David Pumpkins, Tom Hanks’ kooky character from “Saturday Night Live,” is part of Halloween Horror Nights 2023 at Universal parks on both coasts, begging the question: Would Universal ever put more “SNL” in the parks?
The Origin of David S. Pumpkins
Hanks first appeared as David S. Pumpkins when he hosted “SNL” in 2016 on NBC. In a sketch titled “Haunted Elevator,” icons from familiar horror movies scared guests on a theme park attraction. Hanks, dressed in a black suit covered in an all-over print of jack-o’-lantern heads, along with two skeletons (“SNL” cast members Mikey Day and Bobby Moynihan), repeatedly “Rick rolled” the ride, in a manner of speaking.
Rather than scaring riders, David Pumpkins smirked a silly grin as he and his skeleton pals danced to funky music. Naturally, riders were confused as to who David Pumpkins was and how he fit with the rest of the attraction.
“Any questions?” David Pumpkins cryptically asked at the conclusion of his dance. “Yes, several!” one befuddled rider shouted in reply.
David Pumpkins’ Rise to Fame
As with most iconic “SNL” characters, David Pumpkins’ rise to fame began unsuspectingly enough. His first appearance in 2016 was among a lineup of many other sketches, and there was nothing particularly different about its presentation from everything else that aired that evening. In other words, the sketch didn’t beg for attention.
There was also nothing anticipatory about its arrival, and nothing indicated Hanks and the cast were about to perform one of the decade’s most popular “SNL” bits. As is the case with many “SNL” phenomena, there’s no telling what will or won’t stick until the audience responds, and in this case, the writers let the audience discover the comedy for themselves.
David Pumpkins at once became the next beloved “SNL” character. The sketch accrued millions of views on YouTube. Today, it remains in the top 15 most-viewed “SNL” sketches that aired between October 2016 and October 2023, among roughly 1,400 sketches posted to the show’s channel in that time frame. Elsewhere, knock-off David Pumpkins jack-o’-lantern suits filled the Halloween costume pages of Etsy.
NBCUniversal had a hit on its hands. The company soon commissioned a half-hour David Pumpkins animated special, which aired in 2017 and starred Hanks as the lead voiceover. In 2022, Hanks returned for a sequel sketch. During the “SNL” episode hosted by Jack Harlow, David Pumpkins’ surprise appearance was met with uproarious applause.
David Pumpkins at Halloween Horror Nights
Putting its corporate synergy to work, NBCUniversal recently conjured up another venue for David Pumpkins: Halloween Horror Nights 2023. When guests arrived to the haunt event at both Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood, they discovered David S. Pumpkins, live and in-person, roaming Peacock’s Halloween Horror Bar.
Rather than holding a formal meet & greet, David Pumpkins wanders around, the same ear-to-ear grin plastered upon his face as he poses the query, “Any questions?” Of course, the man isn’t Hanks himself, but he channels Hanks as David Pumpkins in his voice and body language.
For those in attendance who aren’t in on the joke, the character is life imitating art. It’s essentially a real-life version of the very sketch itself. “Who is this random dude and why is he telling people he’s gonna scare the hell out of them?” an uninformed guest might wonder.
The concept is admittedly so ready-made for a theme park, even without being a ride as it was on “SNL,” that one might ponder how it didn’t happen sooner (and while NBC.com points out David Pumpkins did appear in the Bill & Ted show during 2017’s HHN, that’s quite a different beast altogether).
Taking these musings further, one also might wonder if Universal is paying close attention to guest responses to this character interaction — not to assess how to further implement David Pumpkins into the parks, but to consider how to infuse one of its most legendary, underutilized assets: “Saturday Night Live” itself.
Universal is Sitting on a Goldmine of “Saturday Night Live” Characters
“Intellectual property” is an all-important buzz phrase in our current era of entertainment. This is evidenced, among many other instances, in the new additions Universal debuted on both coasts this year. California opened Super Nintendo World, steeped in the lore of a video game franchise that hasn’t stopped telling new stories for four decades. Meanwhile, Florida welcomed Minion Land, whose source material is five movies deep, and counting.
Universal frequently partners with other studios to create attractions based on non-Universal IP. Nintendo is a prime example, as is Harry Potter. Surely, though, the company would love to find ways in its parks to extend the life of stories within its own catalog.
So, which iconic stories (or, when viewed through a business lens, “lucrative franchises”) has Universal not leveraged much in its parks? “Shrek” and DreamWorks Animation as a whole come to mind. That will soon change, though, with the re-imagined land replacing Woody Woodpecker’s Fun Zone at Universal Studios Florida and the expected “How to Train Your Dragon” land at Epic Universe. “The Office” also remains hugely popular, even a decade after its final episode aired, and may be another fair contender. That selection, though, would come with its share of challenges.
There’s another NBCUniversal IP, though, that has proven itself as a wellspring of popular culture relevance for nearly five decades: “Saturday Night Live.” This hallowed institute has been the birthplace of countless hilarious brought to life by generations of comedians at the onset of their stratospheric careers — or, in David Pumpkins’ case, by already-legendary guest stars willing to get a little silly for the sake of comedy.
Ideating an “SNL” Attraction at Universal Parks
A theoretical “SNL” theme park attraction could take on one of several forms.
More walk-around characters like David Pumpkins
- Why: A troupe of “SNL” personalities could be a vibrant addition to Universal. Perhaps the characters could function in the style of Disney’s former Citizens of Hollywood (pictured below).
- Challenges: The actors’ likenesses and impressions of well-known stars could present casting hurdles. Then again, guests already interact with live-action characters at Universal, like Doc Brown and Marilyn Monroe.
A comedy club emulating Studio 8H, featuring live performances recreating familiar “SNL” sketches
- Why: For many fans, watching an “SNL” show in Studio 8H would be just as euphoric as stepping into Hogwarts is for Harry Potter fans.
- Challenges: It would be awfully difficult to not compare the actors’ performances, no matter how good, to the familiar source material. Perhaps these comparisons could be dissolved by treating the experience as an audience participation show. Think in the style of Universal Orlando’s Horror Makeup Show (below). No one would expect a guest with no acting experience to be on the level of professional television personalities. As a bonus, the behind-the-scenes nature would be a throwback to the shows of Universal parks’ early days.
A permanent attraction taking place in 30 Rockefeller Center, the building in New York City from which “SNL” broadcasts
- Why: Like “SNL,” “The Tonight Show” films in 30 Rock. This building is the setting of Race Through New York starring Jimmy Fallon (below). Universal could re-imagine that attraction as an “SNL” experience. Alternatirvely, they could combine it with other NBC productions filmed in the building, like “The Today Show” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
- Challenges: tbh, not seeing many flaws with this one. It could work, people!
The Multigenerational Power of “SNL”
By design, “SNL” constantly changes. YouTuber Drew Gooden hypothesized that “SNL” has always been the same level of funny. That is to say, quite funny indeed. However, Gooden continued, viewers tend to compare each year’s newest season to supposed former glory days simply because the new material is unfamiliar.
Lorne Michaels, creator of “SNL” and executive producer for 44 of its 49 seasons to date, affirmed this sentiment. Author Alison Castle interviewed Michaels in “Saturday Night Live: The Book,” published in 2015 by Taschen and designed by Pentagram. Michaels used the 1994-1995 season as an example. That year, the cast had added newcomers Will Ferrel and Cheri Oteri. Michaels said the season “wasn’t treated well” at the time, but “now, you know, it’s beloved.”
These observations lead to an underlying thesis: “SNL” is multigenerational, with five decades of different eras all unique. In some ways, this makes it challenging to adapt into a theme park attraction. It more strongly, though, makes “SNL” an advantageous asset for Universal — one that the parks greatly underutilize.
With a smart, strategic focus in the type of attraction built and curation of characters, an “SNL” addition at Universal parks could appeal to a wide-ranging demographic of multiple age groups.
David Pumpkins’ character greeting at Halloween Horror Nights may be just that, and nothing else. More “SNL” in theme parks is the farthest concept from Universal’s future plans. Still, with David Pumpkins the company dips their toes in the “SNL” waters. This indicates Universal is willing to, like Hanks himself, get a little silly.