Universal Studios Hollywood's 2013 Halloween Horror Nights might be its best yet

September 22, 2013, 8:35 PM · Now in its eighth year since being resuscitated by John Murdy and company, Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood is better than ever.

Six mazes, five of them all-new, highlighted what is arguably Hollywood's best Horror Nights yet; and if the opening night crowds are any indication, this year's event may shape up to be its most popular, too.

With popularity comes crowds — and I mean crowds. Rival Knott's Berry Farm doesn't run out a dozen mazes a year just for the heck of it; at some point is almost becomes a necessity to get guests off the streets and into the mazes. I'm not saying Horror Nights has hit that point yet, but planning your night is more important now than it ever has been.

Luckily, I'm here to help. I'll start by running through the mazes from first to worst and then give you a game plan for surviving the hoards of fans at this year's Horror Nights.

Insidious: Into the Further
The success and failure of this maze, to me, was going to be how well they executed entering "the further," a space where spirits/demons dwell and where the protagonist in the first film has to go to rescue his young son. In the film, the further is foggy and visibility is low when you first enter. I knew that if the creators could nail this, the maze had a real chance to be the best in the event.

Insidious facade

They did not disappoint. Walking through what I assume was a dark hallway filled with fog kept me from seeing any farther than the back of the head of the person I was following. The hallway was only 20 feet long, but it felt like I was walking through it forever; and the longer I walked the more and more a sense of total dread crept upon me, knowing the next scare could quite literally come from anywhere.

Of course the sets and scenes were incredible and I felt the actors were on point, especially considering how rusty first night casts often are. This maze was very scary, something the Insidious sequel can't quite claim.

El Cucuy: The Boogeyman
After the success of the La Llorona maze last year, I was excited to see what Murdy and company would do with their second myth-based maze. It did not disappoint as El Cucuy provided great scares and a frightening atmosphere, particularly in the second half of the maze.

El Cucuy entrance

There are typically three categories of mazes at Horror Nights: There are mazes that are outright terrifying, mazes that are very scenic and theatrical and there are mazes that seek to disorient guests. El Cucuy lives in the middle ground between the first and second category, lacking the actor-generated scares that Insidious provided, but using its environments to genuinely frighten guests.

Evil Dead: Book of the Dead
Fans of the film franchise will love this maze. The set dressing is absolutely phenomenal and the scenes they chose to incorporate from the two films (the original and recent remake) are sure to please diehards of the series. Of course the maze also provided some great scares (and at least one great effect — I'll leave that as a surprise, though) but felt a bit more theatrical than Insidious and El Cucuy.

When I say theatrical I mean that there were times when it felt like I was watching the action rather than being a part of it. While there's a time and place for both, I'm at a Halloween event to become a part of my favorite movies — not to watch them reenacted live.

Walking Dead: No Safe Haven
Much like the Evil Dead, this maze was incredibly well designed — but the long wait meant the maze was absolutely jam-packed with guests. Not only does this take away from the fear-factor of the maze, it also makes it much tougher for the actors to get their scares in.

The Walking Dead maze

This of course just exacerbates the fact that zombies really aren't that scary. They move slowly and can do nothing but growl or snap at you. The amazing sets in this maze will surely please fans of the show, but the real Walking Dead scares come from the scare zone that comes in the backlot...more on that later.

The Walking Dead scarezone

Black Sabbath: 13 3-D
Much like the Alice Cooper maze last year, the Black Sabbath maze was designed for one purpose: To disorient. If you get motion sickness, I would recommend doing this maze without the 3-D glasses. There were a few good scares in this maze, but unless you're a huge fan of the band (and I imagine many people are) you'll wonder why you waited over an hour to go through this maze.

Universal Monsters Remix: Resurrection
If you're scoring at home, that's six-for-six mazes with colons in the name. Can't wait for The Conjuring: The Maze to come to life at coming events!

Joking aside, this maze was what it was last year. There are some solid scares, and I commend the actors who really seemed to be in-sync throughout the maze, but the environment is far from immersive. It's a limitation imposed by the structure they're building this maze in (the year-round House of Horrors attraction) and I feel the loud music only further detracts from the experience.

Now...how do you get through the event with minimal waiting?

Well, if you have the money to spend, I highly recommend picking up a front of line pass. It ranges in cost from $119 to $139 (it includes admission) and allows you to skip every line at least once. Meaning if you get to the park right when it opens, you can wait 10 or 15 minutes for a few mazes before being forced to use your front of line pass — this gives you a chance to do the better mazes twice in one night and keeps you from waiting in any of the ridiculous lines.

If that's not an option for you, here's a game plan based on what I observed from opening night.

Get to the park early — 6:30 ought to do the trick (event opens at 7 p.m.) because they allow guests in a good 20-30 minutes early on most nights to line up for the Terror Tram and the tram to the backlot where the Walking Dead and Black Sabbath mazes are located.

Get in line for the tram to the backlot immediately. The Walking Dead and Black Sabbath mazes both posted wait times over two hours by 9 p.m. — they were up to an hour at 8 p.m. The Walking Dead is the most anticipated maze at this event, and Black Sabbath being in the same area means both mazes are swamped early on. So tackle them both first before heading back to the lower lot (the tram to the backlot is located by Transformers).

Now hit Insidious and Evil Dead in whichever order you prefer — I recommend Insidious first as it held a longer line than Evil Dead did on the night I was there. Now head up to the top lot and get in line for the Terror Tram as it closes early on Thursday and Sunday nights.

Next head over to El Cucuy. At this point you will probably have to wait in an actual line, but I never saw the wait for this maze go over an hour long so it's the lesser of two evils. If you'd like to see the event's only show (Bill and Ted), you should still have time to see a later showing which will be less crowded as most people will have moved to the mazes at this point. On your way out you can do Monsters Remix.

That plan of attack should keep the amount of time spent in lines to a minimum.

Some other notes:

The scare zones struck me as much better this year than in year's past. The Purge perfectly fit as a centerpiece for the event and the Chucky scare zone (complete with Chucky hurling down insults from a balcony) will delight longtime fans of the event. However, the best zone of the night was undeniably The Walking Dead.

Curse of Chucky scarezone

The Purge scarezone

The tram to the backlot drops you off right on the new metropolitan sets; as a film fan, I was geeking out the moment I stepped off the tram. Then came the walkers, which were less than scary in the maze but extremely effective on the open streets of the metro sets. This was the best scare zone I have ever been through at this event, dating back to 2007 (okay, okay, so that's not THAT long ago).

Metro set

Speaking of the backlot, how was the Terror Tram this year? Pretty much the same as last year. It's a great experience, but as someone who has been to this event dozens of times, it's more of a novelty than scary at this point. It's a must-do experience for those new to the event, but if you're short on time and did it last year, you wouldn't be missing much by skipping it this year.

Lastly: The Bill and Ted show, in which actors skewer other actors, musicians and anyone else who made a PR faux-pas in the past calendar year. If you like this sort of thing (I don't) and you liked the show last year (nope) then you will like it this year.

To recap:

- Insidious, Evil Dead and El Cucuy are the three best mazes of the event. Start at the backlot, move to the lower lot and finish on the upper lot to avoid ridiculous wait times.

- Check out the Chucky scare zone if you'd like to be insulted by a man pretending to be a serial killer trapped inside of a doll.

- Go to the Bill and Ted show if you want to get off your feet. Do the Terror Tram if you haven't done it before.

- Arrive early, buy your tickets in advance.

- Leave earlier to get there than you think you have to — L.A. traffic during the evenings is unbearable.

Be sure to share your thoughts on this year's event in the comments! What was your favorite maze? Your least favorite?

I'll be checking out Knott's Scary Farm on Thursday, so look for that report Friday afternoon. You can follow along with me at Knott's Scary Farm by following me or Theme Park Insider on Twitter (@JakeSundstrom and @ThemePark, respectively).

Replies (4)

September 22, 2013 at 8:42 PM · Insidious was my favorite maze this year and I loved the Purge Scare Zone and opening Ceremony.

If you want to see the excitement first hand, check out my playlist. It features the opening Ceremony, Every maze the scare zones and Jurassic Park in the dark.


Happy Halloween!

September 22, 2013 at 11:01 PM · Great review.

If I partake in the Stay & Scream option, will I miss the opening ceremony portion of the evening?

September 23, 2013 at 2:18 PM · Jacob - this was such a great column. I love Halloween, but I am more of a "spooky" as opposed to "scary" fan. MNSSHP is more my cup of tea. But I have always wondered about the Universal Halloween offerings.

Boy, you did a good job recapping them. Such great details and I loved your helpful hints on the order to do things. That would be a big help for those going...and it actually gave me a sense of what going would be like. Great pictures too.

Keep more columns like this coming because I just loved it!!!

September 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM · I was lucky enough to enjoy the event in Orlando last year AND have the money to purchase the express pass. If you're not short on cash, I'd highly recommend it. Having visited on a Saturday night, lines were 2 hours or more, basically at a minimum. I was still able to attend every maze before I left for the night.

You also get the benefit of one fast ride on each of a few specific rides, however, during this event, there aren't many people wanting to ride those rides, so you don't get much benefit there as the lines are relatively short regardless.

I'm curious how the Cabin in the Woods maze is at Orlando, this year. That has to be one of my favorite films.

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