Image: Halloween Horror Nights
Sheri Lowen  /  AP
This September 2011 photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort shows Universal Orlando Resort's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida, Orlando, Fla. The event runs in September and October.
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updated 9/28/2011 3:10:13 PM ET 2011-09-28T19:10:13

Universal Orlando's first foray into Halloween Horror Nights 21 years ago involved one weekend, a single haunted house tucked away in the back of the park by the "Jaws" ride and some people in store-bought masks jumping out of dark corners.

What was largely an experiment that first year has evolved into a monster draw for the Orlando theme park. Once the creative types figured out that people loved having the wits scared out of them and would pay for the privilege, the challenge was on to create something bigger and better every year. This time the event runs 25 nights in September and October and takes over the entire park, with eight themed haunted houses and mazes, two live shows, sophisticated makeup, film-quality set decor, gallons of fake blood and as many as 1,000 "scare-acters" involved. Planning and production takes place year-round now, and the event draws hundreds of thousands of people who pay $42 or more to attend.

"I think it all has to with escape," says Patrick Braillard, a production show director and one of the gleefully demented minds behind the event. "People love to be transported, they love to be taken somewhere they're not familiar with. So our job is to create eight immersive environments. When they walk in, they are completely somewhere else."

The concept is basically the same as in the cheesy neighborhood haunted houses that spring up every year to raise money for charity: costumed characters jumping out of dark, creepy surroundings to make unsuspecting patrons scream. But for a generation raised on computerized special-effects, slasher movies, video games and the Internet, Universal and other theme parks that get into the scare business every October have had to step up their game. And that means realism.

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The Universal haunted houses and mazes are on sophisticated studio soundstages and all have a theme and eerie story attached. Attention to detail and sense of place is stunning. In one, visitors walk through a misty haunted cemetery as corpses emerge from disturbed graves and crypts. In another, souls that perished at sea on Christopher Columbus' fourth ship forever haunt a Spanish fort. (The gallows setting in that one alone could induce nightmares for those who are prone.) Another has an obligatory tie-in to a Universal movie, in this case "The Thing," which comes out in mid-October. A Lady Luck gambling theme — it's the 21st year for the event, get it? — is a common thread throughout.

Horrible-looking zombies and other ghouls lurk in "scare zones" throughout the park. This is definitely not for younger kids and the faint of heart.

"You've got moments of breathing room, like the bathrooms and any food lines that you might go into, but pretty much you're ours as soon as you hit the gate," Braillard says.

A note to Harry Potter fans: Universal Orlando consists of two parks. Halloween Horror Nights takes place at Universal Studios Florida, not at its sister park, Islands of Adventure, where The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is located.

Universal Studios Hollywood stages its own Halloween Horror Nights, with original mazes based on '70s shock rocker Alice Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare" theme, Rob Zombie's "House of 1000 Corpses" and "The Wolfman." Also new this year is a maze built around "La Llorona," the fearful story of melancholy and murder that has terrified Mexican and Latin American children for generations. For the uninitiated, La Llorona was doomed to wander the earth forever after drowning her children in a desperate attempt to win a lost love.

Story: Halloween in New Orleans like a mini-Mardi Gras

At Busch Gardens in Tampa, the annual Howl-O-Scream event will feature "The Dark Side of the Gardens" for 17 nights, with seven haunted houses and mazes, plus the streets will be crawling with hideous zombies. Creative director Scott Swenson says twice as many actors are hired just to haunt the streets inside the park now than were involved in the entire event when it started 12 years ago. That first year, there were three haunted houses, a few costumed monsters roaming around and a couple shows. Now Busch Gardens hires an extra 1,000 people and artists spend hours creating detailed silicone prosthetics and masks for the characters.

Swenson says he thinks people come to the park to be scared for the same thrill they might get from extreme sports.

"It's an adrenaline rush that if you let your imagination go is just as real as being terrified anywhere else," he says. "But deep inside, you know you're still going to be safe. You can get close to the edge."

For families that want some Halloween fun that doesn't involve uncomfortable surroundings, gore and body parts, Walt Disney World has Mickey's Not-So-Scary-Halloween Party. The costumed little ones can collect trick-or-treat candy from throughout the Magic Kingdom and see the Boo-To-You parade that includes stars of the famous Haunted Mansion attraction. Disney caps it off with a Happy HalloWishes fireworks show.

The SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego also are offering family friendly Halloween events with undersea themes. Kids can trick-or-treat throughout the parks and check out the themed shows, including Sesame Street's "Countdown to Halloween Show."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Haunted destinations

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  1. Bran Castle

    Bran Castle, Dracula's castle, in fog, Transylvania. (Gavin Quirke / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Myrtles Plantation

    Now a bed and breakfast, this antebellum estate northwest of Baton Rouge has been called "America's Most Haunted Home." Reported phenomena include an oil portrait whose features become animated, a "bloody handprint" on the adjacent wall, and doors that open and close by themselves. (Courtesy of The Myrtles Plantation) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pfister Hotel

    Built in 1893, the Pfister is the most regal address in Milwaukee, Wis., having hosted every U.S. president since William McKinley and scores of celebrities. But rumors abound that late at night, the spirit of hotel founder Charles Pfister, who died in 1927, arrives to check in. Some guests report hearing strange noises and having paranormal experiences. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Alcatraz

    The former maximum security facility on an island in San Francisco Bay was once home to Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. It is no longer used as a prison, but visitors and tour guides have claimed to hear screams, slamming cell doors, and footsteps. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Amityville house

    The house at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York, gained infamy in a best-selling book and several movies. Former owners reported creaking noises, voices, the music of a full marching band in the middle of the night, foul odors, and a black, shapeless apparition. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Edinburgh Castle

    This ancient stronghold overlooking Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions. It is reputed to have many ghosts, including a drummer who only appears when the castle is about to be attacked, and a piper who disappeared in the tunnels underneath it. (Jonathan Smith  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Paris Catacombs

    In the 1800s, Paris’s cemeteries were coming dangerously close to being filled, so some bodies were moved to tunnels that had been dug beneath the city by workers quarrying for building materials. Bones and skulls are stacked up throughout the Catacombs, and visitors have reported strange voices. (Fred De Noyelle / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Hotel Chelsea

    A familiar haunt for artists and bohemians in the Chelsea district of New York City since it was built in 1883, the Hotel Chelsea still puts up guests today ... if they don’t mind sharing accommodations with the reputed ghosts of former residents Dylan Thomas, Eugene O’Neill, and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Eastern State Penitentiary

    Located in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, this prison was designed to encourage solitude, supposedly helping prisoners open themselves up to God. But it is said that many went mad instead ... which may explain the eerie noises that have been reported since it closed. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hotel del Coronado

    In 1892, a young woman checked into this luxury hotel on California’s San Diego Bay to meet her husband. He never arrived, and a few days later, she was found dead on the hotel steps. Since then, guests and staff have noticed the pale figure of a young lady in a black lace dress.... (Nathan Hughes) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Inverary Castle

    It is said that the ghost of a harpist who was hanged in 1644 for peeping at the lady of the house can be seen wandering this castle in western Scotland, and can be heard playing every day in its library. The castle is home to the 13th Duke of Argyll today, but sometimes opens its doors to brave visitors. (Graeme Cornwallis / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. New Orleans

    The Big Easy’s French Quarter is well-known to tourists for its hot jazz and spicy food. But New Orleans is also the historic center of voodoo traditions that African-Americans brought to Louisiana during the days of the slave trade. Although those customs were suppressed by slave owners, they linger on today. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Petzow Castle

    This 18th-century castle near Potsdam in eastern Germany is a hotel and restaurant today ... but its corridors harbor a dark history involving murderous barons. (Sven Kaestner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Forks, Washington

    Michael Gurling, right, of the Forks, Wash., Chamber of Commerce, talks about the bonfire location on a beach in LaPush, Wash., that is portrayed in Stephenie Meyer's wildly successful vampire-themed "Twilight" books and movies. (Ted S. Warren / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Point Hicks Lighthouse

    In 1947, the keeper of this historic lighthouse on the eastern coast of Australia mysteriously disappeared. Afterward, many visitors have claimed to hear his hobnail boots at night, and it’s said his ghost continues to keep the tower’s brass doorknobs polished to this day. (Oliver Strewe  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Salem, Massachusetts

    The location of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, dramatized in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” is today a mix of important historical sites, New Age boutiques, and witch-kitsch attractions. The Salem Witch Museum claims to be the most visited one in town. (Ed Young / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sleepy Hollow

    This picturesque village 30 miles north of New York City was immortalized in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving’s classic tale of schoolteacher Ichabod Crane and the fearsome Headless Horseman. Irving implied that the apparition Ichabod saw was a fake, but a number of visitors also have claimed to see the Horseman, supposedly a Hessian trooper whose head was carried off by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. (Susan Rosenthal / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Stanley Hotel

    This neoclassical hotel in Estes Park, Colo., was the real-life inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s “The Shining.” It is named for Freelan O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, whose ghost has been reported visiting its billiard room and bar. Guests also complain about children playing in the hallways at night ... even when no children are checked in. (Rob Lee) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Tower of London

    The ghosts of Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, just two of hundreds of victims executed on Tower Hill over the Tower of London's bloody 900-year history, are among many that have been seen in what is called England's most haunted building. Legend has it that in 1816, a guard died of fright after seeing an apparition of a bear approaching him. (Scott Barbour / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The White House

    America's most famous residence is the setting for a number of ghost stories, some of which have even made it onto the official White House Web site. The spirit of Abigail Adams supposedly continues to do laundry in the East Room, while the ghost of Dolley Madison has been reported looking down upon the Rose Garden. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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