By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - Chainsaw-wielding ghouls draw screaming crowds so large to Universal Orlando's "Halloween Horror Nights" that traffic snarls around the Florida theme park on fall evenings, just another nightmare in the industry's soaring thrill season.
U.S. theme parks have turned Halloween's shriek-filled haunted houses and bloodied zombies into one of their largest promotional events of the year. Universal warns ticket-buyers that it sells out some nights of what it stretched this year into a month-and-a-half-long season.
"It is just like everybody goes," said Steffanie Weisman, a horror buff who celebrated her 37th birthday this month at Universal's Halloween, the only time she and her husband visit the Orlando park, less than an hour from their home.
Such is the lure of parks with spooky thrills, especially for local and in-state visitors, invigorating what was once a slow season between the peak summer travel months.
Today, theme parks drawing mostly regional crowds look to Halloween for as much as 20 percent of their annual attendance, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a global consultant based in Cincinnati.
“It’s a season maker and breaker in some cases,” he said. "A lot is riding for a lot of companies on Halloween."
At destination parks, such as Universal Orlando, Halloween events can draw as many as 600,000 visitors, Speigel said, making the holiday among the industry's top performers.
The Orlando theme park, which is owned by NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast Corp, declined to release its figures to Reuters.
This year, the Halloween season could also help chase away a summer that fell short of expectations at some regional parks, Speigel noted.
Universal Studios Hollywood was packed on the Sunday before Halloween. Visitors lined up for nearly 90 minutes to ride roller coasters in the dark, or enter mazes inspired by the hit AMC zombie drama, featuring gore-filled rooms and rotting zombies.
The $129 front of lines passes, allowing holders to skip the lines once on each attraction, were sold out for the evening.
The Six Flags chain has been marketing its Halloween "Fright Fest" in parks since August, and rolled out paid advertising for its most popular special event in September.
Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California is credited with starting the trend in 1973, when it launched its "Scary Farm" event over a weekend with two mazes and a handful of roaming monsters.
"It has become something that people want to spend money on," said Lara Hanneman, director of entertainment production at the theme park. "They love the spiky kind of feeling, the adrenaline you feel when you get scared."
Today, the six-weekend promotion is the most intensive of the four busy seasons, including the summer months, at the park owned by the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company.
“Per day, it’s our busiest time,” said Raffi Kaprelyan, the park's vice president and general manager.
(Additional reporting and writing by Piya Sinha-Roy in Los Angeles and Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)