OCEAN CITY — An animatronic skeleton in a ragged tuxedo breaks into a rendition of “Thriller,” rattles off pun-laden jokes to a nearby talking buffalo head, and occasionally spits water on unsuspecting patrons outside Haunted Golf.
Local mini-golf magnate Mark Benevento explained the thought — and money — that went into making “Bones,” whose skits were recorded by a New York production crew.
“That’s what’s going to bring people in,” said Benevento, who spent six months and more than $600,000 building his latest course, which opened July 3. “There are 13 mini-golf courses on the Ocean City Boardwalk. This is the sizzle out front.”
In the business, this is dubbed the “call to action,” beckoning customers who have hundreds of places to spend their money.
And it has become a hallmark for Benevento, 53, of Somers Point, owner of seven mini-golf courses at five locations in Ocean City, Avalon and Sea Isle City — with looming pirate ships and melodious primates.
His latest venture is Haunted Golf, combining shore attractions mini-golf and a haunted house.
Benevento, also a partner at Greate Bay Country Club in Somers Point, said building a course is about drawing people in, and captivating them once inside.
He worked with longtime golf course supervisor Harry Kent to add “Disney-style” haunted flairs with comedic twists that wind through the 5,000-square-foot, 18-hole indoor course.
The theme follows the storyline of a golfer crashing a wedding in a haunted hotel. In a hallway, a door with no handle rattles.
In the grand ballroom, a ghoulish piano player belts out dance songs as spirits pop out from the piano lid. Lightning flashes through a window, and spooks arise from a 50-inch screen inside an old fireplace.
The animatronics — about 15 in all — run off an air compressor.
Among them is Rose, a sweet-talking rhinoceros head on a wall in a trophy room. In the adjoining room is Rose’s derriere, from where with the shake of her tail a gust of rose-scented wind wafts down.
In the honeymoon suite, the entire room looks as if it is tilted 90 degrees. The furniture is attached to a wall, which is the floor of the suite.
Most of the customers here are children and their families. The course could not be scary, he said.
“If we scare the death out of the kids, we wouldn’t have any customers. We don’t want to scare people. We want people to come here for the golf and haunt experience,” he said.
Benevento had to nix a few spooks, including one after the second day of operation. A fake electric panel sparked as if it were shorting out, a gag so realistic the fire alarm was pulled twice in two days.
“After the first hour we opened up, there were 100 people in the place, someone saw the spark and pulled the fire alarm,” Benevento said. “We had firemen in there with axes. We thought someone pulled it as a prank. But then it happened the next day, and we said we’re going to have to disassemble it. It’s too realistic.”
In the mini-golf business for nearly 30 years, Benevento owns three Pirate Island Golf courses with business partner Pat Croce, all featuring gigantic pirate ships. He also owns Congo Falls in Ocean City, home to animatronic gorillas.
Benevento said the Haunted Golf idea came while golfing with his teenage son at a North Jersey course that used black lights.
“I thought it was corny, how could I make this cool?” he said.
The popularity of Halloween also influenced him.
The National Retail Federation estimated that Americans would spend nearly $7 billion for Halloween last year, with average per-person spending growing from less than $50 in 2005 to $72 last year.
“People like Halloween, and mini-golf — we know that business. So we thought, why not put those two together and make an unbelievable experience,” Benevento said.
Two golfers, Dan and Mary Giannelli, of Allentown, Pa., said they enjoyed the experience.
“My favorite part was the pictures on the wall, how their faces changed. It’s well done, and tastefully done,” she said. “It’s not too scary for the little ones.”
Haunted attractions, once a longtime staple of shore tourism, have been resurging in recent years.
Zombie House opened on the Ocean City Boardwalk earlier this year. Last year, Morbid Manor opened at the Sportland Pier in North Wildwood. In 2010, Morey’s Piers opened the Ghost Ship on Mariner’s Landing Pier in Wildwood.
Benevento, who grew up in Bergen County, moved to the region to work as a blackjack dealer and run a boardwalk cannoli and water ice stand. At 27, he built his first miniature golf course in Ocean City, spending $40,000 for plans, which he didn’t use.
“I realized I had a knack for designing mini-golf courses. We were under construction, we started tweaking things and we got rolling,” he said.
Benevento has taken that approach to his other golf courses, where the concepts can be altered during construction, and after.
Adding small details is critical, he said, although he acknowledges that some go unnoticed.
“No, but that’s what brings people back,” he said.
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