Observations from Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 23: October 4, 2013

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Okay, I admit it: I’m spoiled.

Usually when people talk about Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida the first thing they mention (after the gore and booze) is the huge lines. But this year, I lucked out. So far, I’ve been on an “RIP” guided tour, attended during exclusive annual passholder hours and “Stay & Scream” early entry periods, and made full use of my “Rush of Fear” and “Frequent Fear” unlimited Express passes. As a result, I’ve been able to experience all eight of the event’s haunted houses at least five times each so far this season, with an average wait time of under 15 minutes.

All photos by Seth Kubersky

But last Friday (10/4/2013), I wanted to experience how “the other half” lives and see the event from the perspective of an ordinary guest. Is it possible to arrive at the front gate on a moderately crowded night without any special line-cutting passes and still have a good time at HHN? Let’s find out!

In my Halloween Horror Nights touring plans, I strongly suggest arriving at the park at least an hour before the event starts. But for the sake of this experiment, I decided to ignore my own advice and see what would happen. I parked my car in Universal’s ginormous garage shortly after 5:30 p.m. (remember, Passholder discounts on valet parking are not valid during event nights, but you can still park in the Preferred section for free if you have a Premier pass) and arrived at Universal Studios Florida’s entrance arches around 5:45.

If you are staying in one of UOR’s onsite hotels, follow this sign to the right of the main gates for a private entryway.
Did you remember to leave all bags and bulky belongings at home?
Then you can use this far-more-efficient no bags security check to the left of the main gate, instead of waiting to walk through the metal detector

While the event does not officially begin until 6:30 PM each evening, you can expect the front gates to open by 6. There was already a sizable crowd in front of the turnstiles when I arrived, but I was able to make my way towards the front with relative ease.

Shortly before the gates open each evening, a female “survivor” appears on the balcony above the ticket booths to warn guests of the approaching “walkers” in a brief “opening moment” to kick off the evening.

The crowd really seemed to enjoy this brief added attraction, cheering loudly as the actress bludgeoned a zombie with a baseball bat. But it isn’t essential, so don’t fret if you miss it, especially if you are already inside the park for Stay & Scream.

The crowd surged through the gates, immediately heading straight towards the Cabin in the Woods maze, which instantly amassed a 30 minute queue.

Instead, I headed right towards the Walking Dead maze in Kidzone, knowing that most Stay and Scream guests would have already made it through there by now.

I walked into the Walking Dead shortly after 6 PM with virtually no wait, and almost had the whole maze to myself. You can decide for yourself if that’s a good thing or not….

Next up was La Lorona, which also had a non-existent wait, along with the most frightening fa├žade of any queue at Halloween Horror Nights:

I love you, you love me,… Aaahhhhh!!!!!

By 6:15 PM I had experienced two of the park’s mazes. I made a quick loop around the lake on my way back to the front, snapping some Diagon Alley construction photos along the way:

There, I found the American Werewolf in London maze with only a 10 minute posted standby wait (the actual wait was under 7).

On the way into the maze you can spot the Hogwarts Express trains, which I’m told should be loaded on the track for testing in just a few short weeks

The locomotive and track peek out above the top of the green fence in this photo.
My trip through AWIL was made much more amusing by these terrified tweens shrieking the whole time right ahead of me. I’m not even sure their parents were born when the film was made…

By 6:45, queues for houses near the front of the park were becoming serious…

So I headed to the back of the park to hit Afterlife.

…with a quick detour through Herschell’s barn…
…to visit a friend along the way…

By the way, the entire Simpsons area is open during HHN, including the new Kang & Kodos spinner ride, though it had few takers.

Unfortunately, my slight scenic detour meant that by the time I arrived Afterlife it already had a 15 minute posted standby wait, which turned out to be closer to 20.

The first queue of any significance I saw that night.

Afterlife is slowly growing on me, but I’m not the biggest fan of 3-D blacklight mazes, and I was much more impressed by what Bush Gardens did with the technique this year at their event.

I didn’t emerge from Afterlife until 7:30 which meant I was too late to catch the first showing of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. If the show is a priority for you, make sure you see the first or final performances of the evening (unless you feel like lining up 45 minutes to an hour ahead of time).

Instead, I headed over to San Francisco to catch the evening’s first Rocky Horror Picture Show tribute performance with a rather lackluster half-empty crowd.

The cast this year is solid, and some of the vocal arrangements improved since the last time this show appeared at HHN. But as a long-time RHPS fan I’m still disappointed by clumsy editing and half-hearted audience participation.

Since I’ve seen how the show ends approximately 300+ times, I slipped out long before the final “Science Fiction Double Feature Reprise.”

Exiting the show, I stepped into line for Havoc: Derailed and finally got to watch the clever video preshow (featuring a few familiar faces from Orlando’s theater scene) while waiting approximately 17 minutes to enter.

Havoc is still my most disappointing maze of this year (the cast is aggressive, but the environment is repetitive and unimaginative) but it did help me work up an appetite. So after a quick lap around the park to check posted wait times — Evil Dead and Cabin in the Woods were both over 70 minutes by 8:30 — I stopped into Monsters Cafe for dinner.

Quarter rotisserie chicken with mashed potatoes and broccoli. The chicken is well-seasoned with a mildly smoky flavor, but slightly dry. Potatoes are likely instant, but the broccoli tastes fresh and the gravy is extremely rich. Makes a nice break from burgers and pizza, but not quite Boston Market quality.

I was disappointed to note that the restaurant has replaced its appropriately-themed video clips from classic monster movies with random film excerpts (including Apollo 13 and Smokey & the Bandit) dubbed into different languages. Perhaps recycled from the extinct International Food & Film eatery?

Exiting the restaurant, I took a look at the former Amity Island carnival games that have been temporarily installed along Music Plaza. I’m far from a fan of these upcharge carnie hustles, but at least Universal made a minimal effort to create themed signage for them.

By 9 p.m., wait times for the top mazes ranged from 75 to 90 minutes, but I had already experienced 5 houses and one show without waiting over 20 minutes for anything. At this point, I’d advise non-Express visitors to check out the open-air scarezones or rides (which usually have short waits), or even leave the park and hang out in CityWalk until the queues start to recede.

Was that an old R.E.M. song?
Venison anyone?
This is why I don’t go camping anymore…
The Chainsaw drill team terrifies guests along the London waterfront with gas-powered tools…
And bullhorn-powered insults…
This photo is notable for 2 reasons: the gorgeous nighttime illumination on Optimus Prime; and the 45 minute wait, which is about the longest ride queue I’ve seen during HHN.

I decided to take this time to test the utility of my Express pass. In a word, it proved invaluable. On peak nights, you can expect the Express wait to be approximately 25% to 33% of the posted standby wait. I hit the jackpot, however, and made it through the queues for both Cabin in the Woods (75 min posted standby) and Resident Evil (45 min posted standby) in under 5 minutes each.

In line for Resident Evil.

I also spent an hour collecting RFID scans for Legendary Truth, the free “alternate reality” game for Frequent Fear Passholders. Players activate hidden sensors around the park to earn points and badges for their team; visit hhn23experience.com to get started.

A legion marker hidden in a store window near Fisherman’s Wharf.

It’s past 10pm and the party is just getting started, judging by the thirsty guests around Duff Brewery and Moe’s Tavern.

There’s always time for tacos!
Why a photo of empty concrete? Because last week there was a mysterious shack-like structure here that I never saw in operation. Maybe a bar or food stand that wasn’t needed? Either way, it’s gone now. Odd…
Another photo of nothing, because the scareactor who portrays the legless bicycle walker here apparently had the night off.

At this point it was 10:45pm, and I had visited 7 of the 8 mazes. I used my Express pass to experience Evil Dead, whose posted wait had alread dropped from 70 minutes to 50. If I had stuck around later, I could have easily experienced the last 3 mazes without my Express pass, as wait times tend to diminish rapidly after midnight.

Unfortunately, I was exhausted, and had an early morning the next day, so I decided to cut my experiment slightly short, shortly after 11 p.m.. But I feel confident I’ve demonstrated that it is possible to see the entire event without Express in one evening (excepting peak Saturdays) as long as you arrive early and tour efficiently.

One final observation: on the way back to my car, I noticed that the Endangered Species store in CityWalk is now under demolition.

Expect it to reemerge as a Starbucks (eventually replacing the one upstairs) in the coming months.

Say sayonara to this stone animals.

Have you visited HHN 23 yet? Leave your observations in the comments below!


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Seth Kubersky

Author of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando. Co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland and Beyond Disney. Contributor to Unofficial Guides to WDW and Las Vegas. Live Active Cultures columnist for the Orlando Weekly. Travel and arts journalist. Theatrical director and producer.

6 thoughts on “Observations from Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 23: October 4, 2013

  • October 10, 2013 at 2:59 am

    I went on opening night (Sept 20th). My party was running late so we only got to do 4 out of the 8 houses and had to purchase the express passes. The houses we did (in order) were La Lorona, Cabin in the woods, Evil dead, and afterlife. The scariest house we did was Cabin in the woods. It was just like the movie! Next best was la Lorna, afterlife and evil dead. I wasn’t as scared as I expected during evil dead but they did have an empressive scene at the end. I know the walking dead house was most likely the best but sadly I missed it. The walkers did a great job! As a walking dead fan I appreciated the work they put into it. This year was great! Can’t wait to go back next year!

    • October 10, 2013 at 2:44 pm

      Glad you had fun, opening night was a madhouse. Cabin is one of my favorite mazes too!

  • October 14, 2013 at 5:01 am

    We went on Sunday 10/13/13. We were not happy this year. Scare zones were basically nonexistent. We walked the whole park and didnt really see any scare zones. There seemed to be automobiles scattered about with fake blood on them here and there and a few zombies wandering about but not even close to the quality and theatrical level as in previous years. Also we got there when the gates opened and by the time we got in Cabin in the woods already had a 45 min wait. So we tried heading in a different direction but still encountered huge wait times. After seeing The Walking Dead….our first house….times had jumped up to 80 to 120 mins on all the houses. This to me was absolutely obsurd! Being preferred passholders and paying around $900 annually for our family and also having to pay for the HHN tickets it seems as though its getting out of hand for us to also have to pay an additional $69 each to get an express pass to be able to see all the houses! This event was a serious disappointment to us this year and we will probably not go back next year at all.

    • October 14, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      Hi Yvette!
      I’m so sorry to hear that you didn’t have a positive experience. I was also there last night (10/13) and the park was much busier than usual (as we anticipated) due to the Columbus Day holiday today. They even extended the park’s hours until 2am! However, if you arrived early or stayed until the end (as I did) it was perfectly possible to see all 8 mazes without buying express pass, following the touring plans we published.
      As preferred annual Passholders, you were eligible to “stay and scream” which would have had you through Walking Dead and La Llorona before the park even opened. The hours between 8 and 12 can be terribly crowded in the houses, so we suggest seeing shows (I found prime seats for last night’s 11:30pm B&T just before showtime), rides, or slipping out to CityWalk during that time.
      Finally, I must respectfully differ from your assessment of the scarezones. I’ve been covering HHN since 1996, and this year’s scarezones are the most elaborate and extensive in a decade. You mention the wrecked cars, but did you see the tank in New York, the burning barn (a mini-house) near Hollywood, or the camp near KidZone? Though I agree there are a few terrible masks being used, the makeup on the key Walkers (like bunny slipper girl and the bicycle walker) is fantastic. It was clearly a huge improvement over last year’s scarezones; the only section without any decor was between Simpsons and San Francisco (for obvious construction reasons) and they had the chainsaw team in that area.
      Again, very sorry to hear about your negative experience. Hopefully if you go next year you’ll have a better time following our touring plan!

  • November 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    I have visited HHN for 17 years and this was my final year. Why The event has priced the one time guest out and the lines are insane add the rude guest and ridiculous que lines. Also I attend haunts all over the place ( i visited roughly 30 this year beside hhn) I have never ever been rushed through a haunt like HHN does. The flashlight nazis have no business rushing a guest through the houses. When I was told to hurry up i would grab my leg and slow down. I spent roughly 200 dollars for my visit which included early entry, behind the scream tour, ticket for a non peak night and an express pass. Sorry the event is no longer worth that kind of money to me. I have decided I will vote with my wallet next year and HHN will not get my money. Also to clog up the lines with a bunch of fanboys playing a game is insane when you draw the numbers HHN does. I started going in 97 and at one time had 10-12 family and friends that went with me every time I went. Now due to pricing and the crowds I am the last one left of that group next year it won’t even be me. I will say the event no longer aims at the one night fans it aims for the return guest which is how you make more money on drinks, parking and food.


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