Franklin - Zombies have eaten Mike Zimmerman's life.
The local businessman, who is transforming the former Crystal Ridge ski and recreation area into The Rock, a multi-sport recreation haven, first must deal with Halloween.
Seeing a business opportunity - an idea sparked by his brother, Joe - Zimmerman and company is presenting "The Hill Has Eyes," a haunting experience that takes advantage of the local terrain and the location's former uses.
The experience weaves fact and fiction into three separate parts.
True, Crystal Ridge was developed as a ski hill on a landfill. For the purposes of the Halloween experience, the story is that it is a nuclear waste dump. True, there are a number of abandoned, vehicles, including a mobile home trailer. The story is that those objects are the last vestiges of a small community where its inhabitants turned into radiation-decimated mutants.
Reality check: Never mind that the trailer actually once served for a time as the real home of a land squatter.
The haunted journey first takes participants through "Failed Escape," a land of mutants who use the wooded area as their refuge. Though they will be warned not to go there by an escort, participants will walk through a creepy junkyard pathway that includes Mack Trucks, autos and homemade shelters before entering the woods. Those who brave the challenge are warned not to fall victim to possible capture, torture and cannibalism.
The second part of the journey reveals those people who failed to escape. As victims' souls are kept hostage, their hollow bodies roam without purpose or direction as they waver between harmlessness and hostility.
A third and final part of the journey takes the truly bravest participants on a ride on the old ski lift to the top of the hill. There, they will encounter what is described as "a maze with more surprises."
Why not now?
The project came together one day when the Zimmerman brothers were discussing a possible Halloween haunt for next year.
"Joe just said, 'Next year? Why not do it this year?' " Mike said. "We jumped on it and got very busy. Joe has taken the lead in putting this together over the past six weeks."
With little experience except as an avid visitor to haunted attractions, Joe briefly tapped the services of a Florida-based "hauntrepreneur" who gave him some advice.
"We wanted to incorporate some things that we have experienced at other attractions, but we also wanted to take advantage of what this site has to offer," Joe said. "It's been a lot of work, but we expect it to be successful."
The Zimmerman brothers pointed out that they have learned what works and what doesn't through a soft opening for hundreds of family members and friends. They hope to attract thousands more, but they will send customers through in small groups.
"They told us they really liked it, but they wanted our characters to not just jump out and go 'boo,' " Joe said.
In fact, two lead actors with experience are training a band of 50 to be as creepy as possible as they play out their roles amid a host of horrific inanimate objects.
Javen Smith, a Racine native who has studied acting and music, is one of the leads.
"I thought this would be a fun experience, and it is," Smith said. "We really work as hard as we can to make the entire experience look real."
He said it takes practice to be a member of the walking dead or another creepy character.
Want to 'hang around?'
"The Hill Has Eyes" also features a place for participants to gather before and after their three-part journey. A tent for beverages and two fire pits will help separate age groups. It's all part of a "PG-13" rating that requires anyone under the age of 13 to be accompanied by an adult.
"We want to make this a destination for people and not just a quick visit," said Alison Graettinger, marketing director for The Rock.
Graettinger and Mike Zimmerman said Halloween is a good opportunity to introduce people to The Rock, which eventually will include a potpourri of sports venues including baseball diamonds as well as winter activities for all ages.
WHAT:The Hill Has Eyes
WHERE:7900 Crystal Ridge Road, Franklin
WHEN: starting at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12-13, 19-20 and 25-27
COST: $23 per person, includes all three haunts
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