The Saturday Six is a weekly look at the most interesting, most fun, and sometimes even the most outrageous things within the theme park world that we all love so much. Whether it’s checking out Hollywood Drive-In Golf in CityWalk, a look a the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, or even eating the craziest food items at Universal, the Saturday Six is your personal guide to experiencing the very best Orlando has to offer.
This week’s Saturday Six looks at the Top Six Reasons We Loved Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 23.
# 6 – The Scareactors
The bread and butter of any Halloween Horror Nights experience is walking around the park and interacting with the various scareactors roaming the parks. The enjoyment factor can be even better watching them scare the living daylights out of others. I am really impressed by some of the make-up and costuming effects that the walk around characters have this year. Some really creepy looking zombies make the event feel immersive and frightening. Last year Universal debuted the “zombie horde” concept, and it worked to some degree, but this year just feels scarier.
During my visit, there were several times during the night when a “walker” turned what looked to be a normal guest into a zombie by attacking him. Just fantastic stuff! And at other times the zombies were captured or taken out by citizens of Woodbury (from AMC’s The Walking Dead television show)! I did not see any of this type of storytelling in last year’s HHN event, and this year I loved every second of it.
Among my favorite types of scareactors are the ones who have items stuck in them. Whether it is a sword or a huge steel rod, these zombies have a visual effect that is stunning to behold and truly creepy.
The “less is more” philosophy can pay off in a big way when it comes to walk around characters. While some do wear masks and/or elaborate costumes (to varying degrees of success), the guys and girls just going around with bits of flesh ripped off their faces or bodies can be the most terrifying. There are also several of the iconic “walkers” from the Walking Dead television show, including the Bicycle Girl from season 1. These are a great touch for fans of the hit TV show and horrifying enough to be more than acceptable to guests who have never heard of The Walking Dead.
While I’m as a big of a fan of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party as anyone can be, other than the incredible decorating on Main Street, U.S.A., there isn’t all that much going on throughout the rest of the Magic Kingdom (or WDW for that matter). Meanwhile, at Universal it seems that every part of the resort is affected by during the haunt season. The entire Universal Studios Florida park is completely decked out with nods and touches to HHN. There is the usual (and always great) “Mel’s DIE-in” effect for Mel’s Drive-In restaurant, and I absolutely love the huge sheets put up outside the front gates saying “Dead Inside” and “Save Us.” Call it story, call it atmosphere, call it whatever you want but the theme park experience is better off for it.
The iconic entrance to Universal Studios Florida has been overtaken by two humongous tree roots, highlighting one of the themes of this year’s event: “What evil has taken root?” These roots spiral up the archways and frame huge posters that spotlight the various haunted houses inside the park this year. These type of flourishes really set a great mood for the night.
In addition, the Loews on-site hotels are also in on the action this year through offering HHN-themed desserts that you can have delivered to your room. My favorite is a trio of ghost strawberries, although the elaborate Cupcake Slaughter sampler is also pretty amazing. These selections join some of the in-park snacks, which are also gruesome but tasty. Over in CityWalk the Hard Rock Café encourages guests to come in for a pre-fright cocktail while the PiQ novelty store offers some interesting takes on horror merchandise.
# 4 – The Merchandise
Well, of course someone who does a recurring article entitled The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! is going to be interested in exclusive HHN merchandise, and this year there is a ton. Plenty of t-shirts are available, including ones dedicated to HHN and each of the individual houses. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Resident Evil shirt in the park and hope one day soon that video game properties, in general, will have a larger presence at Universal.
There are several pins for the event, including a limited edition one dedicated to Jack the Clown, a character who has appeared (and been a focal point of) Halloween Horror Nights events in years past. While as of this writing it has yet to appear on the shelves, a Uni-Mini themed to Jack the Clown will also be sold inside the park. This will probably sell out pretty fast since Jack is beloved by many HHN fans.
Shot glasses, flasks, lanyards with flashing skulls, keychains, and cups are all adorned with the HHN logo. Universal has several items using lenticular technology, which gives a 3D appearance to an object and is used to provide a decent looking zombie effect on posters and tumblers. There are large size pilsner-style glasses that I expected to be made out of cheap plastic but had a great amount of weight to them and must have been ceramic or glass. And there are many very elaborate Halloween masks for sale, none of which you can actually wear in the park, so you have to pick them up on your way out of USF.
While not exclusive to HHN, there is enough Walking Dead merchandise to fill up an entire room of your house. T-shirts, hats, graphic novels and even a board game are part of the selections available. For those into Walking Dead cosplay there is even a shirt and sheriff’s hat available for you to play the role of “Rick,” the lead character from The Walking Dead.
# 3 – The Rocky Horror Picture Show – A Tribute/Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure
Returning after a multi-year absence, The Rocky Horror Picture Show – A Tribute returns to the Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue stage and is a condensed version of the cult classic 1975 movie starring Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon. Running at nearly 40 minutes, this version contains most of the well known songs and features some incredible on-stage performances. I do not consider myself a big fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I do enjoy several of the songs, and the actors and actresses really made this presentation enjoyable. That said, I also enjoyed the 20 Penny Circus show that played in this venue last year and wouldn’t mind seeing it return in the future.
I’m a huge fan of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, and that is undoubtedly influenced by my fondness of the original Bill & Ted movies that the show is based off of. Bill & Ted takes place on the Fear Factor Live stage and is filled with pop culture references. Like The Simpsons Ride over in Springfield USA, this year’s edition of Bill & Ted takes a bunch of hilarious shots at the theme park world; that was the highlight of the show for me. It seems every year the overall reaction to Bill & Ted is that it is “hit or miss,” but for me it is always a highlight of HHN. I find myself laughing throughout, and it’s nice just to sit down for an extended time after being on your feet all day.
Game of Thrones references? D’Jango Unchained? Taylor Swift as a villain? I’m in. What? References to Sharknando, Avatarland, JJ Abrahms and Sophia Vergara? I’m all in.
This year Universal goes in a new direction with its “scare zones” having a park wide association with The Walking Dead brand. The different areas are themed to: The Fall of Atlanta (found in the New York and San Francisco areas), The Farm (across from Transformers: The Ride 3D and Cafe La Bamba), Woodlands (the walkway between the Hollywood backlot area and Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone), Survivor’s Camp (in front of Animal Actors on Location), and “Clear” (the main area of the Hollywood backlot ). Here is where you are going to see a lot of iconic elements from The Walking Dead television show, including a tank, Dale’s RV, and the car in which the main group left a note for Sophia.
As a fan of The Walking Dead show and comic book, this was incredible – so many classic moments fully realized. I have to say my favorite section was the Fall of Atlanta area, as it had the larger than life elements such as the tank and also more of the street scenes with the walkers I wrote about above. I’m not sure what they use to make the decomposing smell that seems to permeate the air in this area, but it definitely adds to the overall feel.
A close second for me would have to be Herschel’s barn in the Farm area. This barn played a major role in both the show and the graphic novels, and to see it in person was great. The effects Universal uses to make it appear the barn was burning are great, and it was a nice walk through experience, especially with the zombie in the well nearby. Overall I consider the street experiences to be the biggest upgrade from last year’s HHN event.
# 1 – The Houses (but especially American Werewolf in London!!)
Here comes the main event! Universal has 8 haunted houses (Evil Dead, the Cabin in the Woods, La Llorona, the Walking Dead, After Life: Death’s Vengeance, Havoc Derailed, Resident Evil: Escape from Raccoon City, and An American Werewolf in London), several of which have dedicated audiences. Evil Dead was based off the recent remake of Sam Raimi’s cult classic. The Cabin in the Woods came in part from Hollywood’s current It Boy, Joss Whedon. Havoc Derailed is a sequel to an original house Universal created for HHN 20. But for our money the best experience was in An American Werewolf in London, based off the legendary 1981 film by John Landis.
In the world of Hollywood special effects for horror films, AWIL changed the game, something you can find out in greater detail in USF’s under-appreciated Horror Make-up Show. The level of detail that Universal put into this house is off the charts. Everything you loved about the movie is here, with the unbelievable werewolf puppetry being a true standout. This actually may be the best house Universal has ever built; it’s that good.
There are no slouches on the list, though, and several others have some very strong elements. I absolutely loved the Cabin in the Woods movie, and the maze does the movies insane last act justice by including a whole bunch of creative takes on the horror archetypes. Hell breaks loose, and you are in the middle of it. Evil Dead has some very interesting “how did they do that?” visual effects, while the 3D maze of After Life: Death’s Vengeances was a huge improvement over last year’s 3D house, Penn & Teller’s New(kd) Las Vegas (and I say that as a gigantic fan of Penn & Teller).
Another huge improvement this year was the house for The Walking Dead. Last year the maze took place in the queue area of Disaster, while this year it gets its own stand alone building at the front of the park. The experience lasts a lot longer and overall is much better. There are a lot of great nods to the show here, with sets based around the town of Woodbury, the prison, and little bits of detail such as the old school telephone that showed us that Rick was starting to lose his mind. A much needed influx of recognizable characters really helps this year’s Walking Dead entry into HHN as that part was definitely lacking in 2012.
So there you have it. The top six reasons we loved Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 2013. HHN takes place on selected nights through November 2. Keep in mind this event is not for young children. However, for adults it’s as if someone mixed Fangoria with the Epcot Food & Wine Festival (there are a ton of extra food and drink locations throughout the park). With this year’s event having 8 houses compared to the 7 of 2012, Transformers being open, and much more immersive and detailed “scare zones,” we found the waits for each house to be down this year since the crowds are much more evenly distributed around the park.
If you’d like to read more about HHN 23, check out Seth Kubersky’s article in Orlando Weekly that covers the event.
See you next weekend for the latest edition of the Saturday Six. If you had fun, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories and Merch! articles or head on over to the TouringPlans.com Podcast Network and check out Universal NOW! and Pardon the Pixie Dust.