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Building a More Impressive Facade
By Joe Meils

 

If there is one area of your haunt in which the public spends the most time, it is the queue line. In the last few days of October, the average patron may well spend up to an hour and a half standing in front of your haunt. Yet, quite often, this entry area is given a second class treatment. Most haunters want to get to the "meat and potatoes" of a house (the scares) first. Spending a little more attention on your façade can keep your patrons interested and decrease your headaches from bored customers. A nice façade will also help build the mood and suspense for the patron, by presenting them with a creepy-looking venue.

Checking Local Codes
Before building up grandiose plans for huge towering walls, flashy chaser lights around signs, and spotlights crisscrossing the night sky, you had better check with the city you are in as to what the limitations are. Many municipalities have exterior signage ordinances against animated signs, lighted marquees, and restrictions to height and width of your façade. If you are planning to build something on top of the building you either own, or are renting for the attraction, you must check to see if the local building officials will permit it. Often, "seasonal events" are not allowed to build a façade that is attached in any way to the building itself. In this case, every part of the structure has to be freestanding. The façade must be braced against the elements by way of cables or A-frames piled with sandbags, the same way you would pitch a tent. You may also be required to have the plans approved by a certified architectural firm, apply for permits to build it, and have it inspected before opening.

Design
Note: To better explain the working process, I am going to use as an example the façade we built for "Castle of Fear" in Denver for the 1998 season.

To put it mildly, our façade in previous years had been lame. Little more than a set of stonework flats with a lattice gate. Since we had a little extra time in our schedule, we decided to revamp it. Or, as the crew refereed to it, perform a "This Old Haunted House" makeover.

Once we had a theme in mind, we began doing research for ideas. I began by going to the public library and checking out every book I could find on the architecture of medieval castles. I also checked into several books of film production design, ("The Making of the Wizard of Oz" was particularly useful) and several books of children's ghost stories which featured illustrations of castles. Using these as a starting point, we began making various sketches of what the outside of the "Castle of Fear" might look like. At first, we didn't pay too much attention to how practical they would be to build. Instead, we pared down the ideas from their grandiose conceptions.

We felt that large, blocky structures seemed more sinister than tall thin, fantasy type towers, and by using a set of buttresses and battlements, the entire structure would appear to lean outward, menacing the people standing near it. Our safety staff added the fact that they would like to watch more of the waiting line. So we accommodated them by putting a raised observation platform between the two main towers. They could then keep an eye on the main floor, while also watching the patrons about to enter.

Practicalities
Starting with a basic sketch, we began developing the idea so it would actually work for the site we were renting. The ceiling height was about 14 feet, and local code dictated that we had to leave an 18" gap between the ceiling and the top of the walls for sprinkler clearance, so our castle was going to be no more than 12 feet high. This worked out nicely, because to maximize the use of the construction materials, we would make the towers and back wall of the façade in dimensions that were multiples of 4 feet. We also had to figure out how the façade would dovetail into the outer wall of the haunt's floor plan. After wrestling with various configurations, we settled on a pair of 20' long, 12' foot high towers, with an additional 20' back wall between them. In the front of this would be a 2-foot high entrance platform, which would by accessed by the guests using a ramp that would come out like a drawbridge.

To verify the design, we built some quick models. We built the first using a computer and a great little piece of software from MediaPlay, named "Design-It! 3-D" ($9.95 retail). The second model was a cardboard mock-up built to the same scale as Dungeons & Dragons figures. We used this model to help decide the overall paint scheme, and placement of props. Once we had the design approved by the owners of the haunt, we moved onto the construction phase.

Construction
We began by using existing 4x8 wall panels to assemble the basic shape of the walls of the towers. This took only one afternoon. We used a Ramset to secure the walls directly into the concrete floor of the site, and cross-braced them using available 2 x 4 stock. It was at this point that we had a windfall that changed things a bit. The owners had made a deal with the local Shakespeare festival to haul away their used set pieces after their season. Among these sets were several plywood and foam doorway arches. We decided to incorporate one of these as the main entrance. This complicated things, because we had to custom build of the walls surrounding the arch, rather than use existing panels. This change was the most time consuming part of the construction, but the added detail was worth it.

The supports for the platform and ramp were assembled, using 2x4 stock, covered with 3/4" plywood. A second crew began building the buttresses and battlements, out of scrap Masonite on 2x2 frames. These were then screwed into place. Styrofoam blocks were cut and placed as battlements along the top walls and glued in place with carpenter's glue and Liquid Nails.


Detailing
It took 4 people two afternoons to accomplish the main construction this, thanks to the careful planning. We then turned the whole thing over to another team who was in charge of the painting and finish. The owners had become concerned that the gray stonework we had planned on would seem too dull, and asked that it be changed to a mossy green.

The paint crew began by spatter-painting the whole façade with a dark green tone, alternating with a lighter sandstone. Once dry the stonework was outlined with 1/4"masking tape, and a layer of light earth color was sprayed on top of this. When the tape was peeled away, (a hair dryer is helpful here) additional "dirtying down" was painted by hand, to keep it from having a too uniform look. Detailing like hand painted cracks in the walls were then added. A final wash using universal pigment, which was then streaked (while still wet) with a pump sprayer filled with water.

Old branches were screwed onto the walls, seemingly coming out of cracks, and swatches of scrap camo net hung on them to simulate dying foliage. Additional details in the form of latex panels, prop skulls and the like were then added.

The Door
The door itself was given special attention. Entry into the haunt was the moment the customers had been waiting the whole time they were in line. We felt something special was required to make them realize that this was the moment they had waited for to give them a "here we go!" kind of feeling.

Our first idea was to hinge a drawbridge that would open into the first room. Unfortunately, the fire Marshall frowned upon the need to remove several ceiling tiles in order to accomplish this. Instead, we decided on a sliding door. A quick trip to the local farm supply store netted us the track and rollers we would need. We quickly framed a wall panel to look like a thick, heavy wooden door, with a dungeon-like grate in the center, giving those standing in front of it a teasing view of the first room. They couldn't see much, or what was happening in there, but they could tell by the screams that it was something intense! The final touch, after counter weighting the door so it would slide shut on it's own, was to theme the door's pull rope into a hangman's noose.

Lighting and Ambiance
When we were done, it was the lighting that sold the whole thing. We aimed a set of blue floods down at the structure from the building's columns. The shadows cast by the 3-D portions of the façade were very dark. We spent a good deal of time searching for an appropriate sound effect to complete the atmosphere and finally ended up creating a custom track, using an eerie low wind as the basis, and layering it with a series of thunderclaps. We burned the final track onto CD with a fade up and fade down on either end, so it looped nicely.

Giving more attention on our façade brought us many compliments. Many people remarked that the waiting area alone was worth the price of admission. We kept the overall cost of the project low by relying on panels and materials that we had on hand. The real cost was in the time it took us to do it, and by planning carefully. By working within the local codes, and using models to work out any problems in advance, we kept our time to a minimum as well. We created a mood and atmosphere that enhanced the attraction before the patrons even entered, and decreased the number of problems we had with patrons in line.

These same techniques, are valid for pro and yard haunts alike, and can help save time, money and effort. Do not let the first impression that patrons get of your attraction be an after thought. I strongly recommend that you begin designing a new façade for your Haunted Attraction today!

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