On 9/20/2013, the 23rd annual edition of Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights unleashed its undead hordes upon horror-hungry fans who have made HHN the nation's most popular and industry-awarded haunted theme park event. Touring Plans researchers have attended all event nights so far to capture data on attraction wait times in order to present this updated itinerary, and we'll continue to improve our advice with new information throughout the month.
Originally a locals-friendly filler during a normally slow season, Universal Studios Florida's Halloween celebration has grown so famous that the 27 event nights between 9/20 and 11/2 will provide a sizable percentage of USF's annual attendance statistics. Much like visiting any of Orlando's theme parks during a peak holiday season, an evening at HHN can be tremendous fun if you go in with a solid plan and sane expectations; without those things…well, you might be better off eaten by zombies…
With only two nights worth of wait time data to analyze, it's impossible to craft an HHN touring plan with the same precision we do for daytime visits. Operational tweaks will continue to be made throughout the event, so the crowd patterns observed during this year's initial operating nights aren't guaranteed to persist. However, thanks to years of experience with HHN (I've attended every edition since 1996) we can extrapolate the opening weekend info to update our preliminary touring plan into a multi-pronged strategy for tackling Universal's elaborate (and infamously long-queued) haunted mazes.
Part I: Before The Event Night
Before beginning, make sure Universal's brand of Halloween is right for you; this ain't Mickey's Not-So-Scary. If the idea of copious blood, guts, and booze doesn't appeal, I advise staying far, far away. Needless to say, it is not appropriate for young children, though you will likely see many there.
For a taste, check out this video from the opening night media presentation, featuring a house-by-house preview with Universal Creative's. Mike Aiello and Lora Wallace, plus a Q&A with American Werewolf in London director John Landis:
And here are a couple more videos previews, including a walk-through of the Walking Dead haunted house.
- Pick the right night.
Even more so than daytime touring, a successful HHN visit requires careful date selection. In short, avoid all Saturdays (especially 10/12, 10/19, and 10/26) like the plague. Fridays in October — particularly 10/18 & 25 — aren't much better. Wednesday nights (10/16 & 10/23) are usually the least crowded, followed by Thursdays (especially 10/3) and Sundays (excluding 10/20). The last three nights of the event should also be extremely quiet, especially Halloween night itself and Nov 1. The price of express tickets on a given night is your best guide to how busy it will be: the larger the cost, the larger the crowds.
- Buy a pass in advance.
If you walk up to the box-office on the night of the event, you'll pay $91.99 plus tax — a frightening sum for a little as 5-1/2 hours in the park — and likely wait in a ridiculously long line for the privilege. Instead, study the myriad online ticket options in advance and purchase before you leave home.
Deep discounts (up to $49 off) are offered online to Florida and Georgia residents with coupon codes from Coca-Cola cans or Burger King cups. If you aren't eligible for those, consider getting an annual pass, which entitles you to even deeper price breaks and early event entry during Passholder parties on select nights.
Finally, if you are a hard-core haunt fan and spending more than a night in the area, you'll want a Frequent Fear (valid every Sunday through Thursday event night, with Fridays included in the Plus version for an extra fee) or Rush of Fear (valid every event night through 10/6) multi-day pass.
Tip: You can buy a Rush of Fear and upgrade it to a Frequent Fear on or before 10/6 for maximum value.
HHN passholders can also sign up for the Legendary Truth interactive game at hhn23experience.com and retrieve and RFID identification tag near the park exit; points are earned by visiting haunted houses and solving online puzzles.
- Consider Universal's HHN Express Pass
Universal Orlando's paid line-skipping service is a welcome luxury during the day, but an absolute lifesaver at night. On peak HHN nights, queues for the haunted houses will approach 3 hours, and even on the slowest nights they will hit 60 minutes. HHN Express passes reduce that wait to between 25% and 33% of what it would otherwise be, which can make the difference between experiencing 2 or 3 houses in a night, or visiting 7 or 8. The only catch is that Express starts at $50 per person, and goes up to $100 depending on the night. Express is also available as an add-on for Rush of Fear or Frequent Fear multi-night passes. Express passes often sell out and may be more expensive or or unavailable inside the park, so if you do want them buy in advance.
Bottom Line: On off-peak nights it is perfectly possible to experience all 8 houses and at least one show without Express. It is even doable on nights of moderate attendance with some hustling, especially if you use Stay & Scream early entry. On peak nights it is virtually impossible to do the same without Express passes, and can be challenging with them.
If you're feeling particularly flush, and fed up with any kind of queue, an RIP guided tour will whisk you to the head of every line for only $110 and up, admission not included. When money is no object and you want to feel like a VIP, the tours are highly recommended. And for the superfans, you can have one of Universal's designers accompany you through the event on an Arcane Insights Tour ($240), or take daytime light-on trips through three houses on each of the two Unmasking the Horror behind-the-scenes tours ($60 each, $100 for both).
Part II: On The Event Night
1. Arrive as early as possible.
The event officially begins each evening at 6:30 p.m., but the front gates typically open by 6 p.m. If you have an HHN ticket but not daytime admission, you'll want to be outside the park gates, ticket in hand, by 5:45 p.m. At the latest on slow nights, and as early as 5 p.m. on peak nights. (Be sure to leave ample time for I-4 traffic and parking, which is costs $16 until 8 p.m. and $5 until 10 p.m.)
This way you'll be among the first through the security checkpoints which can slow entry down for latecomers; if you travel light (highly recommended) look for the much swifter “no bags” security check to the left of the entry arches. Once through the checkpoint, secure a spot as close to the turnstiles as possible; don't be shy about lining up at the temporary entry scanners at the center gate.
Early arrivals also get a view of the gate-opening performance, which involves a survivor shouting to the crowd from the balcony above the right-hand ticket booths, and a swarm of walkers assaulting the opening gates. Don't worry if you miss this minor event; it's a nice touch but not essential.
Better yet, be inside the park already before it opens to the general public for the evening and get a jump on the guests outside the gates by taking advantage of Stay & Scream. The park closes to daytime guests at 5 p.m. on event nights, but anyone holding a ticket for that night's HHN is allowed to remain inside the park in designated holding areas. You do not necessarily have to purchase a specific “Stay & Scream” ticket to participate; anyone can access this opportunity if they have any valid daytime park ticket, are an annual passholder, or purchase a Scream Early ticket to enter Universal Studios Florida after 3 p.m. Note that the park is officially open for regular operations until 5 p.m., but you'll want to enter before 4:30 p.m. to avoid dealing with the evening security setup.
Between the park's closing and reopening, guests remaining in the park are confined to one of three Stay & Scream locations:
- The KidZone section near E.T. features priority access to the first two haunted houses that open each evening. Guests in this area can queue as early as 4 p.m., and can enter the Walking Dead and La Llorna houses at 5 p.m. Guests are released from the area at 5:45 p.m., and can be the first inside Afterlife which also opens at that time. There is a limited selection of food and drink vendors available in this location. Note that on 9/27 and 9/28 this area is restricted to annual Passholders who have registered online for an exclusive Passholder event.
- The New York area holding area includes Finnegan's bar , which offers a full liquor bar and table service food, though reservations are impossible to secure between 4 and 7 p.m. Guests here are released between 5:30 and 5:45 p.m., giving them first crack at three of the four soundstage houses (excluding Evil Dead, which doesn't open until 6:30 p.m.
- Finally, there is also a small overflow holding area in Hollywood, but it doesn't provide early access to any of the houses, and is not recommended. You can't even see the opening moment at the gates from here, and there are minimal refreshment options.
2. Attack the houses.
Your first hour at the event is essential to making the most of evening, and your initial plan of attack is determined by which location you start your night from:
Early Entry Option A: KidZone
Thanks to a popular intellectual property, this year's The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven maze (marked “H” on the map, enter near E.T.) is one of the event's most popular (and a major improvement over last year's WD maze), so if you are among the first inside the KidZone Stay & Scream area queue up for Walking Dead as soon as allowed. The exit of Walking Dead leads directly to the entrance of the aesthetically astounding Urban Legends: La Llorna (“G”, near Barney) which conveniently is your second stop. Alternatively, if you are late entering the holding area, the queue for Walking Dead may already be posted at an hour or more. In that case do La Llorna first, saving Walking Dead for later the early entry period (the wait should diminish rapidly) or late in the evening.
After that comes the 3-D blacklight prison funhouse Afterlife: Death's Vengance (“F”), whose line starts near the Men In Black bathrooms. This house opens at 5:45 p.m., when guests are released from the holding area. If you follow this plan, you can complete 3 houses by 6 p.m., at which point all the other houses (except Evil Dead) should open.
Early Entry Option B: Finnegan's
Enter the New York holding area between 4 and 5 p.m. (The earlier the better if you want to eat) and relax with a beverage until released around 5:45. You will have a short head start on everyone else for three of the soundstage houses, so head first the wildly imaginative post-modern gorefest Cabin in the Woods (“A”, near Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem) which quickly builds one of the evening's longest lines.
Follow up with An American Werewolf in London (“C”, enter through Twister), consensus pick as best maze of 2013 (and perhaps ever) thanks to amazing puppets and effects. Resident Evil is a treat for fans of the video games (specifically second and third set in Raccoon City) but a little too short and colorful to be scary for non-gamers. Beware of lining up early for the excellent Evil Dead (“D”, by the New York Public Library) based on the hardcore 2013 remake; it doesn't open until 6:30 p.m. so you'll waste valuable touring time in an unmoving line when you could be seeing other houses.
Once the general public is admitted through the front gates (as early as 6 p.m.) queues at the soundstage houses will swiftly build; see as many as you can until waits exceed 20 minutes, then proceed to Havoc 2: Derailed (“E”, enter near Beetlejuice) between the New York and San Francisco areas. This partially-outdoor house is better seen after sunset, and isn't one of the event's stronger mazes, so don't sweat it if you save it for later.
If you are among the first folks through the gates when they open around 6:00 p.m., head straight to Cabin in the Woods and jump in line if it is still 15 minutes or less. Otherwise, the majority of guests will mob the four houses located in the sound stages near the front of the park. You should avoid the horde by heading in the opposite direction, towards KidZone, which should have processed the majority of it's stay & scream guests by now.
Visit Walking Dead if the wait isn't prohibitive (non-fans of the TV series won't want to invest more than 30 minutes in it), followed by La Llorna, which should have modest waits all night. The 3-D glasses make the Afterlife line especially slow-moving, so save it for last or skip it entirely if the queue exceeds 30 minutes. You can also continue around the London Waterfront to Havoc.
3. Check the show schedule.
After the haunted houses, the Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure show (staged inside the Fear Factor Live stadium) is the event's most popular element. This year's skits skewer Taylor Swift, George Lucas, and Paula Dean while pulling out the stops with pyrotechnics and barely-clad dancers.
The first and last showings are typically the only ones you can attend without lining up 45 to 60 minutes in advance. If you have already seen 3 or 4 houses by 7 p.m. (and are interested in a raunchy spoof of recent films and pop-culture celebrities) make your way to Bill & Ted about 30 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. first show.
If you've only hit 1 or 2 houses so far, and posted wait times are still moderate (under 30 minutes) you can skip the first Bill & Ted and slide into the final showing (usually 45 minutes before closing) right before the showtime, since there are often empty seats on off-peak nights.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show Tribute is a lively musical production on the Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue stage that should entertain fans of the cult film and “virgins” alike. You can usually catch any of the mid-evening shows by arriving 15 to 20 minutes in advance.
4. Explore the scarezones.
After the sun sets (around 7:30 p.m.) and the waits for the houses become unbearable, begin exploring the scarezones, which are like open-air haunted mazes minus the conga-line queues. Just as much fun as getting scared yourself is finding a vantage point to stand still and see others getting spooked; this is some of the best people-watching you'll ever find.This year, all the scarezones are based around settings from The Walking Dead's first two seasons. Look for:
- The woods near along Central Park, with a legless “bicycle walker” near Cafe La Bamba, and a blood-squirting deer eater.
- The survivors' camp with Dale's RV near KidZone; watch the tent for a spectacularly icky projection effect.
- The fall of Atlanta in New York, featuring the tank Rick faced in season 1. Watch for fellow guests in the crowd who are attacked and turned, but cover your nose against the stench of death.
- The walker traps from the episode “Clear” line Hollywood.
Also keep your eye out for the chainsaw squad, terrorize pedestrians between World Expo and the London Waterfront; and the. Governor's roaming “walker bombs” that periodically deposit vanloads of walkers on the sidewalks.
5. Single rider the rides.
By the mid-point of the evening, standby waits for all the houses will be substantial, and lines for the rides will be astronomical on Saturdays) but experiencing several top attractions should still be manageable using single rider queues. Men In Black, Revenge of the Mummy, and Transformers all have fairly efficient single-rider operations. (Transformers' singles queue is closed when it hits about 30 minutes, but usually reopens after 10 or 15 minutes, so hang around nearby without blocking the entrance.) Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit has a single rider line but it is often as long as the standy queue, and none of the other operating rides have one at all. On off-peak nights, you may find ride queues shockingly short: Transformers and Despicable Me have been as short as 20 minutes.
6. Escape to CityWalk
Even on a slow night, Horror Nights crowds can drive you to drink, and many of your fellow guests will doubtlessly be imbibing. There are temporary bars serving expensive mixed drinks on seemingly every spare square foot of sidewalk, but but serious in-park boozing we prefer Finnegan's bar or the new Duff Brewery in Springfield USA. Better yet, if the park is open past midnight get out of Dodge for an hour or so and retreat to CityWalk. Most HHN passes include admission to CityWalk's clubs, or you can grab a reasonably priced brew at Cigarz without a cover charge.
7. Haunt again at the witching hour.
As the evening's event approaches its final hour, wait times at the haunted mazes drop dramatically. If you are interested in Bill & Ted and didn't catch the first showing, show up 20 to 30 minutes before the last performance on peak nights (or 10 minutes before showtime off-peak).
Otherwise, use final hours to catch up on the houses you missed earlier. Lines at La Llorna and Resident Evil remain relatively light all evening, and Havoc is best experienced after dark.
The last 30 to 60 minutes before park close is the best time to hit Evil Dead and Walking Dead, which build crowds early in the evening but then drop off.
Cabin in the Woods and American Werewolf in London are the two best houses and tend to hold crowds until closing, so if you didn't see them at the start of the night, step into line for one of them at the last possible minute (you'll be allowed to stay in the queue until you're through).
8. Be the last to leave.
Unless you leave significantly before closing time, you're best off dawdling in the park or CityWalk on the way out. The parking garage exits will be at a standstill, so you might as well grab a seat outside and relax rather than breathing fumes in a traffic jam.
Check back with us as we continue to refine our HHN touring plan, and tell us about your HHN experience in the comments below!