Podcast: Building Universal's Halloween Horror Nights

September 21, 2019, 12:08 PM · This time on Building the World's Best Theme Parks, we're talking about Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. Earlier this month, just before the opening of Halloween Horror Nights 29 at Universal Studios Florida, I saw down in a press gaggle with Senior Director Michael Aiello to talk about how he and his team develop the event. Then this week, I followed up in a phone conversation with Blake Braswell, the Show Director for Entertainment Creative Development at Universal Orlando, who talked more in depth about creating Horror Nights' scarezones, particularly Vanity Ball, which might be the breakout original hit of this year's event.

Please give us a listen...

One theme that both Michael and Blake came back to was variety — how a mix of concepts and tones can help create an environment that invites guests to engage at levels that they find comfortable and entertaining.

"I do believe Stranger Things last year opened the door for us to be able to present a maze that can have some monsters, but also the spectacle of it is just as important," Aiello said. "There is spectacle in Ghostbusters. That's fun in there. But, and I'm sure [Universal Studios Hollywood's John] Murdy is probably talking about this as well — it's an adage we kind of live by — the laugh and the scream are connected with each other, at all times. They are both ends of the spectrum that live together."

"I thought my Vanity Ball concept for Hollywood Street was out there," Braswell said. "I didn't know it would get accepted. So the pleasant surprise was that it got accepted. I did believe that I think guests are going to dig this. I think they're really going to enjoy this sort of horror, but it's a party-thing vibe that's going on, with these crazy surgeries and body parts that are being removed and put on other people, and then a runaway battle."

"This zone as a ton of variety as far as looks are concerned. That is been pleasantly rewarding surprise. I thought people would dig it, but it seems that it has really resonated with people," he said.

"These aren't monsters. These are real people that want you, but they're just crazed about the sort of elite art that's going on, and they want to show themselves off. And, I think there's just something that draws people in to that," he said. "Hey, it's selfie society going on right now. Right? Everybody can identify with this kind of thing."

Ultimately, the power to make an event such as Halloween Horror Nights a success always lies in the audience's hands, as the recipient of the connection that the artists behind Horror Night are trying to make.

"I think I think all those elements where the wall between you and the scareactor is really broken, where it's not just '(Roar), I'm going to scare you,' there's also this kind of 'I'm inviting you in' vibe that I think is what makes it so interactive in this particular zone. But then what's nice is we don't do that necessarily in every zone. In another zone, they're gonna be real aggressive after you. So variety is sort of the name of the game. But if you do this for a long time, you try to find new ways to create that variety."

"You can see people sitting on benches just enjoying and watching it," Braswell said. "You can see others kind of standing up a little closer, so many people dancing to the music, then you see others that are literally lining around the the runway and cheering on the different people... as well as the host, who then is coming down and talking to you, one on one, asking you questions.... It's all that sort of that brings you in and gives you the choice. You can be voyeuristic, you can be a little more involved, or you can be very involved, depending on how you want to enjoy the zone."

"If there is one thing I've been able to bring to the table during my entertainment tenure here, it's been the human aspect of what a theme park can be," Aiello said. "If you watch a show, it's a performer. They are singing. They are dancing. There is eye contact and a connection that I don't think a ride attraction can do nearly as well as what we're doing right now. That human connection I think is really important And I think it's why also Horror Nights has done as well as it has. This is theater. All of this is flats and sets and people in costumes and theatrical makeup. It's amazing talents coming together to create something that is breathing and is real."

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