Headless Horseman, Ulster Park, New York

Headless Horseman

As legend has it the Headless Horseman galloped the streets of Sleepy Hollow whacking off heads of local towns people. Now over 100 years later the Horseman is back and scaring thousands of New Yorkers all over again. As some already know our company has been hard at work on a Spider-Man dark ride. Last October I had to visit to the Marvel headquarters in New York so while I was there I decided to stop in and take a tour of the Headless Horseman attraction. Kevin McCurdy, his crew and myself all jumped into a couple vans and headed over to meet with Mike and Nancy (owners) to see first hand what American Airlines rated one of the ten best haunted houses in the United States. I gave Mike and Nancy a call but unfortunately they were closed (darn)…but wait they said ‘c’mon over we’ll fire it up just for you guys’. They were not kidding either, they turned on everything and gave us a personal tour of the entire event. Everyone including myself felt this attraction was one of the best-haunted events in the nation. I quickly realized no magazine in our industry has ever covered this event so I jumped at the chance to feature Headless Horseman and here’s the story…

Q: Your place is just fantastic! How did you get your start in the haunted house business…give us some history.

A: We both love Halloween. Michael has been doing disguises for years through his police career and I love horror films. We own a horse and carriage business and were looking for a location that we could do special events for the holidays. We found an incredible 45 acre farm

with 200 years of history, ponds, outbuildings,barns, fields, woodlands and orchards. An ideal atmosphere and environment for our attraction. We closed on our farm on Sept lst and opened our first season on Oct lst. From the first year we had a theme and storyline, storytellers and ran by reservation.

Q: I can’t say how awesome your attraction was so please tell me how you’ve never been a speaker at Transworld, you’ve never had one industry magazine feature your event and I’ve hardly heard much about your place until now?

A: What can we say, we're the best kept secret in the industry! Actually, we attract guests from the five surrounding states. We were invited and participated in the NYC Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village and were seen on FOX and the FX channel. We have also done a haunted house for Central Park in New York City. We were named #1 Hayride in Amereica by American Airlines Magazine, and #1 Outside Haunted Attraction by Fright Times Magazine.

As far as Transworld, no one has invited us to speak. (Maybe they will now)

We have a private close knit group that works with us and they are all professionals. We focus on our attraction year round to make it the best it can be.

Q: Give us some fast facts about your place such as how many attractions, how many acres for attractions/parking, admission fee, how long it takes to complete the event, etc.

A: We have 5 attractions: Hayride, 3 Haunted Houses, and a 4 acre cornmaze, 10 acres of parking. Admission is $20.00 for adults and $18.00 for children under 12. In addition we have 3 gift shops: The Magic Moon Gift Shop, Ghoulish Gifts, and the Dark Hour. Three food concessions: The Evil Eatery, The Croaked Crow Café, and Witch Hazel's, also 2 DJ's playing, a full stage with a master illusionist and side show performer. Also a wildlife educator with hawks, falcons, vultures and other birds of pray. It its so important to educate the public about our environment and to protect our wildlife. We have a Children's Day Weekend the third weekend of October during the day. We also have a Tarot Card Reader and photographer and country games. The entire attraction takes 2-3 hours to complete depending on the time of the evening you attend.

Q: When I visited this past October I couldn’t believe how huge the entire event takes to complete. Considering the attraction is so huge and so spread around you must have a lot of security issues. How do you handle security?

A: We have more off-duty police officers on our property than most cities do during a given shift. I know this from experience since I'm a retired detective from Kingston NY Police Dept. We also have horse mounted patrols in our parking lot for security. ( This is a great asset) The mounted rider is 10 feet tall and can see a great distance. We have 2 EMT's on duty each night as well as NY State Certified Safety Officer at the attraction each night.

Q: How many actors, ticket sellers, and security does it take to operate an attraction of your size? As a follow up question to that I’m guessing it take a bunch so does this limit the day you open? What I mean by that question is due to the fact that your place requires such a heavy amount of labor I would imagine you’d never consider opening on weekdays like a smaller warehouse type event.

A: We employee between 140 - 150 people. ( That is if they all show up) We actually over hire when we can so we can operate the attraction with a full acting staff. Also we have understudies for certain performances and illusions on the hayride. This total number includes: parking, tractor drivers, security, actors, food, gift shop, tickets and managers.

Believe it or not we run by reservations, which we have done since we started. This allows us to control our hours of operation and there are no empty gaps with no customers. This also gives the customer the freedom to shop, eat and enjoy the games and sideshow knowing they do not have to stand in a hayride line for hours. They know the time their hayride will leave and we run close to schedule.

We run our operation for 7-8 weekends Friday, Sat. and Sun. We have all paid employees and no volunteers.

Q: I’m guessing your baby is the hayride…where do you come up with all the ideas and how much do you change each year?

A: Ideas come from everywhere: movies, news, history, suspense novels, folklore, and personal experiences. Many meetings starting in early January with our crew. We meet with our managers, drivers, illusionist, special effects, and construction crew foremen. The storyline and haunted houses concepts are done by the end of January and we are on the phone with vendors and costume designers.

We change our theme for the hayride and haunted houses each year. Our big sets may remain in place for a few years but are redecorated, painted, etc. each year. Most of our 13 sets are changed along with costumes to coordinate with each years theme. We consider the hayride as a traveling play. The guest journey through the sets vs sitting in a theater.

Q: When I saw your attraction I was guessing you had to have invested nearly a million dollars would that be accurate because it sure does look it?

A: Over the years we have invested well over that amount. This attraction is worked on 24-7, 11 months a year. There is millions in sweat equity too! Nancy breathes, lives, and sleeps Headless Horseman Hayrides.

Q: As most of us already know it’s harder to scare people on a hayride. What secrets can you share about scaring people on a hayride?

A: Its difficult to scare a group of 30 people, so we entertain with theatrical illusions, pyrotechnics, sudden scares, overheads, large sets are mirror imaged with scares coming from both sides. We use large puppets and oversize costumes. Everything must be larger-than-life to intimidate. We also have large drive through buildings and arbors to enclose the wagons.

Q: One thing that stood out like a sore thumb about your hayride specifically was that you hardly have a single ‘store bought’ prop, almost everything is custom made. Is this because you want to blaze your own trail or you just can’t find what you’re looking for from vendors?

A: Originality and detail are extremely important. and the fact we have an original production each year requires us to create many of our own props. Many animatronics and creatures are made for us by vendors from Transworld. There are very talented people at the show.

Q: Do you feel vendors should try and make more specific hayride type props and animations?

A: Yes! That would be great, but hayrides are the minority. The market tends to be oriented toward haunted houses. The majority of venues are haunted houses. We need props on a larger scale, sound systems, and animatronics that are weatherproof. Last year we saw a trend to larger props and we utilized many on our hayride.

Q: Another thing I noticed about your hayride was safety; you seemed to have several safety elements in place. Can you explain what they are?

A: Safety Safety Safety! Where do we start. Our fire marshal starts touring the Horseman in July. We want to address whatever concerns he might have well before our final inspection. Before the season starts, the haywagons are inspected by 2 independent mechanics. So if one should miss something the next will find it. We have double safety chains welded on the wagon that attaches to the tractor that will hold weight well beyond what the wagon holds. We have an on site mechanic and a tractor manager that inspects the tractor, tires, safety chains,etc each time the tractor pulls into staging. We have experienced tractor drivers that practice the course and tractor driver information and check sheets. After the wagon is loaded it is inspected by our staging manager to insure guests are seated safely. Our trail manager evaluates tractors, wagons, sets, actors.and trail conditions. All wagons have fire extinguishers, radios, flashlights, and emergency lights. We have a radio system in place so tractor drivers are on their own frequency and can radio to our dispatcher. Roads are maintained nightly. Tractors and wagons travel at a very slow speed. We have a storyteller/monitor on each wagon that can notify dispatch if there are any problems. We have a NYS Certified Safety Inspector that tours the hayride and other attractions constantly. In addition we have 3 four-wheel gators on the course with tech support and one gator for the 2 EMTS that are on staff nightly. We have an Information booth and a First Aid station. And everything is fire retarded - props, costumes, building materials, etc. OUR ENTIRE ATTRACTION IS NON-SMOKING. Yes this is a challenge to enforce.

Q: Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of serious accidents on hayride from a person using a real gun for a scare and accidentally shooting someone to several deaths from people falling off the wagon or the wagon becoming un-hitched. From where I’m sitting your hayride has the best safety elements I’ve ever seen. Tell us what should hayride owners look out for?

A: NEVER USE A REAL ANYTHING!!!!! We stay away from guns. We use theatrical props and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. We have a trail manager that is on the course constantly. We are very concerned about actor footing. Placement of actors is extremely important so the tractor drive knows where they are. Tractor drivers and storytellers are trained to know where actors should appear and any deviation in that is brought to the attention of the trail manager and addressed. We have personal riding with guests on each wagon. Wagons travel at a very slow speed.. Employee information check sheets which are initialed and signed by employees states they have been instructed to actor placement, etc. A prerecorded announcement instructs riders to the "Rules of the Road" so each guest receives the same instructions. Warning signs appear in parking, ticket booths, entrance, and at each attraction concerning the use of strobes, fog, etc.

Q: This past season it was very rainy all over the US. Your event is mostly outdoors how does rain effect your operation? How much rain does it take for you to call off the show or do you?

A: Rain KILLS us. Just like any other outside venue. We evaluate the weather hourly on event days. Safety of our guests and actors are our main concern. As to how much rain does it take to call off the show really depends on each storm. If it stops raining in the late afternoon we can run the show. Our roads are blacktop and groomed.

Q: Again considering your attraction depends on good weather do you have any experience with rain insurance? David Bertolino of Spookyworld buys this insurance every season and he recently told me it paid off big time this season. What are your thoughts on rain insurance for attractions that depend on good weather?

A: No, we don't carry rain insurance. We have talked to insurance companies about it and it depends on location of collection station. Ours is 10 miles away and being in the foot of the Catskill Mountains that’s a catch22. We are reevaluating this. We're going to talk to David about this one.

Q: Have you noticed a loss of interest in Halloween the past two years? With the events of 911 of two seasons ago and sniper attacks this season Halloween has taken a beating with press. What are you thoughts as to what direction marketing a haunt should go?

A: Good question. No we have not noticed a loss of interest in Halloween. Marketing your haunt depends on many things, where attraction is located, what age group you are targeting etc. Our attraction is family entertainment so we are marketing to an age group of 8 to 88.

Our attractions builds with intensity from the hayride to the cornmaze to the 3 haunted houses. You can quit anywhere along the way after the hayride if it gets to scary.

We market ourselves as family entertainment and including an educational fun aspect of it too. By having a wildlife educator walking through the midway and que lines with his birds of prey, talking to our guests its offering another aspect. Total professionalism at your attraction from your staff being in dresscode uniform, a security force, and a safe show so your guests feel they can have fun in a controlled environment, word of mouth is a great marketing tool.  

Q: I’m usually interviewed by a lot of national media every season and the big question this past season was gore, acceptable or not? I didn’t notice much or any gore in your haunted house why or why not?

A: Being a Registered Nurse in intensive care has given me the opportunity to experience gore and gross. Trained professionals are much easily grossed out than gored out. So we carry that experience to our attraction. WE LIKE TO GROSS PEOPLE OUT NOT GORE THEM OUT. We smashed phlem pods at our guests on the hayride one year. We do artistic tasteful gore (whatever the hell that is)

Q: Back on the subject of your haunted house…I noticed you have a ton of gift stores and elaborate concession stands. The big thing that caught my eye was how nicely decorating and strategically positioned they where. Can you tell us how successful they’re and some info about what you sell and your theory on selling gifts, etc at a haunted event.

A: I could do a seminar just on my gift shops and food concessions. We want our guests to have a total experience when they are at the Horseman, from the time they park their cars, they hear a profession soundtrack welcoming them and giving them a brief description of the storyline with sound effects and music. Having years of design and retail experience I want the entire attraction to be exciting. This makes people of all ages shop. We have The Magic Moon Gift Shop.(fall decorations for the home inside and out, candles, wreathes and crafts made by American craftsman. Prices in here are moderate to high end. Ghoulish Gifts for the kid in all of us. Here you can spend 25 cents to $25.00 from severed fingers, maggots, snakes, skulls, educational toys and games, the line never ends here. The third gift shop The Dark Hour is our black light gift shop. Everything is under black light from posters to mushroom lamps, glow sticks and incense. This beckons the teen shopper. This year we will add a fourth gift shop that will be Headless Horseman logo apparel. This was part of Magic Moon Gifts in the past and has outgrown the space so we are giving it a shop of its own. We sell tanktops, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, a variety of jackets, mugs, posters etc. Every shop has a great variety and stocked to the ceiling. Displays are everywhere. Our gift shops do great. If you can have only one gift shop make it a kids gift shop. There are great vendors at the show. Your markup can be as high as 800% on some items. All our gift shops are very successful. FOOD. We have The Croaked Crow Café (Food to Die For) is loaded with sweets. From homemade chocolate caramel apples to chocolate brownies..............no one can resist. The Evil Eatery (for the monster appetite) sausage and peppers, pizza, fresh cut french fries, and Headless Horseman labeled water. The newest food café is Witch Hazel's ( I named it after my mom) "Tasty bites and Morsels". Here you enter through an arbor to a beckoning 6 foot tall witch perched on a bird bath in a raised bed of mums holding a frog in her lap to the experience of a witches kitchen where sweets are again sold including the best hot chocolate with real whip cream. About the food shops - we were concerned that when we added Witch Hazel's it would compete with and cut into the profits of the Croaked Crow because they carry similar products.

That didn't happen. They ate twice as much! I can't emphasize how important detail and decorating is.

Q.As you will read in this issue of Hauntworld Magazine I'm advocating a return to the traditional marketing including logos for our haunts. I would say your logo is very traditional and in good taste not to mention you must have the best jackets in the industry. How important are all these things to your success?

A: Another seminar! ABSOLUTELY MOST IMPORTANT! We want to represent the industry and our attraction to the public in the most professional way we can. We require our staff management to adhere to dress code. Black jeans, black boots, and Headless Horseman logo apparel. Fortunately we own and operate a screening printing, embroidery, design and sign business which creates our jackets, hats, t's etc. (and we can do the same for you!)

Q: How does Headless Horseman market itself to the public?

A: We use a professional services to create radio and logo graphics . We are marketed 12 months a year by our county tourism and Chamber of Commerce. Starting in early August we distribute 250,000 promotional flyers with coupons. We have a promotional booth at a large county fair, billboards, radio ads newspaper ads and special appearances.

Q: Over the past few years a lot of haunters have tried the multi attraction haunted event. Your ‘multi attraction’ event would have to rank amongst the best in the nation. What advice do you have pro and con for anyone currently or considering doing a multi attraction event?

A: START SLOW. We gradually added attractions over the past 10 years. You get experience as you grow. Its important to offer a variety of things for your guests to do. They will get to experience multi -attractions and make your place a destination. The cons are cost,cost,cost. Depending on the attraction you have, adding outside events makes your attraction become weather related.

Q: What is the future for Headless Horseman? Knowing that all things must change to stay on top what changes down the road do you say yourself making?

A: WOW! We want to become BIGGER & BETTER. We want Headless Horseman to be eternal. We are our toughest critics. We are looking at other seasonal events. We will expand existing attractions and add new ones. ( I haven't told Mike about the roller coaster yet!)

Q: Here’s a good question for you…Do you have a Headless Horseman riding the up and down the hayride? Also how does the theme and history of the Horseman play into your hayride?

A: Larry, the evening you came with your crew we were not operating so you missed the great costuming, acting and headless horseman. Actually we have 3 headless horsemen present during the show. The Horseman first appears on one of our solid black horses. ( we alternate 2 horses for this appearance) the additional two appearances are on foot.

The Headless Horseman is native to the Hudson Valley where we are located, and plays a promenade role in the storyline we create each year.

Q: Last question…many haunts are trying to find ways to make an extra buck from up charges. I noticed you had many gift shops, food and games. What have you found helps your bottom line through up charges (anything other than a ticket purchase).

A: All our gift shops and food concessions help our bottom line. Taking charge cards is a must. Presentation is key. Creating an atmosphere that is exciting, suspenseful and fun

Q: All things considered I think the future is bright at Headless Horseman. Your event is near the top in the nation, I was basically stunned by your attention to detail in every facet. Thanks for sharing your time with us today. Quickly tell the readers how they can learn more information about your event.

A: Thanks for the great compliments. Go to Headlesshorseman.com and please come talk to us at Transworld.