A Tale of Two Haunted Hotels!

Haunted Hotel San Diego

We interview Greg DeFatta, previous owner of The Haunted Hotel in Louisville and longtime owner of The Haunted Hotel in San Diego!

Haunted Hotel San Diego

The Haunted Hotel in Louisville, KY was officially made one of the Haunted Attraction Associations’ Top 14 Haunts in 2018 and owner/operator, Kevin Stich, was presented a Board of Director’s Oscare Award at the Transworld Halloween & Attractions Show this year in St. Louis, MO. But Stich wasn’t the original owner of this historic haunt, and in fact there is another Haunted Hotel on the West Coast owned and operated by the Louisville location’s original creators, Greg DeFatta and Robert Bruce. I had the opportunity to sit down recently with DeFatta to reminisce about the wild and woolly early years in Louisville and about his longtime attraction in San Diego.

As it happens, this wasn’t my first interview with DeFatta. We met 25 years ago while I was covering the local Halloween scene for the Louisville Eccentric Observer and the experience was quite literally combustible. As a young journalist, I stood outside the front door of The Haunted Hotel with my handheld cassette recorder asking DeFatta questions about his former experience in the movie and special effects industry when suddenly we were interrupted by a tremendous WHOOSH and the startling vision of a fireball mushroom cloud erupting from behind the eight foot walls of the neighboring outdoor chainsaw maze.

DeFatta leapt into action, grabbing a nearby fire extinguisher and sprinting to the scene of the inferno and I, not wanting to miss the chance for a probably unprintable story, followed close behind. We rounded the corner of the chainsaw maze to find a blazing chainsaw lying on the gravel path and a befuddled chainsaw maniac in a bloody apron with a recently lit cigarette still hanging from his lips. Apparently he had tried to kill two birds with one stone: refueling his running chainsaw while enjoying a quick smoke break between groups. Anyway, DeFatta saved the day, put out the fire and the next group coming through the haunt were blissfully unaware that anything had happened.

Greg DeFatta grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana where he made his first haunted attraction out of refrigerator boxes at 12 years old. “The local CBS affiliate showed up to film us and we made the local news,” he says. “Years later I found myself working as a talent agent in L.A. and was growing tired of that business, so I decided to start three different businesses, one of which was with my longtime business partner, Robert Bruce, and that one was The Haunted Hotel.”

Haunted Hotel San Diego

“I had a friend in Louisville and I knew that the Midwest was the mecca for haunted houses,” he explains. “At that time we figured we could buy a house in Louisville with the budget we had to start up, which you could never afford to do in California. The price of property is astronomical. Unless people are willing to pay $100 per ticket, you have to rent. California is the hardest place in the country to open a haunt, the regulations there are so stringent. We actually helped developed some of the fire codes for haunted attractions there because they didn’t have any at the time, but they have just run away since then. California sets the standard for building codes.”

Haunted Hotel San Diego

DeFatta and Bruce opened The Haunted Hotel in Louisville 27 years ago, and then opened the one in San Diego two years later. “We took the technology we learned working in the movie business and brought it to Louisville,” he recalls. “In our introduction scene, we had a talking ghost projected onto a mask like the singing tombstone busts at Disney’s Haunted Mansion.” Longtime fans of The Haunted Hotel fondly recall many of the creative special effects DeFatta and his crew conjured up for the classic attraction including a number of spectacular illusions: shrunken humans trapped in a bottle, a girl that transforms into a gorilla before guests’ eyes and a turn-of-the-century Pepper’s Ghost illusion. “Our philosophy was that if we don’t scare you, we certainly hope you were entertained.”

“One of the things I took from Louisville back to the West Coast was the idea for a haunted trail,” confesses DeFatta. “I had never seen a haunted trail before I saw Nightmare Forrest in Otter Creek Park. We took that idea to Balboa Park in San Diego in 2000 and it has gone on to be our most successful event.”

“We’ve been very fortunate to have partnered with the state of California for The Haunted Trail of Balboa Park,” says DeFatta, “otherwise we could have never afforded that property. The park appreciates what we have done and sees it as kind of an art piece. Last year we opened with a Krampus building and we made it snow in Balboa Park, and 90% of the locals in San Diego had never seen snow before. They were amazed by it and were trying to catch snowflakes on their tongue!”

This year, The Haunted Trail at Balboa Park celebrates 18 years of haunting and DeFatta & his core build team work year round at designing and creating new props & scenes for the annually changing themes. “I’ve spent more time in Balboa Park than most of the homeless,” he admits.

Haunted Hotel San Diego

“We’ve also been lucky in that about 50 to 70% of our actors return year after year,” says DeFatta, “and retention is one of our biggest challenges because even though minimum wage is higher in California than in other states, it’s so expensive to live there that it’s hard to find people who can work for that kind of wage.”

“What the public probably doesn’t understand when they see huge crowds at haunted attractions on the second or third weekend in October is that an entire year’s worth of work comes down basically to six nights. Then in California we have to deal with wildfires, possible rain outs and even windstorms. We’ve had to close due to the Santa Ana winds before.”

When asked about some of the favorite scenes and/or scares he has ever created he admits, “We’ve done thousands of rooms over the years and it’s hard to pick just a few. There was an Exorcist scene we did where we moved the entire room to really good effect, and we built another rolling room that was constructed to look like a moving subway train full of clowns.”

So what scares a 30 year haunted attraction veteran? “This is a funny story,” DeFatta relates, “When we were working in Hollywood, my business partner, Robert, and his (now) wife and I were invited to the world premiere of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in L.A. We were running late and we ended up in the first row. Suddenly in walks Daryl Hannah and her then boyfriend, Jackson Browne, and she sits right next to me. Now, I had a huge crush on Daryl Hannah at the time and I got so freaked out sitting next to her that I couldn’t even make it through the credits. I had to leave the theater. Nothing has ever freaked me out that way before or since.”

The Haunted Hotel in San Diego celebrates 25 years in the haunted attraction business this year while its Midwest relative in Louisville, KY continues to scare up business in its 27th season.

The Phantom of The Ville

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