It was a dark and stormy night….literally…

For those following along, you’ll recall that yours truly was filling in for our faithful host for this year’s Pauloween event. I last visited Universal on Halloween Horror Nights Media Day, during which I was able to speak with some of the event’s creative team and get a sneak peek into this year’s event. You can find my recap of Media Day here:

Based on the preview that I received last week, I was anxious to return to Universal Studios for the official launch night. Halloween Horror Nights 22 features seven houses, roaming scarezones, and two shows. The houses offered this year are split between commercial partnerships with some of pop culture’s biggest icons (AMC’s The Walking Dead, Silent Hill, Penn & Teller’s New(kd) Las Vegas, and Alice Cooper – Welcome To My Nightmare) and all new Universal original creations (Dead End, Gothic, and House of Horrors). In addition to the annual “Bill & Ted” show, Universal has also added “The 20 Penny Circus” to their roster.

There is a reason why Universal consistently wins awards for presenting the best theme park Halloween event and this year’s offerings solidify their standing as the industry leader. Being an annual pass holder myself, I was amazed at how the park is transformed in such short time in between normal hours and the opening of HHN. Scarce traces of Universal’s daily family fare existed as the gates open to dense fog and eerie lighting to illuminate congested paths in between each house of horror. This atmosphere contributes to the simply amazing presentation inside each house. Each of the houses within HHN this year offers something truly different and each venture offered a memorable experience. Universal Studios offers multiple ticketing options for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights, and while the event is worth every penny, if you are local, you would greatly benefit from a multi day pass. There is so much to see at HHN, and due to the throngs of fans in attendance, you would not be able to experience everything in one night.

For those that don’t want to see any spoilers, stop reading now and head to Universal to go wait in line (or go see the new Dredd movie).

Media Event: Universal Studios outdid themselves this year with a full spread of food with plenty of variety, along with decadent desserts and an open bar. Side note: I’m not sure which was a more fun scare – the actual event or seeing the local FOX morning hosts overly enjoying the open bar (fate ensured that these folks would end up in our tour group later as well). A couple of scareactors joined the captive (read: it was pouring outside) crowd inside the Pantages Theater while we were able to mix and speak with some of the folks responsible for this year’s event.

I spoke with Show Director, Michael Aiello who stated that he was most looking forward to seeing the crowds actually experience the team’s hard work. According to Michael, the team has been sitting on this project for the past year and he was extremely excited to have the payoff in short reach. Michael was bursting with pride as he expressed that he couldn’t wait to see the crowd reaction. Michael added that “Gothic” seemed to be the house with the best response based on buzz from the Universal employee night held earlier in the week.

Penn and Teller were introduced to the media and they explained how they partnered with Universal to create their house. Penn Jillette explained the concept behind the house as traditional Las Vegas experiences existing post nuclear explosion. Penn gave credit to Universal by saying that in his 38 years of experience, Universal was one of the best partners that he and Teller have worked with. When asked if they brought anything new to Universal by way of using misdirection, Penn noted that after walking through Alice Cooper’s house and experiencing webs hanging from the ceiling and having scareactors jump out while folks are distracted, they realized Universal already were masters themselves. I was able to ask Penn what his work on the Celebrity Apprentice brought to the table. After a good laugh, Penn responded that he learned an awful lot about making people uncomfortable. After Penn and Teller wrapped their Q&A, it was time for….

The Houses…

Note that the order of the houses below is based on the order in which I experienced them and not sorted by order of preference. In between houses, our group attended both shows, which are noted further along in this post.

Silent Hill – I was anxious to see Silent Hill since I was able to walk to walk through this house with the lights on (and no scareactors) at last week’s media event. Based on the layout of the house from last week’s event, I was sure that I’d be in for a treat. And, what a treat it was – this house is as close as possible to walking through a video game, without being Jeff Bridges in TRON. Silent Hill has detailed set pieces culled from the video game series and brings the scare big time as I watched the folks in front of me jump back multiple times at the Dark Nurses and Pyramid Head. Props in this house were top notch and were visually stimulating. This is one of the can’t miss houses this year and still gets 4.5/5 nurses. Side note: There are some photos below that I took in the Silent Hill house as my tour guide initially explained that cameras were ok….that is, until Universal team members informed me otherwise.

Dead End – Dead End was not overly impressive during last week’s media event and I was interested to see if anything new was added to the house to help amp up the scare factor. While some nuances were added between last week and opening night, this still remains one of the least interesting houses that HHN has to offer this year. Dead End is a basic haunted house with your typical areas where haunted baddies are ready to jump out at you. Some areas within the house improved since my experience last week (the area where I banged my knee on a table was blocked off) and the amount of potential scares increased tenfold. The downside was that most areas are viewable prior to reaching them, which took away from the experience. Dead End remains at 3/5 apparitions.

Gothic – Based on my experience with Universal’s other “ground up” house, Dead End, I didn’t have high hopes for Gothic. The premise of Gothic is that while a cathedral is undergoing refurbishment, the gargoyles that protect the property come to life at night. While I wasn’t looking forward to this experience, I was completely blown away while walking through this house. The scareactors costumes were awesome and the house was not limited to the traditional “hide behind this wall” element as the gargoyles took to flight in front of you and around you through use of wired harnesses. One section of the house allowed for you to view actors working a scene below you in a set that included pews and an altar. I would emphatically state that if you are limited with time this year, that you make this house a priority to see as I give Gothic 5/5 gargoyles. Interesting side note: our tour guide informed me that the gargoyles used as set decoration outside the house were actually part of the original Universal Studios arches and were repurposed for this house.

The Walking Dead – Who isn’t a fan of The Walking Dead? I can’t think of any horror fans that don’t wait around every Sunday night for each new episode. That said, this is both a blessing and a curse for Universal as they try to meet heavy expectations with fans of the show that have been drawn to HHN specifically for this experience. The good news is that I think the house almost lives up to the hype. The outside of the Walking Dead contains a display of a car with the note asking Sophia to stay there if she returns looking for the group (season two reference). The path then takes you past Dale’s trailer, which shakes due to a struggle with walkers inside. The actual house opens to the hospital in which the story began and takes you through the department store and finishes in Hershel’s barn. Throughout each zone of the house, there are no specific jump spots for the walkers to launch themselves at you. Instead the house is infested with walkers everywhere. While this setup helps the house stay in line with the story, it takes away from the potential of being scared. I felt like I was walking through a live action recreation of the television show and didn’t really feel like I was in danger of being terrified. Overall, I’d give the overall Walking Dead experience 4/5 walkers.

House of Horrors – The House of Horrors experience is based on the classic movie monsters from Universal’s past: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein,The Wolfman, Dracula, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, and The Phantom of the Opera. My initial impression of the house from the entrance was that it didn’t look like Universal put much effort into it. However, my opinion changed as the experience progressed. House of Horrors is a mostly pitch black house that only allows you to see as flashes of lightning occur. During each flash, you catch a glimpse of our beloved horror heroes. Through the use of the lightning effect and costumes that are in shades of grey (not that book), you are given the perception that you are walking through a classic black and white movie. This effect proved exceptionally well in the last room of the house, which contained multiple strands of sheets(?) hanging from the ceiling while strobe lights bounced from floor to ceiling and the monsters all walked the floor around you. I thought this effect was brilliant and was a great payoff to the house. I give House of Horrors 4/5 monsters.

Alice Cooper – Welcome To My Nightmare – Let me start by saying that this part of the review may be a little biased as I am a huge Alice fan. I was beyond excited (I mean sad) that Paul wasn’t able to make it to Orlando this year and I was able to experience the Alice house instead. Alice Cooper’s house is designed so that each room of the house represents a different classic Alice song. This setting allowed for multiple versions of Alice in varying scenes of his music brought to life. The scareactors were able to really tell a story while Alice’s music blared through speakers all around you. The only drawback was that there was almost too much to see in each room while keeping pace with the crowd. Welcome To My Nightmare contained some really creative hiding spots and some surprisingly good scares.The last room of the house contained multiple simultaneous versions of Alice as the exit drew near. Alice’s house gets 4.5/5 “We’re not worthys”

Penn & Teller New(kd) Las Vegas – My expectations weren’t high for this house as I don’t normally associate Penn & Teller with horror. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this house was more of a throw back to old school fun houses with a comedic blend of horroresque humor. New(kd) Las Vegas is Universal’s only 3D house this year and made use of the technology by utilizing bright fluorescent colors and blinding laser type effects. New(kd) This house included typical Vegas scenery (slots, card tables, wedding chapel, honeymoon suite) post nuclear engagement. The end result worked well, and while New(kd) Las Vegas wasn’t one of my “can’t miss” houses, it’s certainly one that should be checked out if you have time and the lines are working in your favor. I give New(kd) Las Vegas 4/5 nuclear comedians.

The Live Shows…

20 Penny Circus – Universal describes this show as “magic for people with questionable taste”. I’ll date myself here, but I’d describe this show as more of a refreshed take on the Jim Rose Circus. 20 Penny Circus is a sideshow act that contains walking on glass, hammering nails through a nose, a naked mentalist, the potential for shooting staples through a performer’s head, and some neat magic. This show had a nice flow to it and contained plenty of audience participation. While I wouldn’t necessarily make this a priority to see, it did provide a change of pace and a place to sit while watching a stage act. There isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking here, and if you’re only attending HHN for one night, this show can be skipped. I’d give 20 Penny Circus 3.5/5 freaks.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure – The concept for this year’s Bill & Ted adventure is that the guys are both running for school president. Bill & Ted attempt to solicit votes from students, which in turn are various members of 2012’s pop culture notoriety. My feeling is that a good number of jokes didn’t land. However, those that did connect resonated well with the audience (Obama v Romney rap battle, Honey Boo Boo, Magic Mike). The Bill & Ted show is abundant with song and dance routines and proved to be an excellent ending to the evening. Bill & Ted get 3/5 phone booths.

The Street Experience…

One of the most anticipated aspects of this year’s Halloween Horror Nights was the reinvented street experience. This year’s streets were cleared of scare zones and replaced with roving bands of scareactors. The theory behind the change is that “nowhere is safe” this year. I have to be honest and say that I was a little let down by the end result. Due to the rain, a chunk of the planned actors were not utilized until later in the night. Understanding the situation, the actors that I did experience seemed more like big trick or treaters and less like menacing ghouls. The Walking Dead area again seemed like the most fun with roving bands of walkers roaming the streets outside the attraction. I also came across some Traditionals that were posing for pictures and Prisoners that were smiling and laughing. Hardly the scary experience that was promoted here. The street experience gets 2/5 laughing deities.

Overall: This year’s event was a complete blast. I am still blown away by the detail that went into the production and the sheer variety of the attractions this year. Again, I’d strongly suggest investing in a multi day pass if you are local. There is so much to see that one day will not do the event justice.