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ATTRACTION REVIEW

Universal Studios Orlando: Halloween Horror Nights 26 – Review

Regarded as the Halloween event in the US, ‘Halloween Horror Nights’ is Universal Studios’ annual Halloween extravaganza. The focus on the haunted houses here is with licensed/intellectual properties (IPs).

Haunts

American Horror Story: I hadn’t watched a single episode of the show when this haunt was announced, necessitating a five-season mega catch-up! Glad that I did this though as I definitely got a lot more out of it given how faithful it is to the series. Freak Show and Hotel worked better than Murder House; mainly because they’re more visually interesting seasons, translating better to an immersive experience. Knowledge of the series is definitely a plus here or the transitions and content are going to be jarring.

Saying this now, it’s one of a few recurring themes at ‘HHN’ but the haunt operated like clockwork. Everything is synced up to the soundtrack in the maze; actors have to perform in line with this as their dialogue is also on the soundtrack. Yeah, they don’t actually speak but mime to the dialogue coming from the speakers. What works about this method is the authenticity you get from hearing the actual actors from the show. The downside is that there’s obviously no room for spontaneity. We’ll get into another reason why we think this is a bad idea later. As for the actual walkthrough, it was stupidly well themed and decorated but didn’t, for a single second, feel immersive. You just walked through very impressive sets. ***

The Exorcist: On paper, this was easily the worst sounding haunt of the line-up. The film mostly takes place in one room so there’s limited scope for a haunt on that basis. The way that they got around this limitation was to take you on Regan’s psychological journey as she became possessed. Therefore, non-canonical elements have been chucked in such as one hallway where the walls are reaching out to you. You also revisit the bedroom multiple times and witness Regan losing the fight against the demon.

Our favourite scene in this haunt by far was the ‘vomit room’. It’s a curtained section with the curtains being puke-stained bedsheets. The room was revolting. The smell in that area along with the sound effects and visuals resulted in a scramble to get out of there! It was a brilliantly creative moment and an effective way of dealing with the limitations of the licence. The weakest part of the haunt was Regan herself, she just wasn’t that effective. We found the actresses to be a bit listless in these scenes although it may just be that they didn’t want to stray too far from the character in the film. ****

Ghost Town: The Curse of Lightning Gulch: The first of the original mazes that we went through, ‘Ghost Town’ was one of the more interactive haunts at ‘HHN’. It’s set in an old mining town during a storm and the ‘outside’ parts of the walkthrough are subject to the elements. Using sprinklers, one section has you walking through the ‘rain’.

The best scene was on the main pathway through the town. Here you walked past all the expected shopfronts etc. whilst being pummelled by powerful winds. It really did feel as though you were outside although they could have put an actor or two more in here. Generally, our problem with this walkthrough was that it was quite light on actors. Well, it was more the case that they were there but in the midst of resetting – we’d just entered at the wrong time! ***

The Walking Dead: We have prior experience with this haunt, having been through the Hollywood one in 2014. That covered up to season four whereas this one spanned all seasons up to six. The noticeable result of this was that the scenes per season were more abbreviated which resulted, to us, in less lavish sets as the locations were constantly changing. Again, other than the Terminus section, we didn’t encounter too many actors either. This is especially problematic in a zombie themed maze where the threat comes from their numbers. The ending did go some way to addressing this with a cool strobing scene that combined a room with mannequins with the occasional live actor. The strobing meant that you didn’t know what was ‘real’ and what wasn’t, it was genuinely overwhelming. It was just a shame that they pulled this out right at the very end of the haunt. ***

Lunatics Playground 3D – You Won’t Stand a Chance: By far the worst haunt of the evening and the comparatively short queue times reflected this we think. It was loud and brash which almost never works in haunts. There also wasn’t much in the way of interaction with the actors, even as far as scares went. For most of the duration, they were torturing each other but largely ignoring us. We did, however, encounter one of the best spinning tunnels that we’ve been through. **

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Going into this one, I personally wasn’t that excited. I’m much more a fan of the sequels than the original film, I know!! As a haunt, it lacked scares but it was completely successful on recreating the feel of the movie. They replicated the key scenes well and some of the staging was imaginative. The moment that stood out to us was when Sally runs through the window; with the use of sound effects, they sold the illusion effectively. Our problem with this haunt was that, again, it felt too much like walking through a museum as opposed to actually being in the film. ***

Tomb of the Ancients: Out of the whole evening, this maze felt the most like a traditional haunt. We can only guess that being an original attraction, it wasn’t as popular as most of the other haunts at the event. This meant that the walkthrough wasn’t as much of a conga line as pretty much everywhere else. So we got to appreciate the set a bit more and it also felt like the actors weren’t as bound to a soundtrack as they were elsewhere. This isn’t to say we didn’t witness a couple of resets but it was nowhere near as bad as the other attractions. However, we did find this one to be a bit too dark to be able to appreciate some of the detail of the scenery and actors’ makeup. ****

Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield: The one thing that you can’t fault ‘HHN’ for is their theming and this was yet another brilliantly themed haunt. Like the ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ maze, this attraction pulled off some great recreations of the key moments in the movie. You begin in the closet from the end of the first film and from there you eventually find your way to the main setting in ‘Halloween II’, Haddonfield Memorial Hospital. We’re always impressed when haunts attempt outdoor scenes inside and the walk up to the hospital was fantastic. It’s a shame that the hospital had a better façade, inside the maze, than the haunt’s actual façade. Unfortunately, same criticisms as the other mazes – we didn’t feel as though we were a part of what was going on. This was also an occasion where playing to the soundtrack didn’t work at all. Whenever Michael took a swipe at us with his knife, the noise was so cartoony and comical that it took away any scare that there might have been. ***

Krampus: We set ourselves up for disappointment with this one in a big way! We tried not to watch any videos before we visited but ‘Krampus’ had an irresistible appeal, if any property on this list was suited to a haunt, it was ‘Krampus’. Searching for ‘Krampus’ videos, we, oddly, couldn’t find anything from the Orlando event at the time. We watched videos from Hollywood’s attraction and so we thought we knew what to expect. Turns out that the Hollywood and Orlando versions were quite different!

The façade over in Hollywood was brilliant, being a recreation of the film’s poster. The Orlando one was nowhere near as detailed. That said, we’d venture to say that inside the haunt, the Orlando version fared a bit better. It essentially recreates all the scenes from the movie with the full menagerie of beasts. The continuous flow of the maze sadly meant that we didn’t see much of this in action, catching almost an entire maze of resets. This was most frustrating when we came across the jack-in-the-box which looked amazing but wasn’t doing anything at the time we passed.  ***

Scare Zones

The scare zones were a bit disappointing; something that we think resulted from most of the areas being too open. However, it was refreshing to have actors delivering personal scares as opposed to keeping in a time with a pre-recorded soundtrack. We managed to record four of these so we’ll add the video to our commentary.

Survive or Die Apocalypse: There was a great, post-apocalyptic vibe to this zone. The standout here was the gang leader on the scaffolding delivering a speech to the people below him. They also drove vehicles through this space, which was definitely unexpected! ***

Lair of the Banshees: Whilst this zone had some good creatures, it was easily the sparsest of all the zones, probably because the path that it was on limited it. The area was a bit too busy to fully appreciate everything that was going on. **

Dead Man’s Wharf: This was by far our favourite, the lighting effects were fantastic here – you really felt as though you were walking through a stormy night entering this area. The costuming here was more ambitious than what we saw elsewhere too with actors wearing full makeup, masks and prosthetics. ****

Vamp ’55: ’Vamp ‘55’ was the most theatrical of the scare zones and definitely the least scary. In this space, it was more about experiencing the story, witnessing vampires stalking cheerleaders and the like. It definitely felt like the focus of the actors was more on each other than park guests, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just wasn’t a place to get scares. ***

A Chance in Hell: We didn’t properly see this one, getting there too early for it to really kick off and leaving at the end of the night where it was such a crush to get out that we couldn’t experience what was going on properly.

Shows

Academy of Villains: House of Fear: We didn’t get around to this one as time was running out and it looked like there was no actual seating at this show, not taking place in a stadium like ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure’. After being on our feet all day long, we just didn’t fancy standing in one place for too long!

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure: We didn’t find this one particularly entertaining; it was just a series of pop culture references dropped with no real wit. The show was complacent to think that just referring to things was enough to be funny and the shtick got tiresome real quick. In addition, whilst some of the content was obviously American, enough of it was internationally recognisable for us to know that we weren’t missing the joke. **

The Repository

Now, this was an upcharge attraction but was easily the highlight of the evening for us. The best way to describe it is two parts escape room to one part VR attraction.

We began stood around a table where an actor explained the story, that we were to explore the areas we enter and look for symbols to lift a curse that’s fallen upon the Repository. This scene ended brilliantly when a guard appeared from behind me, lifted me off my feet and literally threw me into the next room. It was such a jolt; especially at ‘HHN’ which is typically the complete opposite of an immersive experience! From here, we had to find a key and code in a room with an actor who, again, was really aggressive with us, chucking things at people in our group!

We then moved into the VR room where we were to continue searching for the symbols but in the virtual world. Being completely honest, we’re not entirely sure how much relevance there was to this VR part. We didn’t put any knowledge gained from it into use in the final live action room. But then, we also didn’t really care! The VR here was different to what we’ve experienced at other attractions in that we were free to walk around and the VR tracked our movement perfectly. The technology also allowed everyone to see each other by way of floating icons. After a couple of minutes in one ‘room’, the location changed and we had another symbol to seek out. Throughout this, the staff in the room were supplementing the action in the virtual world with physical additions. For example, there was one part where a flock of crows flew past us. In sync with this, someone brushed feathers over our faces and arms.

My personal favourite part of the VR section was when we ended up at the top of a very, very tall tower. Being scared of heights, I found this to completely fool me and when the edges of the tower started to crumble and fall away, I nearly knocked over one of our teammates in a bid to make it to the centre of the tower! They used a wind machine in this scene, which totally sold the feeling of being a billion feet up in the air!

The final room was back in the real world and was a timed experience where we had two minutes to get a collection of runes in the right sequence. This was a nice way to end the game, with a decent level of pressure. We’re glad to say that we successfully completed it and managed to lift the curse!

Overall, it was an awesome experience but one problem we did have, which was most noticeable in the first room (probably because we were trying to listen to the actor), was that there were super loud storm effects happening nearby. We assume that ‘The Repository’ shared the same space as ‘Ghost Town’ as that haunt was set during a thunderstorm. It did spoil that first room but didn’t stop ‘The Repository’ being a brilliant attraction. Yes, it is an upcharge to an already expensive event but this is because they can only get four people through at a time (another bonus and breath of fresh air from the conga line mentality elsewhere at the park). We’d definitely recommend this although it does make the rest of the event look even weaker! *****

Liked:

The theming. You just cannot beat ‘HHN’ for theming. And it’s always fun going through recognisable locations and coming face to face with terrors from the silver screen – it’s the biggest draw ‘HHN’ has going for it!

Disliked:

Where to start on this… As an event, ‘HHN’ has an unbeatable atmosphere but, as far as providing a fun experience goes, it’s incredibly lacking.

Three haunts were completely ruined by aggressive stewarding – ‘Walking Dead’, ‘Exorcist’ and ‘Halloween’. At points where the marshals inside decided that we were going too slowly; they would shine a torch in our faces and shout at us to move faster. This actually happened. It’s no way to manage a haunt. At all. It’s just a messed up mentality, like fast-forwarding a film in the cinema. And it’s such a brash thing to do as well that it can’t help but cast a shadow over the rest of the event.

Somewhat related to this was that even though we had a fast track ticket, we still couldn’t do everything that the pass afforded in the evening. Some of the rides shut earlier than they should have done which didn’t help but it also pointed to the fast tracks being over-subscribed. If you buy something that gives you priority access to a number of attractions, you expect to be able to get through them all. If you can’t, something’s fundamentally broken. And to be clear on this, we didn’t stop at any point for food (or alcohol regrettably!). From the second we entered the event we were either in an attraction, queueing for one or making our way over to the next one.

It boils down to the event being excessively popular and Universal not doing anything about it. It feels like a real cash cow for them and the fact that people seem to be happy queueing for two plus hours per attraction gives them no reason to change.

We’ll address two other issues we had in one. By now, it’s common knowledge that ‘HHN’ operates a conga line style walkthrough in their attractions. You aren’t batched in groups of eight or less as in the UK, you’re part of a constant stream of people walking through the attraction. It’s a lame way to operate a haunt as you are constantly watching actors reset and can completely miss scenes because the actors are in the middle of that reset. In batched groups, you’re less likely to see this as the actor usually has enough time to get back into their starting position before the next group arrives.

It also means that you can sometimes move at a snail’s pace and this is where we saw something so stupid that it really made us laugh. In the ‘AHS’ maze, there was some sort of issue ahead which meant that the conga line completely stopped. And not just for a second or two, we were stood in the same position for about two minutes. We happened to stop right between two actresses who had dialogue coming from the soundtrack that was still playing. Because of this, for two minutes, we had them effectively caught on a loop, having to keep jumping out at us to keep in sync with the soundtrack. We found it ridiculous and we’re sure that they must have done too, trying to scare the same two people over and over. Fair play to them, they didn’t let it show if they did! It was the perfect convergence of two negatives to ‘HHN’ – the conga line walkthrough and actors syncing to a soundtrack.

Final Thoughts:

We didn’t like it. What is most apparent to us is that Universal Studios must know that they’re offering a poor guest experience but don’t seem to care. We’ve listened to interviews with the key creatives who acknowledge that the way the event is run isn’t ideal but blame the popularity. The easy solution to that is to lower the cap of guests but, obviously, that won’t bring in the same amount of money.

To us, you might queue for an hour or two to get on a rollercoaster but when you do get on it, it’s an optimal experience. It doesn’t keep stopping every two seconds or do anything other than run the way that it’s intended. Therefore, we’re not sure why it’s acceptable to run a haunt where you have security shining torches in your face, shouting at you to hurry up or having such a constant flow of people that you miss stuff that’s happening due to resets. If any theme park ride operated like that, people wouldn’t have it. It’s within Universal’s ability to offer a better experience but they clearly just don’t want to. And having been to the Hollywood event two years prior, we can confirm that it’s operated in much the same way there too.

We would give this one star but the theming is unbeatable and we enjoyed the hell out of ‘The Repository’ (which, frustratingly, shows that Universal Studios can put together a solid experience). It’s one of those events that you should visit once but just be aware that it’s hard work and less fun than comparative events.

Rating: ** (Out of 5) – Prepare to be disappointed

Ticket Price: $104.99

Address: 6000 Universal Boulevard, Orlando, FL 32819

Website: http://www.halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando/

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