Earlier in the year when planning my yearly family trip, my wife Cheryl and I were very excited that we once again convinced my brother to come down from New York. A lot of my Disney memories are tied up in the time my brother and I spent in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot when we were younger. However as he grew older he grew away from Disney a bit. In recent years we’ve managed to pull him back in and get him hooked all over again. Right now, outside of his cat, his greatest love is definitely the Hollywood Tower of Terror.
There was however a catch this year. My brother decided that he absolutely had to try Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando. Now most people reading this, like myself, are primarily going to Disney World and occasionally, or maybe never, going to Universal. Many who come down during October though have probably gone to a Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. And you’re probably wondering just what exactly goes on during a Halloween Horror Night? How scary it actually is? etc.
Horror Nights only take place in Universal Studios not Islands of Adventure. On these nights USF closes at 5pm. If you’re already in the park and staying for HHN you may make your way to the designated holding pen. All other guests will be swept from the park by 6pm. If you are outside USF you will not be allowed into the park until almost 7pm as HHN technically runs from 7pm through Midnight. Guests arriving just for the event will be subject to metal detectors and wanding in addition to bag scans.
However, if you’re inside the holding pen in the park you will get to start the night almost an hour earlier. At around 6pm all guests in the holding pen will be directed to make their way to through a Haunted House. Afterward you will be free to begin roaming around the park again. Now not everything will be active at this time, but most of the Haunted Houses will be – Scare Zones, being outside, come online once the sun has set. On a Horror Nights you can also visit a limited selection of rides, walk through a haunted pumpkin patch, watch an illusions show, and the infamous Bill & Ted show.
I think the ride situation is a failure on the part of Universal. Only 4 rides were actually opened: The Simpsons, Men in Black, Jaws, and Revenge of the Mummy. However, they make no effort to tell you this until they hand out the special HHN maps while you are in the holding pen, so you don’t necessarily know enough to skip these rides during the day. Though I probably could have solved that with a bit of research. In the end, when we were finding that the Haunted House lines had crept up to an hour, we decided to ride Simpsons again – really one of the most entertaining rides at USF.
The theming on the Haunted Houses was sometimes good and sometimes bad. All were definitely scary, but I tend to find horror more whimsical as my separation of reality is very good. Of the six that we saw (there were eight total), two of them really stood out to me. The first was called “The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes”, which was themed around a pyrokinetic girl named Cindy who had devastated the orphanage where she lived. The smell of fire, and walking through burning hallways was really well done. And the creatures inside were amalgams of children and toys – really creepy.
The second one that stood out to me was “Havoc: Dogs of War”. You are walking through the remnants of a military super-soldier program that, while successful, has turned it’s subjects into killing machines. I liked this one a lot because the building is falling apart on the inside and there’s a lot of wires and and other objects that you need to walk through and push out of the way. It made the experience much more interactive, and also helped obscure the “bad guys” who are trying to scare you.
As this was the 20th Halloween Horror Nights, there was a special retrospective Haunted House called “Horror Nights: The Hallow’d Past”. It wasn’t particularly good, but what bears mentioning was the first few rooms which were pure fun house to the point where it was quite clear to anyone who had ever been there that they were paying homage to the old and now departed Mystery Fun House that was a favorite attraction in Central Florida for many years.
Haunted Houses have two rules. First, you can take any pictures you want outside of a Haunted House, but you are not allowed to use any recording devices inside one. Second is that while you may touch components of the houses (walls, objects, etc.) you are not allowed to touch anything alive or “undead” inside of a Haunted House and they are no allowed to touch you, but you can get as close as you like within those limitations.
It’s important to note that Universal does not allow any costumes at this event. This goes for make-up as well. If you show up in either you will be barred from entry into the park. In previous years, on Halloween itself, they allowed costumes for a costume contest, but the restrictions were excessive. People in costume were not allowed entry into the Haunted Houses and had to be Florida residents, among other restrictions. They do provide a location to get your face painted once you are in the park, for a price.
Scare Zones are outdoors. And generally a lot more fun then the Haunted Houses. For starters, they have no lines and they’re out doors. And overall, the people in them are having a much better time. There were six Scare Zones, and they were all very easy to find, and get through. You can have hands on opportunities with the characters including posing for photographs. Some of the characters are quite entertaining.
My brother an I particularly enjoyed “Saws n’Steam” which was a steam filled alleyway filled with butchers with chainsaws, bonecrackers, and other similar implements. Even though you know they’re not real, the noise from those saws will make anyone jump. We also enjoyed “Zombie Gras” because the players were very clever in how they moved through the crowd to scare people – sometimes hiding in a group of people only to pop out at an unsuspecting guest walking in the opposite direction.
My brother an I weren’t very keen on watching the “Brian Brushwood: Menace and Malice” illusionist show, so we skipped it. Instead we went to see “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure”. This is a show that I will tell you up front, do not bring your children to – it’s really not kid friendly. From what I can tell each year Bill & Ted attempt to put on a show as Wyld Stallyns, and the show gets disrupted by some bad guy, often Dr. Evil. Bill & Ted then have to assemble the greatest pop culture heroes of the current year to help them win the day and defeat the bad guy. This year however they pointed out how terrible and inept the heroes were, with the exception of Hit-Girl who steals the show.
Overall, while my brother and I had a good time, mostly it was because we got to spend the time alone with each other. We both decided that we would not spend money to do Halloween Horror Nights again – though I’d do it if someone else was paying. In general, it just wasn’t worth the money and for the most part it seemed that the event was “phoned in” by Universal. There is simply just so much more they could do to plus the event, but instead they just have long stretches inside the park where literally nothing is going on. They should have two to three times the number of Scare Zones to help with this.
Also the length of the waits on the Haunted Houses really got out of control. Climbing to 60 minutes after we went through our third one. Had they opened 2 or 3 more rides in key areas, like Terminator and Shrek, which are not near the Haunted Houses they would have been managing the crowds much better as these would pull people away from the Haunted Houses bringing the times down.
With that said, all of the makeup and costuming is top notch, even if some of the “sets” needed some better work. My favorite scare moment of the night was actually in the very first Haunted House we went through “Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate” (a Ghost Hunters spoof) there was one parlor you walk by and I could clearly see the guy inside, but I wanted to get a good look at the room. So I moved up to peer over this chair when all of the sudden the lights flash and the chair is standing up in front of me with it’s “face” about an inch from mine.
If you do go, I’d plan on leaving the kids at home. It’s just not worth it, I didn’t see anything they’d enjoy other than the few rides that were open, and those could certainly be covered during the day on a regular park pass. There is also no special pricing for children – they will pay the same amount for the event as an adult. And I didn’t see anyone younger than a teenager during the event, not even a stroller.
What about you? Have you ever been to Halloween Horror Nights? What did you think? Would you spend money to go back? What did you like best? Least? If you could pick one thing to make HHN better, what would it be? Totally Boo.