Orlando, Florida Haunted Attractions: Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights 2014 review

Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights 2008 changed my life. It was what actually got me into doing this on the blog and inspired me to realize that there was more to haunted houses than “boogity boogity”. Every year HHN is the one major thing that we look forward to attending. I normally spend between 2-4 days at Universal Studios Florida specifically for this event. It used to take that long to take in all of the awesome.

Unfortunately my experience this year was not as good as I hoped.

Entering the Park:

To attend HHN you have to go through 2 security checks which are done by the nastiest security guards I’ve ever dealt with. Do you have a bottle of water in the 95 degree Florida heat? They’ll snatch it and throw it away for you so that you have to buy more water inside. They’ll snarl at you and generally make you feel like you are very unwelcome.

Then you have to go through a 2nd security check. This time the guy snarled at me and almost made me take my boots off. I’ve had major surgery on my feet and ankles and the security guard grabbed me so forcefully to look inside my boots that I saw stars. By the time you get through these security checks you are pushed into a cattle call area full of people who are just as annoyed as you are that they were treated in such a disrespectful manner.

I fully support security to ensure the actor’s safety – but there really is no need for the over-the-top hostility that comes from these guys every year. It’s not getting better. It was the worst this year that I have ever experienced. I’ve since found out that these people are from an outside company that Universal hires to do this event–they should really start looking elsewhere.

The front gate had the barest of minimal decor. No scare actors, no monitors, no spider webs – just this:


The Purge: Anarchy Show at the Gate:

This year they had a show at the gate which was based on the movie The Purge: Anarchy. The sound was poorly set up so I couldn’t hear anything that was said. I know someone came out on a balcony with a mask and then an explosion went off. like this:


I really appreciate the fact that they tried to do a show at the gate, but it was not executed in a way that more than a handful of people could hear or see. It seemed that the actor was addressing the other side of the park where the bulk of the park guests were not able to see/hear.

General Scarezones and Park Atmosphere:

HHN delivered more than in many past years with the Scarezones, but didn’t come close to their offerings in 2008. Over time it seems like Scarezones have deteriorated somewhat in design and spectacle.

The Purge: Anarchy:


I’ve actually seen dummies that looked better than this at small farm haunts in PA:



Still, this was the most enjoyable Scarezone for me. It had a stage show, roving vehicles, and was set up in a way that I enjoyed. They captured a plant (i.e. people who looked like attendees but were actors) or 2 and chased them around before the actors descended on the park guests.


Face Off: In the Flesh:

This one had amazing costumes and makeup and was a great photo op.




Bayou of Blood:





Bayou of Blood seemed interesting. I can’t comment on it because my understanding is that it was built around a stage show that was pulled off of the program due to complaints of it being too violent. Only if you attended during the first day or so would you have seen the actual intended product.

MASKerade: Unstitched

This was another one that had amazing costumes and makeup – also a great photo op with some really passionate actors.

Overall HHN delivered some great photo-ops with some inspired craftsmanship. The set pieces felt sparse in every Scarezone except for Bayou of Blood. I really appreciated many aspects of what they did even though they are not of the quality level that I originally came to love HHN by.

The Haunted Houses:

In past years Universal Studios had icons like Bloody Mary, The Usher, Fear, and Lady Luck. The first 2 were actually integrated into the haunted houses which inspired multiple trips through. You had to go through more than once in order to catch all of the detail. Fear and Lady Luck seemed to be more like afterthoughts in the later years but I appreciated that they were there. They haven’t done this at all in a couple years. The theming at the front gate this year was the most minimal I have ever seen. In previous years they had actors out front, or some structures to make you anticipate things within, but now only hanging signs.

The houses this year were also the lowest in detail that I have ever seen from Universal Studios. Many had nothing at their building entrances – you’d just enter through a warehouse and then SURPRISE you are inside Roanoke or something. We went through the houses twice hoping that we had missed something but a second trip through didn’t reveal anything further. It’s important to know that your timing inside the houses will affect what you think of each house. That’s why we go through twice. It is very possible to miss scares or entire scenes.

Unfortunately the actors inside didn’t appear to be trained to scare. The only move they seemed to be allowed to do is to hit a button that makes a scream sound and lunge out – nothing more. Some of the actor’s timing was so bad that they were lunging out at nobody 11 feet ahead of us and then not coming out at all when we arrived–which makes me wonder if the actors are on timers and not actually allowed to plan their scares.

Each room has the ever-present rude security guard who will get in your face and start waving their hands if you aren’t going through the house fast enough – regardless of crowd level, HHN’s attitude is to conga line you through as fast as possible like a Japanese subway. Many of the guards are standing there waving at you with a flashlight from the get-go. It’s incredibly distracting and irritating, especially for someone who is vision-impaired like myself. Since timing is so important to actually see the show they are essentially not giving a shit what you see–they just want you in and out fast. Maybe Universal shouldn’t push drinking as a huge part of their event, then they wouldn’t need security everywhere to stop the inevitable chaos.

This last bit of criticism above holds true for every one of the houses outlined below.


Halloween was AWESOME. This house was the strongest house of the night. The execution was perfect. They incorporated narrative into several rooms. The scares were perfect. You basically get to be chased through the house from the Halloween movie by Michael Myers, but the house also starts temporally from his childhood and moves to the present day. This is one of the few houses that they did things outside of the building. For example, the front of the house has a great projection of him as a child killing his sister on the top floor. They aced it in every way possible and made this a can’t miss house.

The Walking Dead: End of the Line:

This house was the longest house they’ve ever done. It’s a montage of sorts of scenes starting in the prison and leading up to Terminus. If you are a big fan of the show you will probably like this house.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator:

I have to admit that this house could have been stronger but I loved it because I love Alien. There, I said it. You could just sit an Alien puppet on a table and I would run and scream and laugh. That said, this house was decent and has some great scares if you are not an Alien fan. I did notice that the head crabs were extremely cheap-looking and wondered why they seemed to resemble cheap toys. That was weird in contrast with the phenomenal Alien puppets.

From Dusk Till Dawn:

This house is a vampire stripper bar that culminates in a gun battle. The scares were weak and ill-timed both times we went through. This house is basically about boobs with many “stripper” vampires throughout.

Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood:

This house left us flat with the exception of 1 room that had a battle with “arrows” flying past you (neat air/sound effect) and another room that had a guy being jacked up and eaten.

Dollhouse of the Damned:

I LOVED this house. The exterior reminded me of Waldameer Park’s Whacky Shack.


The contents of the house were both disturbing, funny, and scary. You basically get attacked by all manner of dolls. I felt bad for the actors in the baby doll room because it smelled like poop and baby powder. This was intentional. They did a great job with every aspect of this house.

Giggles and Gore Inc:

This clown house was supposed to be the comedy house this year. They had GATs in here (Guest Activated Triggers) which are buttons that activate certain things. The scares were weak and the house bored us even with the GATs. This is the weakest house of the event.

Roanoke: Cannibal Colony:

This one I appreciated more than my friends. Most of the house wasn’t the best but I did love the wendigo room at the end. Most of it did feel like a copy paste generic maze with random screamers.


HHN’s houses are basically pretty sets with lunge and screamers on timers. If you expect this you will not be disappointed. I think they should re-think how they are designing their haunted houses since they seem to not be able to budge from a fast conga line scenario. I understand why. They have a lot of people to get through each night. Still – it’s quite upsetting when you are pushed through a house off beat such that you miss it all after waiting in a hellish line and paying all of that money. I feel that they need to look at this as an opportunity to innovate their designs so there is some payoff in every room regardless of timing rather than to shove people through like a gyn exam. The Forsaken a couple of years ago nailed this because of the lush scenes they created. Nothing came close to that this year.

HHN feels like an event targeted to drunk frat boys and not actual haunted house fans. There is nothing wrong with that by itself. I get it. Booze makes money. The problem is that the haunted houses themselves have seemed to be more of an afterthought each year under the keg-party.

I was incredibly turned off by the Bill and Ted stage show making fun of gay people in 2013. In 2014 they hired a larger woman to play Queen Elsa and tasked her with making fun of how fat she was (the joke being “she let herself go”) in front of an entire theme park multiple times a night. The stage show was set INSIDE a frat house. I rest my case.

I guess this is supposed to be funny, but to me it’s just really mean. I am sure there are many people working for this event who are doing a fabulous job and have a genuine love of Halloween, but it’s marred by an undercurrent of hostility. This yields a park that just isn’t pleasant to be inside.

I am not saying you shouldn’t go to HHN. You should go to HHN to see the pretty sets, but 2014 is the last year that I buy a ticket for more than 1 day. ExpressPass is required if you want to see everything in one night – and it really is in your best interest to get the hell out of the park as fast as possible.

Universal Studios Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights operates select nights until Nov 1. General admission ticket prices range from $42 to $72.99 depending on what day you attend not including Express Pass. You cannot see everything in one day without Express Pass.


 Kissimmee, Florida Haunted Attractions: Legends: A Haunting at Old Town 2014 review Pt. 1

Legends: A Haunting at Old Town is a year-round haunted house in Kissimmee, Florida’s Old Town. It’s about 10-15 minutes away from Walt Disney World in Orlando.


You might think that a year-round haunted house would be a small afterthought. You would be wrong. When these guys moved into Old Town a year ago they redefined the game. I had the opportunity to review them on their opening week and even then with, not everything fully installed, they impressed us.


The facility is built up into a house facade. Inside is a gift shop with T-Shirts, cups, and various Halloween merchandise.




When you enter the attraction you actually enter through an exterior funeral parlor doorway. The funny part is that if you are on the street you can sort of see inside the window for one of the rooms. I’ll bet this has amused countless families thus far.

The story revolves around Mr. Ashdown, the funeral director. You start out with a pre-show and a guide but you are then left alone to get through the rest of the house. Many of the pieces inside the haunt are real artifacts. Yes, the embalming table was actually used as such. There’s a lot of Easter eggs inside the haunt that I will talk about in part 2 where I will review their Ghost Tour.

But I digress.

Each room in here could be textbook examples of how to properly stage a haunt. Not only does it display a phenomenal understanding of psychology but they managed to get so much space out of this attraction. The entire haunt feels big because of how it was set up.

The actors – some veterans from the now defunct Terror on Church Street as well as Skull Kingdom – really know what they are doing. This means you aren’t going to have any amateurish screaming into your eardrums just to make you deaf happening in here.

From the phenomenal body bag room to the massive church room and beyond – the flow is perfect. The visual elements build a world around you that can hold its own with Universal Studios and Busch Gardens. The key difference is that A Haunting at Old Town might be scarier than all of the above.

This is what happens when someone who knows what they are doing sets up a haunt. It’s something to behold. Neither Harknell or I can think of anything negative to say about this attraction. If you are in Orlando and are a haunt fan you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t do this one.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I will review their Ghost Tour. I have some surprising things to say about it.


 More Press and an update from the middle of the #OniHaunts 2014 tour


I think I both fail and win at the same time. I don’t know.

This weekend I got to go to the Jefferson Township Haunted House. This event is 2 days only. Today (10/19) is the last day so if you are in NJ you should go and check it out. I got to meet some of the most positive kids who were working here. It was such an honor. I will write up a review ASAP.

My article about “Extreme Haunted Houses” (WARNING: Bloody pic at that link) was picked up by the awesome folks over at Boing Boing and was the top read post of the day.

Then Vincent Price’s grandson shared my Vincent Price meme that I made:


I was on TALK 910 San Francisco talking about…you guessed it…haunted houses. I am going to try and get some audio of that ASAP.
UPDATE: Here’s the link to the interview: https://player.fm/series/gil-gross-16552/gil-gross-10-16-14-hr3

I was also on FOX News Red Eye. Or at least my blog was the quoted expert for the discussion of Extreme Haunted Houses. Thanks to Emile for sending this in. I will try and get a better copy posted up ASAP. Thanks to Greg Gutfield, Andy Levy, and Joanne Nosuchinsky for this opportunity!

This coming week I will taping a segment on at least 1 major news show about haunted houses in New Jersey. I’ll keep you updated.

I also have more reviews coming such as Haunted Scarehouse in Wharton, NJ. Tonight I’ll be going to Brighton Asylum in Passaic, NJ. I need to make a decision on if I can do my run out to the midwest this year without impacting my day job.

Thank you all so much for your support. It’s because of your readership that I am able to continue to elevate haunted attractions in the way that you see on this site. The more fun we have in our world the more that people come together and the more good things happen. I have seen that in every aspect of what I do – whether it be haunted attractions, my family-friendly art and tech festival, or my Doctor Who convention.

When haunt season is over I will be digging deeper into the creative aspect of haunts and looking for stories to share and cool things that you should check out. Don’t forget to bookmark here and check back after November. I will be busy working on (Re)Generation Who Doctor Who Convention in MD and letting you backstage into the odd land that is my adult life, but I will still be bringing the spooky.


 Tampa, Florida Haunted Attractions: Busch Gardens Howl O Scream The Experiment review

Regardless of my initial opinion I went through Busch Gardens Tampa’s The Experiment on Friday Oct, 2, 2014. I am almost always willing to explore things that I do not think that I would like as long as it’s not 100% clear that I won’t like it.


Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl O Scream “The Experiment” is an upcharge “Extreme Haunted House” where you face your fears. It is not included with regular Howl O Scream admission. It replaces Alone, the prior upcharge house.

I was a big fan of Alone and thought it was the most innovative haunted house in the country when it was running. You can read about it and why I think so here.

The Experiment costs $50.00 for 1 person and an additional $10 for each person you bring in with you for up to 4 people total. The maximum price is $80 for 4 people. In this house you have to do something in each room to pass a test. If you fail that room you are ejected from the house. It includes possible contact with roaches. I don’t just hate roaches, I am legitimately allergic to them. When my allergist tested me I reacted severely to it.

That’s the main reason why I was so angry last year. There was no way that I could pass that room. I believe that a scoring system where you got points for each room that you passed would work better. In that case I could have gone and still understood that I would see the entire house that I had paid for. BGT doesn’t provide media passes to their upcharge houses so paying to walk in and get promptly eliminated was not gonna happen.

So why did I go this year?

I chose to go in this year because some friends who worked at Busch wanted me to go with them and I was told that if I got the roach room I’d be able to opt for an allergy glove. One of my friends actually works in this house. A combination of journalistic curiosity, knowing that this is a theme park and likely not going to be legitimately “X-TREEEEEME”, and wanting to see my friend’s work convinced me to go in.

Harknell did not enter since he has a well known dislike for the concept of “extreme haunted houses”, and doesn’t really want to contribute to their continued marketing and existence as such.

What happens in The Experiment?

I will not be posting spoilers of what happens down to the minutia out of respect for BGT but I will be giving you an excellent idea of what to expect as well as illustrate how I felt about it.

The Experiment begins when you check in at your assigned time. You will be given a plastic roach and asked to wait your turn as they queue groups up to enter. When you enter you give the roaches back and are greeted by the first actor who assigns you a unique number and gives you a lanyard.

the expiriment busch gardens tampa

The number on this lanyard is truly unique. If you post your number the actors can legitimately figure out who you are even if you don’t have a blog. You also get a band aid to place on your neck that is supposed to be a heart monitor. They have sound effects in the house for this.

In each room you will be talked to aggressively and told to do things and reply in certain ways. If you do not comply you will be ejected from the house.

The roach room is actually pretty early in the house and of course I got tagged for it. I asked for the allergy glove and so they tagged someone else in my group. I still had to do the non-roach part of the room which was totally fine. I felt it was a great bit of improv on the actor’s part not to totally excuse me.

In my opinion the most extreme challenge in the house was having to put your hand in with roaches. The rest of it was psychological games that are meant to disturb you but not truly upset you. I liken it to a more extreme version of the classic Chamber of Horrors concept where you may have to touch grapes that you are told are eyes. (That doesn’t happen in this house. Just an example.) Each of the rooms had a challenge that was not terribly hard to pass in my opinion.

The actors inside this house were second to none. Everyone did a phenomenal job, especially my lady in the sink room. :) This is clearly where they put their A-List actors. If you’ve read my review of the main Howl O Scream event. BGT Howl O Scream does have one of the best actor training programs in the country. I don’t know what they do but the results are clear.

We did have some trouble at the end. It could be because my vision isn’t the best but I felt the fog was too high in the finale scene. I accidentally led my group out through the fire exit that was behind a mini blind.

You might ask, “Why would you think a door was behind a mini blind?”

I was thinking that since this was the upcharge house that there might have been a secret passage or some type of design within the room like Alone had.

They should turn that fog down or place an actor there to deter people exiting. Or maybe I was the only one to make that mistake. I do occasionally have talent like that. Herp derp.

The actors let us in and stayed in character which was funny, though! A+


Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl O Scream The Experiment is a hybrid “extreme haunted house” and traditional haunted house in a controlled theme park setting. They are not out to truly upset you which I feel is a good thing.

The actors are amazing. Every single person in there gave 100% and are phenomenal examples of where one should aspire to be in scare acting. Everyone in my group loved it.

That said I did have some mixed feelings on certain aspects of the overall design and staging. It was both better than I expected and not what I was expecting simultaneously. I feel that the staging of each room and the puzzles within were too simple. I understand that in a theme park things like capacity and throughput are a huge factor. Also you have to make sure that it’s not so extreme as to not work with your demographic. This event is for teens and above. These factors likely informed these choices.

Still, the design of the house was very simple when compared with the design of Alone where they would literally move the hallways and such to create disorienting effects around you. I kept looking for bits of the room to move and change with us but they did not take that route. Sometimes you would run into other (non-scientist) people in the rooms but they didn’t do much other than lunge and scream.

I understand that they were likely trying to accomplish something different than Alone in this attraction but the end result did feel less “big” and less immersive than Alone – and I think I know why.

Inside The Experiment you are mostly doing things but you aren’t seeing things happen. In alone, you saw a lot of stuff happen ranging from an extending hallway to an elevator and a man with no eyes. This was revealed to you only when the lighting changed and he stepped forward after your conversation with him.

I think that a great way to up the scare factor on this that would work with a theme park’s capacity would be to introduce some theatrical elements beyond what they currently have. This way you could do those things that you “can’t do in a theme park” – just not to the guests coming through.

Suggesting things can be more powerful than getting someone to do something. For example, many of the actors at Field of Screams in PA often present themselves to you fully at the end of a hallway so that you know they are there. There’s no surprise when they come at you. But it’s actually scarier than if they were a surprise. Actor #1 sets the tone and then Actor #2 or even 3 are the ones who jump out or says something to you. Anticipation is often far worse than surprise or action.

In many ways this is the most theatrical haunted house BGT has ever done in terms of the amazing scientists, but with everyone who was not a scientist I saw minimal theatrical engagement.

This does not mean that this is a bad attraction by any means. I realize that I personally have a certain set of expectations which is why I am explaining my thoughts thoroughly to you so that you can understand my personal preferences as opposed to your own.

I would recommend The Experiment to anyone wanting something different in their haunted house experience. This is likened to an “Extreme Haunted House” but this is not out to hurt you so I believe it’s all good fun. There are some phenomenal actors doing great work. That said, I do hope they revamp this concept to bring more world-building, interactivity and theatrical horror back into the upcharge haunted house next year.


 “Extreme Haunted Houses” are not actually haunted houses so please stop grouping them in with what I do

Without any exaggeration I get easily 20 messages a week about “Extreme Haunted Houses”. People seem to want to know what I think of them. A lot.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept, “Extreme Haunted Houses” are buildings that you enter and are treated like an assault victim. You might be locked in a cage, you might see a fake rape and then the fake rapist may put his exposed penis next to your face, or someone may fake puke on your back. Basically different bad things happen to you in each room.


These things easily go viral because everyone loves a controversy. Controversy equals page views and ad revenue.

I don’t care what other people do as long as no one is actually getting hurt, but this is not the kind of thing that I personally enjoy so it’s not the kind of thing that I cover. This concept is so far off from what an actual haunted house is that I don’t believe that they should even be called “haunted houses”. They should be called Jackass (As in the MTV show Jackass) Escape Rooms. Sure I totally watched that show but I have no desire to personally participate in crazy and extreme stunts.

The primary differentiator between Haunted Houses and Jackass Escape Rooms is the goal. Haunted Houses are here to entertain you and the goal is for everyone to get through and to laugh and scream while they are doing it. It’s like friends watching a horror film together. The rooms are usually built up with lavish sets and staging so that you can experience a fantasy world.

Jackass Escape Rooms have a different goal. They appear to hope that a significant number of their customers are made so uncomfortable that they cannot complete the attraction. It’s a frat boy hazing challenge as opposed to good-natured fun. There is usually very little creativity or effort involved in the sets because the world around you isn’t important to these attractions.

There is a continuum of genres within haunted attractions that looks something like this:

Visual & Auditory: Comprehensive set design, startle scares, can have improv acting, no touching clearly indicated before you enter.

Interactive & Theatrical: Comprehensive set design, startle scares, improv acting, theatrical vignettes performed by the actors, can have light touching but this is clearly indicated before you enter. There may be an option to opt out of the touching in many cases. You may be asked to participate in a scene or push a button.

Jackass Escape Houses: Physical and sexual assault simulations with little to no story or world-building. These are off the continuum. The only commonality they share with haunted houses is the fact that there are actors inside a room.

Jackass Escape Houses have nothing to do with what I enjoy about the genre. I go to haunted houses because I want to see crazy, funny, and awesome scenes. I like to laugh. I enjoy the work of the artisans who create these worlds. I respect the dedication the scare actors display when they perform because it is a skill that they risk being punched in the face for multiple times a night.

I believe that Jackass Escape Houses have the potential to hurt the industry if we continue to group them in with haunted houses because it gives the general public an incorrect idea about what “all haunted houses” are. All haunted house owners should take a stand and make it clear that this is not the same genre. Why? Because when someone escalates a Jackass Escape House to it’s highest possible conclusion and someone actually gets hurt the entire industry will take the blame.

The haunted house industry is still today feeling the heat (no pun intended) from the fatal Great Adventure haunted house fire in 1984. This resulted in tighter regulations making it harder for people to start their businesses. It turned off the public at the same rate that the government made it harder to open haunted houses.

There is no intelligence test that you have to pass when setting up one of these experiences. On a haunter group I witnessed firsthand someone articulating their planning for their “Extreme Haunted House” next year. He seemed to think that a waiver would protect him from doing whatever he wanted in his attraction and some of what he was proposing did not seem very safe. I explained to him that you can’t sign away your right to sue in America and he just kept repeating that he would have a stupid piece of paper that people sign and referenced “the guy down the street” does it for his haunt.

Because we know the best way to research something is to copy what “the guy down the street” does.

No. Just no. This trend of escalating “monkey see, monkey do” is going to just become stupider and (I believe) more dangerous.

There’s very little art and theatrical world-building involved with Jackass Escape Rooms and that doesn’t appear to even be desired. There is no other vector that these experiences can go toward. I think the industry really needs to embrace uniform genre designations like I listed above for their attractions and make it clear that Jackass Escape Rooms are a different genre that appeals to an entirely different demographic than a standard haunted house does.

I already get lots of questions from people who haven’t yet gone to haunted attractions and genuinely don’t know the difference between these experiences and haunted attractions. This sensationalism had put them off from trying. The industry will suffer from any bad PR that happens with them because it will turn off regular folks who may be considering trying their first haunted attraction.

A fandom that is perceived as inaccessible for most people gets press but can only shrink. This is bad news for everyone.

However it could be an opportunity for the guys who did the Jackass show to co-opt to have some fun with their fans. Seriously. That’s what I’d do if I were them. But that still wouldn’t be a haunted house. You can call it a “Jackass Escape Room”, “Extreme Interactive Theater”, or anything else – I just don’t see it as a haunted house.

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