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Review: Halloween Horror Nights 26

Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights is unquestionably one of the best-known Halloween events in the entire world. High tech effects, Hollywood-quality scenic and arguably the highest event budget you’ll find makes it no surprise that HHN has legions of fans dying to get a piece of the screams.

 

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Halloween Horror Nights 26 is a separately ticketed event that runs thirty-one select nights between September 16, 2016 and October 31, 2016, every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday as well as the last three Wednesdays of October and Halloween night itself. In its 26th year, Halloween Horror Nights features nine different haunted houses, five scare zones, two shows as well as all of your favorite Universal Studios Florida attractions, including Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and Revenge of the Mummy. New this year, Universal Orlando will be offering a boutique up-charge attraction, The Repository, offering a mix of immersive scenic, live actors and virtual reality beginning September 29th and running through closing night.

 

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY

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Relive scene after scene of sinister threats from Murder House, Freak Show and Hotel seasons of the popular FX series, American Horror Story.

Expect a clip show flavor in this Haunt. From start to finish this is a disjointed collection of “best of” memorable scenes from the TV show. The problem is, if you are not a fan of the show, it will essentially be lost on you. American Horror Story, as a Haunt, is not an IP that can stand on its own as a solid attraction without prior brand knowledge.

In a year of really top notch scenic nearly across the board, American Horror Story’s sets felt modest at best with a few exceptions. The Freak Show portion was the notable stand-out of this Haunt, and even still, it paled in comparison to the level of scenic detail found in the majority of the other mazes at HHN 26. While houses showcase scenic that would challenge even the best Hollywood movie sets, easily allowing you the guest to suspend disbelief and accept you are truly within that storyworld, American Horror Story felt like Haunted House sets. Nice Haunted House sets, sure – but not close to the wow factor of that found elsewhere in the event.

It’s also worth noting that this Haunt had perhaps the most absurd exit path of any we’ve ever seen at HHN—a walk that’s quite possibly longer than the actual maze itself!

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American Horror Story seemed more like a display than a Haunt. It lacked any true “wow moment” scares – perhaps due in part to its clip show format. Each third of this Haunt was broken up by awkward title scenes, setting up the next season you are about to enter, while at the same time creating a very disjointed flow.

Perhaps the most disjointed moment was the finale, which abruptly left Hotel and plunged you back into Freak Show for a second time, for no good reason other than Twisty the Clown is the maze’s best costume.

 

The Exorcist

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Go inside the mind of a tormented girl, possessed by evil. It will leave you haunted.

The execution of this Haunt is much more a book report of the movie than a view from inside Regan’s mind. While the HHN story implies a new take on an old classic, this experience is essentially a “greatest hits” of the film—not that this is a bad thing. All of your favorite moments are realistically, chillingly represented.

The Exorcist begins with an epic entry facade and upholds that quality for the first and last third of its duration. Unfortunately, the middle section is essentially black curtains that really take you out of the experience’s flow.

Once back on track, the remainder of your visit will lay witness to some of the film’s most memorable moments—unfolding before you where you can see, hear, and yes, smell all the gory details.

Though The Exorcist does have a clear ending moment—something that’s important to us in a Haunted Attraction, it is a bit confusing. I can only assume it is the one moment wherein they try to connect the “inside the mind” approach, to show you what ends up happening to the demon that possessed Regan in the end.

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Right from the start, The Exorcist grabs for the brass ring of “best scare of the year.” A huge “wow moment” with a spectacular reveal makes this maze one that’s simply not to be missed.

From there, it does have a bit of a “diorama” sense where you’re more viewing the action unfold than you are an active participant in it. Again, that’s not necessarily to say this is a bad thing as the detail and content is all there and depicted in a way that does the IP justice.

This Haunt is definitely not one for those with a weak stomach. If you’ve even heard of The Exorcist film you’ll know there is a pivotal moment that involves, well, lots and lots of vomit. This Haunt is not shy to make use of that with gag-inducing sound effects and a vomit scent piped into certain scenes.

 

Ghost Town: The Curse of Lightning Gulch

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They came looking for gold. Instead they found death and destruction. Now their doomed souls seek others to join them.

It’s a classic cowboys and outlaws story that puts you right in the center of the gunfight, creating a sense that you are an active participant in the middle of the action.

Although the entry facade was a bit more modest than I’d hoped, scenes throughout this Haunt more than made up for it. Giant “outdoor” spaces between old west saloons, shops and other buildings create the illusion that this storyworld is indeed a real place—or at least was a long time ago.

It wouldn’t be Lightning Gulch without a thunderstorm, however, Ghost Town takes that notion a bit to the extreme with a decently large storm scene with actual rain—not mist—but pouring rain. Expect to get wet.

Unfortunately, a fairly solid maze from start-to-almost-finish is lessened overall by the lack of a definitive finale. Ghost Town is one of those somewhat standard HHN mazes where it’s “detailed set, detailed set, oh wait I’m outside? When did it end?!”

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No self-respecting old west town is without its gunfights, and Ghost Town has one around seemingly every corner. What results is a scare tactic that seems more organic and realistic than just your average “boo scare.” Guns that “shoot” with sound effects, blasts of air and even some puffs of smoke in key moments really create a sense of authenticity.

Ghost Town also tries, and largely fails, to use several projection effects to enhance both scenic and scares. Sadly, they come across more cheesy than scary, but not to the point of bringing down the overall flow of a fairly great Haunt.

 

The Walking Dead

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Face relentless threats starting from the beginning of the series to last season’s most unforgettable moments.

While I certainly walked in expecting a clip show from the TV series, as IP houses often are, this year’s Haunt based on The Walking Dead actually comes across as far more lazy. In truth, this attraction is more a “best of” clip show from past HHN mazes themed to The Walking Dead than it is a new Haunt. So much so in fact that if you’ve visited in years prior and lines are long, this maze is an easy one to skip.

Generally mediocre scenic quality (again, when compared to the grandeur of several other Haunts at HHN 26) do actually build to a big wow moment just before the finale scene. Giant scale facades and great attention to detail at least try to make up for the rest of the maze’s copy/paste methodology from years past.

Truthfully, The Walking Dead doesn’t feel just like a “best of”, but it’s so identical to past houses based on the IP that I found myself questioning whether they built it this season or pulled existing sets out of storage and plopped them together inside a soundstage.

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The problem with zombies, by their very nature, is that they are slow moving creatures. It’s difficult to pull off a zombie-themed Haunt, because nothing that comes at you sluggishly is going to catch you off guard. What results is a situation where you either lack suspense by doing it correctly, or lack realism by having quick moving zombies that jump and run at you. Unfortunately for HHN, their approach is typically the latter.

The one thing The Walking Dead really did well this year was its finale moment. I won’t give it away, but I’ll say it’s a classic Haunt technique that actually works quite well with the zombie character type, setting a terrifying scene as the final hurdle between you and safety.

 

Lunatic’s Playground 3D – You Won’t Stand a Chance

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Step into Chance’s realm where the lines between her twisted delusions and reality are continuously blurred.

Icon Houses are often a special attraction; one wherein grand detail and immersive storytelling blend to tell the twisted tale behind the entire HHN event that year.  I was really thrilled to hear Chance, HHN 26’s Icon Character, would be getting her own dedicated Haunt. Unfortunately, it fails on nearly every level.

Mistake #1: Make the Icon House a 3D Haunt.

3D Haunts nearly never work. They always come across as cheap and tacky.  This year is no exception.

Mistake #2: Make that 3D Haunt one of the worst 3D Haunts in recent memory.

This one is just bad. Without a doubt the worst Haunt of HHN 26.

If you’ve ever seen a 3D Haunt *anywhere*—and I’m confident that you unfortunately have—you already know what to expect. Flat sets painted in fluorescent colors, distorted by cardboard chromadepth 3D glasses.

There’s so many directions this Haunt could have taken, and each of them easily could have allowed it to be one of the highlights of HHN 26. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, Lunatic’s Playground 3D took none of those directions.

It’s worth noting that the aspect of this Haunt I found the most interesting was actually it’s location, a different plot of land never before used for a HHN attraction. Thanks to construction of the Fast and the Furious attraction well underway, Lunatic’s Playground 3D is located backstage, between Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure and Men in Black: Alien Attack.

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Sadly, the scares in this haunt can be summed up in a single word: typical. This is your standard 3D Haunt fare, relying more on distorted vision than psychological thrill.

It should be no surprise that Lunatic’s Playground 3D is also home to the groan-inducing spinning tunnel at HHN 26. Can’t we just retire that thing already?

 

The Texas Chain saw Massacre

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Experience every scene, every kill, every bone-chilling rev of the chain saw from the original masterpiece.

Essentially a movie book report. Luckily The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a really well written one. This haunt does a spectacular job of creating the sense you are an active participant in the classic horror film, leaving you with a true sense of danger and urgency to find a way out.

This is without a doubt HHN’s best take on a Haunt based on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre franchise.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had arguably some of the best scenic to be found at HHN 26. The old country compound from the film felt massive—endlessly sprawling from room to room to give the feeling that you are desperately lost. The course of this Haunt sends you through “the same room” several times (duplicates of them for capacity’s sake, of course) something that really artfully paints the picture that you truly cannot find the way out.

Set pieces that rival any Hollywood blockbuster surround you, and in some cases are several floors tall, immersing you within this horrifying storyworld in the best way possible.

As a bonus, a brief outdoor scene follows your exit from this Haunt for some encore scares.

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The quality of scenic in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre amplifies the quality of scares ten-fold. The sets are so real that it’s easy to suspend disbelief and get lost in the story world. What results are more believable scares and an enhanced sense of urgency.

Expect a lot of Leatherface in this maze as he appears in seemingly every scene.

 

Tomb of the Ancients

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Immortal beings of the ancient past have returned to rule mankind. Now they wait for someone foolish enough to disturb them.

A true adventure movie come to life, Tomb of the Ancients evokes the flavor, drama and peril of an Indiana Jones movie, crossed with that classic game show from our childhood, Legends of the Hidden Temple, to solidly thrust you into the role of the main character.

It’s a unique theme and one that is easy to suspend disbelief in and accept it as reality, making Tomb of the Ancients one of the best Haunts of HHN 26.

Tomb of the Ancients has some of the best, most immersive scenic to be found at HHN 26. Detailed temple sets, caverns and corridors laced with booby traps await would-be adventurers hoping to escape with their lives.

This Haunt successfully creates the impression that the further you travel, the deeper you are trapped inside this ancient tomb. The mood darkens, and the sense of urgency grows with each step you take – all the while you become more and more disoriented by the massive amount of roots, vines and shredded burlap hanging in your face.

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The sense of realism created by the Tomb of the Ancients really serves to amplify its scares. It’s easy to believe you are a famous adventurer exploring this cursed temple, and that even one wrong step could spell your demise.

Lots of dark corners hidden throughout the Tomb make for some really solid hiding places for the various immortal beings who stalk you in the darkness. From start to finish, this is one of HHN 26’s brightest stars.

 

Halloween: Hell comes to Haddonfield

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Michael Myers is still alive and still out for blood.

Though I feel like Halloween as an IP is growing a bit over-done, this may be the best take on it that HHN has seen. This time, focused on Halloween II, expect the standard over-abundance of Michael Myers attacks as this time he stalks Haddonfield Memorial Hospital in search of his sister Laurie.

Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield is yet another example of massive, stunning Hollywood-quality sets to be found at HHN 26. Giant realistic settings make it easy to feel as though you’re trapped in the hospital in the middle of Michael Myer’s latest rampage.

A great finale is brought to life through some of the best sets to be found in this Haunt, really adding the exclamation point at the end of a compelling, immersive experience.

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The scares here consist of essentially Michael Myers, over and over and over and over again. There’s *a lot* of Michael Myers. Now, I know what you’re thinking—he was the monster of this film, so it makes sense that it focus on him—and I don’t disagree. I’m just not a huge fan of having multiples of the same character in a single given scene.

That being said, the overall quality of the story and over the top good scenic still leave Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield as one of HHN 26’s best Haunts.

 

Krampus

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01_krampus-lrAs a blizzard rages outside, St. Nicholas’ evil counterpart and his band of Dark Minions claim the souls of the faithless one by one.

One of HHN’s best “book report” style IP Haunts, Krampus hits all the major beats from the film without feeling like a clip show. Each scene unfolds organically, with a logical flow connecting them.

Krampus hits a home run by capturing the movie’s mix of terror and humor, blending them perfectly in this Haunted Attraction while creating a sense of urgency that draws you in as an active participate in the storyworld.

Incredible scenic and attention to detail flow from the second you walk into this Haunt up till the moment you exit. You’ll find yourself traveling from house to house during the attack of Krampus and his Minions—with absolutely massive “outdoor” sections connecting them in the middle of a blizzard, under a dark night sky twinkling with stars.

The best “wow” moments in many HHN Haunts are those with epic entry statement facades. Not only does Krampus hit that mark, but it does so repeatedly with each new “house” you enter along your journey.

Simply put, Krampus is everything I look for in a Haunt.

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Again, true to the flavor of the film, Krampus’ scares are a wonderful mix of fear and fun. His Dark Minion are everywhere, with some of the coolest costumes and most impressive custom-made masks we’ve ever seen at HHN—creating a world full of demented elves with heads on the scale, in both size and detail, of classic theme park “fur” characters.  They’re whimsical and menacing, and some of the most memorable characters you’ll encounter at the event.

The one slight disappointment is you never actually encounter Krampus—at least not a living incarnation of him. Though he is most certainly represented at several times throughout the Haunt, no actual scareactor depicts him in a live interaction. Though this by no means lessens the quality of the haunt, as it’s still by far my favorite of HHN 26, it could have only served to make something fantastic even better.

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Five official scare zones, plus additional roaming characters make up the street entertainment for HHN 26. Overall, the problem with HHN Scare Zones actually stems from USF’s daytime Universal Superstars Parade. In years prior, Scare Zones were as much Haunts as any of the Houses themselves, full of detailed scenic and immersive decor. Unfortunately now, thanks to the parade’s large clearance envelope, Scare Zones have become minimal at best, full of only small items that can be rolled in and out prior to and after each event’s night. What results are Scare Zones that become less immersive, and thus less compelling. This year, five distinctive scenes take over sections of the park:

 

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A Chance in Hell

Get ready for the audition of a lifetime. Chance may be locked away, but that hasn’t stopped her. As the alarms ring and the bloody remains of those who tried to stop her lie around, she’s busy recruiting cellmates to join her biggest act yet.

HHN 26’s Icon Scare Zone feels more like an afterthought than something planned to further the event’s story. A handful of vignettes featuring small performance stages flank the street between Shrek 4D and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. This Scare Zone’s one saving grace is a mic’d Chance, taunting the crowd entering the event while she captures and tortures her next victims.

 

 

 

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Survive or Die Apocalypse

A Global catastrophe has ruined Earth’s atmosphere. Now three warring gangs fight for control of a machine that provides clean air. All three gangs are looking for new members to help them destroy the others. Join them, or feed their starving ranks.

Minimal scenic decor and image mapping projection transform the New York section of the theme park.

 

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Dead Man’s Wharf

Today, on the anniversary of the disappearance of the fishing vessel Annabel Lee, a thick fog has rolled in. The spirits of the lost crew have returned to punish the town that left them to die on the open seas, and make sure the dock earns its morbid nickname.

One of HHN 26’s smallest Scare Zones across from the former Disaster attraction is also home to its best scenic—a large ghost ship crashed into the wharf, home to the sinister lost crew.

 

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Lair of the Banshees

Deep in the forest there is a centuries-old dark hollow where evil spirits and horrific creatures of the ancient world roam free. Now the modern world has found the entrance to this sinister place. Enter, if you dare, and meet the primordial horror of these dark spirits.

The heavily wooded path between Central Park and Kid Zone always makes for a great Scare Zone setting, and this year is no different. Lair of the Banshees is the stand-out Scare Zone of HHN 26, full of fog, dramatic lighting, great costumes and some small scale yet decent scenic.

 

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Vamp ’55

Welcome to Hollywood High School’s 1955 Homecoming Parade. Everything is perfect until the greasers roll into town with fangs as sharp as their switchblades. The festive scene has turned to chaos as vampires attack from all around.

Though far from the best Scare Zone, Vamp ’55 is definitely among the most fun. A 1950’s “greaser” take on vampires, set during the Homecoming Parade which sees actual floats parked in the center of Hollywood Blvd, while the Homecoming King sinks his teeth into his unwilling Queen in front of the entire school.

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Academy of Villains: House of Fear

As a riot breaks out in Shadybrook, this take-no-prisoners performance troupe thrusts you into a realm of madness and mayhem. High-energy dance and specialty acts mix in an explosion of insanity. The inmates are now running the asylum!

A nod to Shadybrook Asylum, setting of classic HHN Haunt PsychoScareapey, this dance troupe really does fit the spirit of the event’s over-arching mood. I opted not to watch this one as it’s not my style of entertainment, but seeing it in passing definitely showed there are many who enjoyed it quite a bit.

 

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Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure

Party on as those two most excellent dudes return to skewer the biggest names in politics, show business and pop culture.

Oh, Bill & Ted. The love/hate relationship I have with you. Once the shining star of the Halloween season, this show has fallen into the category of predictable, tired cliché. That is, I’m very happy to say, until HHN 26.

For it’s 25th anniversary, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure finally found its way back to its roots, with a new pacing structure, some classic call-backs from past shows and a great plot line. For the first time in more than a decade (in Orlando, at least) Bill & Ted finally made me laugh again.

To be fair, the past 365 days have been somewhat of a softball in turns of pop culture available to attack. From a new Star Wars film, to a polarizing Presidential Election between a ridiculously unpopular candidate and a cartoon super villain, to some great television and the death of several music icons.

The writers of this years show did everything justice in the best possible way, and may have even revitalized the franchise for future HHN years to come.

Yes, for the first time in more than a decade, I find myself able to actually recommend others make the time to see this show.

Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights was once the pinnacle of the Haunted Attraction landscape. A true force to be reckoned with that had few equals. Unfortunately over the course of the past handful of years, the event has grown stale, and each year seemed a little less exciting than the year prior. A little less original; a little less innovative; a little less special.

It’s very exciting to really enjoy HHN again in Orlando. It’s exciting to want to go a second time. It’s exciting to think that this could be the start of a new renaissance for the event that could bring it back to the industry standard bearer it once was.

Halloween Horror Nights 26, overall, is a fantastic event. Great Haunts, entertainment and mood transform Universal Studios Florida into another world full of nightmares waiting to stalk you at every turn. It’s a massive step in the right direction to bring HHN back to the level of gory glory that made it famous, and I for one am thrilled to welcome it home as one of the undisputed kings of Halloween.

Venue: Universal Orlando

Location: Orlando, FL

Dates: Select Nights September 16th – October 31st

Hours: 6:30PM – 1AM or 2AM depending on the night.

Cost: $104.99 or $55.99-$82.99 for Florida Residents

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