Halloween Horror Nights: A Hauntingly Good Time

Halloween Horror Nights:  A Hauntingly Good TimeHalloween Horror Nights:  A Hauntingly Good TimeHalloween Horror Nights:  A Hauntingly Good TimeHalloween Horror Nights:  A Hauntingly Good TimeHalloween Horror Nights:  A Hauntingly Good Time
The epic 25th year of the nationÕs best Halloween event, Universal OrlandoÕs Halloween Horror Nights, marks the biggest, longest and most intense event in history with nine haunted mazes, five unique scare zones and two thrilling shows. On select nights Sept. 18 through Nov. 1, guests can visit Universal OrlandoÕs theme parks by day and by night, become victims of their own horror film at Halloween Horror Nights 25.

The epic 25th year of the nation’s best Halloween event, Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights

As daytime segued into evening, the personality of Universal Studios Florida segued from fun and frivolity into apprehension and anxiety. I was in Orlando to attend the 25th anniversary edition of Halloween Horror Night,

Was I absolutely crazy for putting myself through an evening of terror?

Halloween Horror Night started in 1991 with one haunted house and was called Fright Nights. The following year it was re-named to its current moniker, scaring participants for a whopping three nights. The 2015 incarnation features nine houses, five scare zones, and two show productions over 30 nights.

Was I crazy? Perhaps. But I was also ready to tackle the evening!

Greg Nicotero, Chandler Riggs (both of The Walking Dead) and Director John Landis

Greg Nicotero, Chandler Riggs (both of The Walking Dead) and Director John Landis

I was privileged to attend a pre-scare media session featuring Mike Aiello (the creative force behind HHN), Jon Timon (Universal), Director John Landis (American Werewolf in London), Producer Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead co-executive producer with an impressive resume in special effects), and actor Chandler Riggs (who plays Carl on The Walking Dead).

While I know who John Landis is, but more for Animal House and Blues Brothers than for his horror films, the rest were unknowns to me. While I dabble in the horror film genre, I find the traditional horror elements to be compelling, this discussion was mostly about previous HHNs, slasher films, zombies, and films that I’m unfamiliar. But they sucked me into the discussion, talking about special effects and career evolutions, werewolves and zombies, and all sorts of other things that go bump in the night. I was hooked.

Was I crazy? No, I was fascinated at the horror history explained and excited about how the evening was going to unfold. I think of slasher movies as being without a plot, and this session was a big reveal on how developed the plots were in each of the house. It was time to put my mettle to the test and hit the scare zones and the nine houses.

Evil's Roots is the Scare Zone in the Central Park themed area

Evil’s Roots is the Scare Zone in the Central Park themed area

To move about HHN, you pass through Scare Zones, oudoor areas with “scaractors” (rhymes with characters) that carry out the theme of that area of the park. This creates a seamless scary experience as you’re always in the moment, never on the outside looking in. Characters will come up to you, chase you, jump out and tease you, all in the name of good scary fun.

This year’s Scare Zones are:

  • All Nite Die In:  Double Feature – Located in the San Francisco themed area of the park, you can find The Carey DrIvE IN movie theater and DIE IN.
  • Evil’s Roots – Located in the Central Park themed area, you’ll find the evil traditions of Halloween. Look out for the evil fairies and bats, the haunted jack-o-lanterns, and more.
  • ICONS:  HHN – This Scare Zone seemed to be favorite with repeat attendees of HHN as it features the best of characters over the past 25 years – it’s a scary retrospective.
  • Psychoscareapy:  Unleashed -Located in the New York themed area of the park, the criminally insane patients of Shadybrooke Asylum are disrupting a block party.
  • Scary Tales:  ScreamPunk – Scary and Steampunk melded together creates a screaming Scare Zone.

Was I scared? Just a little. There is a crazy level of activity going on in the Scare Zones and much of it fascinated me. I was constantly turning my head right and left, up and down, and that meant it was easy to be blind sided. It’s sensory overload with so much to see, lights flashing, music blaring, all sorts of sound effects, special effects, and it’s dark to boot. It’s easy to miss a chain saw toting zombie in that madness.

Tips for enjoying the Scare Zones:  Wear comfortable, close-toed shoes. You’re going to be doing a lot of walking so protect your feets and toes. Drink it all in, but watch where you’re walking. There is so much going on that it’s easy to get sidetracked from where you intended to go. The characters are usually willing to pose for photos, if you’re quick about it.

First stop was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, one of the two shows offered at HHN this year. We did this as our first stop in the evenings activities. Relying on the well known Bill and Ted characters, and audience familiar plot lines, this show was a parody of movies, televisions, and pop culture. I followed most of it, but have to begrudginly admit that there were a few zingers that went right over my head. Scary factor:  zero.

 

The Carnage Returns Show: Jack is Back

The Carnage Returns Show: Jack is Back

The other show offered is The Carnage Returns with Jack the Clown engaging in murderous mayhem. How scary can a clown be? Jack is back, and remember, he always has the last laugh. We didn’t see this show, but I’m advised that it has a bit of a scary factor.

Tip for enjoying these shows: I’d suggest using these seated events to break up the time on your feet. There are still lines for the shows, but you’re rewarded with great entertainment AND a chance to sit down and rest up. I think it would make for better pacing.

There are nine haunted houses (also called mazes) this year, set up in locations around the park in a combination of actual house structures and specially erected tents. While I did the houses in order, one through nine, there is no specific reason for doing so – pick the themes you like best, and go there first.

An American Werewolf in London haunted house at HHN25

An American Werewolf in London haunted house at HHN

The nine houses are:

  • An American Werewolf in London – Based on the 1981 classic John Landis film of the same name, this hosue was probably my favorite. The werewolves represented a creative example of what special effects and makeup can do. Loved it, and it was the house I would want to go through again.
  • Asylum in Wonderland 3D – This house provided you with 3D glasses as you walked in. I have an equilibrium problem with 3D movies and exhibits, and this was no exception. I took the glasses off and still had a fun time, but can only imagine how intense it would be with the glasses on. There were fun retro touches and at times it felt a bit like an old fashioned fun house.
  • Body Collectors:  Recollections – Based in Shadybrook Asylum, I wasn’t familiar with this plot. I thought the set was the “prettiest” however, with its gothic snowing setting.
  • Freddy vs. Jason – If this isn’t the classic showdown I don’t know what is. Whether you’re Team Freddy or Team Jason, this one will be a great time. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of these movies, and the house doesn’t make to want me see more, but for sheer classic slasher terror, this ones gets both thumbs up from me.
  • Insidious – Another movie franchise that I am unfamiliar with, and probably my least favorite of the houses.
  • Jack Presents:  25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem – This was a crowd favorites, especially for the regular attendees of HHN. Think of it as a reunion from all the monsters and ghouls from previous years.
  • The Purge – Walk through this one before you head to the prom and see if it doesn’t give you a new take on High School headaches.
  • RUN:  Blood, Sweat and Fears – Work you way through death mazes in this house inspired by the television series.
  • The Walking Dead – Themed on season five of the popular television show, I’d say that this was the crowd favorite. I didn’t follow the storylines, but it has motivated to binge watch the show and catch up.

Tips for seeing the houses:  Lines are long, the temperature is warm (and sometimes the tempers get that way, too), so wear comfy shows (flat and closed toes) and bring water to keep hydrated. You’re going to be spending  a lot of time on your feet, so plan accordingly. The houses will put you on sensory overload, with loud noises, bright lights, strobes, strange smells, and all sorts of things that jump out at you. When you need a break between this intensity, catch one of the shows, or head to another area of the park (more on that below).

Scary factor? It varies. I think that I over-prepared for an intense experience and as a result, I didn’t find it terribly scary. In fact, I spent a lot of time smiling and laughing in awe and amazement. The effects were amazing, and I appreciated the creativity that went into it, even if I wasn’t scared witless.

To be fair, however, I was an anomaly about the scare factor. I was surrounded by scared and screaming people. Smiles or screams – your mileage may vary.

If you are exhausted, over stimulated, or just need a break from the intensity of HHN, you can find some safe zones in the rest of the park. A number of traditional rides and attractions were open, including The Simpsons Ride, Transformers, Revenge of the Mummy (one of my favorites), Men in Black Alien Attck (another favorite, can see myself riding it over and over), Rip Ride Rockit (a crazy roller coaster that I have no need to do again), and Escape from Gringotts. Many of the facilities and shops in Diagon Alley were open, making it a popular spot to rest up and grab a butter beer.

Tips for having the best HHN experience:

  • Plan and prepare. Seriously. Figure out when you want to go and set aside the time and money to do it right.
  • Make HHN the focal point of your day, rather than fitting it in around other activities. Sleep in, spend some time by the pool, have a good dinner (restaurants aren’t open when the park closes, although the clubs at CityWalk are), and have full stamina in reserves.
  • Consider a resort and ticket combination package. Not only does this make in convenient, and you don’t have to drive home in the wee hours, these packages have some much value packed into them, that it makes a sensible choice. Package prices vary based on accommodations preferred, but include room, park admission with early entry, HHN admission, and lots of other benefits.
  • Get the HHN Express Pass. This is critical if you’re trying to see everything in one night, but even if you’re coming for a couple of nights, why waste your time in long lines. Many theme parks and attractions offer this type of skip the line option, and I recommend it as a value luxury option. It’s a real luxury to walk by that long line and queue up quickly.
  • Dress appropriately. How many times do I have to say it – where comfortable clothing, especially shoes.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a break. Head to one of the other rides or Diagon Alley for a break. These are safe zones, no monsters and ghouls will follow you,

Location:  Universal Studios Orlando, 6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, Florida

Dates & Times:  Selected dates through November 1, 2015

Tickets:  A variety of individual ticket options are available if you’re not opting for a resort package.

Disclosure:  My trip to Orlando, along with the time spent at Universal Orlando and HHN25 was sponsored by theme park. The sights and frights were all my own.

Photo credits:  In keeping with the requested policy, I didn’t take pictures inside the houses. With the exception of the press conference (which I took with my phone), the remaining photos are used with permission of Universal.

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Mary Jo Manzanares is a traveler, travel blogger, and podcaster. In addition to her blog, Traveling with MJ, she hosts the Where Else to Go podcast, and is the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Traveler’s Way, an online travel magazine. Her travel ethos is value luxury - luxury for real people - and her goal is to help travelers know when to splurge and when to save. Mary Jo has been a speaker at various industry events around the world. When she’s not traveling, Mary Jo likes lingering over a cup of coffee, wandering in a museum, sipping wine at a cafe, and sharing it all with friends and readers. Her most recent travels were to Israel, Stockholm, and a Baltic cruise.

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