Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando had a nice, rain-free night for the opening of its second weekend. The event is a showcase of set design, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because it’s a treat for the eyes, but bad because you miss the detail in many of the houses unless you take a lights-on tour (see the video at left for a tour of one of the houses). Also, Universal puts a ton of money and effort into timed scares that are impressive if you get to see them but are missed if your timing is off.
Still, we had a great time and some excellent scares. For me, the best frights are the ones instigated by stealthy scareactors, not big special effects. In Winter’s Night and Forsaken, scareactors got me good by simply sneaking up on me and timing their approach just right. The same thing worked to great effect in the Grown Evil scarezone, where I ended up wearing a good portion of my lemonade (note to self: full, lidless drink plus skilled scareactors = recipe for disaster)
Here is a quick review of each house. Everyone has different tastes, so your opinion may vary. They’re in no particular order, except that Winter’s Night is my favorite:
Winter’s Night: I had one of the best scares of the night in this house, which is a marvel of gorgeous set design, coupled with energetic scareactors. Sadly, you miss a lot of the details, like the Brady Bunch and creative team names on the crypts, because it’s too dark and you have to keep moving through in a conga line. From the snow to the forced perspective scene, it’s a work of art as well as a spot for great scares.
The Thing: This one has great special effects, but it’s a “timing” house in some parts so you may not get the full effect unless you get to go through it multiple times. It’s very, very noisy, and the creatures are another example of Universal’s affinity for design. There are good scareactor attacks and diversion scares, too. You might get wet in this house, and that holds true for several others this year. Universal is going for tactile effects this year, and knowing you might get wet definitely adds to the trepidation factor.
Nightingales: This house concept reminds me of Catacombs, my favorite 2010 house, but with nurses instead of plague doctors. Alas, the similarity ends there because Nightingales is another visual treat, sometimes at the expense of scares or missing something due to timing, while Catacombs was all about the old-school scares. Its sets weren’t elaborate, but the scareactors had plenty of dark hiding spots that they used to effectively scare the hell out of you. Be sure to look for overhead effects, and don’t miss the nurse eating the horse!
The Inbetween: My husband loves this 3D house, which throws so much at you visually that you might not know what is an illusion and what is a real scareactor. That lets them hit you with some great scares, but for me it made things a bit difficult in some rooms because I thought I was seeing scareactors, but I wasn’t sure enough to actually get a good startle. My husband blames this on my vision and says he sees the scareactors and absolutely loves the frights. It’s definitely Universal’s best 3D house to date.
Saws and Steam: Next to Saw, it’s the best Jaws queue house ever. Finally, the cloying heat in that area actually fits into the theme. This is another one where you might just get wet (or very wet) too. The big, burly scareactors are appropriately menacing, especially when carrying knives, and I love how the set design fits in as you see water being rendered from flesh, power surges, and gross stuff floating in jars. Even with the effects, this one has the most old-school feel for me.
Nevermore: This Poe-based house has design detail on the level of Winter’s Night. I’m glad I got to see it on the lights-on tour, as it’s impossible to see or appreciate properly in the crowded darkness. We only made it through once, vs. twice for all the other houses, and it’s yet another timing-based house, so we missed the big effect with Poe’s wife. The best spot for scares in this house is the ravens. They’ll make you feel like you’re starring in “The Birds.”
The Forsaken: I’m impressed that Universal can actually make you feel like you’re on a ship when you’re actually inside of a building, and this one brings the trend toward tactile experiences to a new level. You’ll get buffeted by wind and rain and stagger along a slanted floor. Its one weakness is that the scareactors all have lit-up green eyes, which makes it virtually impossible for them to hide effectively. They need to be able to turn the eyes off and on. Still, their skill makes up for the fact that they’re wearing a dead giveaway. I had one of my best scares of the night in here, as a scareactor saw that I was distracted and got in the perfect position to scare the snot out of me when I turned my head.
Holidays of Horror: This one feels more like a funhouse than a haunted house, although the elves remind me of a Rankin-Bass special gone very, very wrong. Its lighting is much brighter than the other houses so you get to see the elaborate sets, but you don’t get to see enough of the TVs inbetween each room to get any set-up for the scenes. Still, they’re pretty self explanatory, and the presidents are downright vicious with their scares. I was hoping this would be a favorite for me, since Psychoscarapy: Home for the Holidays is one of my all-time favorite houses, but alas, it’s more of a “meh.”
Click here for a lights-on tour of the Forsaken, and click here for Winters Night. Click here to read more of my articles, and click here to follow me on Twitter. Click here to sign up for my pets newsletter if you love animals, and click here for my Pet Supplies & Product Reviews site on About.com. I’ve taken over 80 Disney cruises and can book yours and give you a special stateroom credit. Visit www.dclexpert.com.