Harknell and I attended Universal studios Halloween Horror Nights on Saturday, October 8 2016 in Orlando, Florida.
Disclosure: This is not a review. Harknell and I toured the event with Creative Director Michael Aiello for free and skipped all lines. My experience does not reflect the experience of an average customer so I will be talking honestly and transparently about the event’s features instead of reviewing it. My aim here is to help you guys can understand what’s here and empower you to make a decision on if the event is right for you. I always have and always will keep it legit with you.
I do genuinely think that they made some great improvements this year. But first, some background is needed!
My biggest complaint from last year is how I was made to feel at the event by their 2 checkpoints of aggressive security. If you have never been to this park you need to understand that there is a garage where you park to enter the park. The walkways before you get to Universal Studios is called CityWalk and it features shops and restaurants. There’s no knife or gun shop in CityWalk so I found it peculiar that they needed a security checkpoint just to get to this area. Previously you would have to enter the park through Universal Studios CityWalk, go through security there, then walk past the shops, and then go through security again at the park turnstiles.
This second security checkpoint’s implementation was problematic in the past. You’d need to funnel yourself into a horde of impatient (and possibly drunk) park guests. There was no queue or line management as such. It’s likely you may have gotten shoved, kicked, or hit by other park guests intentionally or unintentionally trying to make it to the front of the line to go through the security scanners. If you are claustrophobic, worried about being groped/touched/hit this would probably be of concern to you. The only other place I’ve encountered a line handled like this was at Six Flags Great Adventure Fright Fest in 2007 – right before I never went back to that event because of how badly managed the crowds were. I enjoy Universal Studios and was irritated because I think highly of the park in general. Any comparison with Six Flags is just…it shouldn’t be possible by me or anyone else. Universal Studios is a top tier park and should be run like one.
They completely fixed this this year. You now just go through 1 thorough security checkpoint at the beginning of Citywalk and wait for the event to start in the Guest Services area at the Universal Studios gate. Harknell and I both thought this was great right from the start and a major re-think on the part of Universal.
This year they have 9 Haunted Houses, so let’s go through it:
American Horror Story:
This house was made up of Murder House, Freak Show and Hotel. The staging, lighting, and execution was phenomenal. I’m a fan of this show but even if you are not this house delivers. I was told that this is the most popular haunted house in the event’s history and I have to agree that I can see why. On the night we went it had a much higher queue line all night long–go to this first if you can, the rest will be much easier to get through.
I did notice where the line in their depiction of the show probably was though – you won’t see any aborted babies in Dr. Charles Montgomery’s area, but you will see the Infantata, and I noticed that there were multiple scares for each character so that if you miss a scare you’ll be hit by their alternate scare. I am not sure I noticed this implemented this well before, but this year every house had great alternate scares.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: I am completely unfamiliar with this film so I can’t comment on how accurate it is to the film. (I seriously doubt they didn’t nail it because that’s never been something that’s been an issue with this event.) I can tell you that we enjoyed going through, the rooms were laid out well and there were various types of scares in here. I like when rooms tell a story and sure enough there were scenes with 2 actors menacing each other. Coolness!
The Walking Dead: Guys, I don’t dislike TWD, but I personally sure am sick of it. It’s very popular so I get why it’s here again. That said, I felt that this year’s TWD house was so much better than last year’s. Every year they have done TWD the houses flowed pretty well and told a story such that even those who don’t watch the show could figure out what was going on – except last year. A good gauge of this is Harknell. He doesn’t watch the show and I had to explain to him what the different rooms were last year. (“What the hell is that van doing playing random club music?”)
If you are a TWD fan you will enjoy this one. It goes over the greatest hits of the previous seasons and they got most of the memorable scenes from the show in here. This year the narrative per room was stronger and it didn’t require cliff notes for those not familiar with the show.
The Exorcist: These classic films HHN never has trouble executing and this house is no exception. What I remember from my walkthrough is it being more visual than being scary, but do note that I am really hard to scare. :D
Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield: Every time HHN does Mike Myers – just like what I said above about their execution of the classic movies – they do a good job at it. This house was no exception. There were a lot of distraction scares and they nailed all of the iconic scenes from the film that I still remember. They also told a story as you go through. I appreciate cohesive narrative. This was their version of the second movie.
This was one of my favorite houses. I haven’t seen this film yet, but holy crap. They built upward and created a true 3 dimensional sense of the world this lives in. I enjoyed the design of the characters, the little gingerbread men, and the dark comedic nature of the house. I’m going to see the movie now because of this.
Lunatics Playground 3D – You Won’t Stand a Chance
I LOVE LOVE LOVE their original IPs. My issue with HHN has never been the creative aspect of it. My issue has always been that I feel the folks working on this event do such great original work that I prefer to see what happens when they run wild over the IPs. That’s my bias spelled right out for you. I don’t have hatorade for IPs, but I’d jump at any opportunity to see what original works these folks can do. Their icon this year is Chance, a Harlequin style character. The story of this house is that Jack left her behind to take the fall and she’s in custody having all kinds of weird fantasies and freak outs. Using her was a smart choice given that Suicide Squad / Harley Quinn is popular right now. I’ve seen people cosplay her at cons, so it appears she’s been well-received. I definitely appreciate and enjoyed this one.
Ghost Town: The Curse of Lightning Gulch: This is about a town that only appears when lightning strikes during a storm. If you are here when it strikes you are stuck there forever. There’s a lot of ghostly gold diggers in this one. If we are talking movies, westerns are a big foundational genre in America so I thought it was cool to play with western lore.
Tomb of the Ancients
This is another one of my favorite ones. I can tell you why. The key to my heart is building upward / downward and deviating from linear lunge n scream. I dig storytelling and world building because it’s something that nationwide quickly gets cut. There’s also a GAT in here (Guest Activated Trigger). So if you see a rope hanging down that looks like it should be pulled – PULL IT!
This post is getting really long, so I’ll link all the scarezones here and talk a bit about the 2 that I felt were my favorites: Vamp ’55 and A Chance in Hell. The former was a 50’s themed vampire homecoming with a lot of detail put into the story. It reminded me a little bit of the original Buffy: The Vampire Slayer movie. A Chance in Hell was Chance, their icon’s Scarezone where park guests can interact with her.
I have always felt that a unique, original icon is a simple way to put a unique point of view on the event each year and was glad to see that they truly supported the idea front and center!
My issue with HHN was never the creative work or execution. It was always that I loved what they were doing but had issue with how it was presented from a crowd flow / park experience point of view. Their changing how security is handled this year I feel will go a long way to addressing that for everyone. Would I like to see less IP based houses and more original works? Yes. I feel that if left completely unfettered we would see the most insane, cool, off the wall shit coming out of Universal A&D. But I do know that the general public may disagree with me, and that’s OK. In the same way that I am one of a smaller demographic that truly enjoys Prog Rock and can spend an hour discussing poly rhythms most people are probably thinking I’m an idiot for needing anything more complicated than a power chord. I accept that I am not the only demographic that they have to be concerned about, think that they are doing a great job with the IPs, and while I’d like to see more original works, the original works they do have this year were enjoyable.
I highly recommend using ExpressPass or utilizing multiple days if you go to this event, though. The week that I went it was actually not super crowded, but it was right after the hurricane, so I think that this may have affected the crowd levels to my benefit.
If you attended this event I’d really love to hear your perspective! Thanks to Mike Aiello for his kind hospitality! He’s a good example of someone who loves what he does and truly elevates the NBC/Universal brand.
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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