by Andrew Rybarczyk
I really had no intention of attending Halloween Horror Nights this year. Don't get me wrong, it's something I've always wanted to do but a number of things were working against it happening this year. First, because of the cost involved I thought it might be best to make my HHN debut on the 25th anniversary. In addition I thought time would prevent me from actually being able to attend as well. As always, I still anticipated the house reveals as I have for the last few years knowing that it would be very unlikely that I would get to experience them. By this point we had already received some pretty cool house and scare zone announcements like another rendition of the Walking Dead, a From Dusk to Dawn house and even areas based on the hit SyFy show Face-Off. However on August 4th, my mind was blown. That night Aliens vs Predator was announced and I knew I had to find a way down to Orlando to experience it. I've always lamented not being able to experience some of the great haunted houses of the past at HHN especially two found at HHN 12, JP Extinction and Maximum Carnage. Being that there was no guarantee that AvP would return for a second year, HHN 24 HAD to be my first HHN experience.
Now I've always known that Halloween Horror Nights at both Orlando and Hollywood are well regarded as by far the best Halloween events at any theme park. Many would say they are the best Halloween events anywhere. Needless to say I had high expectations going into my first HHN experience. Last weekend, I can easily say that those expectations were definitely met. Now I've been to a few Halloween events over the years including multiple trips to both Cedar Point's Halloweekends and Six Flags Great America's Fright Fest. A few things make HHN the standout among these. First the detailing of the haunted houses is downright amazing. I was prepared for good, but these environments are comparable to movie sets and sometimes better. The amount of detailing is simply outstanding. What impressed me most is a lot of the detail will never even be noticed especially in the dark but were still included by the designers anyway. (I'll talk more about this later when I discuss the backstage Unmasking the Horror tour.) The costumes and makeup were also very well done and added to the overall presentation. Most importantly though, the scares were varied and really well performed. Many times, scares came from the sides but it was also surprising to see scares from above and below. Water features and air bursts also added to the realism and a feeling of uneasiness as one walked along the haunt path. One other aspect that was new to me was the use of prerecorded sound effects and lights that are triggered by the actors before they initiate the scare. I'm not so sure how I feel about this. Sometimes the sounds and lights worked perfectly and I think the best example was the Halloween house when lights and sounds replaced Michael Myers having to say something (which would have ruined it.) Other times, the sound effects were too over the top and did not fit the character of the creature bring represented. Another issue with this method of scare is sometimes it literally shone a bright light on the scares that were a few feet up in the haunt. Despite these issues, I'd still rank all of the haunted houses at HHN ahead of other houses I've been through at other parks.
As for the houses themselves, AvP, the reason for my attending HHN this year, went beyond my already high expectations. It was perfect from start to finish. Coming face to face with Predator was an experience I will never forget. Beyond that though, the house was also designed better than any other at the event. Entering many rooms, scares were almost immediate while other rooms set the tone for what was to come. The ending was was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had at a theme park haunt and was a perfect cap to the house.
Even though I've never seen an episode of The a Walking Dead, I thought the house was also extremely well done. The sheer number of actors made this house stand out because the actors were able to set up and tag team scares a lot easier. A few sections even had chain scares that were really unexpected and thrilling. Halloween was also fantastic and used the subject matter perfectly. Walking through this house was an abbreviated version of walking through the classic horror film. Michael Myers was fantastic and the designers set up multiple areas where fans could relive classic scenes from the movie (without being killed of course). Rounding out my top four houses was Roanoke Cannibal Colony. Being a history teacher, I was very interested to see how this one would play out and let me say I was fascinated by the story and detail from start to finish. Overall the rest of the houses were very good, but these four really stood out among them.
I would also be remiss if I did not point out how great The Purge:Anarchy was as a scare zone. I love the freedom of scare zones and find that actors have to work double as hard to produce the same result most of the time. The Purge not only had great actors but also had some awesome skits that happened every hour. The capturing of a citizen and then auctioning her off to be killed was just an awesome addition to the scare zone. It took it from what would have been a very good scare zone to one that is probably the best I've been through.
Finally I would like to mention an awesome VIP event that I attended on the last day of the trip. Universal Orlando offers the Unmasking the Horror tour where guests are taken on a lights on tour through three of the houses. Just that alone would be worth the extra money it cost. However, the tour also features very knowledgeable tour guides that give insider perspectives on how the houses were designed. My tour was led by Christina who was just fantastic and had a lot of great insight on not just the houses but also the haunting industry in general. She was able to point out the minute details that really fleshed out the story being created inside the haunted house. The amount of backstory and research that goes into these houses is amazing and allows them to tell a full emotions, story. I would highly recommend this tour if you have the time and money to do it!
It was never in question if I would ever attend Halloween Horror Nights, but rather when. I have to admit, I'm hooked and am already trying to design trips to attend either Orlando's or even Hollywood's event next year. If you even remotely enjoy haunted houses or Halloween, HHN is simply the place you have be. I can't wait to see what Universal has in store for next year and hopefully with the big 25th event, it's even more mind blowing than this year!