Thursday, October 31, 2013
All was quiet aside from the gentle slap of a paddle on the water as about 10 passengers boarded a canoe and embarked across the dark swamp at Cypress Gardens.
The first sight was a cemetery of white crosses on the left shore followed by a skeleton pirate steering a stationary boat to the right.
Screams were heard ahead from other canoes as this canoe’s paddle-man bumped the vessel into cypress tree roots that sometimes seemed to open doors on creaking rafts until BOO! - a ghoul jumped out of nowhere on a nearby raft and screams.
The canoe passes a face-down, headless figure in a plaid shirt and khakis. The canoe passes another. And another.
Suddenly a splash out of the water from the back left - it’s the head and shoulders of a creature with yellowish-white skin and protruding red veins that thrashes and screams at passengers, who on this vessel remain mostly unruffled.
This was the scene Oct. 19 at the 16th annual “Halloween in the Swamp.”
The haunted swamp experience is not recommended for children 12 and under unless they are accompanied by an adult. Children age six and under are not allowed.
For younger children there is a pumpkin trail, a talking great pumpkin, a jump castle, marshmallow roast and scary stories told by Kim Dillinger.
But those who made it through the haunted swamp experience witnessed phantoms spring out of the water to terrorize the otherwise serene night. The journey is not over when passengers reach the presumed safety of the dock.
A human-like creature, a werewolf perhaps, has a bloody face as they follow these brave souls into the haunted house where strobe lights take over and more creatures of the Halloween season jump out from behind or follow so closely their breath can almost be felt on the back of your neck.
Outside the house a bride in a dirt-desecrated wedding gown leaps from the shadows. The adventure scurries on toward a vintage hearse carrying a skeleton.
The coffin is behind the hearse’s open back hatch. A living figure creeps out of the eerie red light in the coffin as more haunted creatures frighten the adventurers.
The trail’s live actors, who are volunteers, wore haunting makeup and outfits as they scared the daylights out of the so-called “victims” whom they snuck up on from behind and out of the shadows.
The creatures in the water were played by divers who were under the water in a dark, swampy lagoon.
Cypress Gardens Site Manager Heather Graham said about 80 volunteers helped on each of the three nights along with employees.
She said countless props were used. Some volunteers brought their own and some were built at Cypress Gardens.
This year’s temperatures allowed for six to seven divers, about twice the normal amount, to sneak out from dark waters and scare boat riders.
One of those divers was Cypress Gardens Director Dwight Williams.
“This year it was a bit warmer,” Williams said. “That meant I could stay out there all night. Usually when it’s cooler we split the shifts in two.
“We probably would’ve had half as many in the water if it had been cold. We had more divers than usual this year. That was fun.
“We’re not really scuba diving with air tanks, but we’re wearing black wetsuits which gives us a good way to hide. You try to station yourself in a position so the water is not too deep so you can push off the bottom.”
Williams said divers hide their faces behind trees or stumps and jumped out at the middle of the boat to scare the passengers.
He said the divers do not worry much about alligators and snakes.
“We have our captive alligators and we can see what’s happening with their appetites,” Williams said. “They had laid off food for the past two weeks.
“This event makes so much noise in the front part of the swamp that the wild alligators retreat. They’re not looking for a lot of attention. I’ve been in the water out there for 12 years and I haven’t had a problem yet.
“It takes a lot of work to get ready. It’s kind of homegrown compared to a lot of other Halloween events. It takes about as long to put the gardens back as it does to decorate it.”
Five days after the final event workers were close to having the gardens back to normal, Williams said.
“The turnout was good. Thursday was a little lighter than last year when school was out on Friday. We are thinking of just doing Friday and Saturday next year.
“We limit it to about 500 (guests per) night.”
Williams said the public is only allowed to visit Cypress Gardens at night for special events.