Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights 26 Review
Universal's Halloween Horror Nights -- held at both of the Universal theme parks, in Hollywood and Orlando -- is basically the very best thing at any theme park, ever. In September and October each year, the parks play host to a number of haunted houses and "scare zones."
If you've been to any carnival or boardwalk haunted house, the setup will be familiar: you walk through a space that has been decorated according to a specific, spooky theme. Actors in costume will jump out of dark corners and try to scare you. Now, most of these are extremely cheesy, but still fun, designed to make you scream at the jump scares and clutch onto your companions.
At Universal's event, however, the production values are sky-high. The lighting, costume design, and overall set design are kind of incredible -- and many of the houses are made with well-known TV and film horror branding, like The Exorcist, The Walking Dead, Halloween, Krampus, and American Horror Story, all of which had houses this year. These houses don't just have themes, they have narrative through-lines.
Actually, each house is very much like a very short horror game in that way, with a premise, a "story," conveyed through set pieces and main characters, and interaction (albeit, the mechanics are pretty much, well, walking and screaming).
In addition to this, there are "scare zones" in outdoor areas of the park, all with a theme and with characters who interact with one another as well as try to scare unsuspecting passer-by. It's like interactive theater!
As a massive horror fan, this stuff is pretty much my favorite reason to go to a theme park. I'm kind of primed to dig this stuff: so, I grabbed my favorite cheesy horror t-shirts (including a Resident Evil promo shirt, you gotta be proud), headed down to Orlando for three straight nights of this stuff (with my family in tow), and wrote my impressions.
And don't worry, I won't spoil anything.
American Horror Story
This was one of the most elaborate houses, and had probably the longest wait time consistently throughout the weekend. It contains scenes from several seasons of the show: Murder House, Hotel and Freakshow, and it probably had the best representation of the sexy/scary divide that AHS loves to play with.
I enjoyed it, but I'm also woefully behind on AHS. My traveling companions were a bit lukewarm on it, though I wonder if that had to do with waiting in a line that we all joked, to GREAT EFFECT was the actual horror story.
This was the most disturbing house, by far. The most terrifying because it relied the least on jump scares and the most on truly horrifying imagery inspired by the film, which is, honestly, still one of the scariest movies ever made. The pacing was perfect, from the deadpan "preshow" voiceover just outside the house an initial symbolic encounter to the most shocking moments of the attraction, this one had my entire family kind of disturbed and disquieted, instead of laughing our asses off, as was the usual course after one of these.
In other words, it was fucking awesome.
Ghost Town: The Curse of Lightning Gulch
This was one of the "original content" houses, that is, not something based on a licensed horror property. Sometimes, these are the best: the designers can get away with weirder, wackier stuff and get a little more creative. That was certainly the case for Ghost Town, which was a haunted, spooky/creepy/kinda funny old west town where everyone was a ghost/ghoul/zombie and not very happy about it.
This one was all about setpieces -- it starts out with a hanging post and only gets better from there -- and it had the best mix of goofy humor thrown in with the spookiness. I told you I wouldn't spoil anything, and I won't, but I'll say this: pay extra close attention to the bar. It's fantastic.
Everyone in the family liked Ghost Town. Mom screamed a lot.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Like several of the "branded" houses, this attraction had a really nice narrative through-line and it builds it's spooky atmosphere beautifully through its first few rooms.
I have to hand it to the designers who create these spaces: they only have a few minutes to give you the full story of the place, and you need to move people through fairly efficiently, but they do so much with set design and lighting, even in the eerie "calm before the storm" rooms.
The Walking Dead
I've been to a few of these -- I went to the 2011 Orlando event and the 2014 Hollywood one, and I think there's been a Walking Dead attraction each time. I'm not complaining, because these are consistently excellent, with strong narrative elements and an incredible sense of place.
The Walking Dead also had possibly the strongest, most heart-quickening climactic scene of any house this year. No spoilers, but, holy tapdancing Moses, it was freaky.
My sister missed out on Krampus, because she "doesn't like evil Christmas stuff," and she did miss out on a really fun house filled with naughty sprites and a general sense of the holidays gone very, very wrong.
But more than anything, our visit to the Krampus house inspired visions of the family's favorite house from 2011 -- H.R. Bloodengutz Presents Holidays of Horror , another holiday house with a wildly elaborate backstory. H.R. Bloodengutz, a bargain-basement horror TV host, is visited by his twerpy producer, giving him the bad news that his cable access series has been cancelled. Bloodengutz ties up said producer and holds him hostage, then invites you all to his own holiday-themed house of horrors, with a VERY SPECIAL finale that involved a Thanksgiving dinner that the producer would never forget.
Or get up from.
In the first room of the house, a live "Bloodengutz" greeted guests. The fellow asked my mom, "do you think I went too far?" my mother, who at the time, had just been fired from her own job by the hand of another form of twerpy producer, enthusiastically fired back "Nope! Kill em all!" which I think, might have actually taken the actor by surprise because he did a literal double take and laughed.
My mom is seriously the best.
Lunatics Playground 3D
There's a host and a loose backstory to each Halloween Horror Night event. This year, that host is "Chance" a totally-Harley-Quinn-but-not-really-because-they-don't-have-the-license kinda evil clown lady who runs things out of her asylum.
Lunatics 3D is her house, a neon fantastic funhouse featuring 3D effects and a whole lot of "inmates" beating the crap out of hospital security.
3D houses are usually pretty gimmicky, but the anti-authority vibe of this one was kind of fun in a very 90s Hot Topic kind of way. I just sort of wish Chance actually was Harley Quinn and she was putting the Joker out to dry.
Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield
This was the very first house we went to on night one, and it was a perfect way to kick off the weekend of horrible delights. Hell comes to Haddonfield is one of the most elaborate houses with one of the most coherent storylines, as it moved through several environments, all of which feature Michael Myers trying to kill you in some fashion or other.
This was one of two houses that I went through twice, and it's true -- these experiences often get better on the second try, as you notice more details and little features.
Tomb of the Ancients
I was underwhelmed by Tomb of the Ancients on my first go-round. It's presented as a sort of haunted tomb borrowing from a bunch of "exotic" ancient civilizations, with ghouls and gods hounding you through a haunted temple.
But on my second run through the house, I loved it. There's a whole backstory about two hapless American explorers who disturb the tomb (you might say they are TOMB RAIDERS), who get completely wrecked by the horrors inside. The costume and set design are among the most creative in the entire park. And this is one of the only houses that actually has a couple of different paths (tiny stretches where you can choose left or right).
It did take that second try, but both my father and I (my sole stalwart companion by the end of 3 days of Halloween Horror Nighting) really dug Tomb of the Ancients.
The Scare Zones are a favorite feature, because, like with the original content houses, the event's creators can get, well, creative. The actors can too -- more so than in the houses, actors who aren't wearing masks can actually talk to you and interact (in-character) with the other actors out there.
My family's favorites were the Dead Man's Wharf -- an imaginative underwater area with undead, mutated fishermen that reeked of Fallout 4's Far Harbour DLC and Lair of the Banshee, a creepy, woodsy area with freaky witches, Banshee ladies and this one cat-man.
My dad made friends with a Banshee!
I also really enjoyed the Survive or Die Apacalypse, a very, very Mad Max-alike zone where roving gangs of survivors walked (and drove!) around, encouraging you to join their gang, and the Vamp 55 zone, which was a 50s high school Homecoming Parade gone undead. The No Chance in Hell zone was fun mostly because it creeped my mom out that the actors kept asking her for "cookies."
And there was one off-the-map Scare Zone near the Simpson's area that my dad and I called "the Chainsaw Chicks" which was adjacent to "The Chainsaw Dicks." One of the cheerleader chainsaw ladies complimented my shirt and pretended to cut it off me! It was great.
Shows and Rides
There were two shows at the event as well. Academy of Villains put on a high-energy mixed media performance with dancing, acrobatics and other wild antics that was fun as hell. It was basically a Halloween-themed alt circus, scrubbed a bit for a theme park audience, but every bit as anarchic and fun.
As I wasn't drinking this weekend, I was in no state at all to attempt the Bill and Ted show, a bargain-bin variety show of pop culture parodies. It can be horribly dopey fun, but you really do need to be in an altered state for it.
On one final note, a number of rides are also open during the event, and they boast the shortest wait times you'll ever see. I took this opportunity to really explore Diagon Alley -- the newer Harry Potter Land that is possibly the most richly detailed fictional area in any theme park in the world -- and ride the Gringott's Express. My sister and I also posted high scores on Men in Black Alien Attack and checked out the terminally explosion-y Transformers ride.
The Big Horror Picture
It is my humble opinion that 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 cheesy goodness of an amusement park, with the wildly ambitious creative vision that a big old' budget can bring in. It's spooky and goofy and ridiculously fun, best experienced with a few people that you like and feel comfortable clutching in fear and delight, and a hell of a way to spend a weekend.
Go if you are able to.