Plan Before You Build!
Few haunters have the ideal haunt location. Most of us have to build our
entire haunt in just a few days. Either for a one-night trick-or-treat
or party, or a month-long commercial haunt, there is never enough time
to get the haunt built and open for business. Everything comes down to
a last minute panic and usually many good ideas get lost or undone. Avoid
the panic, start planning now!
Good planning is the key to a successful opening night. By working out
on paper how your haunt goes together from start to finish, you can save
countless hours of frustration. Everyone can benefit from a bit of planning.
As the saying goes, "Time spent planning, is time saved doing".
Here are some tips to help you get your haunt open on time, and keep your
Start planning early.
Most pro haunters are already thinking of their shows for the year beyond.
So, start now! Remember, its never too late to start early! The quality
of the show, no matter the size, is directly proportional to the amount
of planning. Starting early gives you the ability to work at a reasonable
pace, and avoid last minute frustrations. If you start now, just a couple
of hours a month is enough for a great party or trick-or-treat haunt.
Pace yourself, and you won't get caught short in September!
Develop a plan and a schedule.
From building a haunt to a skyscraper, you need a plan and a schedule.
A plan documents your thoughts and ambitions and defines the goal for
a successful show. A schedule keeps you on track, lets you know what really
needs to get done *now*, and what can wait another day or week.
"When you have no destination in mind, any road will do".
- Cheshire Cat said in Alice in Wonderland,
So, the first priority is to have a show to produce. Create a floorplan
or layout of your potential haunt. It doesn't have to be fancy, but something
that defines what you want to do for the season. You can fill in the details
as you go along. This gives you an idea what sets, rooms, or props you
need to build or buy, how many actors you will need, and just how big
a show you are producing. And it also gives you an idea how much you will
need to spend to make the show a reality.
Now that you have a plan and an idea for a budget, you need to create
the path to get there - a schedule.
A schedule gives you an idea what needs to be done, and when it needs
doing. Putting together a schedule is really very simple. It can be a
simple list, or a complex spreadsheet on a computer. Use what works for
you. After all, you are the one that will have to use it! The most important
thing is that you have a schedule and you follow it.
Here's just one way to put together a schedule.
Start with your most important tools, pencil (with an eraser) and paper.
List the things you want to do for your show. Simple, short phrases are
more than enough for now ('sell drinks', 'post flyers', 'new coffin room',
'sell tshirts?', and so on..). List as many things as you can imagine.
Do not worry about order or priority. What you want to capture is as complete
a list as possible to help you get an idea of what is needed. Once you
have the list, go back through it again and add details to the items.
The details are the things that lead up to getting the main item completed.
Now take the list and decide what is needed to be done first. For example,
for that new coffin room you're planning, you will need to have purchased
the materials, built the props and tested them before building the room.
Any method that works for you is the right one. I like to use numbers
and letters to define priorities: 1A would be buy wood and nails for the
coffins, 1B is build the coffins, 1C is put the bodies in the coffins,
and so on. Another task would use 2A, 2B, a third task uses 3A, 3B until
all the main items and their tasks have been assigned an identifier. Now
you have a list of the items needed to produce your show, assigned associations
with each of the items, and their tasks needed to complete them. Look
for main items (the number 1's, number 2's) that depend on each other,
and arrange the list so that the items follow each other on the list.
Now assign completion or due dates to each item. Remember that the dependent
items can only be completed after the previous item is done. Now that
you have dates assigned, arrange the list in date order.
Now you have a schedule! Your schedule will change as you get closer
to opening night. That is perfectly normal. Make adjustments in the schedule
to allow for those things that change along the way. Although my description
is wordy, putting a schedule together is not difficult, or time consuming.
You can use any method that works for you. The important thing is to have
a schedule and stick to it!
Survey your potential site.
You want to gather as much information as early as possible to ensure
when you go to install your haunt, everything works as expected. Bring
a measuring tape, paper, pencil, and a friend! Take the time to measure
the site dimensions and draw the location on paper of anything that may
interfere, or work with, your proposed haunt design. Put simply, measure
everything. Note the locations of entrances, exits, windows, doors, outlets,
air vents, trees, stumps, bushes, exterior lights, access to power, low
spots that might collect water, high spots that might be a trip hazard,
holes in the roof (or evidence of holes!), posts, doors, bathrooms, exit
signs, sprinkler systems, controls, breaker boxes, in short - everything!
Once your are back home, draw the plan to scale on paper using measurements
from the space you want to haunt. This doesn't have to be an exact drawing,
but you want enough accuracy so you can make good decisions on placement
of your haunt and its contents. Label all the items you measured on the
drawing. Use this drawing as the foundation plan for your haunt. You may
or may not have the opportunity to remodel the space you use, so you may
need to redesign your haunt to fit the needs of the space. The scale drawing
is the means to help you fit everything in place.
Plan to visit the site at least twice; once during the day to look at
the site layout and do your measuring, and once after dark to see what
lighting or objects will affect your haunt.
For example, an open field may be perfect during the day, but if several
neighbors all have bright streetlights surrounding the perimeter, the
location may not be a good choice. Or, you have found an empty department
store with a great space, but you will have to cover several hundred feet
of glass to block the parking lot lights. These details only become problems
if you did not plan for them!
Video taping the site is a great help. If you have (or can borrow) a
video tape recorder, take the time to video the entire site from every
angle. Video is an invaluable guide when you need a quick reminder where
something is located at your site when you are not near it. When taping,
record everything twice as long as you think you need to. You will be
surprised how fast everything goes by when you are trying to watch for
details. An added bonus is that taping the location before you setup your
haunt gives you the ability to do a 'before and after' video of your haunt.
Plan the time to video your haunt before you setup, after it is setup
ready for operation, and if possible, during operation. This gives you
a valuable reference in the off season to look at details you may have
overlooked, and hints what could be better or different for next season.
Also try to tape the location after you are packed up. This reference
may come in handy if the owner has any questions how you left the site.
Also, a good alternative to video is using a camera with a flash. Using
either method will give you a visual reference of the site you can use
to help you answer questions.
If you have the opportunity to see the location when its raining, by
all means, get an umbrella and check it out. This lets you know if you
have to worry about standing water, mud, leaking roofs, and trees that
will drip for hours after the storm passes! For an indoor or outdoor event,
the weather is a major determining factor in your attendance. Pay close
attention to how it effects your plan. Even knowing the phase of the moon
is important. A full moon not only brings out the best actors, but also
works like a searchlight shining right down on your haunt.
Does the site work?
If you cannot accomodate the site (or the site cannot accomodate you),
find another site. Learning this early on saves a lot of time and frustration.
For any potential haunt location, you need to honestly answer these questions:
Does the site have all the characteristics you are looking for?
Your haunt is setup perfectly in the space, all detailed and ready to
go and looks great - except you have to bring people in the back door
and up stairs to get to the entrance. That guy in the wheelchair will
less than amused when he calls the local TV station in frustration.
Be sure you have convenient and easy access to bathrooms, ticket areas,
entrances and exits for all your guests, regardless of their physical
condition. Also, be sure you have access to the services you need to run
the haunt such as electrical power, compressed air, ventilation and heating,
and so on.
Will your haunt fit well in the space?
Make sure your design actually fits within the restrictions of the site.
Making changes on paper is easy, making changes when you are on a short
timetable with dozens of people (all wanting your immediate attention)
is painful. Do not forget to allow enough walking room for actors and
guests, enough emergency exits, and adequate access for handicapped needs.
Remember, it will be dark in the haunt, so allow for some kind of minimal
lighting for your actors!
Will you have room for guests waiting in line? Or exiting?
Nobody likes to wait in line. At least be sure there is enough space to
comfortably fit all the guests that are waiting, and they can easily move
forward to get into the haunt. You may need to build stanchions and barricades,
so plan for this potential early!
Is there enough parking space?
You have a killer haunt. Your advertising plan worked to perfection, and
attendance is amazing. The police and tow truck drivers are lined up to
clear the road, taking your guests goodwill with them. Its a bad scene,
try to avoid it if all possible. Take the time to estimate the throughput
of your event, the average waiting time for guests, and the number of
people waiting. This will give you the idea of the number of people driving
up in cars and wanting to park. You may need to negotiate with a neighbor
for extra parking. Some haunters even bus in guests from a remote parking
lot to the haunt. You need to determine early on if your potential site
can accomodate parking, too!
Is there room for a ticket booth?
If you charge admission to your haunt, plan for space to support a ticket
booth. Its easy to overlook its location. Plan for a location early on
and work it into your foot traffic. Ideally, the ticket booth should not
be a part of the waiting line, to avoid potential bottlenecks. Keeping
the line for the ticket booth separate from the haunt waiting line lets
both lines move at their own pace. Most haunters place the ticket booth
close to where guests park their cars, then allow for the haunt waiting
line to form in front of the haunt.
Is there room for other planned activities?
The same is true for merchandise and concession sales. Some haunters find
that concessions sell best when sold close to the waiting line, and merchandise
sells best at the exit. You will need to give careful consideration to
your selling location and your guests if you sell products. And don't
forget to have a retail sales license if you sell drinks or merchandise
- plan for it!
And the most important question: Will the fire inspector like the
This is always the tough item. Planning will help your success. Early
on, start talking with your fire inspector, share your (well thought out)
plan. The inspector is concerned with the public safety, so be sure the
plan you share has every safety detail noted. Include the locations of
fire extinguishers, any emergency lighting systems, exit signs and corridors.
There are many books, articles, and videos covering haunts and haunt safety.
(On the internet, visit www.btprod.com) Do your homework before talking
with the inspector, and you will have a much easier time. Plan to work
together to have a good design. Remember, the fire inspector can stop
your show before it opens, take the time to plan a safe show!
Now that you have the perfect site picked out, surveyed and planned,
get ready for moving day! Waiting for the day you need to start moving
stuff to load the pickup is too late. Take a tip from professional movers,
have a plan to move everything. They come into a moving job with all the
boxes, padding, tape, markers, hand trucks and helpers to get the job
When building up major props or scenes, prefabricate as much as possible.
This is a major time saver. Think what goes into each scene so all you
have to do is place and mount the items, instead of having to build them
on site, at the last minute, when you really don't have the time! Start
as early as possible building your props and scenes. You can build a single
scene at a time in your garage. Store the completed scene in a corner
of the garage, or even in the backyard (under cover, of course). Then,
when its time to build the haunt, you have everything ready to put up.
Plan your packing and unpacking
As the year progresses, keep all the sturdy boxes and plastic bags you
can get your hands on. They are invaluable for storage off season. Get
a few big markers and labels. As you store your newly completed scenes,
pack all the props and creatures in boxes with labels that show what's
inside and what scene it goes into.
Think of ways to pack your stuff so it can be unpacked as you need it.
Label everything as much as possible on the OUTSIDE of the cartons so
'that perfect prop' can be located quickly. Its easy to spend a lot of
frustrating time looking for stuff. This also lets volunteers help without
hindering. And, after the haunt is finished, be sure to take the time
to properly wrap, pack, and label your props so they are easy to find
Develop a setup plan that's easy to understand so if you get help, your
helpers *can* help.
Plan to set up the big stuff first. The small detail stuff can be placed
minutes before opening (and, sigh, sometimes after opening). It doesn't
take long to shoot spider webs with a web shooter. Save this for last.
This adds great ambience and can help minimize the lack of prop detail
if you get caught with an unfinished haunt opening night.
Its very easy to get caught up with detailing each room as you go along,
making each scene perfect. Keep consistency in mind. Get the big stuff
in first - for the whole haunt, then work on the small stuff. Think about
the entire haunt and how complete it is, not just each individual room
or scene. This way, you will have a show that can open - and even improve
as the season goes along!
And last but not least - before opening night - get some rest.
Building a haunt is just like building a house in just a few days. This
time is always a scramble, be fair to yourself even if everything isn't
perfect (it never is) so be sure to get a good night's sleep the night
before the haunt opens for business. Pick a time to quit the night before
opening and stick to it. Go home and rest. This way you will have the
energy to get through the next day and night ahead.
And, just before you start the rush - stop - look in the mirror, take
a deep breath, and smile. Everyone expects you to have all the answers.
Everyone expects you to act calmly, even when the well meaning volunteers
undo what you just did.... And you will, somehow, some way do it all!
Remember this is entertainment, its supposed to be fun! You did it! You're
ready for another great season of scares and frights. Relax, never take
the show or yourself too seriously. You built an entertaining and safe
event for your guests. When you see a guest come in, smile (you know what
they're in for, they don't!). When a staff member comes up in a panic,
no matter what it is, take a deep breath and think before you react. Always
respond calmly. If someone is depending on you to have the answers, you
need to (at least appear) to have them. Keep in mind the squeals and screams
that make it all worthwhile, and enjoy yourself!
If you have any thoughts, suggestions or comments about haunt planning,
please let us know. We need all the help we can get too!
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