2012, Attractions, General, Haunted Attractions, Theme Parks

Review: Universal Studios Orlando, Florida – Halloween Horror Nights 2012 was the most disappointing haunt of the year so far

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If you’ve ever wanted to hear Oni and Harknell literally freak out and go nuts, this podcast for this post is the one to listen to:

Episode 7: Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights 2012

(BTW: Subscribe here!)

Universal Studios Florida Halloween Horror Nights 2012 has been the Halloween event that Harknell and I have talked the most about this year thus far. We love Universal Studios and HHN. Normally, HHN is one of the major events we look forward to all year ‘round. We have been huge fans of HHN since our first year we attended it in 2008. We have gone every year since then and normally spend at least 2 days at Universal Studios to get through every house at least twice; last year we even went 3 days. The houses, scarezones, and atmosphere are usually second to none.

You can imagine how awful I must feel when I say to you that this is the first year that HHN was so poorly executed that we wanted to not come back after only 1 day. Our experience at HHN this year was so negative that we’ve been talking about it for days in disbelief.

If you have the budget to only go to Orlando for HHN once every so many years, you should skip this year and try again in 2013. It’s infuriatingly nowhere near the quality they normally put out.

We’ll explain why we feel this way.

Scarezones and Atmosphere:

There were only minimal props in front of the park and absolutely no monitor playing any sort of attract sequence as they normally have had in previous years. No scare actors were to be found, either. Instead there was a generic plastic sign in its place and a few cloth bits tacked up.

Be sure to arrive at the park either at 6PM or at 9PM to avoid the clusterfuck at the park entrance due to the security line. There are no queues marked off, so you’ll be standing in an unruly horde of drunks. I took this photo and had to lighten it in Photoshop because of how dark it was. The actual crowd was about 6x what you can see here. I was in the center of a giant swarm. I had a small panic attack in here because I did not feel safe:

A large portion of the park is currently under construction due to the removal of the JAWS ride. This is an unavoidable situation, but how they handled it was – well nothing. They did nothing to cover up or theme the construction area. Other parks may have put up a Halloween backdrop on the walls (A Walking Dead zombie backdrop would have been pretty awesome) – Uni did nothing here.

The park is harder to move about and more crowded due to the smaller space and confusion about how to get anywhere. To compound the traffic flow issues due to the construction, Uni thought it would be a good idea to eliminate their Scarezones completely in favor of Roaming Hordes. I initially didn’t like this idea. I run events myself and I believed it would not work with Uni’s layout.

Unfortunately, I was right.

I rarely saw any scare actors. When I did see them, it was so crowded that park guests overwhelmed them in numbers so that it just seemed silly. They functioned as either an annoyance to get past or a traffic flow issue. Their costumes were extremely cheap looking such that we joked “Here comes random Halloween mask man #3”. The only good atmosphere characters were a handful of the guys on stilts, and were wearing re-used costumes from previous years. Here is one:

Theming in the park was minimal and underwhelming. No scare zones, remember? They rolled out a few tombstones that were reused from haunted houses they had made in past years and basic props in certain areas, but it was more like Six Flags and less like Universal Studios quality. If you enjoy having a drink by a Scarezone while watching people get scared, forget it. You can no longer do this. There are no scare zones and no good options to people watch.

The sound in the park sounded like a car with broken speakers. It would fade in and out depending on where you were. The amazing and dramatic pumpkin forest was back. This was awesome, but it wasn’t placed in its normal area – it was broken up into a few clumps near the ET ride in a way that made it seem not dramatic at all, and you had to be in a queue for one of the houses to really see them at all.

Houses:

There are only 7 houses this year instead of 8 due to the park construction. This is a forgivable situation. We understand that things like this can cause issues.

The houses at Universal Studios are always great quality, but this year there were a few clunkers that were well below the quality level I’d expect.

Gothic was one of the best looking houses. It was really well done. Gargoyles would attack you from various locations and there was a phenomenal ending sequence that has you looking downward into a cathedral (using a neat mirror trick).

Dead End was a very well done haunt inside a fake house. I felt it was less good than Legendary Truth, which was a previous year house designed haunt, due to less scares coming from the floor or ceiling, but it still was very good.

House of Horrors was all about classic monsters done in Black and White. THIS WAS AWESOME! It was very unexpected. I screamed all through this one.

Silent Hill looked beautiful, but the scares in there were pretty rare the 2 times we went through and seemed limited to the predictable “lunge and scream” variety.

We noticed that a lot of the scare actors inside the houses seemed to be off their game and wondered why. It was like everyone was doing the “lunge and scream” but nothing else. In past years we had actors who were tag teaming up complex distraction scares, improv acting, and generally going nuts for our enjoyment. I wondered if they had cut back on training this year.

We voiced this concern to a friend and heard later that according to some reports a large number of veteran actors were not re-hired and they went largely with new people. If this is true, this might explain why we were able to walk through a lot of the houses with only people screaming in our faces.

This year we had houses we didn’t care to go back through for a second time, which is a first for us.

The Penn and Teller house had cool buttons in it that you could push to activate effects, but the house itself left us totally cold. (See photos in the gallery below.)

This house screamed “cheap”. The 3D element seemed to be there to distract from the empty rooms rather than add anything to it. To begin with, they had the overused, off the rack “puking man” animatronic that every county fair buys to put inside their $2.50 per person haunt operated out of a tin truck. (Sorry, no pix of that – they had him covered up for the tour.) I was absolutely stunned to see such a low quality, mass-produced piece of crap in front of a Universal Studios house. Were they shopping for props in the mall?

The Walking Dead looked really cool, but much of the house was a bit empty when we went through.

Alice Cooper was conceptually interesting because Alice Cooper is The Man. They had a good room of spider women, but we opted to skip a second trip. I liked it better than Harknell did, who didn’t like it at all. The facade had just a floodlight over it. This was terrible in comparison with the facade that was there last year which had many lights, projections, and props on it.

Usually even the “lesser” houses are still full of quality props. We noticed that there were more bare painted walls than ever before and cheap off the rack items. They should be embarrassed over this. They really should. This is Universal, not Chuck E. Cheese or the Jersey Shore.

Bill and Ted:

The Bill and Ted show is usually enjoyable, but this year it was cataclysmically terrible. They re-used jokes from the show 4 years ago during the last Presidential election year. (What?) The jokes that were not re-used were predictable crass jokes that a kid might write such as Snooki blasting a baby out of her vagina 80 feet into the air. They also apparently thought it would be hilarious to call people and things “gay” for about 5 minutes as a pejorative. The rest of the show followed the formula: Bring up pop culture thing, tell everyone why it sucks or is “gay”.

I wasn’t offended, I was just bored. If I wanted to hear bad kiddy jokes I’d start a day care.

This is the first year I am advising you to skip Bill and Ted. It is not worth you time.

Conclusion:

My rather jerky assessment of this year’s icon being “Budget Cuts” was unfortunately true. I really wanted to go on here afterward and tell you I was wrong, but I cannot do that and still be telling you the truth.

Everything felt smaller this year. Everything felt like it was done on the cheap. (Is it possible that their budget was cut to pay for the new construction?) Many of the houses are still great, but many fell embarrassingly short of what I’d expect from an establishment such as Universal. It’s as if they knew they had construction in the park and instead of saying “Let’s give it our all to mitigate it”, they decided to go small and hope we’d not notice.

We noticed.

Some pix from the event:



Oni Hartstein is a Los Angeles-based CMO and entrepreneur that is obsessed with progressive rock / metal, marketing, and nightlife. Please direct all business inquiries or review requests to the "Contact" tab on the top nav bar.

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