On select nights starting in September, something terrifying happens at night at Universal Studios theme parks. Universal turns into a scream park, known for the last 29 years as Halloween Horror Nights – with haunted houses, horrifying mutants, monsters and maniacs abound. HHN runs through November 2nd at Orlando and November 3rd for Hollywood this year.
Let’s talk about what a thrilling, adrenaline, and fist in the air good time this spooky spectacular this annual event truly is.
For those that have never been to HHN, it is an evening of nightly of horrors through the parks and backlot Studios of both Universal Studios Hollywood and Orlando resorts, as well as Singapore and Japan. By day, the parks operate as normal. By night, the parks are transformed into a Satanic wet dream. While at a separate admission cost (or added on to regular park admission), a ticket to HHN gives you entry to at least nine terrifying haunted houses, multiple creature-filled scare zones, and access to many of the park’s most exciting rides and attractions. HHN is a world-class horror experience, backed by Universal Studios and crafted by some of the most twisted minds in the horror industry. Here Hollywood's biggest and most recognizable icons of horror come to life, as well as some completely original haunts. Through award-winning make-ups, special effects, and detailed sets/mazes, you are transported into a truly frightening world of horror. You are guaranteed a frightful time.
THE HAUNTED HOUSES
Universal Orlando has quite the line-up this year with haunted houses inspired by iconic franchises such as Ghostbusters, Stranger Things, Us, House of 1000 Corpses, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and more. As well as ORIGINAL content mazes Depths of Fear, Graveyard Games, and Yeti Terror of the Yukon. All are spine-tingling and dread-inducing to various degrees.
Each of these themed mazes/houses is situated throughout the back-lot production studios at Universal Studios (the actual studios of Universal). Each attraction varies in length and scares, but all offer life-like recreations and familiar imagery from horror properties in which they're inspired. The attention to detail cannot be overstated.
Each house is very much like a very carefully crafted story conveyed through set pieces and main characters, and interaction. Faithfully crafted sets, familiar music + soundtracks played throughout, and the intense lighting creates a heart-pumping experience that puts you in a very real horror-survival experience straight outta the movies.
Take for example the Ghostbusters attraction.
It is a walk-through of all pivotal scenes and characters from the ‘80s classic, offering an experience that packs in just as much nostalgic joy as it does thrills, all set to the movie’s iconic soundtrack. From a Janine Melnitz look-alike scrambling to answer calls to a holographic Gray Lady ghost haunting the New York City Public Library, and a showdown with Gozer the Gozerian in large scale. Universal provides every detail a die-hard fan of the paranormal could ever want. And watch out for Slimer. Of all the things, it’s this floating spud that will get your ass and give you a heart attack.
Ghostbusters is just one of the haunted houses and mazes inspired by beloved TV shows and films at Halloween Horror Nights on both coasts. "Us" brings scarlet-colored jumpsuits and gilded scissors to experiences themed after Jordan Peele’s horror masterpiece while “Stranger Things” reprises its supernatural walk-through and “Killer Klowns From Outer Space" delivers ‘80s carnival charm.
As for the scares themselves. The sick creative minds at Universe have had almost 30 years of experience and perfecting the psychology and methods behind immersive storytelling and the art of the scare. They are absolute masters at misdirection and getting people when their guard is down, specifically designing their mazes and elaborate set pieces to exploit every opportunity. In other words, screams and scares are virtually assured.
Walking into HHN at night, attendees are immediately confronted with an atmospheric, dark, horror-centric vibe with eery lighting and pulse-pounding (horror themes or metal) music. There is such visceral and primal energy that makes you completely forget that this is a family-friendly park during the day time.
Keeping guests on their toes, are multiple Scare Zones that permeate all areas of the Park, each with a different theme. In the zones are elaborate structures to go along with the theme – such as Zombieland Double Tap that puts you in the middle of Zombieland USA with blood thirsty zombies everywhere and Rob Zombies Hillbilly Deluxe where you encounter otherworldly beings and brutal maniacs whiles Rob Zombie pulse-pounding music blasts your eardrums. Or how about Anar-cade (ABOVE), an '80s inspired scare zone with oversize arcades and neon slashers out to make a permanent "Game Over".
None of these scare zones are nearly as scary as the haunted houses themselves but they are moody open settings that keep the horror/party vibe pumping. And a ghoul/monster or chainsaw-wielding sicko will startle you if you're not paying attention.
The screams featured at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights come to life in a whole new way with the debut of the nighttime lagoon show, Halloween Marathon of Mayhem. Giant water screens highlight iconic horror scenes, accented with more than 100 fountains, awesome special effects, pounding electro music, lasers and more all bring this all-new experience to life. It is an absolutely stunning spectacle and completely invokes the emotional appeal that these franchises mean to fans.
There's also Academy of Villains stage show, that puts on a high-energy mixed media performance with dancing, acrobatics, and other wild antics. HHN can be emotionally and physically exhausting (a lot of walking!). Enjoying this hard-rock/hip-hop/horror ballet is a great way to get off your butt for a hot minute.
Universal runs a lot of its regular rides, such as Revenge of The Mummy, Rip Rocket Coaster, Transformers The Ride: 3D Men In Black Alien Attack, and The Simpson Ride. The wait times for these are almost always minimal, maybe 10-20 minutes. Definitely, a great way to take refuge from all the chest grabbing scares. The Rip Rocket, in particular, is a chest-thumping good time. The perfect ride to start the night off to get you feeling even more pumped!
TICKETING AND FAST PASS
A General Admission Ticket cost of $104.99 is not unreasonable for the plethora of haunts and rides an attendee has access to. And let me emphasis that - No event crams as much experience and discovery in one evening as Halloween Horror Nights does!
However, adding an additional $89.99 to $139.99 atop of that (depending on the night. dates in October get increasingly more expensive, particularly on the weekends) for FAST PASS per person can be damper on the wallet. But make no mistake. Fast Passes are ABSOLUTELY needed. Without FP, lines can be upward to 90 minutes (sometimes longer). Particularly if it's a more popular maze/house like Ghost Busters or Stranger Things. Yo, 90 minutes - That’s the average length of a movie! Park is only open 7pm-2pm. You do the math. With FP, lines are (typically) never longer than 30 minutes. Get the Fast Pass.
Pilfering the wallet further, there are the optional Behind-The-Scene Tour and Private/VIP Tours which well exceed $100.00 on their own. I’m not the child of an oil baron, so I’ve never done these tours and cannot speak to them. But they are a privileged, 1st class way of experiencing the park or so I am told. Some might argue the VIP tour is the only sure way to get in all Haunted Mazes and Scare Zones and more.
Too many damn people! As HHN continues to grow in popularity, so does the thousands of people that attend each night. For Universal, that’s a good problem to have. For an attendee (with anxiety issues) it’s VERY overwhelming having hordes of people covering almost every inch of the park. Piggybacking off that complaint, is how those droves of people encumber the experience of the haunted houses. There are no gaps or staggering between parties or groups. It’s just an endless moving line, front to back. Key scares are spoiled when screams are shed from people directly front and further ahead of you. Not sure what more Universal can do to better this. Regardless, going on a weeknight and earlier in the season is recommended.
Another quibble to the volume of people is the issue with security within the haunted houses. There are personnel at every section where there are performing actors. While dressed in black and placed in off-center areas, they are easily noticeable and huge giveaway that there is an upcoming fright. I wish there was a better way to conceal them.
Umbrage with crowds and security aside, the only other real gripe anyone could have with HHN is Universal's lack of innovation. It's hard to criticize Universal when they produce such carefully detailed houses that truly make you feel like you're surviving a horror movie. Yet, there is a level of sameness and repetitiveness that starts to take hold as you make your way from house to house. HHN is sure as shit anything but boring but loud music and jump scares only work for so long. There is a missing component of interaction, gags, and unique technologies to create those lasting WOW moments. Personally, I did most of the mazes and sans a burnt marshmallow smell from Mr Stay Puff in Ghostbusters that wafted in the air, and pushing a red button in Killer Klowns that squirted water on me, I can't remember much else from the other houses. The experiences all sorta bleed together.
IS IT WORTH IT?
HELL YEAH it is! Halloween Horror Nights is the very best thing that happens in a theme park, and it is THE reason to go to Orlando in the fall. It's a perfect encapsulation of what a higher end theme park should be: all the appeal of amusement park, with the wildly ambitious creative vision that a big old' budget can bring in. It's spooky, high octane, ridiculously fun, best experienced with a few people who you like and feel comfortable clutching in fear and delight, and a hell of a way to spend an evening.
For dates, rates, and more information head on to the official Halloween Horror Nights website