For decades we’ve heard about Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, like a spooky tale whispered over campfire light. Every Halloween season, Universal transforms part of its theme parks for an event where fear reigns. Still, how scary can it still be after 32 years? Would it be risky or even dangerous? This year we set out to discover it ourselves.
The History of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights
Since entering the theme park business in Orlando, Florida, United States, Universal Studios looked for ways to stand out from its Disney competition. From there sprung the idea of an annual party to commemorate Halloween. The first version, Universal Studios Fright Nights, was produced in 1991 and was modest compared to subsequent ones. It only lasted three nights and consisted of a house, or rather dungeon, of horror located in the queue of the Jaws ride.
Due to their success that first year, Universal expanded the event in 1992 with a maze inspired by a recent horror film (The People Under the Stairs) and the nighttime transformation of some of its attractions such as E.T. Adventure and Kongfrontation. Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights expanded its offerings in subsequent years with more nights, more houses, live shows, and “scare zones” around its parks.
When Horror Got Its Groove
By 2000, the event solidified its status with the introduction of Jack the Clown, its first of several original characters that would headline Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights each year. There was content based on horror properties like Psycho, Tales from the Crypt, and Universal’s Monsters. However, this time all the houses and activities would be tied to Jack’s backstory as a resurrected serial killer.
More original characters would headline Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights in subsequent years, including Dr. Oddfellow, the Caretaker, the Director, the Storyteller, Terra Queen, Eddie, Bloody Mary, the Usher, Fear, Lady Luck, Cindy, and Chance. These have shared the event over the years with famous ghouls such as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhies, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Alien vs. Predator, Jigsaw, the Walking Dead, Chucky, The Thing, and many more.
Halloween Horror Nights was a huge success in Orlando, Florida and was eventually replicated at Universal parks in Hollywood, Japan and Singapore.
Crossing the Threshold
Armed with courage on an October night, we headed at dusk to Universal Resorts Orlando to attend the 32nd edition of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. Admission tickets could be purchased the same day at the box office, but we chose to purchase them in advance through the parks’ official mobile app. They scanned our QR codes and we proceeded to a park bathed in shadow and red hues.
This year, the featured original character is the spirit of Dr. Oddfellow, sorcerer and circus entrepeneur. Most of the mazes this year were based on established film and television IP and no reference was made to Oddfellow. However, the doctor was responsible for the scare zones as well as the Instagram filter that promoted the event, which transformed your face into a demonic entity.
Our Horror Nights Experience
The first thing we “enjoyed” upon entering were those scare zones, spread around the pedestrian routes that connect the areas of the theme park. Traversing these open areas makes you the star (or rather the victim) of your own horror short. This year you could flee from hippie vampires, demons rampaging through an old pier, mutant beasts in the jungle, and so forth.
The hippie vampire “entities” in the Vamp 69: Summer of Blood area were very good at scaring us. Their makeup and performance served as an excellent introduction to what the night had in store for us.
The Best Actor Award Goes To …
It was our initial meeting with Scareactors, the thespians behind the all characters or creatures within Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights’ houses and scare zones. More than mere park employees, these professionals train at a “Ghoul School” in order to perform in the event each year. There they must learn pantomime and characterization techniques to inflict jump scares on visitors without laying a finger on them.
This last detail is key to the success of the event year after year. Part of our concern when visiting for the first was how interactive and intense an experience to expect. Could it result in real injuries or health complications? Although that risk always exists, it’s no greater than in any day park attraction. The monsters never posed a real danger and park employees were always near each house to prevent accidents in the dark.
Your Favorite Ride, Just for You
Before talking about the maze-houses, Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights selling point, we will touch on a sometimes ignored detail of the event: the rest of the theme park. The areas around Universal Studios Florida transform at night, sure, but many of the best rides remain open as well. Better yet, their wait time is usually shorter than during the day.
In our case we had Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Transformers: The Ride 3D, Men In Black Alien Attack, and the one we ended up choosing to start our night. Revenge of the Mummy, an indoor roller coaster based on the film series with Brendan Fraser, was a favorite of Emilio’s during his youth that Dulce quite enjoyed, a big compliment considering she’s not a fan of roller coasters.
Another perk of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights is the ability to enjoy areas of the park alone near the event’s closing time. Diagon Alley, the wizard shopping area from the Harry Potter books, was full of Muggles and Voldemort’s Death Eaters that night. Yet around 1:00 in the morning, everything closed. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, now desolate, became open to exploration and for taking some magical photos.
The houses of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 32
This edition of the event had 10 themed houses. The main four are based on the most recent season of Stranger Things, The Last of Us the game, the Chucky franchise, and the recent film Exorcist: Believer. The rest are original ideas based on urban legends, mythological creatures and the original characters of the event.
Our first visit, the Exorcist: Believer house, was very good, made even better by the lack of expectation. Each house is a mini maze with a pre-established route designed so that the Scareactors can take you by surprise. Especially those you least expect. In this case, our first jump scare came from a police officer in the woods. She was looking for a missing girl who would later turn out to be possessed by a demon. Just like the rest of the houses, this one told a story or summarized the themes of the series/movie on which it is based. A masterful use of makeup, costumes, lighting, sound effects and optical illusions completed the disturbing effect.
Our second maze was Stranger Things, where we had several scary encounters with Vecna, the bad guy from season four of the series. Here we began to notice an interesting pattern based on Dulce’s reaction: the more you scream or react, the more the Scareactors chase you. Throughout several houses and areas the Scareactors kept following her, tagging her as an easy target. The houses are small mazes and only they know their secret passages. Therefore, they could scare us in one corner and then catch up to us to do it again.
The rest of the houses we went to repeated this pattern efficiently. We found that we mostly enjoyed the “original” houses a little more than those based on existing IP, precisely because we went in without expectations. We managed to visit eight of the 10 houses in total this year. Among them Yeti: Campground Kills, The Darkest Deal, Dr. Oddfellow’s Twisted Origins, Bloodmoon: Dark Offerings, and Dueling Dragons: Choose Your Fate. Unfortunately, we lacked enough time to visit Universal Monsters Unmasked and The Last of Us.
The True Evil
Which brings us to the reason we didn’t get to see everything we wanted to: those long lines. We understand this as a necessary evil within all theme parks, but daytime lines are usually more tolerable because for years they have designed to be more entertaining or interactive.
If you go to a Disney or Universal park, the wait before riding the attraction usually serves as a prelude to what you are going to experience. In Revenge of the Mummy, for example, the queue fills the backstory about how the Mummy’s curse was true and affected the film production. Near the entrance to Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count, you witness the killer doll take the reins and “slaughter” the visitors “for real.”
However, most queues at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights during peak time are long (70-90 minutes on average) and endless, with nothing attractive to distract you from the wait. The only possible way to enjoy it all in one night would be to pay for Halloween Horror Nights Express, which allows you to skip the lines at all the houses and many of the rides. An unfortunately very expensive option that can only be purchased upon arrival at the event. (Another package, Halloween Horror Nights R.I.P. Tour, includes Express Lanes, as well as a guided tour.)
In Universal’s defense, the event uses the locations of existing structures and rides. Therefore, there’s no cost effective point in making permanent changes to queues just for a seasonal event. This bothers us only because of the outstanding level of detail that the organizers took in all the houses and scare zones.
Live Shows: The Big Surprise
Without a doubt, the cherry on top of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights was the live show. This type of presentation has been part of the event almost since its beginning.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, a fan favorite running from 1992 to 2017, featured the clueless teen rockers alongside Back to the Future’s Doc Brown as they rescue their time-traveling phone booth from Freddy, Jason, the Terminator, and other movie villains. We can’t say whether the Bill and Ted show was good, but thousands of performances over 25 years almost cannot be wrong.
Nightmare Fuel Revenge Dream
What we can attest is that this year’s show is lots of fun. Nightmare Fuel Revenge Dream tells the saga of a young woman trapped in a nightmare who decides to fight back the demons within her subconscious. The presentation combines choreography, pyrotechnics, acrobatics and magic tricks for a sensory experience that provokes more smiles than scares. All to the rhythm of dark rock versions of famous songs like Bodies by Drowning Pool, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) – the Marilyn Manson version – and Ready For Combat by Icon For Hire.
Our only warning about Nightmare Fuel Revenge Dream is that it’s sold as an adults-only show. This is because of its wardrobe, which has earned it an online reputation as the “horny fire show.” We attest that the performers’ costumes tend towards the burlesque, but nothing in the show is particularly suggestive. It’s just an assault on all senses where the performer’s energy spreads to the audience. An excellent way to rest your feet between houses.
In our age of cell phones, tabloid news, and online information manipulation, a simple fantasy scare is hard to pull. The mere fact of organizing a seasonal horror event using classic fair and theater resources represents a small miracle. In four locations spread across two continents, no less. No wonder it was named Best Halloween Event 13 times on Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards.
In case it wasn’t absolutely clear, we loved our visit to Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 32. You still have time to enjoy it this year, otherwise we recommend that you packs your bags for next time (along with various religious relics to ward off evil spirits). Better yet, get psyched to visit Las Vegas, Nevada when Universal Horror Unleashed, a permanent remake of the concept, premieres.
Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 32 runs on select nights through November 4, 2023.