As a kid, Ron Doherty loved decorating his mother's lawn for Halloween. By the time he was an adult, his "decorations" included a backyard haunted house that drew thousands of people and required a police presence to control crowds.
Today, Doherty co-owns FrightWorld, a "scream park" that attracts as many as 27,000 people during its five-week Halloween season each year.
"We only have a very short, short time to make an impression," Doherty said.
But make an impression it has.
The 50,000-square-foot FrightWorld has been featured on the Travel Channel, CNN and AOL, and it was voted one of the best haunts in the country in several different industry rankings.
"I have been through their haunt. Those guys are very talented, very creative people," said Larry Kirchner, publisher of Hauntworld magazine.
The $23 ticket price and 20-minute line for each house don't seem to scare anyone away. FrightWorld consistently draws people from Syracuse, Rochester and Ontario and has had visitors from as far away as New York City, London and Hong Kong. Tour buses making the pilgrimage to Niagara Falls have added FrightWorld to their list of stops during the fall.
Of its roughly 130 employees, about 70 are costumed actors. They're trained at the company's "boo school" in how to scare people safely and effectively -- always propelling them forward through the attraction and getting out of their way.
"When people get scared, sometimes they start [swinging]. We train actors that if they're going to come in close, they need to move away again quickly," Doherty said.
Predictably, insurance costs are high. Each attraction, with names such as Raven Hill Asylum and Death Trap, is painstakingly designed to maximize fear while preventing injury in the dark, chaotic environment. It has paramedic and security teams -- made up of off-duty police officers -- on site at all times. Safety switches in each haunted house connect to LED lights that alert police and management in case of emergency.
"Yes, this is fun, but we're a professional production company," Doherty said. "It's a business, and it's taken very seriously."
FrightWorld sees a lot of repeat business, so it switches up its haunted houses and adds new ones to keep customers from getting bored. It finds homes for old attractions overseas, packing them into condensed trailers, sending them off to places such as Taiwan, Thailand, Canada and Australia, and sometimes traveling to set them up for the new owners.
Doherty and his team also have trekked around the world to create Halloween- and Christmas-themed events from scratch, such as the London Bridge Experience in England two years ago.
Though it has been in business for 10 years, FrightWorld just recently found a semi-permanent home at the former BonTon in the Northtown Plaza. Before that, it bounced around from one short-term space to another, packing its five themed attractions into nearly 30 trailers and putting them into storage where they sat for nine months until the start of the next season.
Seasonal businesses tend to be "pop-up" in nature. Though FrightWorld and its ancillary projects sustain Doherty year-round, owning a permanent building, signing a long-term lease or keeping doors open all year doesn't make financial sense, he said.
At Northtown Plaza, where FrightWorld has made its home the past three seasons, Fright-World has negotiated an on-site storage lease. That allows it to keep the attractions intact without storing them off-site or negotiating short-term leases, which can be tricky.
"It is harder to do short-term space, as it doesn't make much sense for a landlord to go through the lease and legal costs, et cetera, for the short term," said Dorothy Stahlnecker, vice president of commercial real estate at M.J. Peterson Real Estate.
In the beginning, it was easy for FrightWorld to find fair rates in long-vacant buildings.
"I've seen landlords consider less rent in general in a soft market," said Stahlnecker. "They don't give it away [but] they are a little more flexible in terms."
But returning to the same spaces often didn't pan out.
"What we do is attract attention to forgotten buildings," Doherty said.
That's good for landlords but not for short-term renters.
One Clarence site had been vacant for 17 years before FrightWorld came along. But by the following year, it had been filled by Len-Co Lumber. Fright-World had a great arrangement at Eastern Hills Mall -- until Dave & Busters took over the space.
And there are other perils of the pop-up business world.
With such a short season, one weekend of bad weather can mean a 25 percent loss in ticket sales and concessions revenue.
"You lose one Friday or Saturday and it's hard to recover," Doherty said.
So FrightWorld's mobile "scream team" works hard to drum up business, leaning hard on social media and raising awareness with a hearse and a "death truck" outfitted with advertising. It is also in the process of installing a search light on the roof to better attract Canadian shoppers traveling on Niagara Falls Boulevard.
"We work on this year-round and do a better job every year," Doherty said.