Ultimate Guide to Halloween Horror Nights and Universal Studios

Tempting Lady Luck, Haunted Houses and the Thrill Rides at Universal Orlando’s 2011 Halloween Horror Nights Amusement Park Event

Last weekend was a mini corporate retreat for the employee’s of Captivation Media Group.  And while some companies choose to enjoy picnics by secluded lakes with afternoons filled with volleyball, tug-of-war and softball, the members of Captivation Media prefer their nights filled with blood, screams and shrieking creatures jumping out from the shadows.  It was Captivation’s annual trek to Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights.

Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) is Universal Orlando’s annual Halloween event.  HHN is also held at Universal Studios Hollywood and starting this year, at Universal Studios Singapore.  The event features haunted attractions, scare zones, live entertainment and plenty of spooky atmosphere with low lighting and eerie music.  The theme park is still open to the general public during the day, then reopens under a separate HHN admission ticket in the evening.  If you love Halloween, then HHN is an adventure you may want to check out.

For its designers and planners, Halloween Horror Nights is a year-round job.  Work on the 2012 event starts as soon as this year’s season ends.  The themes and names of the haunted houses are kept closely-guarded secrets until late summer.

This is Universal Orlando’s 21st year producing Halloween Horror Nights.  But transforming an amusement park into a Halloween event didn’t start with HHN.  Knotts Berry Farm, an amusement park in Southern California, began producing a Halloween event back in 1973.  Known as Knott Scary Farm’s Halloween Haunt, it employs approx. 1,000 seasonal monsters and is responsible for generating half of the amusement park’s annual revenue.

Now, other amusement parks have seen the potential revenues and are jumping on board with their own Halloween events.

Trivia Fact:  Universal Orlando’s HHN began in 1991 under the title of “Fright Nights”.  It was renamed Halloween Horror Nights in 1992.

Like Halloween Haunt at Knotts Berry Farm, HHN is a huge revenue maker for the theme park.  It has helped make Universal Orlando into a vacation destination that rivals Disney World, located just a few miles away.

Trivia Fact:  When Universal began developing Universal Studios Orlando, they asked Paramount to be a partner.  Michael Eisner was in charge of Paramount at the time.  He passed on the project but soon became the CEO of Disney and quickly launched Disney-MGM Studios in order to become the first movie theme park in Orlando.

From 1991 to 2001, HHN resided in Universal Studios.  It moved next door to Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2002.  In 2004, HHN took over both parks.  Then, in 2006, HHN came back solely to Universal Studios where it has been since.  However, there is talk of the Halloween event taking over both parks again in the near future.

Trivia Fact:  When HHN was at Islands of Adventure, Seuss Landing could not be turned into a haunted zone because the widow of Dr. Seuss, Audrey Geisel, would not grant permission.

Universal touts HHN as the premiere Halloween event with large crowds every night to help support that claim.  Halloween Horror Nights has grown considerably over the years.  When HHN began in 1991, the event was for three days with only one haunted house.  Now, Halloween Horror Nights begins in late September, has eight haunted houses and extends for 25 days.

One of the reasons HHN remains so popular is that every year it reinvents itself with new themes and all new haunted houses.  Being that 2011 is HHN’s 21st anniversary, the theme is appropriately titled Lady Luck.  So with fingers crossed and hoping Lady Luck wouldn’t frown upon us, we ventured into Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights for two nights of fun, fright and thrills.

Here’s a list of the haunted houses, rides and other fun things to do, along with tips, tricks and advice on surviving the event.

Haunted Houses

There are eight all new haunted houses open this year.  Each is a walk-through attraction with startles and scares around every twist and turn.  Many of these are housed inside Universal’s giant sound stages.  The attractions are spread throughout the park and are generally well marked with signs.  The event also has its own map that’s given out to each patron, so it’s easy to find a desired house.  The houses listed below are in alphabetical order.

 

The Forsaken – Set with a Spanish fort and a ghost ship, The Forsaken is a haunted attraction with wonderful imagery and set design.  One of the largest haunted attractions this year at HHN, it has lots of actors trying to scare you at every turn.  Unfortunately, they made a severe miscalculation with this haunted house.  Each creature has glowing green eyes.  While that may be creepy, it also gives away their location, making it nearly impossible for them to sneak up on you and takes away the suspense.  It’s hard to believe the creators of this haunted house didn’t think about that during the development stage.

 

H.R. Bloodengutz Presents Holidays of Horror – Every year, HHN has one house that mixes dark comedy with its scares.  This time, the theme is holidays; Christmas, Easter, Valentines, Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, etc.  Parts of the house were mildly amusing, but overall each section seemed too short and disjointed.  Still, it’s a treat to see evil elves and Santa winding up as… well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

 

The In Between – This is a 3-D haunted house, meaning you have to wear paper glasses with special lenses, similar to prisms.  These lenses separate the color spectrum, making reds appear closer and blues/violets farther away.  This creates a false sense of depth and makes some objects seem like they’re floating right in front of your eyes.

3-D houses are always popular with the crowds and The In Between is no exception.  If you’ve never been through a 3-D haunted house before, you’re in for a treat.  If you have, the novelty will be lost and you’ll notice a lack of scares within.

Trivia Fact:  This is HHN’s 5th 3-D house.  The first one premiered in 1999 and was called “Universal’s Creature Feature in 3-D”.

Nevermore: The Madness of Poe – This haunted house is not as scary as some, but in many ways, it seems the most satisfying.  If you’re a fan of Poe, you’ll love the way his work is weaved throughout the attraction.  Poe is seen continuously through the maze and as you travel deeper into his mind, his madness becomes more apparent.

Trivia Fact: Edgar Allen Poe died in Baltimore.  The Baltimore Raven’s took their nickname from his best known poem.

Trivia Fact: Since 1949, a mysterious man wearing a cape visits Poe’s grave in Baltimore, gives a toast to Poe and leaves behind a half-empty bottle of cognac and three red roses.

Trivia Fact:  Edgar Allen Poe influenced such incredible authors as H.P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Ray Bradbury.  However, Mark Twain was not a fan of Poe’s, calling his work ‘unreadable’.

 

Nightingales: Blood Prey – Nightingales provided possibly the best scares of any of the HHN houses this year.  Set in WWI, demonic nurses terrorize and feed on soldiers rather than help them.  Great sets, bloody FX and some well placed scares made this a crowd favorite.

Trivia Fact:  Florence Nightingale is considered to be the pioneer of modern nursing.  Ironically, she spent the last 50 years of her life as an invalid.

Saws n Steam: Into the Machine – This was a fan favorite of many because of its steam punk visual style mixed with blood and gore.  The set design is well done with lots of steam, damp rooms and sharp, rusting steel.  Saws n Steam has a good mixture of scares, visual appeal, good storyline and of course, the obligatory chain saw.

Trivia Fact:  Saws n Steam was a scare zone in 2010.  It becomes HHN’s first haunted house ever to be derived from a scare zone.

The Thing – This haunted house serves as a promotion for the upcoming movie, but holds its own as an entertaining attraction.  It has the look and feel of a science station in Antarctica and the designers mimicked the movie set down to even the smallest detail.  This is a fun haunted house, with great set design and high-energy actors, plus a cool animatronic monster – something you rarely see in a HHN house.

Trivia Fact:  The Thing served as a theme before in a HHN haunted house (2007) but that house was based on John Carpenter’s 1982 flick, which was a remake of the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World.  This haunted house is based on the upcoming movie which is actually a prequel to the 1982 film, not a remake.

Winter’s Night: The Haunting of Hawthorne Cemetery – This was the most impressively designed house of this year.  Set in a gothic cemetery filled with eerie crypts, a lot of time and effort went into constructing and detailing this attraction.  Because of its winter setting, the sound stage was kept very cold with fake snow, which is a welcomed contrast from the Florida heat.  There were a few good scares but Winter’s Night gets its high marks because of incredible visual appeal.

Some Other Things to be Aware of

  • The lines for haunted houses get long, especially on Friday and Saturday nights and as you get closer to October 31st.  We recommend being at the park early and waiting for the gates to open.  The front gates often open early for HHN, sometimes as much as 30 minutes, so be ready and make the most of that time.
  • Consider skipping the first few haunted houses you encounter and head for the back of the park.  Most people will stop at the first attractions they come across, creating long lines that repeat into the next haunted house.  By breaking that pattern, starting with houses near the back and continuing counter clockwise, you can experience more with fewer lines during the first couple of hours.
  • Visit the haunted houses early, before the crowds arrive.  Also, you can often see just as many at the end of the night.  Many people start to wear out as the night goes on, so the lines thin out near closing time.  We were able to visit five different houses plus two rides during the last hour of operations.
  • HHN also offers a Stay and Scream option.  If you buy a ticket for Universal Studios during the day and also have a Halloween Horror Nights ticket, you don’t have to leave the park.  You will be directed to one of two ‘holding pens’.  These are areas where you can wait for the park to reopen for HHN.  Usually, the holding pens are released before the front gates open, so you can get through a couple of haunted houses very quickly with no lines.
  • The lines for the haunted houses are usually longest during the middle part of the night.  That’s a good time to take a break, check out a couple of rides, get something to eat or take in the Bill & Ted show.
  • Wear comfortable shoes!  You will be walking a lot and waiting in long lines, so you’ll be on your feet for most of the seven-eight hours you’re at HHN.
  • While the haunted houses are fun, they are not as scary or extreme as many stand-alone houses across the country.  This is primarily because of the high volume of patrons they must push through each hour.  There’s a constant line stretching through the houses, so scares are hit and miss.  HHN also posts a non-acting employee/guard around every turn to show you the way or yell at you if they think you’re slowing down to look at the set design and props.  It serves as a constant reminder that you are in a fabricated environment and lessens the suspense.
  • After 21 years, Universal still does a poor job at crowd control during HHN.  Some of the queue lines start halfway across the park.  Sections of Universal are sometimes blocked off for no reason and create logjams that test everyone’s patience.  Cutting in line has always been a problem and continues to be.  This year, we witnessed multiple occasions where people cut in line and employees did nothing about it.
  • This is an adults oriented event.  Universal Studios suggests HHN is not recommended for anyone under the age of 12.  That’s good news for some people who are tired of getting their feet run over by a herd of strollers, like in other amusement parks.  However, you can also expect lots of drunken patrons, some which can get quite obnoxious.  Also, expect the restroom facilities to get disgusting during the event and stay that way all night – something you wouldn’t ever find at the other theme parks.

The Rides

Universal Orlando is famous for their mix of classic and high-tech rides.  Not every ride at Universal Studios is open during HHN, but the ones listed below are operational this year.

If you live in the Orlando area or plan to visit Universal Studios during normal hours of operation, we recommend skipping most of the rides in favor of touring the haunted houses first.  If this is your only time you’ll be at Universal, then the rides are definitely worth experiencing.

 

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – Orlando’s tallest roller coaster also has the world’s first non-inverting loop.  This innovative coaster allows you to pick your music to listen to as you ride.  The ride starts by pulling you straight up for 17 stories before sending you on a twisting, turning journey.  It’s not quite as thrilling or exciting as some other coasters in the area, but it’s still fun enough for thrill seekers and mild enough for those who are squeamish about extreme rides.

Plagued by technical difficulties and delays when it was originally set to open in 2009, the ride appears to be finally running smoothly, although there are rumors that the vehicles may be replaced in the near future.

This is a fun ride to experience at night, so if you have the time, check it out.  This is the first year Rip Ride Rockit is open during HHN.  Because it’s Universal’s latest attraction, expect long lines.  Keep in mind, the ride is subject to close during inclement weather.

Trivia Fact:  In addition to the songs offered on the dashboard, there are numerous hidden songs as well.  When you sit down inside the coaster, press the Rip Ride Rockit logo at the top of the screen for 5 to 10 seconds.  When you life your finger, a numeric keypad will appear.  Type in a number between 001 and 999.  For a list of hidden songs, try a search on the Internet.  Be warned though – there’s a lot of false information out there regarding hidden song lists  We tried this and never got the song we had hoped for.

Jaws – The Jaws boat ride is a classic attraction that’s still enjoyable when you need to give your feet a break.  The ride has lost some of its luster, but it always a fan favorite.  The ride is better at night too, when the pyrotechnics really stand out.  If the line isn’t long and your feet are tired, this ride is a pleasant, low octane treat.

Trivia Fact:  When Universal Studios in Orlando opened in 1990, the park was plagued with technical difficulties.  During opening day ceremonies, Steven Spielberg, the director of the movie Jaws, and his family were stuck on the Jaws boat ride for nearly half a day.  The ride soon closed for renovations and wouldn’t officially open again until 1994.

Men in Black (MIB) Alien Attack – Based on the popular movie, MIB is a video game come to life as you try to shoot as many aliens as possible and rack up scores for each hit.  Your vehicle travels through a city infested with aliens from outer space while you zap them with a special laser gun.  The ride has been popular since its debut at Universal in 2000.

The special effects, queue line and interactive experience in MIB are top notch.  This is an attraction you wouldn’t want to miss during your stay at Universal, but not necessarily during HHN.  If you have a chance to ride it during another time, we recommend doing so unless the lines are short.

Tips for MIB Scoring: 

  • You have unlimited ammo for your gun, so just hold the trigger down and it will continue firing.
  • You can hit each alien as much as you want, so don’t worry about trying to hit every alien.  Locking onto new targets takes time and reduces your score.
  • When you see the large alien, hit it in the teeth and eyes.  You will score extra points.
  • When you hear Zed tell you to push the red button, do so immediately.  If you’re the first on your car to hit it, you’ll get a 100,000 point bonus.

 

The Simpsons Ride – This simulated ride features IMAX screens and motion controlled vehicles that put you in the animated action.  All of the beloved Simpsons characters are here, voiced by the original actors, and the ride is fun, action-packed and often hilarious.

The queue area features multiple screens with many of the characters getting into the act.  Before you board, there’s a safety film hosted by none other than Itchy & Scratchy.  One of the best simulated theme park rides in Orlando or anywhere else.  Not to be missed during your time at Universal Studios.

Trivia Fact:  The Simpson’s Ride opened in 2008 and replaced the popular Back to the Future attraction, which was also a simulated ride.  In fact, The Simpson’s Ride uses virtually the exact same system and design as its predecessor.

Revenge of the Mummy – This is an indoor roller coaster combining the fun of a haunted attraction with the experience of being immersed in the movie (actually, the ride is more fun than the movie it was based on).  While the actual coaster part of the attraction is short and rather tame, the special effects and set design are top notch and worth checking out.

Like MIB and The Simpson’s Ride, the queue line is completely themed and should be experienced even if the ride was not part of the attraction.  This is one of those rides that adds to the ambience of Halloween Horror Nights, so we made it part of our overall experience on both nights.

Trivia Fact:  Revenge of the Mummy is in the same area that used to occupy the popular Kongfrontation attraction.  There is an ode to the previous occupant in the treasure room.  Look for a golden statue of King Kong on the left side.

Trivia Fact:  The 2200 feet of steel tubular rail is filled with sand to lessen noise.

 Entertainment

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure – A HHN staple since 1992, this is the 20th anniversary of the show that parodies pop culture and celebrities.  This show loosely resembles the long running Hangman show at Knott’s Scary Farm.

Unfortunately, this show has been digressing for a number of years.  The show used to be hilarious and was not to be missed during HHN.  Now, the writers seem bored and uninspired with the material.  You won’t be disappointed if you go in thinking it’s just 20 minutes to sit down and rest your feet.

Scare Zones

Scare Zones are designated exterior walkway areas of Universal Studios that are themed for HHN, usually with fog effects and creatures lurking about to scare pedestrians.

 

“7” – This area features seven small stages, each representing one of the seven deadly sins.  One of the most visually pleasing scare zones of the year.  As the event starts, the women are glamorous and tempting.  As the night goes on, their mood changes…

 

Acid Assault – This scare zone features video projections on some of Universal Studios building facades with a crumbling effect that is quite impressive.  As you stare at the cool video display, watch out for the creatures that sneak up behind you…

 

Canyon of Dark Souls – Towering skeletal specters loom over you as you make your way through the darkness.  Very good ambience and some effective scares make this one of this year’s favorite scare zones.

 

Grown Evil – Small and large winged creature wait for you in this dark, foggy passageway.  The actors working this area provided plenty of good scares to their unsuspecting victims.  The spooky surroundings add an extra layer to this scare zone.

 

Nightmaze – Billed as an innovative, morphing maze that constantly changes.  People in dark costumes are supposed to constantly move pieces of the maze to set up endless ways of getting out.  Another idea that probably looked good on paper but should have been tested before it was implemented.  This was 2011’s most disappointing scare zone.

 

Your Luck Has Run Out – Lady Luck stands above you on a balcony while her evil counterpart lunges at you from below.  Set in a narrow pathway, there are often too many people travelling through at the same time for the zone to be effective.

 

Like any Halloween event, different nights can produce varying results.  Have you been to Halloween Horror Nights this season or in previous years?  Do you go to haunted houses or amusement park events for Halloween?  Let us know and what you like/dislike about these events by commenting in the “HHN” post on our Facebook Fan Page.  We are dying to hear from you! 

Next week, we’ll examine ways that your small business can market itself during the Halloween season.  Be there or be scared!

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