ORLANDO, Fla. — During one very hauntingly special time of the year, a theme park in Universal Studios Orlando transforms into realms of terror, welcoming visitors to be very afraid of more than just roller coasters.
Now in its 32nd season, Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida has helped define the genre of haunted house mazes through impeccable makeup and special effects, costuming, and an abundance of hard work and brow-sweating creativity.
In fact, the process to create the magic has already begun for next year’s event, says Lora Sauls, the resort’s assistant director of Creative Development and Show Direction, Entertainment Art and Design.
“We have already started working on HHN 2024 and cannot wait to see how our guests react to what’s to come. Our haunted houses usually start getting constructed sometime in February and that continues up until June or July when rehearsals commence,” she says.
As in previous years, Universal Orlando’s creators tap into a selection of licensed properties combined with their own twisted visions to unleash 10 haunted house mazes and five scare zones.
Those zones feature sights such as roaming vampires stuck in the 1960s, demons representing the zodiac or some assorted chainsaw-wielding maniacs, all encountered by walking through specific areas of the park.
However, let’s focus on the mighty haunted house mazes with occasional behind-the-scenes insight from Ms. Sauls, Senior Show Director Matt Flood and Show Director Charles Gray as well as list scores for narrative clarity and gory scares with some final tips discussed for those daring to take the shocking journey.
Stranger Things 4 — Based on the latest season of Netflix’s uber-popular sci-fi horror series, the attraction places visitors in Hawkins, Indiana, and its parallel universe of the Upside Down to come face to face with the powerful killing entity Vecna as younger heroic characters try to stop him from controlling multiple universes.
The maze hits key points of the season such as Eddie witnessing the killing of cheerleader Chrissy, Dustin and Eddie fighting off demo bats, Eleven battling Henry (One), and the epic moment of Vecna tethered to a hive mind and melded to both worlds. And, watch out for the appearance of a Demogorgon ready to strike at an unexpected moment.
The effects and makeup prosthetics, especially on the red raw-fleshed Vecna, do not disappoint.
Story: 8 out of 10; Gory: 6 out of 10.
The Last of Us — Based on the Naughty Dogs survival horror game and the HBO Max series, the maze takes visitors to Pittsburgh during a time when the world was raged by a fungal plague, and most of humanity turned into squealing, bipedal monsters.
Expect brief appearances by protagonists Joel and Ellie, and a select assortment of creatures including clickers and a mighty Bloater to deliver the jump scares.
Some of the details familiar to gamers will include the ammunition and pill boxes scattered among the scenes.
Story: 7.5 out of 10; Gory: 6 out of 10.
Universal Monsters: Unmasked — Stop by the misty catacombs of Paris and down into burial grounds housing the legendary Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Man looking to deliver a graphic dose of vengeance against unsuspecting visitors.
Not only does Universal reimagine the look of the characters, making them infinitely more horrifying and grotesque but ramps up the exquisite sights and sounds of the faux stone location down to musical cues timed to jump scares and the smell of roses permeating one of the corridors.
Absolutely the most violent and gory house of the night, it features the Phantom gouging out a victim’s eyes with a knife, Mr. Hyde chewing on a body, and the Hunchback offering a big overhead surprise.
Behind the magic: “We kept true to the motivations of the monsters but placed a more modern take on their actions. The Phantom of the Opera is a face carver that skins off his victim’s faces to use instead of the traditional face mask he is known for. Mr. Hyde is even more beast than before. He is the true embodiment of mankind’s evil side. The Invisible Man has finally cracked and fully given over to his murderous ways. The Hunchback blames the guests for killing his only friends, and his grief has turned him into a killing maniac bent on vengeance,” Mr. Gray says.
Story: 8.5 out of 10; Gory: 9 out of 10.
Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count — Inspired by the films and new television series, the living doll that just refuses to die returns with his own horror house and delivers a nostalgic clinic of his kills.
Visitors enter the area with the dolls and then watch Chucky’s gruesome work as he murders in a variety of ways (electrocution, stabbing, strangulation, drowning, vivisection, explosions, you get the idea) with highlights shown on a video monitor and a nearly indescribable collection of body parts assembled into a disgusting creature.
The animatronic puppets are dead-on, the macabre humor (voiced by Chucky) is in abundance and just when you think the maze is over, there is a part two, so keep the phones hidden or take a scolding from a Universal attendant.
Behind the magic: “In the SYFY/USA series, Chucky himself celebrates his own kills, so we wanted to follow suit. The haunted house puts guests up close and personal with many of Chucky’s iconic kills, such as Tiffany being electrocuted in the bathtub and Michelle, Lexi’s mom, getting cut in half by Chucky with a chainsaw. The house is full of gore and Chucky’s victims are everywhere,” Mr. Flood said.
Story: 7 out of 10; Gory: 8 out of 10.
The Exorcist: Believer — Based on the new Universal movie, the haunted house transports visitors from a street market in Haiti, to the introduction of two 12-year-old girls in the U.S. and their descent into demon-possessed madness culminating with a shocking exorcism scene. What stands out is the creep factor of the girls popping up and slowly looking more and more demonic.
It can’t compare to a wildly entertaining 2016 house at Universal based on the 1973 film “The Exorcist” that was packed with iconic scenes from the movie as well as a genuine vomit smell near the end.
Behind the magic: “Development teams were given early access to the script. Once the movie started filming, a limited number of my team had access to daily photos from the set, including character photos and renderings. These assets were essential for our team to bring to life a ‘living trailer’ for ‘The Exorcist: Believer’ film,” Ms. Sauls says.
Story: 6 out of 10; Gory: 8 out of 10.
The Darkest Deal — Visitors witness this homage to the Crossroads’ folk tale of blues legend Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil but now focused on musician Pinestraw Spruce and his rise to fame and demise in the Mississippi Delta. He will ultimately pay the price. Expect the Lord of Hades to stalk attendees through various scenes where the musicians perform and then ultimately meet the Devil for a close encounter. A solid story with exquisite costuming and musical instruments with live acting makes it one of the best houses of the night.
Story: 8 out of 10; Gory: 6 out of 10.
Bloodmoon: Dark Offerings — A bloodthirsty cult controlling a Colonial village greets visitors walking through key parts of the town and town square as humans wearing robes and sack masks look for their next sacrifice. A well-done and simple-to-follow story makes for a very “American Horror Story”-style, gory maze.
Now here’s a point that started to dampen the maniacal mood of many of the houses that played out in “Bloodmoon.” Universal’s staff stand around in corners wearing black outfits and stoic faces within all of the mazes. I’m sure they exist to guard, so some overzealous fans do not steal props or bother the scare actors and also help guide folks through the areas.
Having a staff member hiding inconspicuously is fine but intruding really does not seem fair. For example, standing right next to a table featuring a prop body vivisected in all of its gruesomeness was a hovering staff person and that was a distraction.
Equally annoying, I was briefly, and I mean briefly, admiring a roughly 18-foot-tall monstrosity near the end of “Bloodmoon” and was pushed along by a staff member with nobody behind me.
Story: 8 out of 10; Gory: 8 out of 10.
YETI: Campground Kills — Just as described, a monster is lurking around a 1950s campground and goes on an appendage-ripping, serial-killing rampage. Although visitors get some jump-out-of-your-pants moments tied to the furry monster, I would have loved a house based on the more current “Cocaine Bear,” which would have covered the same type of story with some potentially hilarious modern twists.
Behind the magic: “In ‘Yeti: Campground Kills’ we created a tribe of yeti that ranged in fur colors and age. One of my personal favorite looks this year is the baby yeti and the old yeti with his missing teeth, white hair, and cataracted eye,” Mr. Gray says.
Story: 6 out of 10; Gory: 7 out of 10.
Dr. Oddfellow: Twisted Origins — The host of this year’s Horror Nights, entrepreneur Dr. Rich Oddfellow (killer of Jack the Clown, a former host of Halloween Nights) gets his own circus big top. As ringmaster, he introduces plenty of suffering oddities as well as cannibal clowns looking for fresh meat and victims’ souls. Lots of colorful striped imagery as well as corny characters inhabit the house with plenty of cartoonish sound effects complementing a live decapitation and stuffing a dead human in a trunk to name a few scenes.
Story: 7.5 out of 10; Gory: 7 out of 10.
Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate — Looking like it was based on the defunct Islands of Adventure roller coaster of the same name, the maze features two competing warlocks transformed into a fire and ice dragon. Of course, the payoff is meeting the fire-breathing creatures, but it’s ultimately disappointing because at the end, once thy fate is chosen to go the path of fire or ice, nothing special really happens, just more jump scares.
Story: 5 out of 10; Gory: 4 out of 10.
Oh, the horror of my aching feet …
Despite the nonstop scares afforded in the attractions, visitors will also find actually getting into the houses to be an equally terrifying experience demanding the patience of Job as they withstand an endurance test sure to break the weakest of souls and lower appendages.
Specifically, let’s talk about the lines.
A mass of humanity greets humans as they get into those twisting and blockading lines with wait times potentially getting into the multihour mark.
I talked to one poor soul in line for “The Last of Us” house who had been waiting more than 2.5 hours with at least another 30 minutes ahead of him.
Relief can come in the purchase of a magical Express Pass (starting at $149 and up) to enter less of a line and visit each house maze one time.
Unfortunately, here’s the bigger caveat. Visit Horror Nights in October, it opens the first weekend in September, pay for express and potentially still pay the price as the lines throughout are pretty head-shaking.
For my night, getting an Express pass and arriving early to check in at a special “Stay and Scream” area still took almost seven hours to get through the collection of 10 haunted houses.
What’s this “Stay and Scream” area?
It’s a tip well worth embracing for those attendees who have also purchased a ticket to Universal Studios Florida for the day. Roughly around late afternoon, masses of humanity begin to form in pockets around the park as staff begin to put up fencing.
Those areas are designated for visitors checking in early with a Halloween Horror Night ticket and who bought a “Stay and Scream” add-on.
For the ticketed park attendees with a Horror Nights ticket, they now also benefit for the evening with the same perk and do not have to leave and reenter the Universal Studios Florida.
Instead, they can find pockets of humans aligned near houses and use the early check-in system, standing in line and becoming one of the first to get through one of the houses.
For my night, I waited in a check-in area for roughly 90 minutes to get access to the “Strange Things 4” house, a great idea since it was easily the most popular that day.
Also, worth noting for the entire evening and those who successfully navigate through the houses, they will also have another long walk in store just to get back to the main park areas and find the next line to get into.
The bottom line here is that simply buying a ticket to Halloween Horror Nights is not nearly enough to experience a yearly event that has now become a pilgrimage for hardcore horror fans.
So, plan accordingly, have a strategy to navigate the attractions, wear extremely comfortable, high-impact shoes and expect to savor every one of the four to five minutes earmarked to walk through each of the house mazes.
For those refusing to wait in lines, pull out the wallet for another option. RIP Tours (starting at $359.99 per person) offers a guide to get a small group of folks through the houses nearly immediately.
IF YOU DARE GO
Where: Universal Studios Florida, Kirkman Road and Interstate 4, Orlando, Florida.
Fear factor (out of 5): 4.5 for adults; parental discretion highly advised for children younger than 13.
Hours: Open select nights between Sept. 1 to Nov. 4, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. depending upon the night and date.
Price range: Single-night general admission ticket is $84.99. Look to the website to find other combo deals tied to park admissions and multiple-day access.
Special pricing packages can help with the pain of the excruciatingly long lines. First, look for an HHN Express Pass (starting from $149.99) for shorter wait times.
Or, the slightly wallet-busting RIP Tour offers groups an actual guide (dressed in medical scrubs) to quickly usher a party through all of the mazes in one evening (starting from $359.99 per person).