Event review: Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights

September 15, 2017, 11:51 PM · ORLANDO — Confession time: I have been running Theme Park Insider for more than 18 years now, within a decade of the 27 years that Universal Orlando has been hosting its industry-leading Halloween Horror Nights. But I've never been to that event, before tonight.

Sure, I've been to the west coast version at Universal Studios Hollywood before, since that's far more conveniently located to my Southern California home. And I enjoy the privilege of walking through Horror Nights mazes under construction with @HorrorNights himself, John Murdy, each year. But Universal Orlando's event beats the Hollywood version in both size and attendance.

What about quality? That's up for debate, but at least now I will be able to participate in that as an informed observer... not that the lack of first-hand knowledge ever has kept anyone from joining an online debate before. [Imagine my eye roll here.] Anyway, when I found a sub-$200, round-trip, non-stop flight to Orlando for this year's opening night, I figured now was the year alleviate my guilt and to go to the Big One — Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights.

There's no character icon for this year's event, but Universal has bestowed it with the slogan "The Festival of the Deadliest." And the event lives up to that hype, with nine houses featuring countless ways to die. (At least, I lost count.) By the way, does anyone have a reason why Hollywood uses the term "mazes" while Orlando uses "houses?" But let's not get lost in that debate. Let's argue about which of the nine are the best of this year's houses, instead.

I'll kick it off.

The Horror of Blumhouse features three of the studio's franchises: Sinister, The Purge, and Insidious. With three different stories crammed into the limited space of a single house, this experience felt more like walking through trailers previewing three other houses than a stand-alone experience. That said, I absolutely was sold on going through those three houses and would love to see Universal devote a full house to each of these stories. (Insidious as had a full house in Florida in the past, and has one in Hollywood this year, and The Purge also got a scare zone in this year's event.)

American Horror Story also crams three stories into one house, featuring three of the anthology series' seasons: Asylum, Coven, and Roanoke. Again, switching from one setting to something completely different within the same house disrupts the experience for me. Still, I love the detail employed here, including the smells of baby powder and smoked ham, which are perfectly placed, though I won't spoil it by telling you where. (If you watch the show, you'll probably figure it out now, anyway.)

I also loved the old-school, Nosferatu vibe of The Hive, one of the four original houses in this year's event. There's a nest of hungry vampires in this small Ohio town, and they're jumping out for you at every turn in the house. But if Blumhouse and AHS tried to pack too much into one house, I felt The Hive had the opposite problem. There just wasn't enough story or variety in the scares here to justify the house's length. A cut would have served it better.

Universal's using a neat trick in The Fallen, another original house, one that depicts an eternal war between light and darkness. Scareactors are harnessed on aerial bungees that allow them to attack you from above. It's a fresh effect, but one that I and several others around me missed on the first go. Team members inside the house had to keep telling people to look up, as the convention of such events has trained us to keep our head on a two-dimensional swivel, instead of three-dimensional gimbal we need to appreciate this house fully.

Saw: The Games of Jigsaw delivers its scares with industrial efficiency, recreating many of the classic tortures from the films, including the upcoming Jigsaw. This house relies more on those visual set pieces to create its frights, instead of simple jump scares.

Even though this was my first year at Orlando's event, I've walked through enough of these mazes in Hollywood that I've learned by now how to spot the places where the jump scares are coming in any house or maze. Not one got me all night here. Part of that failure also might be due to Orlando's practice of admitting a continuous line or guests into its houses, instead of grouping guests in "pulses," as Hollywood does. I think the pulse approach allows scareactors to time their scares better for everyone. In a few houses tonight, I felt a lot of scares coming directly behind me, leaving me feeling like I was riding in the trough of a sine wave, always coming into scenes during the reset. So I guess that's what made me appreciate the different, more visual approach in Saw.

That franchise can get a little monotonous with the sadism, though, so I better enjoyed Ash vs. Evil Dead, which leavens the horror with the corny humor that has made The Evil Dead a beloved franchise. This house offered a nice mix of set pieces, with more motion and character acting that we saw in Saw, with enough jump scares to keep things moving.

But, for me, three houses stood far above the rest in this year's Halloween Horror Nights. Dead Waters calls back to the character of the Voodoo Queen from a previous Halloween Horror Nights. This house features the most amazing single visual in this year's event, a wrecked Mississippi riverboat, into which we will venture on our way into the Voodoo Queen's lair. The production design and set decoration in this house amazes with every turn.

The best of the original houses this year, in my humble opinion, was Scarecrow: The Reaping, an absolute masterpiece of pacing and tactile scares that builds to a disorienting cornfield maze in the final scene. Set on an abandoned midwestern farm, Scarecrow called back to the hayrides and corn mazes that I remember as a kid in Indiana, but none of them left me as amazed as I felt after walking through this house.

It's a slow burn, unlike any other house in the event, with twine-like corn stalks hanging from the ceiling, brushing against your face with every step, creating a physical unease that the house will exploit. A scene with perching birds doing their business upon you amplifies the physical threats. (And given how hot it was tonight, I didn't care what birds pooped on me, so long as it was cold.) But it is the confusion you feel trying to find your way out of the final scene that makes this a must-see experience.

And I would have ranked it number one, had I not been so obsessed with experiencing The Shining. My family has spent many summers in Estes Park, Colorado — the setting for Stephen King's classic novel. And we've even visited the Stanley Hotel there, the inspiration for The Shining's creepy setting. But it ain't The Overlook Hotel from the book and the movie. To walk through that, you must come to Halloween Horror Nights this year.

Universal hits every big beat from Stanley Kubrick's film: the Redrum door, Jack's typewriter, the creepy lady in the bathtub in Room 237, the Gold Room, and the iconic "Here's Johnny" scene where Jack bashes through the bathroom door with an axe. It's thrilling just to be able to walk through these iconic moments from one of horror's most popular and enduring films. But Universal gets the pacing right, too, with the right mix of set pieces and jump scares. It's haunting, disorienting and disturbing — just as The Shining should be.

(And yet... I think I like the Hollywood version of this house/maze even better. But I know I will, uh, need to collect more data to be sure.)

This year also marks the final season for Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure, the long-running musical parody show that Hollywood dropped several years back. The "farewell tour" for Wyld Stallyns kicked off with a spoof of a spoof — a take-off on Melissa McCarthy's impression of Sean Spicer from Saturday Night Live. Spicey's used throughout the show, which challenges Bill and Ted to come up with something redeeming about our popular culture to keep Death from putting us all out of the misery of living in 2017... by killing us.

Of course they do, but not before making fun of everything from Justin Bieber, Stranger Things, and United Airlines beating up people, to the show's most enthusiastic target — Walt Disney World's new Avatar land. In the end, Universal finds an appropriate excuse to send off Bill and Ted for the final time, allowing this production to close on a relatively high note.

Not that I'm one to judge. I never saw a full show of Bill and Ted before tonight. The first year I planned to go to Star Wars Weekends and see Hyperspace Hoopla turned out to be the last year that Disney ran that show. And now, the first year I come to Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights and see Bill and Ted, Universal kills this production, too.

Does anyone else have a musical parody show that they would like me to rid of? I guess after going through all these house tonight, I've learned a little something about killing.

Replies (13)

September 16, 2017 at 6:26 AM · USH using "mazes" and USO using "houses" is something I've never thought about before, but I would gamble that in SoCal, Knott's started the entire game out here by calling them "mazes", and pretty much every other SoCal haunt has continued that.

Orlando doesn't have that connection, so they probably set their own name. Frankly, "house" makes a bit more sense, as none of them are actually "mazes" (save for that one year Knott's allowed people to choose paths on VooDoo).

September 16, 2017 at 7:34 AM · So glad you finally got to experience Orlando's HHN Robert. It is truly a memorable event, each and every year. While a lot of other bloggers, writers and self proclaimed experts have rated their opening night experience; your perspective is appreciated. The use of humor and sarcasm is appropriately placed in your piece. Your views on "Dead Waters" mirrors my sentiments as well. For a house/maze (depending on coast of origin) that is based on an original scarezone (which has long been one of my favorites over the years) and not a movie; makes it a masterpiece. The visuals, sounds and even physical twists and turns transport you onto the boat. This level of experiential emersion has not been achieved to this degree before. I hope you'll be able to return for HHN#28 and beyond to meander amongst the horror mavens. - Doug B.
September 16, 2017 at 8:10 AM · There has always been a conflict between the Entertainment and Ride&Show Operations departments about how to manage the houses at the UO HHNs.
Entertainment wants pulsing to provide the exact sort of reset of the frights you talk about. Ride&Show Ops wants "conga line" admissions to keep the wait times as low as possible. By low, I am talking only a couple of hours per house - crazy!
I can't remember the year but there was a HHNs season where at least two of the houses were built with elements that would force pulsing. One had a round room made completely of mirrors very early in the house. A group of about 20 were let into the room, the doors would all be closed and the room itself rotated around the group. The idea was it would create separation between groups and the rotating room of mirrors would be extremely disorienting. Because it was so dark in the room, the effect wasn't really effective.
Another house that same year had an outer space theme. The forced pulse in this house was an elevator - sort of a Space Gantry - sound familiar at all? A group of guests entered and the room was lifted maybe 4 or 5 feet as lights flashed and audio played that was intended to set up the story for the house.
I think the lift was used the full run, but I don't remember the rotating mirror room making it past the first weekend. The mirror house was in Sting alley and the space house was in the sound stages. I'm sure a HHN Super Fan can provide the names and year of operation of those houses.
I've never been to HHN at USH, but I'm impressed to hear that in California the houses are pulsed. That is without a doubt gives the best experience. In Orlando, the crowds are just so huge and the desire to visit each house is so big, quantity of visits seems to take precedence over quality of scare. Sad, but necessary I suppose.
The riverboat house sounds great! There was a Titanic house several years ago too that was remarkable.
No mater what, you really have to hand it to the creative team that builds the houses. The level of details and quality of sets is jaw dropping. I've always thought it was a crime that more people didn't get a chance to spend time really enjoying the art of them.
You are right about developing a sixth sense on where the jump scare is coming from. That's why it's SO amazing when you hit that golden spot where something completely comes out of left field and get's ya! It's completely visceral and wonderful.
September 16, 2017 at 8:50 AM · Thanks for the kind words, Doug. While people will debate what is the "best" house (and that debate is part of the fun!), I did see a consensus that Shining, Scarecrow and Dead Waters stood above the rest of the houses.

Now, I will admit that my personal affinity for The Shining weighed the scales to its favor in my ranking. But that's the power of using IP. It gives creators a head start in building an emotional connection with audiences based upon their previous experience with the IP. But Scarecrow and Dead Waters were amazing experiences, too.

I didn't think much of Scarecrow at first, but that house kept building its intensity throughout and ended masterfully. Dead Waters, on the other hand, overwhelmed at the start then drew the suspense throughout. Honestly, anyone who wants to rank one of these three as the top house this year will get no resistance from me.

September 16, 2017 at 9:07 AM · I have personally always found HHN Orlando's original houses to be better overall than the ones based on IPs. (Anybody remember HHN 21's Nightingales??? It took place in the trenches of WWI and is still the best house I have EVER experienced.....)

Sounds like this year is no exception. Glad you finally got to visit, Robert!

September 16, 2017 at 9:10 AM · Scarecrow was the best, and like Robert said it' starts of very generic with scarecrows and string hanging down , but by the end it gets a bit scary .
September 16, 2017 at 10:31 AM · Great review, thanks Robert!
Any review in the next few days about the scare zones and the Academy of Villains show? The last one is high on my list and was amazing last year.
September 16, 2017 at 11:06 AM · The hotel exteriors for "The Shining" are based on Timberline Lodge, a WPA project built on Mount Hood in Oregon, about 90 minutes outside Portland. The movie opens with exterior shots filmed on location, but most of the scenes outside in the snow were on a soundstage in England since, unlike the Overlook, Timberline lodge remains open all Winter.
September 16, 2017 at 12:29 PM · The best HHN I ever went to was the first one they held at IOA ... it was pitch black and the low lights they have these days were non existent. The other memorable ones were the times they held it in both parks and we had the walk way between the 2 parks in the backlot. It's been about 5 years since I last went, so must be getting close to another visit. Maybe the next one at IOA ... !?!?
September 16, 2017 at 5:33 PM · Good review. Let's hear about the Halloween at California Adventure review. I'll be there tomorrow.
September 17, 2017 at 12:04 PM · I remember it being at IOA, and it's my understanding that they will never do that again. They did it back then because the attendance for that park was lacking, so they did it for attendance reasons. At the Studios, there's much more room and it's set up much better for this event. Glad you had a great time, looking forward to going tonight!
September 18, 2017 at 10:14 AM · I'm on both sides of the fence with the way guests are fed through mazes. Having been on both sides of the coin (as both a guest and a scare-actor), I have seen the advantages and drawbacks of both styles. Until I went to my first HHN over 15 years ago, I had only been exposed to the pulsing of guests through a maze. Pulsing of guests usually means that the first couple of guests in a group typically get the brunt of the scares, while those in the back get to watch with occasionally savvy scare-actors smartly hiding in the shadows and surprising the back of the group from behind. As a scare-actor, directors would frequently remind us to not always go after the first few guests in a group, but depending upon how you're supposed to stage yourself in your scene may limit your ability to do that. If your scene is at the end of a longer corridor where you're required to stand still and then jump out, it can be nearly impossible to stay hidden past the first handful of guests. If you have a second actor with you in the scene, it can make it a bit easier as you can work together to distract guests in the front of the group to surprise the ones on the back. The pulse method should also require a "host" (floating scare-actor that keeps the group moving so groups don't run into each other), though few haunted events use them, meaning if you end up behind a group that is easily scared, or one that provides strong reactions (feeding the scare-actors so they elongate their appearances/performances), groups slow down and get bunched up. The bunching can also cause maze staff to slow the pulsing of groups through the maze, further lowering the capacity.

The "conga line" approach is almost exclusive to UO's HHN (a few local haunts also use this technique, but it's still pretty rare), and the first time I experienced it, I really didn't like it. However, considering the popularity of HHN, and the meticulous way that maze designers try to make sure scares are timed (sound effects signal actors when to perform) to ensure every guest walking through gets a good handful of scares, I think it's a solid compromise to allow as many guests experience the mazes as possible. The one drawback is if you end up behind someone or a group of people hell bent on seeing every single scare of a maze, and deliberately walk at a pace to mess up the preset maze timing. Floaters typically do a good job of keeping that from happening, but I've been behind guests doing this that were never pushed along (nice for me since I was close enough to the slow walkers to see virtually every scare in a maze). Unfortunately, the conga-line approach can lead to varying experiences and mixed early reviews of mazes (not to mention directors are constantly tweaking the timing and performances throughout the event to improve quality), making it hard to gauge what mazes are worth trying to see a second time and/or worth waiting 3 hours for. Going through the conga-line can result in highly variable experiences, and from a scare-actor side, it probably gets incredibly boring. Because there's no opportunity to reset without being seen (why so many are forced to perform behind windows and doors), and actors are explicitly asked not to perform off-script, the work can often be boring, and actors are actually discouraged from trying to feed off guest reaction (something that as a former scare-actor was incredibly satisfying). The conga-line approach also means the flow may need to be completely stopped to reload the maze with a new cast of scare-actors, though many of the newer HHN mazes are constructed in a way where actors can be swapped out through hidden corridors behind the guest pathways.

It's definitely an interesting debate, though so few other events aim for the quality that Orlando's HHN achieves, it's difficult to compare which guest-feeding method is better, because the overall maze quality in Orlando is far superior to anywhere else in the US (at least in theme parks, not necessary stand-alone haunts). Almost a month until I'll be there - Can't wait!!

September 19, 2017 at 2:27 PM · I'm calling it now. It, will be part of 2018's HHN. Having just watched it, I can see plenty of scope to make it a terrifying haunt!

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