Wisconsin Feargrounds opens new haunted house, will give away a car in 2013
Tim and Ann Marie Gavinski celebrate their 10-year anniversary
As Tim and Ann Marie Gavinski sit inside their trailer they're getting excited. They've been waiting to talk about their creations all year.
But really, spending time inside this office isn't where they want to be. They want to be back inside their real offices — haunted houses.
After all, it was just a week before they opened the Wisconsin Feargrounds, their award-winning haunted houses, for the 2013 season.
Besides having to finalize cast and crew for this year (about 150 employees) and putting actors through the annual "Fear Camp," the Waukesha couple still had to put the finishing touches on a new house of terror that had been on their minds for more than a year.
"We have 12 nights, that's all we got," said Ann Marie, who manages the Wisconsin Feargrounds with her husband. "Twelve nights to make it."
As the Gavinskis began their 10th year of operating the Feargrounds at the Waukesha County Expo Center last week, they took a moment to sit back and realize how far they've come.
The Feargrounds has been voted the best Haunted House in Wisconsin the last four years by HauntedHouseRatings.com and was ranked the No. 1 "Must-See Haunted House in America" by Haunted Attraction Magazine.
"We still remember our first year. We know what it's like to start something from scratch and make it huge."
Where it all started
The Gavinskis were well known in their neighborhood for putting on an elaborate Halloween party. Ann Marie said it was about doing "something for the kids on trick-or-treating."
However, it soon grew into making a haunted house in their garage before expanding into a 1,500-square-foot haunted experience in their backyard.
But one year when it was suggested how much better their haunted house was compared to others who made a profit, Tim became intrigued. Ann Marie chuckled when he told her they should take their "haunted house business" to the next level.
Tim was retired from the U.S. Postal Service, while Ann Marie, with a psychology background, works full-time at an employee assistance program in Waukesha.
"We're passionate about it and we're able to work together," Ann Marie said. "That's what it's all about, finding something we could do together."
Expanding its theme
The Gavinskis started small opening Morgan Manor and later Morgana's Torment. But year after year, new houses, with the same Victorian theme, have been added.
But new rooms are added, as are props. Giving their customers a new experience is important for the Gavinskis.
Not getting complacent and improving is the key to their success, the two say.
The Gavinskis keep all of their props and equipment in storage units during the off-season, a time when they flock to antique stores to add to their haunted house collections. Tim said many of the dolls and stuffed animals in Morgan Manor are from Ann Marie's childhood.
New haunt takes planning
Preparation is also important. How CarnEvil, the new house in 2013 that joins Morgan Manor and Unstable (last seen in 2011), would be constructed was already swirling through Tim's brain more than 12 months ago.
"We plan for it all year long," Ann Marie said. "We were already looking for things we wanted to make CarnEvil. So we start picking things up and start watching how it all comes together."
Preparation also includes studying the newest trends in the Haunted House industry.
The two attend Transworld's Halloween and Attraction Show, a three-day trade show with exhibitors and industry-related products, every March in St. Louis.
And after the season, they make their way to Orlando, Fla., for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo.
While Tim calls Ann Marie "the face of the business" and "the icon," Ann Marie credits her husband.
"All the ideas that are in there that's all Tim," Ann Marie said. "It's true I do the interviews, am HR, accounting and legal, but when I'm doing that, he's going through the rooms saying, 'What am I going to do to this room next year?' Then when we go home at night I'm exhausted. But he's thinking about what we can do for 2015. I say can we get through 2013, first, and 2014, but he's so excited."
In collaboration with BuyCostumes.com and the Wisconsin Zombie Mud Run (an event the two put on this spring at the Expo Grounds), the Wisconsin Feargrounds will give away a 2013 Hyundai Elantra as a sweepstakes in honor of its 10-year anniversary.
"The community has supported us, so we thought what better way to give back to them and have a big show of how much we care about them than giving away a car and celebrating 10 years," Ann Marie said. "Some customers come multiple times in a season. So many come back year after year." Visit wisconsinfeargrounds.com to see how you can enter to win the car.
As do the actors, some of whom have been with the Feargrounds all 10 years.
"Ann Marie has a very high retention," Tim said. "This year we took it pretty hard. I think she lost about 15, which is huge."
Ann Marie added: "We're used to having 85- to 90-percent retention rate. So when it drops down to 76 you kind of feel it a little bit more. But compared to other haunted houses, they think 'Oh my gosh I would give my arm for 76 percent (retention rate). That's fabulous."
Actors are family
The Gavinskis don't have any children to pass their haunted house love down to, but Ann Marie says her staff "is our family."
While the actors focus on how to best scare the customers, Ann Marie wants them also to focus on safety.
"The (actors) get so excited when they see the haunted houses, but what I want them to see are the side doors that lead into the egress and outside those doors is a light and fire extinguisher," she said.
With 10 years in the books, the Gavinskis hope the Feargrounds can go another decade.
For them, it has always been about sharing a story, a form of entertainment.
"It's date night," Ann Marie said. "It's a show. It's a theatrical production where we want them to feel like they're in the scenes. It's more interactive than a movie.
"Here, you're going to interact with the actors. You're going to be startled. That's why they bring their date because they know their dates are going to (comfort) them, hang onto them tighter.
"We just want people to feel a range of emotions. That's really what we're going for. If you can make them laugh, cry and scream than we've done our job."
At a glance
What: Wisconsin Feargrounds
When: Friday-Saturday, Oct. 18, 19, 24, 25, 26, 31, Nov. 1 and 2
Where: Waukesha County Expo Center Grounds, 1000 Northview Road, Waukesha
Tickets: Morgan Manor Pass: $13, Morgan Manor Speed Pass: $25, 3 Haunt Combo Pass: $30, 3 Haunt Combo Speed Pass: $45, Discount Early Bird 3 Haunt Combo Pass: $20 (must arrive between 7 to 8 p.m. and only available online)
Website: www.wisconsinfear grounds.com
Your link to the biggest stories in the suburbs delivered Thursday mornings.
Enter your e-mail address above and click "Sign Up Now!" to begin receiving your e-mail newsletter Get the Newsletter!
- Town of Waukesha in search of a new attorney
- Female driver crashes vehicle into Waukesha Memorial Hospital
- Waukesha man faces 10 counts of child porn possession
- Waukesha County will likely oppose arena tax
- Apartment complex proposed
- Waukesha man charged in motorcyclist's death
- Downtown Waukesha's logo could see a makeover
- City of Waukesha will have a new attorney next spring
- City of Waukesha's mayoral race has three candidates so far
- Local dance team tops in the region