By the light of day, America's biggest amusement parks entertain families in friendly, wholesome ways. As the sun sets, these same parks transform into spooky dens of phantasms and specters. Mazes and haunted houses fill darkened corners, while in many cases actors skulk and skitter through pathways, pouncing on unsuspecting guests. But then, that's what everyone is here for.
Fright Fest: Six Flags Great Adventure
Six Flags Great Adventure
This Jackson, NJ, theme park offers several new scares during this year's Six Flags Great Adventure: Fright Fest, including Shipwreck Cove -- where zombies have come ashore; Wasteland -- a mutant-filled forest; Voodoo Island -- a reality show gone the way of black magic and cannibalism; and Insanity: Gears of the Mind -- where doctors and devils want to experiment on you. Five new Monstertainment shows have also been added, and some of the park’s biggest thrill rides remain open during Fright Fest, which runs select nights through Oct. 28.
Best scare: Circus of Thrills -- spin the Wheel of Destiny in this scary circus and see what frightening prizes await.
Halloween Horror Nights: Universal Studios Orlando
Universal Studios Orlando
One of the standards by which all other theme parks’ Halloween transformations are measured, Universal Studios Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights is a true thrill-seeker’s dream. The darkly humorous live shows, jarring street encounters and haunted houses themed around AMC’s hit horror show The Walking Dead, shock rocker Alice Cooper’s nightmares and the popular video game Silent Hill can be intense: The event is not recommended for kids under 13. Held on select nights throughout October, this hard-ticket event is now in its 22nd year.
Best scare: Penn & Teller Newkd Las Vegas, a new haunted experience based on the twisted humor of this comedy-magic duo.
Howl-O-Scream: Busch Gardens Tampa
This Tampa, FL, theme park's 335 acres are remade into a sinister playground where adult scares replace light, family fun. Among the new offerings in its 13th year, Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream dares guests to experience the Blood Asylum, where a serial killer runs rampant, and the Circus of Superstition 3-D, where the daring must face 13 superstitions designed to impede their escape. Leave this one to the adults, who will experience violent scenes, blood and manufactured gore.
Best scare: Nevermore, a haunted house based on the classic works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Halloween Haunt: Knott's Scary Farm
Nearly 4 decades of honing the recipe for scaring guests has allowed Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, CA, to perfect its offerings. Sure, there are zombies, clowns, witches and monsters, but a few unique scares make this park a must-see. An attraction based on the cult (and soon-to-be remade) film Evil Dead sends guests into a cabin in the woods where they discover the “Book of the Dead” and attempt an escape, while a truly twisted take on the Pinocchio tale (the creepy marionette seeks human flesh to cover its wooden skeleton) thumbs its nose at convention and sanity.
Best scare: If you run, the creepy menagerie of actors will chase.
Phantom Fright Nights: Kennywood
Costumed actors roam the pathways of this West Mifflin, PA, park, as seemingly harmless landmarks and attractions turn malevolent. When darkness overtakes this Pittsburgh suburb, the Raging Rapids transforms into the Voodoo Bayou, the Dancing Waters becomes the Kennyville Cemetery and Noah's Ark becomes, well, the Haunted Ark. Kennywood transforms into its thrilling counterpart on Friday and Saturday nights through Oct. 27.
Best scare: The Phantom's Pre-Scare Dinners are available for an upcharge, allowing diners to tuck into succulent rat ribs (actually baby back ribs) and Graveyard Stuffed Cabbage (a true fright.)
Halloween Haunt: Kings Island
A cast of murderous characters populates this Cincinnati theme park after dark. A blood-spattered meat cutter haunts the Slaughter House, while the twisted Madame Fatale has been released after a decade of incarceration to curate a museum of oddities and wax. The Blood Drums -- new for 2012 -- perform 5 times nightly, pounding out rhythms that can only be the musical theater troupe Blue Man Group's worst nightmare. Halloween Haunt takes place on Friday and Saturday nights through Oct. 27.
Best scare: Holiday Horror -- the Easter Bunny has always seemed somewhat eerie with its giant head and unchanging facial expression, and never more so than in this twist on the creepy coney.
HalloWeekends: Cedar Point
Wax figures come to life in the Eden Musee, one of several visceral thrills throughout this Sandusky, OH, theme park. Locate the creepy little girl with the staring eyes and stitched-up mouth determined to keep you checked-in at the Eternity Infirmary, or stumble through an eerie cornfield populated with denizens waiting to pounce. HalloWeekends runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights through Oct. 28.
Best scare: Come for the monsters, stay for the speed. Top Thrill Dragster -- the legendary coaster that takes the foolhardy from zero to 120 mph in less than 4 seconds -- will remain open during HalloWeekends. It's straight up, straight down in 17 seconds -- scarier than any creepy clown hiding behind any bush.
Nightfall: Old Tucson Studios
Now in its 22nd year, Nightfall gives guests a chance to one-up the typical haunted house by visiting an entire haunted town. This year's Nightfall features live shows, haunted houses, live-action frights and the return of ringmaster Pappy Scrap. Nightfall, in Tucson, AZ, runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 28.
Best scare: A new drink called the Snot Shot. We're not sure if that's actually scary or gross, but it's sure to make Nightfall a bit more colorful.
Fright Dome: Circus Circus
Ranked one of the most frightening haunted attractions in the country, this Las Vegas Attraction overwhelms visitors with roaming creeps, fog, lasers and strobes. Five pro-tuned haunted houses (including Ward of the Dead, carrying the name of zombie master George A. Romero,) 10 rides and 4 scare zones combine to celebrate the Fright Dome's 10th year.
Best scare: Since this is Circus Circus, expect clowns -- which are scary even when it's not Halloween.
Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party: The Magic Kingdom
Breathe easy -- Walt Disney World's version of the nighttime Halloween transformation is a mild, kid-friendly affair where families dress up in costumes and trick-or-treat at well-lit locations around the park. The marquee event is the Boo-to-You parade, featuring Disney characters in costume, which is kicked off by the headless horsemen galloping through the streets of the Magic Kingdom. A special fireworks display -- HalloWishes -- puts a capper on the late-night celebration, which requires a separate entrance ticket. (The closer the calendar gets to Halloween, the more crowded -- and expensive -- the event gets.)
Best scare: The undertaker dance troupe during the nightly parade. The gravediggers' spades create sparks off cobblestones, launching an impromptu light show.
You say you want to go trick-or-treating? Where better than at Hersheypark in Hershey, PA? Kids 12 and under can start gathering sweets at Hershey's Chocolate World and continue into Treatville. Fifty rides, including 10 roller coasters, remain open after dark and Creatures of the Night lets visitors get up close and personal with owls, snakes, turtles and alligators.
Best scare: Tarantulas at Creatures of the Night. Because they're tarantulas.
The Count's Halloween Spooktacular: Sesame Place
No bloody actors, no strobe-lit haunted houses, no eerie cornfields. This one's all about the kids. Sesame Place, in Langhorne, PA, has been transformed into a Halloween celebration with 2 mazes, 3 shows, a character hayride and a new dance throwdown: Ernie's Rubber Duckie Costume Party.
Best scare: Frights are few and far between here, but Bert in a pigeon costume will get anyone under 45 smiling.