Nine Steps Universal Orlando Could Take to Make Halloween Horror Nights Safer for its Team Members

Edited: November 4, 2015, 3:08 PM

Seth Kubersky at the Orlando Weekly has suggested nine steps that Universal Orlando could take to help prevent attacks on scare actors at Halloween Horror Nights next year.

Attacks at this year's event prompted a few scare actors to quit, elicited arrests of visitors, and fueled many news stories. Kubersky suggestions included a mix of operational changes and changes in scheduling and pricing for the event.

Ultimately, the problem comes down to this: Universal has too many visitors in too small a space at the same time, without assigning effective and appropriate resources to come down on those people who step out of line.

Some people might not like Kubersky's suggestions, which effectively would see an increase in prices for some HHN visitors, thanks to curbing discounts on certain evenings and reducing the number of line-skipping passes available. But if fans got a Halloween Horror Nights that operated more smoothly, with a HHN team that felt more secure in the ability to do their jobs, everyone might benefit from these changes.

What do you think?

Replies (16)

November 4, 2015, 7:51 PM

Capping crowds won't change the percentage of people making it unsafe. It would just mean less people doing dumb things. I do agree with less emphasis on alcohol because it does exacerbate bad behavior, but I cannot recall Universal promoting that much alcohol. I only saw tents that say they serve alcohol on it. Teaming up seems good. I believe an increased known security presence is the best way to reduce the amount of crime there.

November 5, 2015, 1:32 AM

Half of these attacks may seem like accidents: actors scare you, you react, you hit actor. But a lot of these are intentional, with or without alcohol. So it's sad that even with all of those steps, attacks will still happen just because some people enjoy it. But I guess the alcohol really helps with a visitor's confidence to attack on actor so maybe it can decrease. And probably keeping a limit of visitors. It probably wouldn't take that long to finish exploring the whole place so it wouldn't be that much of a cut on their income right?

November 5, 2015, 3:46 AM

Suggestion: "HHN should operate every night during the second half of October."

I Respond: Reduces opportunities for guests who want to visit the parks during the day. Bad idea.

Suggestion: "Flashlight-waving employees positioned throughout Universal's haunts ruin the atmosphere while doing little to deter bad behavior or apprehend offenders. "

I Respond: How does the writer know for a fact that it does "deter bad behavior?"

Suggestion: "... wire every house with night-vision cameras, which would be less obtrusive and more useful for prosecutions."

I Respond: I agree but that can be done without removing the Universal attendants who would be visible to potential bad guys.

Suggestion: "... but eliminating the omnipresent temporary bars and roaming liquor sales is a smart compromise."

I Respond: Bravo!

Edited: November 5, 2015, 8:41 AM

I do think alcohol is a huge problem. Unfortunately, the economics of HHN probably require a good chunk of alcohol sales to maintain the event's profitability. However, I do think they should refrain from selling alcohol in the queues and ask guests to not drink while standing in line.

Another issue is where the queues are located. Many queues leading up to the mazes are in backstage areas, and while there is a decent amount of security, it's not enough for the masses that are gathering in relatively small spaces with dim lighting. The suggestion for more night vision video surveillance might be a good solution when combined with on the ground security communicating with staff monitoring cameras.

The biggest problem though is the frustration of attending the event and trying to see everything in one night. It's virtually impossible without Universal Express, and restless, slightly buzzed, and tired of standing in 3-hour line guests are bound to take out some frustration at some point. Personally, I think the cost of the Express pass is too low, and while they limit the number sold each night, they almost always sell out. If you think about it, the Express Pass makes a typical night of HHN cost less than $125, which is a pretty good deal if you insist on seeing everything in a single night and don't want to be tied to a regimented touring plan. Making the total cost with an Express Pass closer to $200 would make it a bit more exclusive, and eliminate some of the casual fans from the cut the line program.

Another smaller issue is the way HHN feeds guests through the houses. The continuous load method is a must with the popularity, but ultimately leads to problems inside the houses as guests react differently to the scares. The designers should build in "pushers" (actors who can roam between scenes and who's sole job is to keep the line moving) through all of the major choke points of the houses to keep things moving. Since many of the scares are on timers, it's important to have pushers moving guests through, and not lingering to see every single scare along the way. The pushers should also have some responsibility to keep guests from touching others and the staff, and probably should be more experienced, intimidating staff.

Finally, houses that are not in the sound stages should have ante-rooms or adjustable interior lighting so guests earlier in the evening (when the sun is still up) are not bogged down by dark corridors. I always bring dark sunglasses for HHN, mostly because I want to see the details in the mazes, but some people are literally walking through the first few rooms of the houses blind because their eyes have not yet adjusted to the darkness of the maze. The reaction of those guests is to walk much slower than normal and sometimes stop completely, which holds up the line. Even as the sun goes down, the queues are lit by mobile flood lights that if you're looking at just before entering the maze, will blind you in the darkness for more than 30 seconds. Having an ante-room (like many of the sound stage mazes have) can provide a transition between the brightness of waiting in line outside and the darkness of the maze itself.

Ultimately, the biggest problem is that you've got a lot of drunk people who are bored and frustrated from standing in 3-hour lines, and take that out on the actors, facilitated by the release of inhibition that alcohol provides. If they can keep the lines manageable and moving, and reduce the number of guests getting wasted, it would improve the experience for everyone.

November 5, 2015, 9:06 AM

Make a third park to alleviate pressure

Edited: November 5, 2015, 9:58 AM

My list of improvements...

- Convert more rides and attractions into Halloween versions that don't rely on scare actors.

- Scare actors need actual barriers that separate actors from guests. I hardly ever gotten close to them when I went to them.

- Rely on technology more. More robots and more projection effects.

- I agree with "Quit conga-ing". They should let small groups pass through instead of one continuous line.

- Doubling a maze to speed the lines. With little extra cost, make two identical mazes. Lines zip through.

November 5, 2015, 10:10 AM

@Anon - You would think technology would help more, but it doesn't. Tech lacks the right timing and intensity that a live scare actor can deliver. There are very few mechanical effects in mazes that are truly effective.

Most of the rides that are open for HHN are already pretty Halloween appropriate, and putting an overlay on them would be a generally wasted effort. I think the general motivation for guests to go to HHN is to do the mazes and scare zones (and get drunk), not ride. The rides are just a diversion while you're tired of waiting in 2-3 hour lines.

It would be great if they could feed through in discrete groups, but it would severely limit the capacity of the mazes. Creating mirror images to double capacity is a good idea, but I'd think that management would prefer that the additional staff required to operate the second identical maze could better be used to staff a different, unique maze.

I do like what Cedar Fair is doing with their event with the "skeleton key". It provides additional incentive for guests to purchase FastLane (Fright Lane for the Haunt), because those guests get pulled into secret rooms within the mazes and have access to exclusive rooms in the scare zones. A similar concept at HHN could validate a $200 price tag for Universal Express.

November 5, 2015, 10:26 AM

The mazes are pretty much single file lines. They create congestion when any one person stops. They should consider a second maze or two side by side lines or a maze with two sides to alleviate the crowds.

I do think that scare actors as making the mazes scary is not a necessarily a true statement. Certainly the actors create the mood, but not all are scaring the guests. The combination of the actors in the environment creates the scare. At any point, the actor can be substituted with technology when the effect needs to be close to the guest.

Edited: November 5, 2015, 11:18 AM

The issues with character safety at UO HHN is no different than any other major haunted houses. The problems are with certain individuals who just get off on causing problems and continually ignoring the rules. So how do you stop these individuals from coming into HHN? The answer is that you can't. What Universal Studios can do is increase the visibility of Security and the OPD officers at the park. They can definitely do a better job of advertising their policy about not touching the characters and the consequences of bad behavior. They should also do a much better job of training their employees about what to do when they notice a problem child in the park. I go to HHN every year and every year I see individuals acting up, to only be warned about their bad behavior with absolutely zero consequences. This happens over and over again. I understand that Universal doesn't want to take all the fun out of the HHN experience, but they need to do a better job with the resources they have.

Edited: November 5, 2015, 11:52 AM

You have a great point there Ray...It's very similar to the problem that Six Flags has with line jumpers. There needs to be consequences to those who disobey the rules and more visibility of enforcement to guests to make sure they know they can't get away with anything.

I think you're half right Anon...The actors do create the mood, but most are responsible for creating the scares in mazes. I've come across maybe a handful of mechanical effects that have appropriately substituted for a live actor in a maze. That's not a good track record, and until companies can come up with effects that are as good as live actors, you cannot eliminate them from mazes.

"At any point, the actor can be substituted with technology when the effect needs to be close to the guest."

This is totally wrong except in the instance of projection (I've yet to see a great use of projection in a maze)...The problem with an automated mechanical effect is that you need to have a buffer between the effect and the guest to avoid liability. That means the closer the effect needs to be to a guest, the more difficult it will be to accomplish the scare without an actor. Actors can get right up next to guests and make minor on the spot adjustments so as to not touch (even if they do touch, they can drop character and apologize, which usually frees them from liability) based on the reaction of the guest. An automated effect cannot do this, and because of that, you can rarely get it close enough to a guest to create an effective scare.

I'm always looking for good automated effects in mazes, but they are few and far between. The use of manual puppetry may actually be the best compromise, and it is getting more wide use across the industry. However, the really good ones are very expensive to build and still require an actor to operate.

Your idea of two lines is actually gaining some traction. I've noticed some mazes are introducing "free form" rooms where guests choose their path through that particular area. However, it's going to take some time for operators to encourage guests to get used to blazing their own trail through a room as opposed to the current conga line approach. That's where pushers need to be utilized. A typical 3-5 minute maze with 15+ rooms ideally should have at least 5 pushers to keep things moving. HHN rarely uses pushers (mostly because of the conga line), and other mazes I've been in typically have @2-3, which is just not enough. It takes the right kind of talent to be a pusher, but casting directors should identify those people early in the design process and utilize them to their best ability instead of just defaulting those actors to the "boss" roles.

Edited: November 5, 2015, 12:05 PM

"The problem with an automated mechanical effect is that you need to have a buffer between the effect and the guest to avoid liability."

Is the liability only with the mechanical effect and not with the actor? That's not right.

The actor and mechanical effect should not be as close as possible without touching. Both should be a few feet away. If an actor is at least 5 feet away, so should the mechanical effect.

Because there is are so many people in a maze, seldom do you actually get a close up scare. You're mostly scared from anticipation, the mood, and the noise. It doesn't take much to scare someone when they are overwhelmed. Actually, rushing the exits is scarier because it gets you closer to the haunted effects never realizing that they are actually far away. Many times, you pass the passive actor when a rush of guests comes by. It is better when the mood is controlled and it seems it is out of control right now.

Edited: November 5, 2015, 1:32 PM

The liability is still there, but an actor can minimize the impact, where a machine cannot. If a mechanical effect fails it does not stop until someone turns it off, meaning a guest will be touched, and continued to be touched, and perhaps injured. When an actor touches a guest, the actor, assuming they're not nefarious, would recognize that and immediately step back or do whatever it takes to stop the touching. Also, a simple, "I'm sorry" out of character is enough for a guest to feel satisfied that the touching was incidental and not feel the need to press the matter. Touching from a machine, a guest would be more inclined to press the matter because there's not that human element there at the point of contact.

I don't know when the last time you were in an HHN maze Anon, but most actors that aren't tied down to sets or rigging can get within a few inches of guests. Even ones on rigging (bungee acrobats usually) can still get within a foot or two of guests. Actors can also extend hands and props outside of their areas to get even closer. 5 feet away typically means an ineffective scare these days, and you only typically see that in more amateur-run (local farms and such) haunts. Most maze corridors are not even 5 feet wide with actors that appear in windows and can extend slightly outside of them, so staying 5 feet away from guests is impossible.

I don't think it's out of control. The HHN mazes are very much like giant machines. Actors and automated effects are put on timers and some are very limited in what they're allowed to do (usually when they're in large costumes or are rigged up). However, it is the actor that makes the mazes interesting through their portrayal and improvisation. I do wish actors were a bit more inventive with their characters and maze directors weren't so regimented with the scripts, but for the most part the actors are a critical element because of the ability to improvise and change their behavior slightly to maximize guest reaction. The problem I see is that because of the conga line, guests sometimes see effects and actors up ahead before they get to them, so they miss out on the scare (some also happen behind). I think HHN does a good job timing the scares so you usually get 3-5 well-timed scares in most mazes, but there are probably over a dozen that you miss, and have to take pleasure in seeing a person 5 people in front or 5 people behind getting scared. I chalk it up to the way a maze has to work to meet the demand. The only way to change it is to limit entry, which will never happen in a park filled with 20+k guests a night.

In case you didn't know, there are more and more haunted attractions that are requesting that guests to sign liability waivers that note the actors may actually come in contact with guests (whether inadvertent or intentional). HHN and most theme park-run events haven't crossed that line, but I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually place disclaimers on tickets or signs noting that actors may inadvertently come in contact with guests.

November 5, 2015, 2:06 PM

First, a mechanical effect would never touch the guest because it won't ever enroach into the guest lines. It wouldn't be accidental either since the design would prevent it. Second, touching the guests is a no-no and an apology is increasingly not enough and guests are more likely than ever to press for damages. Its out of control on the guest side. Until Universal asks for the waivers, they should take precautions to prevent guest touching inadvertent or not.

Edited: November 5, 2015, 2:20 PM

Mechanical effects fail, and there is always a potential to encroach on the guest lines. Remember these are not permanent effects, so they're not engineered to the same specifications as an attraction that operates year-round. They can and do fail, and when that happens that potential is there. The other option is to spend tons of money to over-engineer the effect that will only operate a few thousand times over the course of 6 weeks or to design lame effects that don't move with any force or speed. Most operators have chose to pay an actor $10/hour ($2,500 total for an average event) than to put in a cheap $1,000 effect or spend $10k on a great mechanical effect.

I've been touched in mazes as a guest, and I understand it's incidental, particularly when the actor breaks character to apologize. I've also been on the other side as an actor and inadvertently touched guests, and a simple apology has been an appropriate resolution to the issue. I do agree that it's out of control on the guest side (not the operator's side) with people that enter mazes looking for something that's not there and increasingly taking out their frustration when the maze doesn't meet their expectations by assaulting actors or complaining about and/or litigating against incidental contact. However, taking actors out of the mazes is not the answer, because then people won't show up since they won't get scared.

November 5, 2015, 3:37 PM

Alcohol sales ramped up in an environment invested in violence and mayhem ... What could possibly go wrong?

November 6, 2015, 4:50 AM

@TH
What could possiBLI go wrong.

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