The term, “theme park enthusiast,” was custom built for someone like me. I adore theme parks and have ever since I was a very young Wist. Having worked with several theme parks over the years, my interest and respect has only grown. When it comes to keeping the parks current and fresh, seasonal events offer up a variety of unique experiences for new and veteran park goers. In that regard, there’s few as coveted as Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights Orlando (HHN). It may not be the only Halloween event in town, but it is, without question, the premiere event! Let’s see if that stays true for this year’s event!
Starting on September 6th and finishing November 2nd, HHN 29 runs a whopping 41 select nights! That’s ample time to pick up a pass – a variety to choose from, ranging from single-night tickets to “Frequent Fear” passes that allow you to revisit HHN 29 at your leisure – and enjoy this year’s offerings. Speaking of, Universal Orlando brings audiences 10 brand new houses, 5 streets, 2 entertainment shows, a variety of delicious foods and drinks, and a tribute store filled with event merch and cool photo opportunities. There’s A LOT to explore and experience this year, so here’s an extensive look at the event so you have a better idea of what to expect going into HHN 29!
The bread and butter of Halloween Horror Nights are the mazes, or houses, built in and around the park’s rides and attractions. You’d be hard-pressed to visit every house in a single night (unless you purchase the separately ticketed Express Pass), so here’s a break-down of what audiences will be lining up for this year!
The fan-favorite Netflix show returns to HHN for its second year, this time covering both seasons 2 and 3. Upon entering the house, guests will find themselves in the middle of the showdown between Eleven and the Demogorgon from season 1. It’s a nice refresher before entering an arcade and gazing upon familiar ’80s cabinets. That is, before the screens simultaneously glitch out and the ‘Stranger Things’ title card takes their place! We’re in Hawkins, Indiana and things are only going to get stranger from here! Moving beyond the arcade reacquaints us with many of the characters and scenes from the show, such as Dustin and his “pet,” as well as Steve and the demodogs’ assault on the bus. Before long, we end up underground in twisting tunnels occupied by armed scientists and more dogs. The final set-piece of season 2, featuring Eleven closing the portal, is lacking a human element but is still impressive to see. While the focus of the house is on season 2, season 3 boasts some AMAZING rooms, including the Mind Flayer’s attack on Hopper’s cabin, as well as its appearance in the Starcourt Mall. Given the popularity of the show, there’s no question that the Stranger Things house will boast the largest line this year, and for good reason; there’s some set-pieces recreated here that fans of the show will absolutely go nuts over. It’s the next best thing to setting foot inside of the Stranger Things universe and reliving the action alongside your favorite characters.
Jordan Peele’s US
Blumhouse has had a long-time partnership with Universal in regards to HHN, and properties such as The Purge, Insidious and Happy Death Day (to name of few) have made appearances over the years. It’s safe to say that Jordan Peele’s US will tower over the Blumhouse haunts of old, with a pitch-perfect cast that helps to retell Peele’s story in the flesh. Much like the film, we first enter the funhouse where young Adelaide finds herself one fateful night. It’s not long before we skip ahead in time and jump into a chilling recreation of the fireplace scene where Adelaide and her family find themselves under attack by the “tethered,” menacing doppelgangers out for blood. You may be a little lost if you’re not fluent in the film, but those in the know are in for a real treat. Every set-piece from the film is recreated here, from the massacre at the Tyler’s to the eventual return to the funhouse and the showdown between Adelaide and her tethered doppelganger, Red. Not only is the cast of the house spot-on with their looks and mannerisms, but they also don’t always rely on jump scares to creep out their audience. Universal was smart in letting some of the characters remain out in the open, entrusting them to intimidate and scare as guests hope to walk by unscathed. It’s a great way to hark back to that feeling of dread when watching the film, and works wonders for this house.
While Universals reintroduction of classic monsters in modern cinema may have been a little shaky over the years, HHN proves that these classic creatures have a place in modern horror and are here to stay. The Universal Monsters house serves as a “best of” in regards to Universal’s line-up and serves to thrill and excite anyone who’s a fan of these classics. The opening room features statues of Frankenstein’s monster, the Bride, the Wolfman and other recognizable beasts. It’s a great reminder of the horrors of old before we enter their domain and see them come to life. Whether it’s the swamps of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the catacombs of the Mummy or the bell tower of the Hunchback, each set of rooms is custom tailored to its monster. The changing architecture will cue you in on what’s to come, and while Universal wisely doesn’t stray too far from the designs, they’re not afraid to put these characters right in your face and show you just how menacing they can be. It’s simultaneously exciting and scary, which is the best way this house could’ve played it. For example, houses of the past have featured the Brides of Dracula often lounging on a bed and playing the role of seductress. Not the case here, as you can find them lunging out, claws first, ready to take off your head. Frankenstein’s Monster, while lumbering, is quick to close the distance between you and him. The size is a sight to behold, and a healthy reminder of the power these classic Universal monsters still have.
This year’s Halloween Horror Nights features a major push towards the ’80s in its design and execution, and I couldn’t think of more perfect property to bring to life than Ghostbusters. The energy in this house is fantastic and it’s easy to see why; the movie is so beloved by cinema and horror fans alike and you can tell that Universal had a blast in recreating scenes from the film. Arguably, this house isn’t as scary as some of the others, but that’s only because you’ll be grinning ear-to-ear the entire time. Moments featuring the first appearance of Slimer, or when Dana is taken by the “Terror Dogs,” are so much fun to relive. When you step into the office of the Ghostbusters, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with the receptionist, Janine, where she can and will interact with the guests passing by! It’s such a unique and fun aspect to the house that works perfectly with the license. Of course, you’ll also meet your favorite Ghostbusters along the way (featuring some classic catch-phrases) as well as Dana in her Zuul attire and Gozer herself. The costumes are all amazingly spot-on and you’ll find yourself having hard time NOT grooving to the classic theme on your way out. This house is another must-see for fans.
KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE
Featured as a Scare Zone in last year’s HHN, Killer Klowns makes the shift to a house this year and features…well, exactly what you’d expect. While there are plenty of scenes recreated from the film, this experience is more in line with a twisted funhouse in how it’s delivered. We’re given puppet shows followed by jump scares, a cotton candy tunnel featuring a nasty surprise and the ultimate Klown showdown to escape the house. Suffice it to say that if you’re a fan of the film, and especially if you have friends who are deathly afraid of clowns…this is the perfect house to drag them through! Every clown gets their moment to shine and in a nice addition to the house, you may just find a few of them in front of the house around the Terenzi brothers’ ice cream truck.
HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES
With Rob Zombie’s 3 From Hell right around the corner, House of 1,000 Corpses serves as a twisted reminder to how it all started. The film always seemed like a funhouse of sorts to me, serving up classic horror tropes and homages in different ways. This house stays true to that, following scenes from the film in mostly faithful fashion. Your enjoyment of the house may depend on your love for the film, and while it’s been several years since I’ve seen it, I had a blast making my through this maze. The scareactors look like they’re having a great time portraying the Firefly family, with Captain Spaulding greeting guests as they enter to a rather gruesome interaction where Baby scalps a poor victim. Otis looks as intimidating as ever, often lingering behind the shadows and shouting lines from the film, while the climax featuring Dr. Satan is a sight to behold. It’s a relatively short house but I found it a welcome change of pace in that it knew when to end things rather than go on for too long. Captain Spaulding making the last impression is just the cherry on the tutti frutti.
DEPTHS OF FEAR
While the licensed houses of HHN may be the first to garner some attention, I find that a lot of Universal’s original houses really go above and beyond in terms of creativity and set-design. So how does the first original house, Depths of Fear, rank? Pretty great, actually! Taking place in an underwater mining facility, Depths of Fear is like a blend between John Carptenter’s The Thing and Aliens. Immediately upon entering, alarms will sound and an overhead voice will warn you of the vessel’s imminent implosion. An amphibious creature, dead, hovers above the water attached to chains. The opening room really does a great job of setting the tone, and guests will further explore the vessel to find the crew overrun by these amphibious monsters. While the creatures themselves skew more towards “ridiculous” than “horrific”, I found the setting to be really unique and fun. There’s a ton of detail for those who look for it, including infected crewmen, a victim with their entire arm being swallowed and someone’s best friend who…didn’t quite make the escape! I found the “resolution” to the house to be a little lacking, but again, absolutely loved the water elements and the setting in which this house takes place.
The second original house, Graveyard Games, continues the trend in stunning set-design. While the set-up is a simple one, it’s done in really fun and creative fashion! Teens have entered a cemetery and found that the ghosts there don’t care for their kind. It’s easy to see which team we’re rooting for here! The opening scene feels like something out of Return of the Dead, with a punk spray painting headstones and guests as they enter the cemetery. It’s not long before we’re introduced to our recurring “character” of the house; a ghoul that’s very reminiscent of the Bride from Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Guests will find more ghouls popping out from the walls, in a fashion that almost reminds one of an old-school carnival haunt. I mean that as a compliment! This house keeps you moving and the scares don’t slow down! Although you might want to, if only to appreciate the gorgeous lighting and set-design. The blue lights illuminating from the graves and catacombs are offset nicely by candles and cell phones, clutched by recently-murdered teens. Not to spoil one of the greater rooms of the house, but you’ll find inhabitants younger than teens, and they’re not too happy about their place either. Graveyard Games is a beautiful house, filled with tons of fun jump scares that are sure to put a smile on your face!
NIGHTINGALES: BLOOD PIT
The next original house invites guests to the bowels of a gladiatorial arena where slaves find themselves fending for their lives against blood-thirsty nightingales. These creatures, while humanoid in appearance, have bird-like features and some nasty teeth when viewed up-close. This also isn’t the first time nightingales have been featured at HHN, as they devoured victims in the trenches of World War I back in 2011. Here, we’re presented with the gladiators first before the real frights go down. In one cool interaction, a gladiator punches another, breaking his neck and spraying blood on fellow guests. Shortly after, we find the gladiators ripped to pieces and the nightingales feasting on everything. While the premise of this house is pretty solid, I don’t think Universal really capitalized on the concept of an all-out battle between gladiators and nightingales. I’d imagine some really cool rooms would come from that idea, but the bulk of the house resorts to nightingales popping out behind corners and curtains. Save for a lion encounter that changes things up, the house remains repetitive until its underwhelming end. I’d argue that this is the one maze you could skip if time is not on your side.
YETI: TERROR OF THE YUKON
Last, but far from least, we have Yeti: Terror of the Yukon! The story puts you in a remote part of the northern wilderness where you’ll find inhabited cabins under the attack of monstrous yetis. While I wasn’t sold on the initial premise, I can tell you that this house is absolutely amazing! Upon your initial entrance, you’ll find yourself in the woods, with cold air blowing and snow falling. As you make your way through the cabins, yetis will not only come out to attack you, but also the northerners fending for their lives! One of the first rooms features a grizzled northerner firing off his rifle, only to see his friend’s intestines being pulled out and eaten by a yeti. It’s a fantastic scene and really makes you feel like that you’re in the middle of this attack, and not just the focus. The design is impeccable, from the wooded areas to the lived-in cabins to the blood-stained yetis – it all looks amazing. Universal doesn’t skimp on the gore either, as one encounter features a wounded northerner impaled by an approaching yeti from behind! This house displays some of the best interactions between team members and is, all the while, gorgeous to look at. As you near the end, you’ll find a yeti up above, hunting his prey from atop a cliff. Seeking refuge inside a nearby cave turns deadly, as if it’s a rated-R version of the Wampa’s ice cave from Empire Strikes Back! Again, this is the kind of creativity I love to see at Universal’s original houses and it was easily one of my favorite!
Points A and B of anyone’s HHN travels may consist of the haunted houses, but the journey between them will be populated with all sorts of ghoulish delights. Enter the scare zones of HHN! These select themed areas are teeming with scareactors, free to roam and interact with guests in unique ways. Ranging from funny to fearful, let’s take a look at which scare zones will put a smile on your face or send you running!
ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP
I think we’re all a little surprised, but no less excited, that a sequel to Zombieland finally hits later this year! No better way to celebrate than to spend some time in this scare zone! Here you’ll find yourself face to face with a zombie horde, some even recognizable from the film! The “Bill Murray zombie” is a personal fan favorite, complete with golf club! You’ll also find the coveted Zombieland rules written in various locations, offering up advice on how to stay alive in these trying times. Guests who stick around long enough may find Columbus working on his calisthenics, or Tallahassee trying to get his Zombie Kill of the Week!
ROB ZOMBIE: HELLBILLY DELUXE
For those of you who didn’t get their Rob Zombie fill in House of 1,000 corpses, I would direct your attention over to this crowd-pleasing scare zone. The titular album plays to great effect, as you’re literally thrust in what feels like a Rob Zombie music video! Dancers keep the energy alive while the Superbeast and Living Dead Girl (among others) are free to roam. The fog and the lights in this area are fantastic and, despite it’s relatively small size, it was one of my favorite places to spend some time in!
Going back to the ’80, this arcade features giant cabinets with neon lights and a very Tron-esque aesthetic. The stilt walkers sporting nunchucks and retro sunglasses are guaranteed to make it into most people’s favorite pics of that event. This is the smallest scare zone and, regrettably, doesn’t feel fully-realized. With that said, it does offer some really cool lighting and visuals.
While interaction with most scareactors is very limited, Vanity Ball offers up a unique scare zone in that most of the scareactors can and WILL talk to you! These victims of plastic surgery are operating a runway like you’ve never seen, where over-injected lips and faces take center stage. They look like something out of the classic Twilight Zone episode, Eye of the Beholder! For those who stick around a bit longer, the hosted fashion show is one for the books.
Central Park is usually host to the darkest scare zone of the year, and this one is no different. Vikings Undead will find you up against exactly that, as gruesome warriors are free to roam the darkened streets and sneak up on unsuspecting folk. Those who take the time to look off to the sides will find a shaman of sorts doing…well, whatever shamans like to do, as well as an undead Viking stripping meat off of a corpse. Not far from this area is the chainsaw horde, occupying the Simpsons area, complete with light-up saws and masks, looking to take down guests trying to pass by. They’re both pretty cool areas, although the lighting makes it hard to enjoy some of the detail.
If you’re looking to take a break from all of the scary action going on this year, Universal’s main show, Academy of Villains: Altered States, offers up some AMAZING choreography in the realm of dance, contortionist and aerialist art. The story follows that of a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde character(s), where Hyde is looking to infect his fellow citizens and transform them into something sinister. The themes tie in nicely for HHN and while the Bill and Ted show is missed by most, this a more than worthy substitute to keep audiences entertained (and a great place to rest your feet)!
New this year to HHN is a lagoon show celebrating some of the licensed houses. Halloween: Marathon of Mayhem utilizes water, lasers and projectors to present audiences with a celebration of Universal Monsters, Ghostbusters, Stranger Things and Killer Klowns. While the show does slightly overstay its welcome, it’s a decent way to take a break from the carnage of the houses and scare zones, offering up something different in the way of entertainment. Definitely worth a look if time permits.
That, my friends, is a modest look at what Universal Orlando has in store this year for Halloween Horror Nights! As you can see, there’s A LOT to digest, and I’m not even talking about the delicious twisted taters or pizza fries! Whether it’s the houses, scare zones, shows, food or drinks (signature cocktails around every corner), Universal made sure to give everyone a reason to hit up HHN more than once this year. They have proved, once again, that Halloween Horror Nights is the premiere Halloween event! So get out there and have fun, treat the scareactors with respect and enjoy the haunts! For more information on Halloween Horror Nights Orlando visit orlando.halloweenhorrornights.com/site/.