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Posted Date: 03/6/2015

Wisconsin Fear Grounds Put Fear at a Fever Pitch

Dorothy Creamer, Editor-in-Chief

he Wisconsin Fear Grounds (www.wisconsinfeargrounds.com), located in Waukesha, got its start in 2004 when two haunt enthusiasts decided to test the “hauntrepreneurial” waters for themselves. Timothy and Ann Marie Gavinski, felt that entering the haunt industry was simply their true calling, not unlike a fireman, therapist or doctor. “For many people in this industry, it is something that stirs way down inside their soul,” says Timothy Gavinski. “Like us, they love Halloween and everything about it. There is something special and primal about hearing someone scream while knowing you were the cause of it. That’s the hook, that scream is our reward and applause.”
 
Wisconsin Fear Grounds consists of 164 acres of land that was once the Counties Mental Hospital facility and co-located on the grounds is a Potters Grave Yard from the 1800s. The setting alone would be enough to create creepy ambiance but the Gavinskis can’t leave well – or morbid – enough alone.   

The Gavinskis pride themselves on the elaborate sets and detailing that comprise each of their events. Boasting that the attraction is really three haunted houses in one, Wisconsin Fear Grounds strives to bring nightmares to life for even the most jaded guest. In 2014, the Fear Grounds were comprised of Morgan Manor, the coerstone of the trilogy featuring Morgana and her eight sisters who feed on fear; CaEvil of Torment, a freak show of terror; and new in 2014 was Black Out, which preys on visitors’ most primal fear – of the dark.
It takes a great deal of planning and preparation to get each of the haunt’s components ready for the season. “As a modular haunted attraction, time is not our friend,” Gavinski says. “We must plan every phase of the build through tear down. We establish reasonable and attainable goals for our team and we hold them accountable to meet each and every deadline.”  

The Wisconsin Fear Grounds employs approximately 150 seasonal staff throughout September, October and November. This includes box office, makeup artists, actors, queue staff, two EMTs, sheriffs, a security video monitor, and a photographer.  The aspect of staff training is one that the Gavinskis take very seriously. “Over the course of time we have developed two essential documents – the Employee Handbook and the Actors Training Manual,” he reveals. “Every employee, (whether they are a veteran or a first-year) is required to attend a mandatory training session conducted by Ann Marie. It is an intense four-hour briefing followed by a Q & A with Ann Marie and her management staff.”  

Beyond the normal season, Wisconsin Fear Grounds also host several special events to extend the revenue season.  Prior to the start of “haunting season,” the Gavinskis promote a 5K Zombie Mud Run each year. New for 2015 will be a family friendly 2K walk that benefits Don’t Be a Monster, a national anti-bullying campaign.

The Ever-Evolving and Challenging Haunting Industry
Despite finding their calling in haunted attractions, the Gavinskis admit that being a part of this particular industry is not without its challenges. The expectations of patrons have reached an all-time high, with guests demanding more technology, more interaction, more gore and basically just more of everything. “Violence in movies and videogames has desensitized our customers to a certain degree,” Gavinski muses. “They see CGI everywhere and expect that level of realism when visiting a haunted house.  Every year our industry must raise the bar to meet customer expectations.”

That fervor for fear – while it presents challenges to operators – also means that growth is rampant. When Wisconsin Fear Grounds first opened, it was a 7,500-square-foot attraction that did a few thousand customers a season. Now the attraction is a 50,000-square-foot multi-element event that can do several thousand customers in a single night.

With that increased traffic has come added operational challenges. Gavinski credits adequate preparation and training for staff on safety and throughput. “Education, planning and experience are three invaluable tools when putting on a haunted attraction,” he says.

Creating Chaos
The Gavinskis start planning for a season a full year in advance. All the building of sets is completed each year prior to the occupancy of the grounds on Labor Day. All structures (queue line building, three or four haunted houses, a zombie paintball field), lighting effects, fog, sound and animations are all assembled and on site in about 10 work days. Budgeting and conceptualization for the 2015 season were started in August of 2014. “We want to know well in advance what it is we are looking for at the Transworld show and budget accordingly,” he admits.

The Gavinskis consider the Transworld HAAShow (www.haashow.com) a must-attend event.  “This is the show where everything comes together for us,” he explains. “They offer the best speakers in their educational series, a plethora of vendors with cutting-edge products and beyond a doubt the greatest networking opportunities of the year.”  

Always on the lookout for the latest innovations for their haunt, the Gavinskis have been impressed with the work of Kip Polley of Pale Night productions and his work with CGI. The duo also calls out Ed and Marsha Edmunds of Distortions Unlimited and Kevin Alvey at Gore Galore as other suppliers who have made great strides in actor-driven animations/ puppets that have the WOW factor they seek. Gavinski was also impressed by a relative newcomer, who actually won best new product at the HAAShow in 2013, Jim Bus at Fright Lite. “He has developed a product so simple, yet so effective, I have to wonder, how we scared people without it,” Gavinski exclaims. “Our other favorite vendors would be Ghost Ride Productions, Fright Props, Froggy’s Fog and Mini Spotlight. They are all superior products, offer great customer service and every one of them has delivered our purchases on time and as ordered.”  

Otherworldly Marketing & Social Strategies
As any other mode-day business, The Wisconsin Fear Grounds is not above needing a well-designed and fully-functional website. The Gavinskis understand that a website is a calling card to the world, and they started the Fear Grounds’ online presence immediately after completion of their business plan. “We are here, this is when and where we are open and we are going to scare the poo out of you,” Gavinski explains in regards to the function of the website.

To help set up and run the website, Wisconsin Fear Grounds employed the expertise of two web designers in the past – Chad Savage of Sinister Visions and Christopher Brielmaier of Rogues Hollow Productions. “We recently had the site transferred to word press, so Ann Marie can now make any changes to content as needed in real-time,” Gavinski explains.

The Gavinskis understand all too well the importance of having a good social media strategy in order to help with marketing and advertising. The majority of haunted attractions have a Facebook page (98% according to the Selling Halloween 2014 Industry Report). “The trick is providing interesting and engaging content for our followers, which they will in tu both LIKE and SHARE with others,” Gavinski notes. “Additionally, with the recent changes in the way Facebook lets you interact with your followers, if there are important posts which contain information that you want as many of your fans/followers to see, you will have to consider boosting these posts. Remember, you need to track these closely and monitor the retu on investment.”

With 12 years in the industry under their belt, the Gavinskis are showing no signs of slowing down. The Wisconsin Fear Grounds team continues to strive to provide quality entertainment to customers, leadership development for key staff while improving on the foundations that brought them to where they are today.  

“Being recognized year after year as one of the ‘Must-See’ events in the country by numerous sources is incredibly rewarding and reassuring that we are doing something right,” Gavinski muses. “On a personal note, seeing the development and maturation of our staff is equally gratifying. These are some of the finest individuals in our industry, their dedication, hard work and can do attitude is something that should be emulated by all.”

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