In just a few days, on Friday September 20, the 23rd annual edition of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights will open its zombie-filled gates to the hordes of gore-hungry fans who have made HHN the nation’s most popular and industry-awarded haunted theme park event.
Originally a locals-friendly filler during a normally slow season, Universal Studios Florida’s Halloween celebration has grown so famous that the 27 event nights between 9/20 and 11/2 will provide a sizable percentage of USF’s annual attendance statistics. Much like visiting any of Orlando’s theme parks during a peak holiday season, an evening at HHN can be tremendous fun if you go in with a solid plan and sane expectations; without those things…well, you might be better off eaten by zombies…
Every year, Universal’s creative designers shake up the event, so it’s impossible to predict exactly how things will play out until opening weekend has passed, and even then operational tweaks will continue to be made throughtout October. However, after years of experience with HHN (I’ve attended every edition since 1996) we can make some educated guesses towards a preliminary touring plan for tackling Universal’s elaborate (and infamously long-queued) haunted mazes.
Before beginning, make sure Universal’s brand of Halloween is right for you; this ain’t Mickey’s Not-So-Scary. If the idea of copious blood, guts, and booze doesn’t appeal, I advise staying far, far away. Needless to say, it is not appropriate for young children, though you will likely see many there. to give you an idea of what is in store, watch this sneak-preview of one of this year’s hottest haunted houses, followed by a presentation for Universal’s Asst. Director of Creative Development Mike Aiello detailing this year’s themes:
Touring Plans will be attending Orlando’s HHN frequently this year to refine our visiting advice, but until then this step-by-step guide should suffice for helping you survive the debut weekend.
1. Pick the right night.
Even more so than daytime touring, a successful HHN visit requires careful date selection. In short, avoid all Saturdays (especially 10/5 through 10/26) like the plague. Fridays in October aren’t much better. Wednesday nights are usually the least crowded, followed by Thursdays and Sundays. The last three nights of the event should also be relatively quiet, especially Halloween night itself.
2. Buy a pass in advance.
If you walk up to the box-office on the night of the event, you’ll pay $91.99 — a frightening sum for a little as 5-1/2 hours in the park — and likely wait in a ridiculously long line for the privilege. Instead, study the myriad online ticket options in advance and purchase before you leave home.
Deep discounts (up to $49 off) are offered online to Florida and Georgia residents with coupon codes from Coca-Cola cans or Burger King cups. If you aren’t eligible for those, consider getting an annual pass, which entitles you to even deeper price breaks and early event entry during Passholder parties on select nights.
Finally, if you are a hard-core haunt fan and spending more than a night in the area, you’ll want a Frequent Fear (valid every Sunday through Thursday event night, with Fridays optional) or Rush of Fear (valid every event night through 10/6) multi-day pass.
3. Consider Universal’s HHN Express Pass
Universal Orlando’s paid line-skipping service is a welcome luxury during the day, but an absolute lifesaver at night. On peak HHN nights, queues for the haunted houses will approach 3 hours, and even on the slowest nights they will hit 60 minutes. HHN Express passes reduce that wait to between 1/4 and 1/2 of what it would otherwise be, which can make the difference between experiencing 2 or 3 houses in a night, or visiting 7 or 8. The only catch is that Express starts at $50 per person, and goes up to $100 depending on the night. Express is also available as an add-on for multi-night passes.
If you’re really flush, and fed up with any kind of queue, an RIP guided tour will whisk you to the head of every line for only $110 and up, admission not included. When money is no object and you want to feel like a VIP, the tours are highly recommended.
4. Arrive as early as possible.
The event starts each evening at 6:30 p.m., but you’ll want to be at the park gates, ticket in hand, a minimum of 45 minutes before then (even earlier on peak nights). That way you’ll be among the first through the security checkpoints (which can slow entry down for latecomers) and get a good view of the gate-opening performance rumored to be returning this year.
Better yet, be in the park before it opens for the evening and get a jump on the guests outside the gates. The park closes to daytime guests at 5 p.m. on event nights, but anyone holding a ticket for that night’s HHN is allowed to remain inside the park in designated holding areas. You can access this opportunity if you have an annual pass, or purchase a Scream Early ticket to enter Universal Studios Florida between 3 and 5 p.m.
Those remaining in the park are generally confined to either the New York area near Finnegan’s bar, or the KidZone section near E.T.. The KidZone holding area features priority access to the first haunted houses that should open each evening, and is the recommended place to stay; New York is closer to the popular soundstage houses, and offers alcohol for sale, but guests there are often released too late to have much advantage over those entering from the front gates.
5. Begin visiting the haunted houses in reverse order.
The majority of guests, after entering HHN from the front gates, will trave straight to the four houses located in the sound stages near the front of the park. You should avoid the horde by heading in the opposite direction, towards KidZone. Thanks to a popular intelectual property, this year’s The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven maze (marked “H” on the map) is certain to be packed, so pick it as your first destination.
The exit of Walking Dead leads directly to the entrance of Urban Legends: La Llorna (“G”) your second stop. After that comes Afterlife: Death’s Vengance (“F”), whose line starts near the Men In Black bathrooms. If you are early enough, this maze may not yet be open; if so, continue to Havoc 2: Derailed (“E”) between the New York and San Francisco areas, or Evil Dead (“D”) near Twister.
6. Check the show schedule.
After the haunted houses, the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure show (staged inside the Fear Factor Live stadium) is the event’s most popular element. The first and last showings are typically the only ones you can attend without lining up 30 to 60 minutes in advance. If you have already seen 3 or 4 houses (and are interested in a raunchy spoof of recent films and pop-culture celebrities) make your way to Bill & Ted about 20 minutes before the first show.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show Tribute is a lively musical production on the Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue stage that should entertain fans of the cult film and “virgins” alike. You can usually catch any of the mid-evening shows by arriving 15 to 20 minutes in advance.
7. Explore the scarezones.
Once the sun sets (around 7:30 p.m.) and the waits for the houses become unbearable, begin exploring the scarezones, which are like open-air haunted mazes minus the conga-line queues. Just as much fun as getting scared yourself is finding a vantage point to stand still and see others getting spooked; this is some of the best people-watching you’ll ever find.
This year, all the scarezones are based around settings from The Walking Dead’s first two seasons. Look for the surviors’ camp with Dale’s RV near KidZone, the tank from Atlanta in New York, and the walker traps from the episode “Clear” along Hollywood. Also keep your eye out for the chainsaw squad, who may be roaming thoughout the park’s venues and queues.
8. Single rider the rides.
By the mid-point of the evening, standby waits for all the houses and rides will be substantial even on off-peak nights (and astronomical on Saturdays) but experiencing several top attractions should be manageable using single rider queues. Men In Black, Revenge of the Mummy, and Transformers all have fairly efficient single-rider operations. (Transformers’ singles queue is closed when it hits about 30 minutes, but usually reopens after 10 or 15 minutes, so hang around nearby without blocking the entrance.) Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit has a single rider line but it is often as long as the standy queue, and none of the other operating rides have one at all.
9. Escape to CityWalk
Even on a slow night, Horror Nights crowds can drive you to drink, and many of your fellow guests will doubtlessly be imbibing. There are temporary bars serving expensive mixed drinks on seemingly every spare square foot of sidewalk, but but serious in-park boozing we prefer Finnegan’s bar or the new Duff Brewery in Springfield USA. Better yet, get out of Dodge for an hour or so and retreat to CityWalk. Most HHN passes include admission to CityWalk’s clubs, or you can grab a reasonably price brew at Cigarz without a cover charge.
10. Haunt again at the witching hour.
As the evening’s event approaches its final hour, wait times at the haunted mazes drop dramatically. If you are interested in Bill & Ted and didn’t catch the first showing, show up 20 to 30 minutes before the last performance. Otherwise, you can use the hours after midnight to catch up on the houses you missed earlier.
The last 30 to 60 minutes before park close is the best time to hit the four sound stages (marked “A” through “D” on the map). Since you probably won’t have time for all four, pick the intellectual properties you are most familiar with — the 2013 Evil Dead remake, the post-modern Cabin in the Woods, the classic An American Werewolf in London, or the Resident Evil video games.
11. Be the last to leave.
Unless you leave significantly before closing time, you’re best off dawdling in the park or CityWalk on the way out. The parking garage exits will be at a standstill, so you might as well grab a seat outside and relax rather than breathing fumes in a traffic jam.