Thursday, September 21, 2023

InPark Review: Universal Studios Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights 21

Also be sure to check out IPM’s photo-essay of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood – click here to view.

Orlando, Florida USA — The evening got off to a stormy start at Universal Studios Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights on opening night (Friday, 23 Sept). While our tour guides were anxiously watching the rainy minutes tick by, I thought the scene was cinematic, as if ordered directly by Alfred Hitchcock himself.

Once things cleared up a bit, we hurried along to each of the 8 haunted houses, 6 scare zones and 2 shows – as usual nearly all impressive and delightful with their great attention to detail and story.

This year’s icon is Lady Luck, a sultry seductress who has apparently been dead for quite a few years. She doesn’t have a specific home here – none of the houses reference her directly – but her influence is found in the back story to each of the haunts. Although perhaps not always clear to the average guest, each house came into being due to some person being forced into a choice (by Lady Luck) and their decision – fueled by greed, desire or just plain stupidity – led them into the frightening situation that we get to now experience with them.

Winter’s Night: The Haunting of Hawthorn Cemetery Amazingly, in all 21 years of Halloween Horror Nights, this is the first cemetery themed haunted house. Entering the cemetery is a treat. The soundstage is cold compared to the steamy Florida night, and “snow” falls onto the large gates you pass through. This house plays like Haunted House 101. The dead crawl out of graves to attack and drag you with them. Be sure to peek through the holes in the mausoleum walls (if you dare!) to enjoy the miniature cemetery model created to enhance the experience.

The Thing Based on the movie to be released soon, we play the role of Juliet, a female explorer arriving at the Arctic base to find some “thing” has infected everyone – and we’re next! This house relies heavily on strobe lights and loud sirens – with a few ravenous aliens thrown in for good effect. 

My partner Judith Rubin commented after visiting “The Thing” that the haunted houses allow you to step into the movies in a way the rides never do. She’s right. The immersive quality of Halloween Horror Nights can’t be duplicated when you have a ride system to remind you that you’ve left the world of reality.

Nightingales: Blood Prey 
History buffs will appreciate this house’s take on World War I, with its recreation of bunkers and barracks. The Nightingales are birdlike creatures that appear during war and conflict – though why is still unclear to me. I find guns pretty scary in real life, so this house full of them certainly kept me on edge. Perhaps the nightingales are a manifestation of the psychic horror of war.

H.R. Bloodngutz Presents: Holidays of Horror 
I’ve come to the realization that some of Universal’s best houses are what I would call “vignette” houses. In this version, infamous Hollywood director H.R. Bloodngutz has been fired from the studio, and his revenge is a holiday-themed flick where he actually murders the cast and crew. It’s more fun than it sounds.

The house starts off via a meeting with the famed director. Each holiday scene is prefaced with a “screening room” where a television screen and grainy black and white video introduces you to the holiday you are about to experience. Unfortunately, the rush to push people through the attraction combined with an overabundance of audio stimulation results in missed videos. Usually, the holidays are so obvious it doesn’t matter (the only one I missed was “President’s Day” which recreates an atomic blast outside of the Oval Office and a very dead Lincoln and Washington reappear), but the “set-up” is an important part of the story, and I think it adds to the overall experience. This is also one of the houses where you can tell the designers had a lot of fun and let loose. Look for the Easter eggs that turn into skulls if you’re in need of a smile early on in the house.

The Forsaken 
According to the legend, there were actually four ships that sailed with Columbus, but one ended up on the ocean floor, condemned there by the other three ship’s captains. That is, until a hurricane (Irene?) raised the ship up and plopped it in Orlando.

While all of the houses Universal produces are impeccably finished, this one really caught my attention. Starting out in a Spanish fort, the arched stucco walls seem like they’ve been there for centuries, adorned with period lanterns and period green-eyed ghosts! The real treat begins when you enter the ship’s main deck, with tattered sails flapping above, lightning flashing, and ocean mist swirling around. It’s a treat for the senses. I found myself wishing I could be an attendant in that room, able to take it all in over time.

Soon, though, the pathway leads below deck and a slanted planked walkway provides just enough disorientation and unusual spaces for cursed shipmates to hide.

The In-Between 
The park’s typical 3-D house relies on ChromaDepth glasses that separate different colors into different spatial depth, turning what is already 3D into even more 3D. While Judy found this a delightfully fun house, I find it mundane and predictable. The best scene is the first one, a dorm room where this strange dimension originated from, complete with Monty Python posters and Fruit of the Looms peeking out from the dresser drawers.

Nevermore: The Madness of Poe This house falls into that “vignette” category I think Universal does so well. A demented Poe greets visitors who literally walk through his pages to relive scenes from his works. The scares are effective, but it’s also fun trying to figure out what story each scene represents. Some, like The Telltale Heart, are easier to place than others (The Mask of the Red Death produced one of the few scares that actually got me, but at the time I had no idea what story it was).

Like many of the houses, this one almost needs two visits to appreciate fully. And a good understanding of Poe’s canon wouldn’t hurt either.

Saws N’ Steam: Into the Machine 
A continuation of a previous scare zone, this house collects humans to be liquidated (literally) for the water in their bodies, which is turned into steam to help power this corrupt city. Most fun were the aquariums filled with floating body parts and the collection of live actors being crushed and cut by various machinery. A word to the wise: if you find yourself walking on slip-resistant mats, you might want to hurry up as you are in a “splash” zone.

The six scare zones for this year’s event are fairly standard for Universal. For the first time, however, there’s a scare zone that is best appreciated from a distance, rather than within it. The Acid Assault area, centered around the entrance to the Twister attraction, showcases the effects of truly acid rain. Mutilated humans roam the streets, but the real stars are three of the surrounding buildings, each enhanced with digital projections of their actual facades. Slowly, the buildings start to crumble and collapse, leaving only the steal superstructure behind in a cloud of smoke. This type of building projection, currently being used by other theme parks for shows, looks realistic from a distance, but up close seems pixilated and blurry. The potential is there, however, for continued exploration with this relatively new technology to really revolutionize how Universal produces environments for Halloween Horror Nights.

Finally, this year features two shows, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, and the new Death Drums street show.

At the risk of getting hate mail, I have to say I think it’s time to retire the Bill & Ted franchise for Halloween Horror Nights. I’ve never thought the show really fit the event in the first place, and seems to just be an excuse for allowing swearing and sexual innuendo into a theme park show. But this year’s show wasn’t even really that funny. They’ve even started to make fun of the show itself, which I consider a clear warning that it’s time to move on.

As I write this the following morning, the most memorable moments to survive in my mind are those involving a continually cursing bin Laden being chased by Navy Seals until he meets his ultimate demise. It wasn’t particularly funny nor did it elicit a large proud-to-be-an-American response from the crowd, as one might expect. Lately, it seems Republican presidential debates have more riled up audiences than Bill and Ted.

While the show does fill up quickly, if nothing else I have to turn to demographics. Halloween Horror Nights appeals to the younger set, typically those in their teens and twenties. The Bill & Ted movies are becoming more and more distant to attendees every year. And with the vast amount of creative capital Universal has to devote to this event, I am positive something new could replace Bill & Ted handily.

This year that creative pool came up with Death Drums, a short street show consisting of two rolling scaffolding pieces that are home to countless drums and drummers, and an ensemble of zombie dancers reminiscent of a STOMP troupe that died years ago. The show is well timed at about ten minutes, doesn’t require queuing up much in advance, and comes complete with a little bit of the requisite Thriller choreography.

In its entirety, Halloween Horror Nights 21 delivers on its annual promise to create highly themed spooky environments that are entertaining and just plain fun to experience with friends. That being said, now that the event has reached “maturity”, I hope the designers start to explore a little bit. The past several years seem to indicate that Universal has found a successful formula and is running with it. But I am ready to mix it up a bit. Maybe it’s time to take the event back to Islands of Adventure, or look at having a meta-story again that influences the whole event. Universal excels at storytelling and creating environments that reflect that story. They do it exceedingly well on a micro level in each attraction, and it would serve them well to bring that story out to the entire event, as they did several years ago with the Terra Queen and “Tales of Terror.”

Admittedly, even if they continue along the same path, I and thousands of other people will still go and enjoy ourselves, and they will still have an exemplary Halloween event to be proud of and a model for others in the industry to follow.

Click here to see Halloween Horror Nights press releases and more Halloween articles

Click here to read LA Times reporter Brady MacDonald’s review of the Hollywood version of Halloween Horror Nights

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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