That’s a pretty blunt post title, isn’t it? Unfortunately it is warranted in our experience. I’ll explain.
In 2008 we went to our first Universal Studios Florida Halloween Horror Nights. It was the best day of our lives. It is what fully ignited my love of Haunted attractions and led me to become a popular writer in this space. When I am in an old folks home I will still regard that day as a huge positive turning point in my life. I wear a bird necklace that you’ll see in almost every photo of me because I wear it almost every single day. I purchased it on that night on Citywalk before going to my first HHN. I wear it to remind me that awesome things can happen in life. Here is it in this pic I recently posted:
I don’t have a review up for HHN 2008 because none of this had started yet. I had no idea that something so amazing, creative, fun, and deep existed. You might be able to tell by my blog that I am not doing this for money. I am not interested in only posting about one topic–I am not interested in selling my blog to a company. I am interested in sharing what I love and meeting new people with it. It was a surprise that I’d like any one topic enough to post this much on it, and an even bigger surprise when my blog became heavily read and trusted in the haunted attraction space – simply because I wasn’t in anyone’s pocket. When I’d be out at conventions working my table for my art and I’d get stopped and asked about theme parks and Halloween events frequently – that’s when I decided to do it every year.
In 50 years I’ll still remember that first HHN fondly. The work done that year was second to none. You could taste the passion for the art in the air and witness the love that they put into the event. It was clear. They had achieved nothing short of triumphant and earned their reputation for being #1.
It’s upsetting to me that each year since 2008 we noticed that parts of the event had started to erode. For example, in 2008, they had a large plasma screen up front plus elaborate decor all over the front gate. I do not have a photo of the decor but I do have an old video of the plasma screen here:
This year we had no decor and just this and a handful of other similar posters:
This is a pretty good illustration of how far the event has truncated.
The layout, staging, and production of the event’s elements became less creative or were eliminated altogether as time progressed. No more front gate decor and scare actors out front. Scarezones ceased being cohesive and became junkyard museums for old costumes and props instead of feeling planned out and executed for that year. Each year that we attended this event we could plainly tell that there was less and less love put into it incrementally.
I’m a Marketing VP and I handle major events myself for my day job. I will be the first to admit that you can take away certain things from an event and still have a fun event. As much as I loved the interactive website, emphasis on a new icon each year, elaborate front gate with scare actors out front, and cameos from the icon inside each house – sure you can remove all of that and still have a great event. And remove all of that they did. But they went a few steps too far and this year. It reached critical failure to the point that the only people who can excuse this are:
1. People working for the park.
2. Amateur bloggers who have been bribed with free tickets to the event.
3. People who have never seen a better event before and have nothing to compare it to.
Universal Studios failed this year on every park guest-facing level. If you read through my review archive you will see that we almost never post negative reviews here. Usually one of us can find a positive about an event even if it doesn’t satisfy us personally. We usually research well enough such that we avoid bad events altogether rather than have to write about them. We are NOT the consumer reports of haunted houses. If I feel my evening is going to be a bad evening I simply don’t go.
I normally would pass this review off to Harknell to write because he doesn’t get riled up like I do. He’s softer and far more easygoing than I am. It should tell you something when my mild-mannered husband declined to write this one saying that his review would be one phrase: “Shit Sandwich”.
The event was so attendee hostile and poorly implemented that it almost felt like we were all the butt of a sick joke.
Day 1: Entering the park:
Our day at Universal Studios started out hostile as usual. Last year their security team significantly injured me where I had had leg surgery when they forcefully tried to search me for weapons. They hurt me pretty badly and when I screamed in pain roughly pushed me through into the park without so much as an apology.
That’s the kind of treatment you can expect from their security team every year and it doesn’t appear to be changing. They are so hostile to park guests that when you encounter regular park employees who are trained to be cordial toward you it almost registers as sarcasm.
Luckily my entry to the park was less physically painful this year because nobody injured me, but it was still extremely hostile.
The Scarezones and general atmosphere:
The atmosphere of the park was almost as congested as the year that they had much of the park under construction. Why? Because of extremely poor placement and minimal signage for some of the haunted house queues coupled with the poor placement of the “The Carnage Returns” stage show. Maybe this was supposed to be a centerpiece of the icon retrospective scarezone, but it felt like an amateurish fart over the park’s traffic flow grid. What normally would have been great areas to explore this year are hellish snarls of crowds compressed into confusing pathways.
All Nite Die-In – Double Feature was a pretty cute set up of a drive in theater and vintage monsters. It was one of the few scarezones that seemed to be cohesive.
Evil’s Roots was under the pumpkin forest, but wasn’t terribly different or inspiring – and it was hindered by being part of the before mentioned traffic hell zone.
Scary Tales – ScreamPunk Similarly was a bunch of their old costumes. Gears and corsets. When it was originally done it was new – it isn’t anymore.
ICONS – HHN was the only scarezone that should have been all old icons and they did achieve this. The icons had mini stage shows that happened at random times, but it was impossible to know when, unless I just totally missed it. Not like I would have wanted to stay there in the crowd snarl to see any of it, anyway. Did I mention that it was a terribly uncomfortable atmosphere? It was horrendous. No pun intended.
Psychoscareapy – Unleashed Executive: “Hey this will be a great one to put all of the old costumes on people and give them chainsaws and we can save money. Yeah, chainsaws. Chainsaws. Yeah.”
We had dirty man with chainsaw. Dubstep teen with chainsaw. Clown with chainsaw. I almost expected chainsaw with chainsaw because it was so ridiculous. Many of the costumes were so low level that I almost mistook one actor for a scroungy park guest.
I totally get that this was their 25 year celebration and would expect to see some older costumes. But this largely felt like they did minimal effort and threw what they had sitting in the back in random places to avoid a financial spend. It didn’t feel like a celebration – it felt like autopilot.
If you asked park staff how to enter some of the houses nearby (which weren’t clearly marked) you got 2 responses:
1. They didn’t know and would send you the wrong way so another staffer would scream at you .
2. They would not answer, wave their flashlight in your face, and scream, “MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”.
I didn’t think I would ever see a worse park atmosphere than the year most of the park was under construction, but they achieved it. Going to my office job would be more fun than being in this park, so we left on the first day (since we had purchased Frequent Fear which allowed us to come back without buying another ticket) after only seeing the Bill and Ted stage show. The lines for the houses immediately reached 60-100 minutes because as usual they were not blending Expresspass into the line at even ratios. They were hard stopping both lines for extended times and signaling each in like a traffic light. This meant that even the Expresspass line wasn’t going fast so park guests were surly and drunk.
Bill and Ted:
In 2008 and 2009 I greatly enjoyed this show. It’s now an unfunny, sometimes malicious shell of what it used to be with plenty of regurgitated jokes from 2008 and 2009.
I can say that it improved from the last 2 years because they didn’t maliciously make fun of gay people or hire a larger actress to stand on stage while they called her fat in as many ways as they could for the LULZ. They did subject us to video reels from YouTube of people falling down and getting injured or fat people falling off things as a pre-show, which really felt like I was living in the film Idiocracy and this is “Ow! My balls! The Stage Show.”
The entire show was a a played out Kanye West joke. It doesn’t offend me, it just felt like a total waste of my time. In past years this show had been witty. It had felt like it was written to poke fun at pop culture from a geeky, intelligent point of view. It reminded me a bit of the show “Daria” on MTV back in the day. Now it feels like the bullies who would put gum in Daria’s hair have taken over the writing and are pandering to Beavis and Butthead as intellectual peers.
Day 2: Expresspass
We felt ripped off having gone to this event and seeing zero haunted houses. We bought Expresspass for day 2 just to ensure we’d be able to at least see them all once as we were already thinking that this may be our last HHN we attend, ever.
I do not recommend you do this event without Expresspass. Your line will still be long and uncomfortable, but you will at least get through them all once.
RUN: Blood, Sweat, and Fears This was supposed to be a TV show where you have to get through every room and “the more horrifying your death, the higher the ratings.” They should have said “The more boring your death…” This house was so bad that it was the only house to have a 5 minute wait for a significant period of time.
It was neither pretty to look at, scary, or fun. It consisted of people from different countries menacing you with chainsaws or whatever separated by totally empty rooms. I would not be surprised if I found out that it was last year’s house gutted to the metal beams with new actors thrown in.
And let’s be honest–this was basically “The Running Man” movie house, but without a license. Maybe they couldn’t get that, or ran out of money after buying all of the other IP licenses–who knows–but it wasn’t even good at being that. It quite literally was the worst haunted attraction they’ve ever had since we’ve been going to the event.
I had a particularly bad experience with Universal Studios security at this house.
They stopped the line before me when I was next in the queue to enter for about 80 seconds and then told me to proceed. I begin to walk at a normal pace toward the house’s entrance. Immediately before even getting into the house after taking 2 steps their security runs at me waving their hand in my face screaming “MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”
I nearly told her to fuck off for how over the top nasty she was. YOUR PEOPLE stopped the line in front of the house while you were watching and aware of the situation. It’s not my fault there’s a gap in front of me.
I did learned in here how poor the design of these houses are for being first in line. Perhaps that is why they don’t want any gaps. The houses are designed for a conga line. If there’s no one in front of you you will not be able to figure out where to go. I walked into the wrong area a couple times because it really seemed like that was the pathway.
Universal Studios builds in a bad experience with their security waving flashlights at you and telling you to move – they aren’t just rude – they are part of the design.
This house was the same location of the Halloween house last year and seemed literally like just a slight re skin of that house with a less good finale and sets more sparsely decorated.
I was shocked with how little they did in here and we joked that the budget was 5 bucks. They changed the front facade but you could even see the trellis of the front facade through it. Yeah, seriously. The front facade with the trellis showing seemed to be the biggest change in the entire house. So much for Universal Studios having great sets!
We though they had effects on it but it was just the wind and then something that fell behind the damn thing. It was almost comedy, but I paid money to get in here.
Body Collectors – Recollections:
This house also had quite a few copy paste rooms from the original Body Collectors house. Basically it was the same stuff but it’s winter. It wasn’t done nearly as well as it was in the past. I don’t really have anything else I can say about it aside from how sad it was to see the amazing scene that I so loved in 2008 of the girl getting her spine ripped out staged so poorly.
Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem:
This house was the best one of the night. Guess why? It was a copy paste (do you notice a theme here?) of the greatest hits of many of the best rooms from the past years when they actually put work into the event.
As nice as it was to see some of the old classics, it answered my question. I had been asking myself up until this point, “Is it just me thinking the quality is lower? Have I changed? Am I going insane?”
Nope. This house was visual proof right here that they used to do better work even though some of the staging and lighting in here was inferior to the original versions they did.
Freddy vs. Jason:
This house was actually pretty decent. I enjoyed myself in here a bit. It was hard to after having had such a bad time up to that point, but I felt that they actually put some effort in here. I loved seeing the 2 guys duel. It was visually amusing and one of the best houses of the night.
An American Werewolf In London:
This again was mostly a copy paste of the last time they had this house. They changed some minor rooms around and I believe they made the subway more prevalent but it was such a non material change that they may as well have just not changed anything. It felt like the exact same house regardless of effort.
Asylum In Wonderland 3D:
This was the second worst haunted house that universal studios has ever produced. The front facade was another reused facade and the inside was black walls with psychedelic 90s airbrushing and mirrors everywhere. Any farm in PA or NJ did a better house than this. The 3D haunted house concept is outdated on the main haunt circuit, but Universal figured out a way to take an outdated concept and do absolutely nothing with it.
Kids could erect this in their backyard with help from their parents. The costumes were better than most of the costumes you’d find on a farm haunt, but not by that much. This was hilariously dumb. And we paid to get into this. We are dumb asses. I can’t believe I paid money for this.
The Walking Dead: The Living and the Dead:
This is the 4th year TWD has been at the park. In past years TWD house was well done and even scared me a few times. I understand the criticism about using the same IP every year, but a good house is a good house. If you rock the design and concept it’s still great. This year it felt like a half-assed attempt to recreate some scenes from last season without any narrative to make it understandable by everyone. It was way below what they did in past years for the show. Here is why I say that: In past years people who did not watch the show (like my husband) could understand and enjoy what was happening in each room. This year if you did not see the last season you had no idea what was going on. If you aren’t a fan of the show many of the rooms lacked narrative so badly that you won’t follow what’s going on. I had to explain to my husband what was happening in many of the rooms such as the cannibal room and the end room with the club music blaring. If you have seen the show and have had about 7 beers you won’t mind.
We kept saying before we got into the house that a cool way to make this amazing and a totally justifiable 4th year would be to have the main characters attack you in the haunt and then at the end you find out that YOU are the zombies. That would have been masterful.
No, they didn’t do that. The did the minimum. Here’s some people in dirty clothes. And we predicted that a set piece they created last year would be back–and of course it was–you don’t spend money without reusing things no matter how unneeded they are–no need to waste any money making something new and original.
This house was a scarezone in the past and they created an actual house for it. It wasn’t as bad as Run or the 3D house and a few of the rooms told stories, which I liked. It wasn’t worth a second trip through, though. Nothing absolutely revolutionary in here but they kept a narrative flow in many rooms, which was good. One thing to note though: They actually aim prop guns at you. I find it rare that haunts will do that, but this house had a huge number of gun fire set ups. In many haunts they will fire a prop gun upwards as a sound scare, or aim it off to the side. Just a FYI for anyone who might find this a bit disturbing. You will get shot directly at with air gun effects in here.
Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights once was the #1 event in the world. It’s now coasting on its historical reputation and isn’t #1 in anything unless we are doing a Worst Halloween Event list. Their houses are blatantly constructed with the least effort and financial spend that they can get away with. The sets aren’t that pretty anymore and their actors are on timers so they can’t even scare you directly. (Yep, they pop out to empty rooms at scheduled intervals–we saw this many times) Their scareactors in the houses are just human animatronics and don’t appear to be given the freedom to target anyone or use timing to their advantage. (Training? Why waste money or time on that?)
HHN is not for haunted house fans. This event is for drunk kids who are there to keg party. You may not notice how bad it is if you have never experienced a good Halloween event or are stuck with just Florida’s options but I do not have that limitation in my life and so I cannot share in that perspective.
The emphasis of HHN has shifted from from creating great work and selling drinks to doing the absolute bare minimum, slash it to the bone financial spend in order to sell drinks. It feels like an experiment in how lackluster they can make the event and how hostile they can make the park atmosphere before their financials get hit with an attendance drop.
I firmly believe that what they are doing is impacting their long term success and reputation for short term dirty gains. We all know that corporations are all about the financials of this quarter and aren’t concerned if in 10 years they are known as America’s Shithole.
We had such a horrendously bad time here that it actually put both of us in a foul mood for most of our vacation. It’s clear to us that Universal Studios isn’t interested in doing anything but the minimum and is only banking on a captive audience and a reputation that hasn’t been true for years. This is my last year attending this event unless this trend reverses.
If you are considering HHN and actually care about mostly Haunted Houses I used to say that it was hectic but the sets were pretty so it was worth your time.
I can’t say that this year.
I suggest driving to Netherworld in Georgia, or any of the Florida local haunts. The local and indie haunts actually care about what they do and won’t treat you badly like we were treated on this night. The drive is worth it to avoid rewarding HHN’s hostility with your money. We will not be back unless it changes dramatically–which we can’t see happening given it’s ongoing downward direction.
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.
Hang out with me:
- Share this post: