Orlando may be the home of the "happiest place on earth," but much like the opening from that great old Tales from the Darkside show, it has a dimension that's not as brightly lit. It's a shadowy delight for fans of haunted attractions.
Horror may have been classified as a "niche" years back. But with the growing commercial success of brands like The Walking Dead and The Strain – both draw huge audiences – it's no surprise that locals are crawling from their crypts to experience Legends: A Haunting at Old Town, a funeral home-themed, year-round attraction in Kissimmee, and the seasonal chills of Winter Haven's horrifying The Shallow Grave.
Legends is open year-round and ranks among the nation's top haunted houses — Photo courtesy of Legends: A Haunting at Old Town
Legends: A Haunting at Old Town
Kissimmee's Legends opened last year – in what locals had enjoyed as Grimm House for roughly two decades – after an extensive renovation. Visitors ponder their fates outside, the home's eerie facade a beautifully themed appetizer for the horrors that await.
Guests are then ushered inside in small groups. Two stories of frights in the form of detailed scenery, creepy animatronics and skilled live performers simultaneously close in for the kill.
Legends also offers ghost tours on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, off nights for the haunted house attraction. Guides lead participants down the worn bricks of Old Town, detailing the history of Victorian funeral procedures and regaling them with spooky local lore.
The experience culminates with a tour of the haunted house and perhaps, if you're lucky, a random introduction to one or more of its alleged spectral inhabitants. Ghost encounters are not guaranteed; reservations are required.
Admission to the haunted house is $15. For a ghost tour, guests pay $20 for 90 minutes' worth of spook.
Hungry for gore? The Shallow Grave may be right up your corpse-strewn alley — Photo courtesy of The Shallow Grave
The Shallow Grave
Over in Winter Haven, the scares are perhaps more in-your-face (or on-your-person) than anywhere, as the performers inside The Shallow Grave do occasionally make light physical contact with maze walkers who are making their way through this stomach-churning, two-house attraction; walk-throughs last roughly 12 to 15 minutes apiece, that's an eon in scare time.
Think the drive to Polk County's not worth it? Local papers rated Shallow Graves' 2013 debut as highly as the big-name theme park events. Small groups of six or less enter at spaced intervals, making for an intense, isolated experience with no scare spoilers. It's also well lit.
"We want you to see everything," says Owner-operator Joe Phillips. "We put a tremendous amount of work into these experiences; they are movie-set worthy. And we set up everything so that you're never safe . . ."
It should be noted: "Light physical contact" in the realm of cemetery caretaker-turned-cannibal Thaddeus Van Buren is most assuredly the fastest way to break a high-jump record, or perhaps a glass with your girly screams.
It's best to heed the warning of the Shallow Grave's gatekeeper — Photo courtesy of The Shallow Grave
Thaddeus has a marvelous backstory that dates to the Depression Era, when desperate times fell on a loving family man and desperate measures soon followed. The original Haunted Hills maze has all-new rooms, characters and scares for last year's attendees. And this year's new house – ADHD (Attention Deficit Haunt Disorder) – promises to plumb the minds of those who may have escaped Van Buren's intent, but never freed themselves from the horror experienced in his presence.
After your visit, don't be surprised if you suffer the same fate.
The Shallow Grave runs Friday, Oct. 3, through Saturday, Nov. 1, Thursdays through Sundays. Check out their Facebook page for weekly discounts and charity tie-ins.
Admission to one house is $15, $25 for both; $25 gets you front-of-the-line access with a "Quick Death" Pass, $40 for both houses. The most fear-eager might deem that a good investment on peak nights.