September 3, 2014 – Universal Studios Hollywood continues its 5-year transformation with the closure of yet another attraction – Universal’s House of Horrors.
To properly send this experience into the studio vaults, we must recognize that Universal is not only closing one attraction, but five distinct attractions that have been built upon each other over time. Without a doubt, House of Horrors has housed the most hidden easter egg gags than any other attraction in the park.
Having been created from leftover remnants of such past attractions as E.T. Adventure and Back to the Future: The Ride as well as film props from numerous horror films, the year-round maze became a “love it or hate it” attraction on the Universal roster for over the past decade. I was personally an Attraction Host Lead for this venue from 2000 – 2003 and I am excited to bring you an inside look into the history of this classic Universal experience.
The building in which House of Horrors is located can be traced back to the beginning of the Entertainment Visitor’s Center (otherwise known today as the Upper Lot). With such famous restaurants as Victoria’s Station and Marvel Mania, this location was primarily built for one purpose…to be a restaurant. Marvel Mania (which was far before its time) was a heavily themed restaurant operated by the Planet Hollywood franchise company. With financial difficulties plaguing the company, the Marvel Mania Restaurant was closed without notice to its employees after the summer of 1999 – operating less than a year. I can vividly remember the day when Universal opened its doors and employees were stunned at Marvel Mania’s closure, especially after the heels of Beetlejuice Rockin’ Graveyard Revue closure just a few days prior. With attendance growth beginning to dwindle in the wake of Jurassic Park: The Ride’s languishing debut in 1996, Universal Studios Hollywood had begun downsizing in a trend that would eventually extend throughout the 2000s.
With small traces of the Marvel Mania building being removed, the venue remained dormant for the off-season of 1999 and reopened as a behind-the-scenes attraction known as the Chicken Run Maze in June of 2000 – utilizing only one level. Even the Marvel Mania carpet and restrooms remained themed to Marvel Mania, though the area was not accessible to the public.
The Chicken Run Maze itself was designed for kids and families. The main prop room featured maquettes and models from the film and the maze layout followed a layout that was opposite to the walkthrough we see today. Without any scare elements, the attraction followed chickens and their quest to escape the farm while audio and video clips would trigger throughout your walking experience. A crawl space was built with soft padding on the floor where the kids could veer off from the parents and reunite with them around the corner. Large carrots were used instead of the usual body bags and the spinning tunnel effect within the maze was a grinder to create chicken pies. Everywhere you walked you could hear the film dialogue “Chickens go in, pies come out!” In short, despite its small scale and single floor, Chicken Run had inadvertently set the groundwork for each successive maze, including the likes of the Grinch, Van Helsing and Universal’s House of Horrors.
With the removal of Chicken Run in late 2000, Universal was about to release the largely successful Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas film starring Jim Carrey (which – quite notably – filmed entirely on the Universal lot, and featured a tremendous wrap party in which employees were invited). The maze was rethemed for the holiday season with props from the film and a large snow slide taller than the building was built in front of the attraction. The Blue Brothers show was temporarily relocated to the Studio Center in front of Jurassic Park while a Cirque Du Soleil type show performed on their stage.
Featuring the infamous Mount Crumpit Snow Slide with actual ice, the attraction littered the area water puddles. The landing zone for such a tall, slick, and fast snow slide offered little buffer area to stop, eventually resulting in some rather important safety concerns. Entering the maze required that you would walk under the snow slide and step through the melting ice and puddles to find the attraction. Props from the film were located inside the maze itself as the lobby primarily lent itself to becoming a queue.
Reversing the now counter intuitive direction of Chicken Run, the walking direction for the Grinch’s lair was eventually reversed to create the direction we have become accustomed to today.
The maze itself would feature television screens that would be triggered to play videos of the Grinch laughing. An actor portraying the Grinch would be walking near the exit of the maze for photo opportunities, and a small half tube kids slide would reach the lower dining area of Marvel Mania, creating an exit on the north side of the building toward the former Wild West arena (now Universal Plaza). The Grinch Maze only lasted from November 2000 to January 2001 and photos are very rare due to its limited run.
With popularity around the Mummy franchise films and a second film in the works, Universal took a major leap with the maze by creating The Mummy Returns: Chamber of Doom. With an all-new facade on the exterior of the building, this maze added animatronics and live actors within the sets to create a sense of fear and realism. A bridge was built on the third floor of the main dining hall, which offered shuttering floor effects alongside pygmies that would pop up on the side, and a motion dummy of Rick O’Connell hung from a net with audio from the film accompanying his movements.
In an amazing move for Universal, the original layout had two full dark tubes meant for kids to slide from the third floor to the first floor, and parents could allow their kids to slide while they used stairs to reunite with them. Employees would have cameras and monitors to make sure the tube was clear before sending the next child in very similar fashion to a water park attraction and the entire drop would we watched to ensure compliance from guests and prevent backups. While smart in theory, this design impeded guest flow inside the maze with guests unsure of where to proceed. Eventually, the tubes were removed and the guest exit was moved outside on the third floor of the building where it stayed for the remainder of its run. With the addition of the third floor of the maze, the disabled elevator was utilized for guest use.
This attraction was so popular for its summer runs that a temporary queue was set up in front of the Blues Brothers stage. The difficulty of managing a temporary queue introduced gridlock on the main streats, and Universal eventually built an extended queue utilizing the hallway and outdoor area near the main entrance of the park.
A small portion of the maze was removed when the extended queue was built and created the maze gateway entrance we know today inside the lobby. A television monitor with interactive buttons was added to allow for queue guests to scare the guests inside the maze on the other side of the wall. When a guest would press a button, the effect would spray high-pressure air and water on the unsuspecting guests and the screams could be heard from inside the lobby area. That television monitor eventually became the safety video in the lobby for House of Horrors.
Near the same time the Mummy’s Tomb was introduced on the Studio Tour (yes, it was marketed), Universal had two Mummy attractions within the park. Once the plans for Revenge of the Mummy to take over the E.T. Adventure were finalized, the Mummy Returns: Chamber of Doom was closed in favor of another Stephen Sommers film.
Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula opened for summer 2004. Universal had once again adjusted much of the main facade and created a much darker feel for a maze intended to scare guests as a daytime Halloween style attraction. Heavy additions continued to change the layout of the maze with large film props added and a walking area on the first floor dining area. The spinning tunnel was moved from the beginning of the maze to the first floor area alongside the forest trees left over from the E.T. Adventure queue. The bridge in the dining hall was shifted to change the flow of guests so that more foot space could be utilized and the walk through became the longest it would ever be. The stairs inside the building became part of the attraction and a projection of video clips was added to help theme a bright environment and keep the theme ongoing. Although Van Helsing would close in 2006, much of the maze was retained for the opening of House of Horrors in 2007.
House of Horrors has had the longest run of any maze attraction in this location. With its close connection to the newly relaunched Halloween Horror Nights in 2006, House of Horrors became an easy way for an attraction to play double duty and keep costs down. House of Horrors brought back the Universal Monsters, which hadn’t had a prominent spot in the park since 1999 with the closure of the Beetlejuice show. Classic horror enthusiasts could marvel at the movie monster memorabilia and see props, which had not been visible to the public for ages. House of Horrors was a culmination of tough decisions through difficult times to keep a theme park profitable.
With the unexpected closure of venues and shows, the maze idea was the simple solution and built upon year over year. Although reaction may be mixed for its closure (what Universal attraction doesn’t), over time House of Horrors will be remembered well in the Universal fan base.
Chris Lord is an editor-at-large for Inside Universal.
From his first visit to Universal in 1986 with the original attractions such as A-Team, Battlestar Galactica, and King Kong, Chris admired Universal Studios for its experience of “Riding the Movies.” Chris is a huge JAWS fan and looked forward to the day when he could visit Universal Studios Florida to experience the JAWS ride in Orlando. His dreams came true with his first visit to Universal Florida in 1998. After his visit to Orlando, Chris became an employee of Universal Studios Hollywood in 1998 for the second Halloween Horror Nights event and then went on to become an attraction host for show control and a ride operator for Back to the Future: The Ride and Terminator 2:3D.
Chris left Universal Studios Hollywood to pursue a new career in commercial aviation. With his desire for Universal Studios, he now utilizes his benefits of flight travel to visit Universal Studios Theme Parks across the globe. With his knowledge and passion for Universal’s history, Chris enjoys sharing his Universal experiences for those who wish to know more about the inside.
You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.