It’s quarter past 9 and a voice cuts through the darkness, issuing an ominous warning.
With a glowing pumpkin to light the way, he’s lurking to find his perfect prey. He’s the bringer of Halloween fear. Beware, the Headless Horseman is here!
A hush falls over the throngs of expectant people lining the streets of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, as the clip-clop of a lone horse can be heard in the distance.
“Here he comes,” someone calls excitedly from the crowd, “here he comes.”
As expected, the Headless Horseman, mounted on a black steed, and an illuminated jack-o-lantern held high in his hand, rides past, leaving enthralled spectators whooping and cheering in his wake.
It’s all part of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, an annual, family-friendly event held on select nights from August to November at Magic Kingdom.
Drawing thousands of visitors, it’s one of the Orlando theme park’s biggest attractions, and for good reason, it’s five hours of ebullient, Halloween fun.
We’ve Only Just Begun
Debuting in 1995, the celebration originated as a single-night event commemorating the holiday.
According to Gene Harding, producer for Disney Parks Live Entertainment, and one of the original producers of the party, it was relatively modest, at least by Disney standards.
“We did not even have Halloween-specific entertainment,” he says. “That very first year we ran our nighttime parade, and nightly fireworks show, and we did trick-or-treating in the park.”
It sold out.
Energized by the overwhelming response, producers began work on a parade, fireworks and a castle show specifically tailored for the event.
More than 20 years later, Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party continues to gain traction and is celebrated 32 nights throughout the fall season.
“It’s almost as popular as what you’d traditionally call the holiday or Christmas season; it continues to grow every year,” says Harding.
This Is Halloween
On party nights, there’s an undercurrent of anticipation among the guests from the moment you enter the park.
It’s a veritable Halloween wonderland: Mickey Mouse is there, jack-o-lantern wreaths hang from the lampposts, more than a quarter mile of fall garland adorns the buildings, and carved pumpkins are tucked into every corner.
“It takes a team of 40 decorators three nights to completely install the fall décor on Main Street, and two 53-foot semi-trailers to hold all that décor,” says Harding.
Cast members are outfitted with Halloween costumes, food outlets offer such specialty treats as candy corn ice cream, and favorite Halloween tunes like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” play on speakers throughout the park.
But Disney’s Haunted Mansion is the star of the show. Crowds gather for pictures in front of its spectral carriage hearse and to score a photo with resident ghoul Lady Carlotta, who only makes appearances during Mickey’s Not-So-Scary party.
Wearing ghoulish attire and covered in spider webs, attraction attendants stay in perfect character, welcoming guests with a somber, “Good morning” even though it’s well past dinnertime.
With some restrictions, guests are welcome to wear costumes, too, and a fair number of them do; especially kids who like to come dressed as their favorite Disney characters.
But plenty of adults are decked out for the occasion, too, with costumes ranging from “Toy Story” Woody and Jessie getups to dressing like exercise guru Richard Simmons.
“You’ll see people of all ages. You’ll see seven adults dressed as the seven dwarfs, and there’ll be no kids with them. They’ve come just to be kids,” says Harding.
Boo to You (And You, And You)
Considered one of the cornerstones of the party is Mickey’s “Boo-To-You” parade, a dazzling Halloween processional led by Sleepy Hollow’s most infamous citizen riding through the streets.
With more than 175 cast members, the spectacle is an eyeful of spooky delights, including an inspired march by a crew of macabre gravediggers who draw sparks as they clink and smack their shovels along the pavement, and a ghostly waltz performed by the Haunted Mansion ballroom dancers.
Larger-than-life floats feature some of Disney’s most beloved characters, as well as notorious villains like Captain Hook and Maleficent, who enjoy a rare turn in the spotlight during the one season that celebrates the wicked instead of the virtuous.
Woven through it all is the “Boo To You” theme, a tune guaranteed to be stuck in your head for days, weeks, maybe forever, (not kidding), with its infectious melody and repeating lyrics: It’s you know who, boo to you, and you, and you, and you. Happy Halloween!
The parade is run twice nightly at 9:15 and 11:15, and is worth attending both times. Securing a good spot requires patience and advance scouting, and while the views are ideal on Main Street, Frontierland is sometimes the better choice. It’s where the parade begins and is typically less crowded than Main Street and the Town Square area. And the second parade is usually less busy than the first.
I Put a Spell on You
The “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular,” is another of the Halloween party’s signature events. Hosted by the Sanderson Sisters, the infamous witches from the 1993 Disney film “Hocus Pocus,” it’s an entertaining, live-action show performed throughout the evening (8:15, 10:45, 12:00 a.m.) at Cinderella’s Castle.
Along with the Sanderson Sisters, a host of Disney villains including Aladdin’s Jafar and Cruella De Vil show up, as well as other ghouls like “Oogie Boogie,” a blobby monster from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Together they perform a series of tunes, including the show’s climatic hit, “I Put a Spell on You;” the hit song from the movie.
Hands down the highlight of the night is the Happy Hallowishes fireworks display at 10:15 p.m. in the skies above Cinderella’s Castle.
Disney World’s majestic centerpiece undergoes a spooky makeover and glows in ethereal purples and greens before sinister organ music plays and the voice of a ghost host booms through overhead speakers, proclaiming that it’s the most ‘spirted’ season of them all.
From there, it’s an utterly frenetic display of lights, special effects, and fireworks set to some of Disney films’ most famous villain tunes and “This is Halloween,” the theme song from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
It reaches a fever pitch at the finale when fireworks explode panoramically around the crowd and is nothing short of awe-inspiring in its grandeur.
Beyond show-stopping events like the parade and fireworks, there are special appearances by 13 characters only seen at the Halloween party, including Jack Skellington, who routinely has the longest wait in the park for photographs, and Captain Barbossa from “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame.
A Scream-O-Ween Ball is an all-ages dance party on the Rockettower Plaza Stage in Tomorrowland, and for shoppers there’s an abundance of Halloween merchandise available at almost all of the retailers in the park.
But when it comes down to it, Disney knows that it’s trick-or-treating that truly defines Halloween.
Upon arrival, all guests, regardless of age, are provided with bags for use at more than a dozen treat stations throughout the park (with provisions made for guests with food allergies).
For kids, nothing beats the time-honored pursuit of candy, especially when the hunt takes place at the Magic Kingdom.
For the adults, however, it’s something more. It’s the chance to go back in time, however brief, and remember what it’s like to be young again, with nothing more to worry about than enjoying the sweet spoils of a bag full of treats. And, honestly, what could be better than that?
MICKEY’S NOT-SO-SCARY HALLOWEEN PARTY is a special, ticketed event and takes place on the upcoming 2017 dates: Oct. 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26, 27, 29, 31, and Nov. 1. Admission prices begin at $83. disneyworld.disney.go.com