Instead of spending Halloween weekend hiding the candy from your chocolate-craving kids, gather the little goblins and take them to an amusement park. The fin-de-October spookfest has become a big deal at theme parks trying to draw a final flurry of patrons before shutting down for the winter. Every major park in the Washington area is hosting Halloween festivities this weekend, as they have been all month. Here's a look at six Halloween theme-park celebrations within easy reach of Washington. If you need overnight accommodations, visit the theme park Web sites listed below; all provide information and links to nearby hotels.
-- Jen Chaney
SIX FLAGS AMERICA, LARGO
Normally, the scariest thing about Six Flags is its mascot Mr. Six, the creepy old guy who busts some decidedly disturbing dance moves in the park's commercials. But in October, those octogenarian horrors are surpassed by Fright Fest, the annual Halloween event at the Prince George's County venue. Haunted houses, spooky magic shows, the Midnight Express Haunted Train and other forms of eerie entertainment supplement the familiar coasters and kiddie rides. Speaking of kiddies, attractions of the less-heart-pounding variety -- including hayrides and a trick-or-treat trail -- are open to young children in the Looney Tunes Spooky Town section. (Keep in mind that Fright Fest rules allow only children no taller than 54 inches to wear costumes, masks and face paint.)
Parents concerned about accidentally inducing nightmares should bring the little ones during daylight hours, which are designated as family-friendly. Once the sun sets, Six Flags goes into super-spooky mode, and that means one of the park's professional zombies could jump out when you least expect it.
Fright Fest at Six Flags (13710 Central Ave., Largo, at Exit 15A off I-495) is open 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, closing Oct. 30. Admission is $39.99 for adults ($32.99 online) and $28.99 for children 54 inches or shorter. 301-249-1500, www.sixflags.com/parks/america/index.asp.
BUSCH GARDENS WILLIAMSBURG
Williamsburg is already pretty haunted by the ghosts of America's founding fathers. But Busch Gardens spooks it up another notch with Howl-o-Scream. In its sixth season, the celebration features five haunted houses, including the new Last Laugh Industries, a factory that manufactures ghastly goods for (gulp) evil clowns. There's also the train ride Jack's Nightmare Express; scare zones such as the Werewolf Reserve and pirate-themed Sea Dog Cemetery; and several Halloween-oriented musical performances.
Each attraction is given a rating -- from one pumpkin (not scary) to five (super-scary) -- so families can decide which options are best-suited for children or, for that matter, squeamish adults. So if Bozo gives you the willies, avoid Last Laugh Industries.
Howl-o-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (One Busch Gardens Blvd., Williamsburg, at Exit 243A off I- 64 east) is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, closing Oct. 30. Admission is $49.95, or $42.95 for children ages 3 to 6. 800-343-7946, www.howl-o-scream.com.
PARAMOUNT'S KINGS DOMINION, DOSWELL, VA.
Want to experience a surreal Halloween moment? Dress your child as SpongeBob SquarePants, then take him trick-or-treating with SpongeBob SquarePants. It can happen during the Halloween-a-thon at Kings Dominion, which hosts kid-friendly Nick-or-Treat during weekend days, then switches to more "sophisticated" scares during the fifth annual FearFest, which begins after dusk. Nickelodeon characters such as that sponge fellow and Dora the Explorer greet guests and parade with dressed-up revelers. (Kids ages 12 and younger can go in costume, but full face paint and masks are prohibited.) A hay maze, Patch the Talking Pumpkin and other treats await in the KidZville area.
Skin not crawling yet? Explore the park's five haunted mazes; a brand-new scare zone called the Curse of Sleepy Hollow; or the gory salute to everyone's favorite hockey-mask-wearing murderer, "Friday the 13th: Jason's Extreme Cuts." A ride on the Rebel Yell might seem soothing by comparison.
Nick-or-Treat and FearFest at Kings Dominion (16000 Theme Park Way, Doswell, Va., at Exit 98 off I- 95) is open 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, closing Oct. 30. Admission is $47.99 ($39.99 if purchased online) for ages 7 to 54, $31.99 for kids 3 to 6 or less than 48 inches tall, $39.99 for ages 55 and older. 804-876-5000, www.kingsdominion.com.
HERSHEYPARK, HERSHEY, PA.
The names of Hersheypark rides sound a little funny these days. As part of the annual Hersheypark in the Dark, nearly 50 attractions are dubbed with Halloween-appropriate monikers: The sooperdooperLooper becomes the sooperBOOperLooper, the Monorail turns into the Mummy Rail and so on. There's nightly trick-or-treating (guess what brand of candy you'll get) and a costume contest on Sunday (online pre-registration encouraged). The adjacent ZooAmerica has Creatures of the Night, a family program that explores animals' nocturnal habits.
Best of all for families on a budget: Admission to the park is free, but patrons must pay as they go for each ride and attraction. Individual tickets are 80 cents, with rides requiring two to six tickets apiece; a ride-all-day wristband costs $24. Sweet.
Hersheypark in the Dark at Hersheypark (100 W. Hersheypark Dr., Hershey, Pa.; follow signs from Interstate 83 north) is open 5 to 11 p.m. Friday, 2 to 11 p.m. Saturday and 2 to 10 p.m. Sunday, closing Oct. 30. Admission free, but you pay for individual rides. 800-437-7439, www.hersheypark.com.
DUTCH WONDERLAND, LANCASTER, PA.
The Pennsylvania Dutch may not come to mind when Halloween is mentioned. But like its sister park in Hershey, Dutch Wonderland -- located near Amish Country -- offers its share of family entertainment during jack-o-lantern days. Among the attractions added for Happy Hauntings: pumpkin painting, storytelling and a Friday-night costume contest for children and families. Here too, the park's rides have been renamed. The Sky Princess? Now the Roller Ghoster.
Happy Hauntings at Dutch Wonderland (2249 Lincoln Hwy. E., Lancaster, Pa.) is open 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, closing Oct. 30. Admission is $14.95 for adults and children 3 and older. 866-386-2839, www.dutchwonderland.com.
SESAME PLACE, LANGHORNE, PA.
Creativity abounds each year at Sesame Place's annual costume contest, to be held this Saturday. Audrey Shapiro, spokewoman for the "Sesame Street"-themed park, says past winners of this competitive Halloween extravaganza -- categories are best girl, best boy and best family -- have included a peacock, a Christmas tree and a girl taking a bubble bath. "One year, a little boy dressed up as a girl, and we thought he was in the wrong contest," Shapiro says. "I think he won."
Also featured: Count Count's Halloween Spooktacular, with hayrides with "Sesame Street" characters, trick-or-treating, a hay maze and the new musical show "Countdown to Halloween."
The Count's Halloween Spooktacular at Sesame Place (100 Sesame Rd., Langhorne, Pa., near Exit 46A off I-95) is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $39.95 for adults and children 2 and older. 215-752-7070, www.sesameplace.com.