new visitors, someone has to keep the constantly arriving and oft-costumed masses entertained.
“We estimate about 200,000 people come to Salem during October for the Salem Haunted Happenings festival,” says Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, part of the Salem Office of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. “Halloween night, depending on weather, we could have between 50,000 to 100,000 revelers in the street in addition to those who are in the various costume balls and parties.”
All of those people are spending, too. Fox says tourism generates approximately $99.5 million in spending in Salem each year. Of that, 25% is spent during October alone and very little of it comes from corporate sponsors. Salem has a nasty history when it comes to false judgements, but it’s tough to accuse Salem of selling out its past and make it stick.
“Salem Haunted Happenings is a collaboration of many different businesses and organisations, but we do not have any primary or dominant corporate sponsors,” Fox says. “We partner with Radio 92.9 out of Boston for the finale concert, and they bring in Budweiser for a beer garden, but otherwise it is a collaborative and primarily local effort.”
The event heads up Sixth Avenue through Greenwich Village for the 39th time this year, and it’s only been growing with age. The parade itself is always elbow-to-elbow across Sixth Avenue, partially because of the giant puppets, more than 50 bands and troupes of dancers, but mostly because anyone who shows up in a costume can march in it.
“The idea behind the parade was always a freewheeling expression of creativity, a celebration of the individual imagination and what we call the new American family,” says Jeanne Fleming, the parade’s artistic and production director, who has been involved with the parade for 31 years. “Halloween isn’t a home holiday, and you don’t have to go home and celebrate it with your family. You can celebrate it with your family of friends, and it’s very embracing and takes in everybody.”
As does this parade. There were 60,000 marchers alone during last year’s instalment and the groups walking around as the Ghostbusters, performing the parade scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and … sigh, again … dancing the zombie dance from Thriller (seriously, Jen Garner’s version of this in 13 Going on 30 didn’t drive the dagger in one of this dance’s major arteries?) were among the less creative options the parade had to offer.
Lest you worry about whether anyone bothers to dress up as, you know, a parade watcher, the New York Police Department estimated that 2 million people lined the parade route last year. So many lined the route with camera phones, in fact, that Fleming noted the lack of applause from the smartphone-holding hordes and decided that this year’s parade theme would be disembodied eyes — all staring back into those camera lenses.
The giant marching staring contest faces a few minor potholes along Sixth Avenue this year. The cash-strapped city has reduced the length of all its parade routes this year to save on policing costs. An NYPD that already had its hands full with the United Nations General Assembly and the Occupy Wall Street protests may get a bit of a reprieve at the parade this year with the parade falling on a Monday. Though that may also shrink the estimated $90 million take the Halloween parade hauled in for local businesses last year, Fleming says the parade began as artistic expression and has never been solely about the money.
The parade’s sponsor sheet backs that up. Intercontinental Hotels, Zipcar and Coca-Cola’s) Monster Energy are the parade’s best known donors, but the list slowly trickles down to locals such as TriBeCa brunch hotspot Bubby’s Pie Co. and off-Broadway shows including The Fartiste, based on the life of flatulent 19th-century French musician Le Petomane. The wind-breaking performer would agree: Whether Halloween lands on a weekend or not, the show must go on.
“The Halloween parade is always on Halloween,” Fleming says. “It will not be co-opted by the workweek or commercial interest.”
Oct. 21-30, Key West, Fla.
Key West is a delightfully weird, underdressed corner of America to begin with. Once that tanned, leathery, exposed flesh starts getting airbrushed or at least modestly costumed, it’s time for fantasy fest.
What little inhibitions remain in America’s southernmost (geographic) point are cast into the Gulf for much of October as Fantasy Fest brings 60,000 to 70,000 unrestrained revelers into town for parades, burlesque shows, wet T-shirt contests, fetish parties and costume balls hosted by porn stars. At least three of the event’s parties are clothing-optional and at least one features a Charlie Sheen “goddess” hosting a $700 pole dancing contest.
Sex doesn’t just sell here — it turns the place into an 10-day spending spree. According to Fantasy Fest producer The Market Share Co., Monroe County’s revenue jumps to $5 million during Fantasy Fest as more than 60 events at Key West’s bars, hotels and restaurants keep the registers ringing.
A little corporate cash never hurts, either, and Diageo’s Captain Morgan does a whole lot of spending to make sure its big Saturday parade and other events go off smoothly. Anheuser-Busch Inbev, Coca-Cola and Comcast also make contributions to this carnal carnival that doesn’t end until “The Fat Lady Sings” tea dance on Sunday.
While the booze, costumes and general carefree attitude draw a lot of newcomers and return business, the surplus of skin isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Yes there are porn stars, but there are also a lot of folks who look like Jimmy Buffet. Picture Jimmy Buffet naked, multiply that by 100 or so and then decide if you’re ready to take your Don Draper costume to the clothing-optional clubs.
Voodoo and Halloween New Orleans
When you’re already a party town on par with New Orleans, one Halloween event just won’t do.
The Big Easy has a couple of big events going on Halloween weekend, but only Halloween in New Orleans is entering its 28th year of booze, beats and barely there costumes. The festival’s four days of decadent dance parties and its huge costume parade on Saturday not only draw such big sponsors as Harrah’s, House of Blues(LYV), Absolut Vodka and Anheuser-Busch InBev, but bring in more than 3,000 partiers for Saturday’s main event alone.
“We probably work on Halloween about eight months out of the year,” says Jerry Fredieu, a member of Halloween New Orleans’ board of directors. “It probably sounds crazy, but it’s a four-day event on Halloween weekend and we try to be as detailed as possible, put on as good a show as we can and try to spend as little money as possible so the donation can be big.”
Since its inception, Halloween New Orleans’ door charges and sponsor dollars have raised $4.2 million for Project Lazarus New Orleans, an assisted-living facility for people with AIDS in the Gulf region. Fredieu credits the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community that supports the event not only with making those donations possible, but for keeping the event and Project Lazarus alive after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
Halloween New Orleans held together that year for one event in the street outside the W Hotel that required a special permit to work around the curfews imposed at the time. Since then, the event’s been bringing the LGBT community, its expendable income and a whole lot of allies back to celebrate for the cause.
“There are still people who think New Orleans is still in shambles and ask is it back,” Fredieu says. “As an organisation we’re still coming back, but the city’s in better shape than it’s ever been.”
New Orleans’ Voodoo Experience concert festival, meanwhile, had a much different road back from Katrina. After the storm hit, its organisers held a free show featuring Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age and the New York Dolls that October for emergency workers, volunteers and returning residents. The full festival briefly moved to Memphis, but returned to an audience of more than 100,000. The now four-day festival is expected to draw just as many people this year behind headliners Soundgarden, Blink 182, Snoop Dogg, The Raconteurs and My Chemical Romance and featuring dozens of of other acts including New Orleans’ own Dr. John, the Meters, Mannie Fresh and the Treme Brass Band.
That combination keeps Big Easy hotel rooms booked and bumped occupancy rates last holiday weekend to 85.1% on Friday, 93% on Saturday and 84.6% on Sunday, according to Smith Travel Research. That’s only helped by events such as the Krewe of Boo’s Halloween parade down music club-lined Frenchmen Street in the Marginy. Frenchmen’s considered the local’s Bourbon Street, but the out-of-towners keep the French Quarter alive with costumed visitors bouncing from bar to bar.
Even the family-friendly places get in on the act. The Audubon Zoo, for example, hosts Boo at the Zoo with trick-or-treat houses, haunted houses and a ghost train for the kids.
“Although we cannot put a dollar figure on Halloween weekend,” says Jennifer Lotz, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, “it is a mega-event for New Orleans.”
You could steal every child’s candy, kick every fall beer off the tap and limit women’s costumes to Sexy Full-Body Haz-Mat Suit and still not ruin Halloween. Stop blocking off the street where your city holds its annual Halloween bash, however, and you’re going to force even your own tourism site to call your Halloween parties “crap.”
This is what went down in Lahina when the Maui County Cultural Resources Committee decided to cut back on the city’s raucous Halloween party in paradise. The Front Street route for the Halloween parade was left open to traffic, the local costume contests weren’t held and the throngs that once numbered 20,000 to 30,000 were reduced to a fraction of that.
This year the roads are blocked off again and the scantily clad, costumed crowds are free to roam Front Street as bar patrons on balconies above throw down beads. Even better, Lahina visitors no longer have to dodge traffic or risk a DWI on the way back as a Halloween cruise complete with open bar and grilled beef takes them from Southern Maui up the coast to the festivities.
There’s still a children’s parade before sundown and costume contests throughout the city should someone still wish to wail “What about the children?” The simple act of shutting down a street and bringing back the main parade not only saved this year’s big party, but perhaps preserved one of the best reasons to book a ticket off the mainland this Halloween.
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