Franklin-based ROC Ventures hasn't shied away from the challenge of adapting operations at The Rock Sports Complex to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and its annual Halloween haunt event is no different.
'The Hill Has Eyes' opened to the public last weekend, bringing a total of 3,000 people through the 45-acre outdoor set, complete with four haunted attractions. Running at 55% capacity, the event's opening weekend was a sellout and its remaining six nights are projecting to be just as successful.
That's despite the looming threat of the virus, and several changes that have been made to the event's layout to keep people safe, but may also decrease the level of terror attendees are accustomed to experiencing.
"We've had to dial down the scare a little bit," said ROC Ventures CEO Mike Zimmerman in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee. "There’s been great scenes where two or three actors come together and they create this really cool scare moment. We just can't do that anymore."
Most of the production's 98 actors, all wearing masks, are stationed in areas that allow for at least six feet of distance between one another. If it's less, they also wear face shields. Other memorable features, including compression tunnels, enclosed structures and the ski lift (also known as the 'Scare Lift') have also been eliminated, said Zimmerman.
With 15,000 people expected to walk through 'The Hill Has Eyes' this month, Zimmerman said he's grateful the event has always taken place outdoors. After all, it has become an annual staple for the business over the past nine years-- typically running 22 days, selling 3,000 tickets a night.
Bringing 'The Hill Has Eyes' to life this year required months of negotiations with the Franklin Health Department. Those talks began in June when ROC Ventures decided to go through with planning a "COVID-19 edition" of the Halloween event, even as mass gatherings across the country were cancelled or postponed. Zimmerman said he was doubtful at first, initially telling the health department he didn't think 'The Hill Has Eyes' would be feasible this year.
The business had already established a working relationship with the health department as it planned to host Milwaukee Milkmen's 11-week minor league baseball season, and they decided to see how it went before ruling out 'Hill Has Eyes.' Milwaukee Milkmen's season ended in mid-September with zero public infection incidents, said Zimmerman.
The practices and procedures that allowed Franklin Field to safely host fans this summer ultimately laid the groundwork for 'The Hill Has Eyes.'
"In the end, it comes down to the same principles, which are face coverings... and capacity management," said Zimmerman.
Five hundred tickets are available for each two-hour time slot-- 6 to 8 p.m., 8 to 10 p.m. and 10 to midnight. The 8 to 10 p.m. window was the most popular showing and quickest to sell out during opening weekend.
Parties of four to six enter the event at least one minute apart, creating at least 50 feet of distance in between. Groups are asked to practice proper physical distancing between attractions and while waiting in line outside the event.
Thanks to a previous partnership with a local 1-800 Water Damage franchise, an antimicrobial treatment, called BIOPROTECT, was applied to all high-touch surfaces at the event grounds. High-tough areas are also sanitized every 30 to 40 minutes on event nights, said Zimmerman.
When the City of Franklin handed over the event's renewed license last week, just days prior to opening night, its final request was having the health department present to "audit" each night of the event, said Zimmerman. The health department representative walks the trails to help enforce social distancing and mask wearing.
Zimmerman believes the move was a bit of an overstep by local government, but "I'll do it because it gets the job done," he said. "I get it... I'm just fortunate that we can keep it going."
Keeping 98 actors and thousands of attendees safe also comes down to personal accountability, said Zimmerman. Actors were promised higher pay this year due to risk, but it's contingent on following all the rules.
"We said we're going to take a percentage of our revenue and we're going to put in a pot. And if there’s no COVID infraction, we’ll pay you 100%," said Zimmerman. "So there’s a financial incentive, and there’s peer pressure to kind of help motivate people to be responsible."