Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights: What we saw in all 10 haunted houses
ORLANDO, Fla. — It was a dark and stormy night for the kickoff evening of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. A few rounds of downpours left Friday’s sellout crowd with fresh, wet frights: the blackened puddles and the soaked sock.
The skies didn’t entirely dampen the enthusiasm of the sellout crowd, which had waited two years for this dose of HHN. The event was called off last year as a coronavirus pandemic precaution.
Senior show producer Charles Gray compared the wait to a holiday meal.
“It takes all day and the night to prep. But once you everybody sitting at the table, you just get so excited and see the smiles and satisfaction on everyone’s faces,” Gray said Friday.
It’s the 30th year for Horror Nights, and there’s a thread of nostalgia running through Universal Studios. Sometimes it’s blatant; sometimes you need to be an aficionado to spot it.
Here’s a morning-after look at all 10 haunted houses. We don’t want to be spoiler-y, so these are quick impressions, not rankings or storyline recaps, presented in the order we conga-lined through. As part of the media preview, we had the VIP/RIP treatment, which includes a guide and front-of-line access for a group of a dozen visitors. It would be scary to try to knock out every house otherwise.
—Puppet Theatre: Captive Audience: Our first maze had a look that prompted me to think, “Oh, yeah, this looks like that they had two years to work on it.” It was a good warm-up, not horribly scary but elaborate and some involving evil marionettes. You wouldn’t think “earthquake” from the title, but that twist gave the opportunity for scenic touches that rocked.
—The Wicked Growth: Realm of the Pumpkin: Someone on the Universal staff referred to the pumpkin house as a “comfort food” selection. It has traditional Halloween elements, down to scary witches with pointy hats. But it’s mostly about gourds gone bad and some gore. A scene showcasing a character brilliantly flanked by jack-o’-lanterns was probably my most memorable of the night.
—Welcome to Scarey: Horror in the Heartland: The trip to Carey, Ohio, is a medley of houses and scare zones gone by. Among the reincarnated participants are bits of The Hive, The Spawning, H.R. Bloodengutz, the Schoolhouse and Leave It to Cleaver, a personal favorite, as I recall, for its sick humor (in a good way?) but this year, it helped spike the bloody level.
—Beetlejuice: The very first host of Horror Nights finally has his own house, and the character greets enthusiastic guests from a perch just inside the entrance. There are many iconic scenes, and my HHN companion, who had earmarked this house as his most anticipated maze, gives thumbs-up in a four-word review: “Everything I hoped for.”
—The Haunting of Hill House: This maze, based on a Netflix series, is both wood-paneled and ghostly. So it may have been appropriate that the line came to a dead stop for an extended stretch. (Kudos to the scare actor who continued to try to unnerve us from different angles.) Later, our theory was that the pitch-black hallway had paralyzed someone. Seriously, I could not see anything, not even the white T-shirt directly in front of me.
—Case Files Unearthed: Legendary Truth: It’s the time of night where I might have slipped into zombie mode, but there were definitely bizarre goings-on in there with interesting scares and whacked-out soundtrack (right?).
—Universal Monsters: The Bride of Frankenstein Lives: Despite HHN’s cancellation in 2020, Universal showed off this house to day guests last year, and it’s still quite populated by brides, scare opportunities and an electrifying ending. Good costuming, too.
—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: This house stinks, in that aromatic, rotting carcass way. Lots of Texas, lots more chain saw.
—Revenge of the Tooth Fairy: This maze also was available to regular Universal Studios guests last year. I appreciated the exploration of a universal pain and the expounding on it, even though torture ain’t my thing. (Insert your own “Pain is universal” joke here.) It would win the prize for best-looking mouths, but that’s creepy in the HR way. The open-book opening scene remains a delight.
—HHN Icons Captured: Check the wait times and make this either your first or last stop of the night. The faces of the last 30 years are gathered together in the same bright house, getting equal shots at the spotlight. Lady Luck, recently made an “official” icon, gets her overdue due and the Undertaker has a high ick factor.
—Universal Orlando recommends that visitors wear face coverings when indoors at HHN. It’s not a requirement. The resort’s workers wear them inside the houses and other interior spaces. I saw many people wear them — definitely not the majority, though — outdoors as well.
—I wore my mask inside the houses because my mind is trained to go there in tight, enclosed spaces with crowds. In my first experience with HHN this year, the flow and pacing of the conga line through the mazes was similar to previous years. There were no pleas to keep social distancing alive.
—There are transparent vinyl sheets in key locations in the houses, mostly separating the scare actors from the paying customers. For the most part, they are unobtrusive. Sometimes they are curious. “Why here?” thoughts took me out of the moment at times. On the other hand, jumpy people might find comfort in that there’s potentially less lurching. Still, there are plenty of “gotcha” moments provided in the shadows of the houses.
—The gotcha moments are also in the scare zones. Although I can’t prove this with data, I experienced fewer “in your face” moments, and some characters are stationed on elevated stages.
Halloween Horror Nights continues on select nights through Oct. 31. For tickets and more information, go to halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando.