You guys know I love me some Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights.  The event, which has been voted best theme park Halloween event multiple years in a row, is definitely the cream of the crop when it comes to top notch scares.  Universal Orlando definitely puts a ton of money and effort into the event, and last year’s 20th anniversary culminated a good number of outstanding storylines and themes that the attraction had been running for years.

This year, Universal is going to back to basics, primarily going with original concepts (save for one house based on the upcoming prequel to The Thing), including the event’s icon, Lady Luck.  For those avoiding any specific details on the event, I’ll briefly summarize by saying that, while I wasn’t overly impressed with the scarezones this year (more detail on that after the jump), the houses this year were absolutely amazing in theming.  Universal stepped up their game this year and created some truly memorable, exciting experiences that will impress you while trying to scare you.  Definitely worth the price of admission, some of the houses are truly awe-inspiring.  I highly recommend checking out the event this year.  I do want to note, however, that due to the popularity of the event, I’d also recommend finding some way to attend more than once.  One trip will leave you sorely missing out on some of the event.

For those who don’t mind some spoilers, details on the event and reviews of each house are after the jump.

Media Event: Huge thanks to Universal for allowing the wife and I to attend this year’s Media Event.  I look forward to this every year – a great food spread, open bar, Q&A with the staff and photos with the icons, and a guided tour of all the mazes and scarezones.  Universal really does a fantastic job impressing us bloggers and media folk, and I’m sure it costs them tons of money.  Very impressive though.

Sadly though, this year started off on rough footing, as a HUGE thunderstorm delayed our tour of the park by at least an hour.  While it was nice to sit and relax and chat with our buddy Erik from Behind the Thrills (check out his review of the event here), it was a bummer because we’d have much less time to walk around the park and check out the stuff.  As it is, we only hit a few of the scarezones, and just barely made it through all the houses by midnight.  But we did see both shows, and our excellent tour guides made the night a great one, despite the weather.

Lady Luck was obviously not on our side, but the crowds didn’t seem deterred by the rain either.  Check out some pics of the Media Event below…

The Houses…

As mentioned before, the theming in this year’s houses was SPECTACULAR.  I’ve attended six years of the event now (13, 17, 18, 19, 20, and now 21) and this was definitely in the top three (I really have soft spots for 13 and 18) in terms of the houses.  It’s hard to pick a favorite, so don’t take the order of my review as indicative of anything (other than the order we visited them in)….

  • NEVERMORE: THE MADNESS OF POE – I was curious about this house, as Busch Gardens is also doing a Poe-themed haunt as part of their Howl-O-Scream event this year (review coming later this week).  Nevermore is a pretty spectacular house, with a ton of elaborate moments that beg for repeat walk throughs. You are definitely going to not see everything that Universal put into this house unless you go through it more than once.  Awesome special effects, and rooms based on The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and more.  Some awesome imagery here, including a room that appears to be upside down, and some beautiful imagery on the facade.  Definitely one of my favorites of the night.
  • THE IN-BETWEEN – Gotta be honest, never been too big on the idea of 3D houses.  I like the idea, and they’re visually interesting, but they’re never really very scary.  In fact, most of them are, essentially, the same gimmick over and over.  Blacklights, dotted walls, blacklight paint, rinse repeat.  But The In-Between took the concept and did some truly unique ideas with it.  The story of the house involves a group of college kids who unlock a gateway to another dimension through a possessed board game.  You enter through the college dorm and go to the other dimension, where there are some great special effects the really take advantage of the 3D effect.  Probably one of the best 3D houses I’ve ever been in, with some great scares and makeup effects.
  • THE FORSAKEN – I was really excited for this house.  The concept, about a lost ship that sailed with Christopher Columbus just recently surfacing and being haunted by the ghosts of the crew, really intrigued me.  Unfortunately, while the theming of the house was spectacular, there really wasn’t much in the way of scares.  The creatures really weren’t all that creepy (the green glowy eyes looked a bit silly), and I didn’t think that the house was really scary.  Really, there was some great visual stuff in the house, but overall a bit of a letdown in the “haunt” department.
  • SAWS N STEAM: INTO THE MACHINE – I wasn’t overly impressed with last year’s Saws n Steam scarezone.  I liked the idea of steampunk horror, a dystopian future where human bodies are used to make steam to power the engines that run the city.  Still, I felt like the zone itself was a bit too dark and full of steam to see much of anything.  Thankfully, the house doesn’t have any of those same qualms, taking the concept and making an excellent house out of it.  One room, an aquarium filled with skin and body parts, blew me away.  Once again, some awesome special effects, and the scares to go with it.  An excellent house.
  • H.R. BLOODENGUTZ PRESENTS HOLIDAYS OF HORROR – Man…this was another concept I had no interest in.  I know that it sounds like I went in with low expectations and, to a certain extent, I did.  Some of the concepts and ideas this year really seemed…I don’t know…generic to me.  I should have had a little more faith.  I expected this house to essentially be a retread of a previous year’s Christmas themed haunt.  As it turns out, instead, it featured a late night horror movie host who goes insane and creates horrors out of holidays like Easter, Arbor Day, President’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day…and yes, Christmas.  Though what they did with the Christmas rooms was pretty awesome, with gun-toting elves.  Not really a scary house, but a hilarious one with some great concepts.  Really impressed me.
  • WINTER’S NIGHT: THE HAUNTING OF HAWTHORNE CEMETERY – Wow wow wow….what a spectacular house.  The special effects, the theming, all of it was just perfect.  The actors were all spot on, with some great hidden things that you have to keep an eye out for (look at the actors faces in the blacklight).  While I was easily able to identify some re-used elements from previous years, it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of the house.  Really…amazing work on this one Universal.
  • NIGHTENGALES: BLOOD PREY – Another pretty awesome house.  The Nightengales are, essentially, like the Valkyries of mythology, just with a bit more…bloodlust.  The house takes place in WWI-era trenches and, as you make your way through them, the war rages above, the Nightengales swoop through the trenches, taking the bodies of the fallen.  My favorite room in this house involved a Nightengale in a hospital tent – bodies all over the place and some real awesome acting from the scareactors.  Huge scale for this house, definitely awe-inspiring.
  • THE THING – Ya know, I didn’t dig the previous Universal Thing house, which took on the idea of a sequel to the original.  I thought it was impressive with the special effects and theme, but I missed so much of the house being rushed through it, that I wasn’t able to enjoy the work that Universal put into it.  Not as much this time – I was able to enjoy the house the way it was intended to be, and saw some pretty fantastic creature effects.  While the story is a little unclear since I haven’t seen the movie yet, I will say that there were definitely some impressive looking monster animatronics in this house, and I’m actually excited to see them in the upcoming flick.

Scarezones: I’m going to abstain from reviewing the scarezones, as I hardly saw any of them in great detail (other than 7 and Grown Evil, both of which were solid efforts) due to the rain delays.  I passed by a number of them, but I know there were some scareactors who hadn’t come out due to the wet and slippery conditions.

Shows: My wife really dug this year’s Bill and Ted Halloween Spectacular, and it had some good gags to it.  Cracks me up because the show gets dirtier every year.  I will say that the story was pretty similar to last year’s, with Bill and Ted trying to find something interesting in a year of lame pop culture.  As for Death Drums, this year’s new show, I was actually really impressed with the concept and with the massive set-up they have for the show (multi-layered drum kits and dancers in the streets).  My only problem with the show is that it’s done in the actual streets of the event, which made it hard to see over the crowd.  Definitely would have benefited from being on a stage.

Overall: Definitely one of the best years I’ve attended for this event, HHN XXI is going to blow your mind with the amount of effort that went into the houses.  While you may not always be scared, you’ll definitely always be impressed.  Multiple trips highly recommended if you want to see it all.

Check out my photo gallery of the event below!
(forgive the darkness of some of the pics – hard to get good pics in the foggy darkness)