Umpenhour family brings ambitious thrills to Florida Agricultural Museum
Between the bare plot of earth where the pumpkins had yet to be lain and the barn where busy hands were laying traps for unwary visitors, a pale horse stood cropping the dead grass and thrumming like a tractor.
The horse, not Death’s, was named Roxy, and the real tractors were not far away, just some of the machines lying in wait for Friday, Oct. 18, when the Florida Agricultural Museum will welcome the community for the first weekend of Holler-Ween Fest 2019, sponsored by Charles Umpenhour Inc.
“We’ve had people come out peeing and throwing up. Or not being able to come out of it at all.”
CUI is a real estate company, and the prime Holler-Ween real estate at the museum (known to employees as “the Ag”) consists of three farm buildings and a trail that loops away from them and into the woods, around the Old Florida Museum site that preserves exhibits from the days of Spanish colonization. As sometimes happens with real estate, these are all being renovated.
First: the big barn. Or, as it will be called come Oct. 18 the Slaughterhouse.
The dark, graffiti-stained wooden panels, yet to be spray-painted solid black, were being sawn into even lengths during festival prep, bolted together to form the walls of a maze, carried into the barn to embellish its rustic interior with dead ends and sharp turns. The black surfaces will be perfect for projectors to cast horrible faces and seething swarms of rats. But the freestanding ones forming the maze outside still need to be reinforced — in case people slam into them in their rush to escape, John Umpenhour, father of Charles, explained. He was overseeing the day’s progress on the Slaughterhouse, and had maps to consult in arranging the walls, doors and hiding places for the costumed actors waiting to steal precious heartbeats from their customers.
“You try to make it so they’re not just sitting around,” he said, “holding up the world.”
Hundreds of painful hours
The eldest Umpenhour had become as invested in this annual carnival of terror as the rest of the family, for Holler-Ween is every bit a family project.
Next door, Tracy Umpenhour, wife of Charles, and daughters Lauren and Savannah were nailing up gauzy cobwebs inside the granary, which would serve as the fairy tale-themed House of Friendly Frights, for kids and cowards; no scare actors, only spooky lights and an animatronic wolf lurking within.
“We try and have something for everyone,” Tracy Umpehnour said. Past years had earned Holler-Ween comparisons to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. “We’ve had people come out peeing and throwing up. Or not being able to come out of it at all.”
An endeavor of this magnitude takes a monstrous amount of planning even before the manual labor begins. Planning starts in July, building in August.
“Hundreds and hundreds of painful hours,” said Savannah Umpenhour. “Every year we want it to be better than the year before. What is new, what is different, what hasn’t been done before, how can we make it happen?”
“We usually work from 9 to 3,” said volunteer and friend of the family Michael Safarty. No graveyard shifts for this crew.
The dairy barn will host the Boo Bash, the games, vendors and local bands, but had yet to be converted; it was being used for a birthday party at the moment.
The tractor-driven Forbidden Forest trail ride, carrying patrons through outdoor scare zones, is even more technologically ambitious than the Slaughterhouse with its sensors and security cameras; Tristan Umpenhour said they plan for the trailers to boast automatic sound triggered via geolocation in the future.
Aside from the tractors donated by John Deere, Charles Umpenhour said he owns 90% of the equipment used for Holler-Ween, from the nearly 20 amplifiers providing sound throughout the venue to the blacklights illuminating the paintball gallery where customers can take aim at live (padded) targets.
All for the Ag
This is his company’s third year coordinating the entire event, and their 10th in the big barn. All the proceeds taken in from the 800 or so customers they can see on a busy night go to the museum.
“I want to preserve the Ag,” he said. “Preserving the history of that is very important.”
Local businesses donate hundreds of pizzas, pastries and cases of water for the volunteers who come to help manage the event. Umpenhour said they will usually start out with around 50 volunteers at minimum, but the number will balloon to as many as 150 by the event’s second weekend.
“People want to come back and keep doing it because they enjoy it,” Savannah Umpenhour.
“It’s something that I do with my family,” Charles Umpenhour said. “We have a good time, we even scare ourselves.”
But mostly their visitors. For the past nine years, in fact, Charles Umpenhour had saved himself a premier spot in the Holler-Ween cast: the lunatic wielding a sputtering chainsaw, waiting outside the Slaughterhouse maze to chase his hapless victims to the next attraction.