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Drive-Thru Haunted Houses, Christmas Shows Could Pop Up In Empty Lots This Fall

Francisco Santos' family has been in the circus business since his ancestors started performing in Spain in 1706, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that he's keeping it alive through a global pandemic.

"I'm the eighth generation," he said.

Horrorland is a drive-thru haunted house experience in South Florida, devised during the coronavirus pandemic.

As a producer of themed events and holiday shows who has also owned retail clothing stores in malls, he is attuned to the real estate aspect of his business.

"There's a lot of locations people are not using," he said. "[Owners] could do many different things [with them]."

One of those uses: a socially distanced haunted house attraction, which he is doing now. 

Santos grew up performing in circus shows around the world, specializing in an ancient art called Icarian Games, which involves people juggling each other and balancing precariously atop one another.

He worked for years with Cirque du Soleil and helped create the show "Varekai." He branched off to start his own company, Cirque Factory, and now, with Live 305 Entertainment, develops shows that can be produced around the world. 

When the coronavirus hit, "we started to see the entertainment industry crumbling to the ground — the supply chain, everything, it was unbelievable," he said. "The industry generates $8.5B in the U.S. and has 12 million unemployed who do not receive any unemployment. Most are self-employed, going from gig to gig."

With all bookings canceled, Santos and his team began to think about how they could generate income. As with some other like-minded entertainers around the country, he had the idea for a haunted house — but designed as a drive-thru so it could be pulled off with social distancing. 

With Horrorland, the resulting “immersive horror game” his team devised, cars drive through six different themed areas, as though they are the protagonists in a horror movie that's happening in real time. Monsters, ghosts and zombies all attack during the 35-minute drive.

“You won't have to worry about getting too close to the undead, because you will be safe inside your car," promotional materials say. "The experience is completely contactless. Please remember: don't open the door of your car.”

Santos said the business model can work in various ways: He can rent a space and keep the event profits himself, people can hire his company for a set rate to come into their space, or they can partner.

Horrorland is being staged in Miramar, Florida, at Miramar Regional Park from Oct. 1-31 and is open from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Admission costs $48.99 per car.

Santos said it can be typical to host 300 cars a night for an event like this, meaning nightly gate proceeds could add up to more than $15K. In this case, he and the park have a deal to split proceeds. With a Cirque du Soleil show for Miami, he said, the city offers up a parking lot for free to stage the show but charges $20 to $25 per car for parking. 

"This part of the entertainment industry, it's very easy to generate the traffic if done the right way and marketed the right way," he said.

For his Halloween show, Santos has hired 80 actors. He has developed numerous other themed shows — a Christmas show, a vampire circus, a hard rock circus — that can be quickly deployed and staged anywhere in the world with his network of 3,500 performers. Though he likes to have a couple months' lead time to scout and prep locations, he can make something happen in a matter of days, he said. He can even deploy a 256K SF round circus tent and operate shows at 50% capacity for social distancing. Costs vary widely depending on the site, the number of people involved and the length of the show, Santos said.

Santos said he won't be going back to his side hustle — operating clothing stores in malls, including Miami's Dolphin Mall — because rents had gotten up to $35K per month and the circus business is much more fun and profitable, he said.

Property owners "should really explore what [entertainment companies] can bring to the table," Santos said.