Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights lives up to the hype – almost. On the one hand, it’s really just the Orlando version of a haunted house, which can be found in every American city each October. However, Halloween Horror Nights is the gold standard of haunted houses, even though they’re not all houses and they’re not all haunted. Zombies seem to be a particular problem this year.
The key to fear at Universal, however, isn’t confined to the haunted houses or the “scare zones” (spots along the walkway where deadish things jump out at you) – it’s the constant adrenaline rush as you wait for something to target you. Anyone who saw The Exorcist or Nightmare on Elm Street knows the feeling. After the movie, you glance at dark windows for a few hours. As you drift off to sleep, you wonder if dream events can affect real life.
After eight hours at Universal, it takes a few hours to stop looking at strangers or nooks, wondering if something will jump out. Is that car empty? Are those footsteps behind me? When my date turns toward me, will her teeth sharpen and dislocate?
If considering Halloween Horror Nights, here are the prime considerations:
• Style. Universal has the most creative horror. The company revamps the haunted houses each year – and they look good. Granted, strobe lights and darkness make it easier for plywood to look like granite, but does it matter? Haunted houses elsewhere pale in comparison.
• Creativity. Perhaps 2011’s scariest house recreates a WW II battlefield hospital. The sound of constant gunfire over your head and imitation twilight provides a scary backdrop as zombie nurses chew on wounded and dead soldiers. Gross? Yes. Creative? Undoubtedly.
• Substance. The horror comes from two sources: Gross stuff you see (bloody body parts mainly) and someone jumping at you when you don’t expect it. The “jumping in your face” one is tough because you start to expect it at any moment from anywhere, as designers sneak hidden cubicles into each attraction. First you look for zombies, then you look for cubicles, then you look for an exit.
• Cost. The price of admission varies by day of the week, closeness to Halloween, status as a Florida resident, and where you buy your tickets. Start online or visit a local Publix grocery store. At the gate, expect to pay about $90 to get in.
• Lines. The ugly side of Halloween Horror Nights is waiting in haunted house lines, which can easily stretch to an hour even on off nights. If your income comes close to rich status, consider buying an HHN Express pass that allows access to the front of the lines. Again, costs vary greatly depending on all the variables noted above, but they fall in the range of $40 to $90 additional per person.
• Rides. All coasters and a handful of other rides are open.
• Shows. Halloween Horror Nights shows are clearly in the PG-13 category, with sex jokes and colorful language. Unfortunately, the Bill and Ted show for 2011 had few laughs and missed the topical humor of earlier productions. It might also be time to pick a new theme. The park played a short movie at the beginning of the show to explain who Bill and Ted are. Visitors younger than 30 aren’t old enough to remember the original movie.
• Tips. Arrive at least a half hour before the scheduled opening and quickly see at least three houses if you don’t want to pony up money for front-of-the-line access. If also visiting Universal during the day, avoid the rides and wait out the haunted house lines.
• Drinking. Pick a designated driver. Alcohol is sold everywhere and street vendors push it while you wait in line. And, arguably, horror is better after a second drink.