The pandemic provided “headaches” and “barriers” to Niles Scream Park Opened last year when it juggled gallons of hand sanitizer and temperature controls for visitors, manager Aaron Smith said. Still, the massive operation managed to raise $ 109,000 for local charities – less than usual, but twice as much as staff initially feared.
This year, with the usual spike in new scary attractions that opened last weekend, some pandemic protocols like masks and a helpful new reservation system are returning, although now recommended and not required.
But the employees are coping with the aftermath of the pandemic: Currently, the number of volunteers has apparently fallen by around half.
Smith said the park counts on at least 200 volunteers a night – and about 250 on busy October nights – to freak out customers, show them around the attractions and sell them goods and host outdoor games halfway. In total, there are around 500 volunteers available in a typical year. But, said Smith, it seems like that could be closer to 250 now.
Last year’s season got off to a similarly slow start, though about 500 people eventually helped when the park hit the peak of traffic in October, he said.
Because of this, the park sent out an alert at the end of August for the first time in its nearly 50 years, allowing anyone in the public to volunteer this fall. Usually, the volunteers are only recruited and cared for by the 65 or more charities, who each receive a portion of the income based on their volunteer hours.
Niles Scream Park’s plea brought about 10 additional people to the mandatory training sessions for all, far fewer than hoped for. Smith said employees may know how much to fill their schedules by the end of this week. For example, you can schedule fewer people to help visitors on slower nights, he said. In the end, however, he said that won’t stop the park from putting on a full show “maybe a little better” than last year.
The park hasn’t booked any more training sessions, but it doesn’t matter, Smith said, urging the public to Visit the website to offer help. You must be at least a junior in high school to volunteer.
This may smell of the same labor shortage in the paid world, although Smith isn’t exactly sure why the volunteer numbers have been falling at the moment.
But with the United Route of Southwest Michigan, that’s no surprise. Volunteering Director Debbie Ramirez said that local charities generally have no problem filling volunteer roles where people can work outside or are far from each other, or most importantly, can do things independently – in other words, where they can feel safest from the coronavirus. Where a lot of people interact, she says helpers come out, but not like in 2019.
United Way’s own Summer Stock Up event, where volunteers worked two to three days in a gym to sort donated groceries that went to those in need, saw 20% fewer helpers this year. And that after the agency created more space in the gym and enabled more individual work.
“It was still more difficult for us than it was two years ago,” she said.
Volunteers at Niles Scream Park work in a mix of outdoor and indoor jobs. They only have physical contact with visitors in the “Hooded” attraction, where volunteers touch guests blindfolded. “Hooded” is for visitors aged 18 and over who choose the attraction and have to sign a waiver.
The park’s current COVID logs are subject to change as Smith follows guidelines from the state and Berrien County’s Department of Health. Even so, free masks and at least 100 hand disinfection stations will be available.
A precaution launched last season, a time pass reservation system, will return because, Smith said, it was a “great blessing”.
“We should have had that long ago,” he said.
By booking time slots, the flow of visitors was balanced “so that there were waves of people instead of a huge monsoon,” he said. This helped with social distancing and volunteer work, but also saved visitors from long lines at the ticket office. Once a pass is purchased, visitors move through the attractions at their own pace.
This year the park is encouraging and does not require a reservation.
“We hope that over the years people will realize this is a huge benefit, and of course they will,” said Smith.
The park typically attracts 40,000 to 45,000 visitors per season. More than 30,000 were registered last year, he said.
Many of the attractions change every year to keep the park fresh.
About 70% of the biggest attraction, the Haunted House, is new, including catacombs inside and a 19th-century village outside.
Last year’s attraction “The Basement” is now called “Nuclear Nightmare”, where you are a survivor among “nuclear-contaminated victims” in the fallout of a bomb, as described on the park’s website. The “Gruesome Gallery” brings together a collection of “classic iconic monsters”.
The annual hayride called “Dark Terror-tory” features more than 40 sets like “Rotten Manor” and “Ghost Town” that have been improved, Smith said. And the annual Field of Screams is a walkable outdoor attraction.
There are four escape rooms. One of them, Pirates Cove, opens this weekend because it wasn’t finished last week, Smith said.
On the last weekend, from November 5th to 6th, the annual “Black Out” takes place, during which you navigate through attractions with a glow stick while the lights are off.
Niles Scream Park
• Where: 855 Mayflower Road, Niles
• Hours: Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. until September 25; Friday and Saturday from 7pm to 11pm from October 1st to 30th; and 7pm to 10pm on Sundays in October. The “Black Out” will take place on November 5th and 6th from 7pm to 10pm.
• Costs: $ 15 to $ 5 for individual attractions, $ 10 for a hay ride, and $ 5 per escape room. Packages are available for $ 45- $ 28.
• For more informations: Call 269-687-3327 or visit haunted.org.