A Taste of Terror: Surviving Zombies, Roller Coasters, and Really Long Lines at Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights
Girl Roamer Nicole gets a fright at Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights
New Yorkers are famous for never actually visiting the statue of Liberty. San Franciscans would rather die, or worse, move to the Midwest than be seen at Alcatraz. But Orlandoans? They know they’ve got it good, and it’s not at all unusual to find them at the theme parks.
One time and place you’re sure to see a lot of in-the-know locals is at the wildly popular Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights (HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando/Index.Html), which takes place every year between mid-September and early November. (This year’s event started September 19, and runs through the night of November 1.) Now in its 24th year, this event has been an annual ritual for a generation of Floridians, who view it not just as a chance to run amok at Universal Orlando Resort after dark, but also as a reminder that fall is in full swing – important in a place that feels like it really only has two seasons: “hot,” and “OMG, it’s hot.” (Universal Orlando Resort; 6000 Universal Boulevard; 407-363-8000; UniversalOrlando.com/Home.aspx.)
Far from being an insular event, Halloween Horror Nights is something anyone can enjoy, and is highly recommended for anyone visiting in the weeks leading up to Halloween—with certain caveats. With a lot of genuine, graphic scares, the event isn’t ideal for small children. And not every traveler is going to appreciate some of the less-PC aspects. No matter. You probably can’t do the whole thing in one evening anyway, so pick and choose what appeals to you, and prepare for a scream-out-loud good time.
There are three major components of the Halloween Horror Nights experience. The part you couldn’t avoid if you tried is the street scene experience, essentially a bunch of open-air haunted houses. In 2013 (the year I experienced Halloween Horror Nights), all the street scenes were built around a Walking Dead theme, and strolling around the park felt like walking through a town experiencing a zombie apocalypse. One moment you’re enjoying the balmy air, and the next, a lurching, eviscerated ghoul is shrieking in your face, startling the bejeezus out of you. Then you come upon visitors snapping camera-phone shots of an apparently disembodied torso writhing around on the ground.
I spent a long time trying to figure out how that illusion was accomplished. The secret wasn’t revealed to me until I got home and did a little research — it turns out that that particular “walker” was played by an employee who decided to have a little fun with the fact that he is actually legless in real life.
That one fact may tell you all you need to know about the unsettling lengths Universal Studios Florida will go to in order to create a fully immersive, truly scary horror experience. This year’s street scenes are more varied, taking you to a haunted bayou, a cursed masquerade ball, and a world inspired by the summer 2014 slasher flick The Purge: Anarchy.
The meat of Halloween Horror Nights, the part that most people seem to look forward to the most, is the haunted house experience. They’re not real houses, of course; they’re elaborate sets built, in most cases, to re-create the settings of well-known horror movies. There are eight of them this year, with themes ranging from the ever-popular Halloween and Walking Dead films to the allegedly cannibalistic lost tribe of Roanoke, VA.
In my experience, just walking (tiptoeing is more like it) through these houses is creepy enough, drenched as they are in fake blood and pulsating with scary sound effects and screams both recorded and genuine.
What really puts the experience over the top is the participation of heavily made-up Universal Orlando team members. Staff, who resolutely refuse to break character, lurch, moan, shriek, lunge, and apparate seemingly out of nowhere to scare guests. Even when you’ve been through a few houses, and are starting to catch on and notice the kinds of places zombies and ax murderers are likely to jump out of, it’s still scary, because it never happens exactly as you anticipate it will.
Oddly enough, one thing that usually irritates me about amusement parks — the crowd of people — really helps to make the whole haunted house experience. Two or three people gasping in unison is one thing, but 10 people all yelping in fright at once? That really ratchets up the tension level, especially when those 10 people are just ahead of you, and you know that whatever just scared them half to death will be your problem in a moment.
Bill and Ted’s Mediocre Adventure
Another favorite with the locals, one anticipated hotly and revered as much for what stays the same from year-to-year as for what changes, is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. This show has been produced almost since the beginning of Halloween Horror Nights in the early 1990s, and though the jokes and references change every year, the basic premise is always the same: Bill and Ted, still clad in their Clinton-era flannel, whoa their way through encounters with an improbable array of modern celebrities.
It’s a fun premise, but unfortunately, I found the tone to be as dated as B&T’s phone booth. Most of the jokes seemed to turn on either scatological humor, or on the fact that most of the female celebrities Bill and Ted encountered somehow turned into sex-crazed zombies. The show definitely fell flat with the group of queer journalists I was traveling with, and I know we weren’t the only ones: A plotline involving fairy dust that turns Superman into a lisping, mincing Man of Tulle actually got the 2013 show cancelled at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Most of the crowd in the theater the night I saw the show did seem to be enjoying themselves, so maybe I was just in a bit of a heavy mood. Still, my recommendation would be that if you need a break from the haunted house action, skip the unintentionally horrifying Bill and Ted show and go see the sing-along Rocky Horror Picture Show tribute — at least you’ll go into that expecting the humor to be from another decade.
Hints for Surviving the Horror
Some visitors find that the scariest part of Halloween Horror Nights is the intense crush of people who all seem to want to get into the same haunted house at the same time. Lines — to purchase tickets, to get into the park, and then to get into each attraction — can really eat up the time you have available for your visit. There are steps you can take, though, to keep yourself sane and minimize the amount of time you spend standing around.
- Buy your tickets online ahead of time. (HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando/Tickets.html.)This won’t just save you time at the gate. It can also mean the difference between getting in and being turned away, as many nights sell out.
- Get to the park plenty early. Doors open at 6:30, but 5 p.m. is not too early to arrive. You’d be surprised at how many people want to be the first ones through the gate, so you might as well try to get ahead of some of them.
- Purchase a pass. There are two kinds of passes that can save you time. The Express Pass (HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando/Express-Pass.html; from $59 on top of regular admission) allows you to jump to the front of the line one time at all haunted houses on a given evening. Because wait times often exceed an hour, buying a pass is the only way it’s possible to see all eight houses in one night. If you really want to splurge, RIP passes, (HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando/RIP-Tours.html; starting at $109) allow you to bypass haunted house lines entirely, and also gain you entry into Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. Parking is thrown in, too.
- Take a roller-coaster break. Standing in a seemingly unmoving line can be frustrating. Feel the wind in your hair by getting on one of several rides that stay open late for Halloween Horror Nights. This year, six of them will be available, ranging from the sedate (Despicable Me Minion Mayhem) to the truly terrifying (Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit). Transformers: The Ride – 3D will also be available — in my opinion, it’s the one must-see at Universal Orlando Resort. Of course, the rides have lines, too, but because most people come to HHN for the haunted houses and the shows, wait times aren’t always as long as on regular park days. Express and RIP passes can help here, too.
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