Another year of Horrah is upon us! Starting earlier than ever, Halloween Horror Nights kicked off its 29th year on Friday, with some of heavy-hitting franchises and nostalgia in its arsenal. Last year’s event is a tough act to follow, so how does this year’s event measure up?
While not perfect, this year’s event features a lot to love. Universal’s attempt to bring a cohesive 80’s theme is no doubt the highlight of the year, even paying attention to the little things, which adds to the experience of the event. Its bears repeating that a strong theme is the building blocks of a successful event – and this year, Horror Nights nailed it. The strongest offering is the merchandise line-up, featuring not only this year’s I.P.s, but a huge dose of classic 80’s style; undoubtedly breaking the bank for many fans, including ourselves.
While this is the 2nd year in a row Universal is digging into nostalgia, last year pales in comparison to how all-in the theme is this year. Bright neon colors are found throughout the event, from signage to scare zones, and that classic synth-wave sound is featured in the soundtrack throughout most of the park. The house and scare zone line-up cheats a bit with how it ties into the ’80s, but that’s an extremely minor gripe.
After a successful introduction of specialty-themed food and drink to the event last year, Universal expanded their offerings, with more variety found throughout the park. There are four signature drinks this year, inspired by classic 80s beverages, plus four souvenir cups to collect. The souvenir cups will be a staggered release with a new one becoming available on a weekly basis. The Starcourt Mall Food Court offers a wide array of different cuisine, including what should be some new favorites, Grilled Street Corn and Nachos Queso Fundidio. The fan-favorite pizza fries are still offered, with S’mores Fries as a new option this year. We were hoping some sort of Ecto-Cooler/green beverage would be offered to celebrate Ghostbusters, so that was a bit of a let-down.
With this year’s line-up featuring Ghostbusters, Stranger Things, and Us all at the front of the park, we can’t recommend getting Express enough. To what we’ve dubbed “Murderer’s Row”, even during a rather light-crowded opening weekend, that area was swamped with guests.
Hurricane Dorian’s threat to Florida last week obviously held back some of the set-up for Horror Nights, so it’s safe to assume that Opening Weekend was not running at 100%. So what were our first impressions of this year’s event? The first weekend tends to have that “new car smell” when it comes to rankings, and hyperbole finds its way into the discussion.
It’s very possible, and very much likely, this could change; but after opening weekend, here’s where we stand: (Some Spoilers)
A beautifully, haunting, classic ghost house. Graveyard Games has some really wonderful set design, costumes, and great scares; along with some clever special effects. The smell of dirt and mildew permeate the air as you make your way through the crypts. The Purple Lady’s presence is teased throughout the house perfectly, setting up your last encounter with her. The facade is also pretty damn impressive.
A love letter to the classics, but with a modern twist! Each monster gets its time to shine, including the Hunchback and the Phantom. Wish it had a bit more Dracula; but other than that, this house is surprisingly intense with some awesome scare tactics – most notably the Mummy’s tomb and the Wolfman’s lunge.
Fans of the movie will absolutely adore this house, but it’s hard to classify Ghostbusters as a traditional haunted house. It’s got some jump moments, but it’s very light on the scary – which was expected. Regardless, you’ll smile ear-to-ear as the HHN design team captured the spirit of the film perfectly. As an attraction, it’s 5 stars, but as a “haunt”, we had to ding it on our rankings. Don’t get us wrong though, this is the must-do house of the year.
These yetis are scary, ya’ll. After a short, but memorable appearance in last year’s Slaughter Sinema – the HHN Design Team went all-in with the Yeti, bringing the story to life in the perfect setting of the snow-laden Yukon Territory. The Yeti costumes are fantastic and have some pretty brutal scenes throughout the house – including the infamous heart rip, and a very funny door gag. Yeti has a lot of potential to climb higher on our list by event’s end.
The movie definitely has faults, but the source material makes ripe for a haunted house. It’s gritty, grimy, and a lot of fun. The facade is well-done and the intro scene captures the tone of Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen well. The middle of the house drags a bit, losing some momentum before picking it back up once you reach Dr. Satan to finish strong. Another house with potential to climb higher.
Like Ghostbusters, this house is very light on the scary, but is a heck of a lot of fun. It captures the light-hearted tone of the film well and is a worthy successor to last year’s popular scare zone. The highlight is coming up-close with Klownzilla himself, but the house loses a little bit of steam after the encounter.
One of the biggest houses Horror Nights has done, with 14 rooms. As far as scares go, this house surpasses last year by a large margin – as the material lends a bit more for a better haunted house translation. However, a large portion of the house is based on the 2nd season and dragged in some parts – specifically, the Pumpkin Patch/Upside-Down tunnels. It was also a bit of a bummer to see more mannequins than live actors. When the house starts getting into the Season 3 material is where the house shines, with some of the most impressive sets, and puppetry, that Universal has ever done.
The goriest house of the year. Nightingales has some pretty effective use of its tight spaces, which offers some up-close encounters with the creatures. We’re a little bummed to see the Nightingale design changed, as they are not as terrifying as 2011’s design. While still a good house, it’s not the homerun we anticipated it would be. That said, this is just opening weekend – there is plenty of time for that to change.
This house appears to suffer from an identity crisis. Everything feels rooted in realism, save for the creatures, themselves. The story of trying to escape an undersea facility helps add urgency, the set design is probably one of the best of the year, and uses some pretty awesome special FX to simulate being underwater (though it does feel certain effects aren’t working yet) – but something about the creatures feels off. The Mouthbrooders come across more on the campy side, seemingly drawing inspiration from B-Movie Horror. The house does have some great scares, but the lumbering Mouthbrooder costume takes away some of that effectiveness.
Jordan Peele worked very closely with the creative team to bring this house to life. As far as capturing the tone of the film, it’s perfect. The problem is the scares, as it seems that Us is attempting to tell a story with its actors, opting for creepy and unsettling instead of the traditional “Got Ya” jumps. The house also feels empty in some parts, which could be helped by adding some more actors. It seems how you feel about the film may affect how you feel about the house. Fans who love the film, seemingly love the house; and vice-versa for those who didn’t like it. For us, we thought the film was OK, hence we feel the haunt is OK.
One of the better entry zones they’ve done in recent memory – the vibe of the zone is friggin’ awesome, filled with bright neons, a colorful glow, and 8-bit/synthwave music pulsating throughout. It is light on the cast, however, so there aren’t many scare opportunities to be had. Still, Anarch-cade is the perfect set-up for the 80’s aesthetic Universal is going for this year.
It’s Zombie Vikings, what else can we say? Vikings has some pretty brutal imagery found throughout the zone, including a victim of the Blood Eagle execution – so if you were worried Horror Nights has gone soft, you need not worry. The costumes and make-up are pretty fanastic; and while Central Park may not have the pumpkins that guests have come to love, Vikings does a great job bringing its own flair – still giving the area an awesome atmosphere.
We love it, and could hang out all night here, but it’s not a scary zone. However, we like to think Hellbilly Deluxe more as an awesome Horror Nights rock concert, in which case it gets an A+; filled with scantily-clad women dancing, deafening music, non-stop pyro, and erratic lighting. Bonus points for the Dragula photo-op.
There’s a definite infectious vibe as soon as you enter the zone. The premise has a lot of potential, but something about the zone feels like it hasn’t clicked yet. Once they find it, this zone can be an all-timer. Maybe introduce a bit more over-the-top lunacy? Regardless, there’s some awesome effects and character design in the zone. The face-rip effect is pretty brutal, but the liposuction/injection one misses the mark.
It might be the source material, it could be that we’re tired of zombies, but we are completely indifferent to Zombieland. It has that awesome drop tower prop and the port-o-potty gag, which is cool, but a prop not a zone maketh (or something like that). New York, once again, suffers from little action in the largest zone of the park.
The triumph of this year’s Horror Nights. Without question one of the better nighttime shows that not only Universal has put out, but any theme park – all without a single shell of a firework. Capturing the tone of each film perfectly, and featuring a killer soundtrack, this is an 1000% must-see at this year’s event.
Academy of Villains: Altered States (∗∗∗½)
The Villains return with another solid outing. Taking inspiration from the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, introducing a much-needed horror element to the show. The performers bring some new acts and some returning favorites. A common complaint the Villains faced last year was the disconnect from the audience, which is definitely not a problem this year.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that this is the last year with Michael Aiello at the helm, as he’s moving onto a larger role with Universal’s new park – Epic Universe. With next year being the “Big 30th”, there will be a new voice in charge. Aiello undoubtedly left his mark on Horror Nights, leading the event into new heights. His legacy will always be felt for years to come, as he leaves the event in really good hands. Thanks, Mike, for all the Horrah and memories! 29 is a hell of a swan song.
The most important part of Halloween Horror Nights is the fun you have with your friends and family – and this year, we had a lot of fun on opening weekend. While it may not reach the heights of last year’s event, this features some really enjoyable houses and scare zones – with the absolute must-do of Marathon of Mayem.
No matter where you rank the houses or how you feel about the event, it’s always a good time at Horror Nights, where a lot of awesome memories are made. Remember, it’s all in good fun, so enjoy the Horrah!