This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 2018!
Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) has become the premier spooky party in the world (including winning “Best Halloween Event” at the annual Golden Ticket awards for the last 11 years in a row!) Now, we like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party as much as anyone, but HHN is on another level. While the Magic Kingdom can be considered – at best – lightly decorated for Not So Scary, providing much of the exact same experiences a guest gets any other day of the year, Universal Studios Florida completely transforms each night for HHN. With a team led by Michael Aiello, Universal Creative uses a combination of original concepts and well known IPs to produce an event that somehow seems to get better every single year. Today we’re going to take a look at some of our favorite parts of this year’s HHN, and let’s kickoff the countdown with…
# 6 – The HHN Voodoo Doughnut
If Congress ever passes a law allowing people to marry a donut shop, then we will immediately get down on one knee to profess our unconditional love for Voodoo Doughnuts in City Walk. One surprise of theme park’s unanimous 2018 Rookie of the Year winner is that Voodoo makes exclusive offerings just for Universal, such as the Raptor Claw donut this summer to tie into the release of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. For HHN, another new donut appeared, appropriately shaped like a tombstone. The donut uses chocolate sprinkles to simulate “grass” and has the dates of the first HHN event through this year (91-18.)
# 5 – The Retro Arcade
The big “get” this year for HHN was the license to Stranger Things from NETFLIX. One of the most buzz-worthy shows in years, Stranger Things was tailor made for Universal’s event. One of the more memorable moments early on in Season 2 is the main cast playing video games in an arcade. One game they are shown playing is Dragon’s Lair, and another game – Dig Dug – gets a spotlight when the boys discover someone has beaten their high score. In a gift shop near the entrance of USF, Universal set up a miniature arcade featuring both these games along with several other classics that were in the background of Stranger Things (including Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Defender.) To take it up a notch, Universal allows guests to play the games by buying a special token, which also in-turn creates an instant souvenir. As a person who spent way too many quarters in arcades growing up, this was a wonderful bit of nostalgia come to life.
# 4 – The Merchandise
For many years, one of the only chinks in HHN’s armor was the event’s selection of merchandise. Not this year though. Nay nay, this year has a whole bunch of fantastic items to get guests to open up the wallet. First up is a fantastic print that is a mash-up of Stranger Things and the iconic arches of Universal. Now these are the arches of Universal Studios Hollywood, and not Orlando’s version, but the artwork is still awesome.
One of the best scenes during the first season of Stranger Things was a character sending a message through the use of Christmas lights. Visually it was just a stunningly creative concept, and combined with the drama of the moment it made for one of the best moments on TV. This year HHN has a pin which uses the Christmas lights concept and lights up the letters R-U-N to send a message. I’m not generally a “pin guy” but this is a first ballot Hall of Famer.
There are few things in theme park world I collect, but for Disney I have Tsum Tsums and for Universal it’s Uni-Minis. Basically, Uni-Minis are Universal’s version of Disney’s Vinylmation. They are small, plastic recreations of characters. From Transformers’ Optimus Prime to Men In Black’s Frank the Pug, there’s a Uni-Mini for just about every area of the Universal parks outside of The Wizarding World. Lately the release of new Uni-Minis have slowed down, but there always seems to be one tied into HHN, and this year brings the first Uni-Mini “set” featuring Stranger Things breakout character Eleven along with a demogorgon.
Print-on-demand t-shirts have exploded in the real world, with fans in many niche communities (including professional wrestling and theme parks) selling their own fan-made shirts on sites such as RedBubble and TeePublic. This year Universal offers its own print-on-demand shirts for HHN, allowing guests a lot of customization. This concept also allows Universal to sell shirts for things there is no way they would create merch for in the past, such as the mock movie posters made for the Slaughter Sinema haunted house.
We are blessed in the theme park community to have a wide variety of talented artists of various genres, including some of the people making t-shirts mentioned above (SuperWeenie’s “Diet Epcot” is fantastic, and Rob Yeo‘s designs seen for Tim Tracker and WDWNT are out of this world.) One of my personal favorite artists is Shelby Denham, in fact I commissioned her for a drawing in 2017’s Turkey of the Year Awards.)
How GREAT is this. Universal commissioned Shelby to create artwork which guests can buy prints of in the Williams of Hollywood Prop Shop located on Hollywood Blvd. The artwork is based around houses and scarezones from this year’s event, and each week brings a new piece of art. Supporting local artists is a good thing for anyone to do, let alone a major theme park, and I could not be more proud of Shelby seeing her work displayed inside Universal.
# 3 – The Food and Drinks
I’ve always considered HHN to be “International Food & Wine Festival for the workin’ man.” While Epcot may offer frou frou plates and wine offerings where you need to hold your pinkie out when drinking, Universal offers items such as PIZZA FRIES, A.K.A America on a plate.
In a brilliantly timed tweet that appeared during the same day the first Presidential Alert went out, HHN showed its social media prowess..
We all know cupcakes are ubiquitous in the theme parks, but have you seen cupcakes like this…
And now…THE WAFFLES.
Eggo waffles in Stranger Things are like Reece’s Pieces in E.T., Butterbeer in Harry Potter, and LeFou’s Brew in Beauty & The Beast (okay, maybe not the last one.) Universal pays tribute to Eleven’s fondness for waffles by offering several different waffle-themed snacks during HHN.
Pro Tip: Go to Louie’s Gelato Window and get a Waffle Ice Cream Pocket Sundae. Here you get to pick whatever flavor of ice cream or gelato you want, and then it is magically combined into the middle of two waffles and topped off with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, sprinkles, chopped peanuts, and a cherry.
It wouldn’t be a Halloween Horror Nights without the fan favorite blinky cup.
One of the things that gives me life is Coke Freestyle being throughout the Universal parks and at several of the onsite resorts (including the new Aventura Hotel.) Not only does HHN have its own souvenir Coke Freestyle cup, but it also has possibly the greatest deal in the history of theme park food and beverage. For less than $30, guests could get a HHN Coke Freestyle cup that was good not just for HHN party nights through November 5th, but could also be used during the day, any day.
While not an official part of Halloween Horror Nights, HHN also is basically timed with the return of DUFFTOBERFEST in Springfield, USA. As a huge fan of The Simpsons television show, when Duff Beer came to Universal, it was basically a dream come true. When the Dufftoberfest flavor made its debut a couple years ago, it made me dream about Universal also possibly adding other fun flavors into the mix including Duff Clear, Lady Duff, Duff Red, or Duff Tropical. No other flavors have been released, but every year I look forward to “haunt season” as it also means the return of the Dufftoberfest brew.
# 2 – The Houses
The signature part of any HHN are the haunted house experiences. Like many, I always avoided HHN because I wouldn’t consider myself a “horror fan.” I finally decided to get my feet wet when Universal first got the license for AMC’s The Walking Dead, because I was such a huge fan of the TV show and Walking Dead comic book. I immediately realized how much different HHN actually was from what I imagined it to be in my mind. While I wasn’t a fan of some of the movies used for the haunted houses, I could appreciate the design of each house from an artistic standpoint. It was also just fun being “scared” by the scareactors and even more fun watching other people get scared. Where I thought Universal really shined was in their original houses that weren’t tied to an IP, but even I had to admit it was an IP that got me personally into the door.
This year another IP is getting a whole lot more people into HHN with the debut of Stranger Things, and boy is Universal going to make these guests happy by delivering on a top notch house. When it comes to the IP houses, delivering on iconic moments and places is key, and the HHN version of Stranger Things hits all the right notes and brings you right into the that world.
(NOTE: it is basically impossible to film anything inside a house during an HHN event. Most of the pictures you will see below were taking during an Unmasking The Horror tour. These tours are given during the day, as small groups of guests are given a “lights on” tour while having a Team Member given a lot of behind the scenes info. In my book this is an absolute MUST DO as you not only get to see a ton of things you will probably miss during the actual event, but you also get a fascinating look into how HHN is put together.)
The houses which aren’t tied to an IP can be even more incredible to see up close because you are seeing true artists in their field let loose. Here is the facade for Scary Tales, a house based around Universal’s take on some classic fairy tales. It looks impressive at night, but it’s during the lights-on tour where you can see all the details.
Poltergeist just may be pound for pound the best haunted house experience at this year’s event. A brilliant construction taking moments of the film and creating scares based on them.
# 1 – The Scare Zones
Even over just the last several years, the Scare Zones located throughout HHN have become a bigger part of my personal experience. I used to be all “gotta get to a house, then another house, then another house,” etc, but now I enjoy taking my time and just walking around. Taking it all in. People watching. During one of our Unmasking the Horror tours, we walked backstage and saw the area where scareactors were getting ready. It was amazing just to see the process along with how many moving parts there are to HHN. It made me truly appreciate the scareactors and the people behind the scenes who help them get ready. Again, its also fun just to see people get the daylights scared out of them, and that can happen right into front of your eyes in a scare zone.
This year HHN has several fantastic areas including one that has been requested by fans for a long time. The movie Killer Klowns From Outer Space came out in 1988 and is beloved by a small group of fans, despite most people having never even heard of it. I like to think of it like “Mr. Toad” to theme park fans. For many of us, the character Mr. Toad and his former ride are cherished, but the average Walt Disney World fan has absolutely no idea he exists. Being able to walk through a Killer Klowns scare zone, and see characters brought to life I thought I would never see again, was a total blast.
Next level bananas doesn’t even begin to describe the Killer Klowns film. In one scene, a shadow puppet is used to kill people. That’s right, a shadow puppet. Universal recreated the shadow puppets for the scare zone. Bravo.
Another huge hit for this year’s event is VAMP ’85. Taking place on “New Year’s Eve” (complete with a ball drop,) this area is filled with retro Vampires and features music that those of a certain age will fondly remember. Be sure to look for the NEWS 18 team featuring a reporter and camera man that have some really fun interactions with guests. This is E-Ticket “streetmosphere.”
You have to appreciate the level of craft that goes into HHN, including areas such as the Twisted Tradition scare zone.
The Revenge of Chucky scare zone has several “scenes” for guests to enjoy, including Chucky himself interacting with guests walking by. My favorite part of the area is the take on classic toys and animated characters, such as Cabbage Patch Kids and Jem & the Holligrams.
Honorable Mention – Mel’s DIE-IN
Never gets old. Ever.
Double Secret Honorable Mention: Blue Man Group Playing The Theme From HALLOWEEN
The Blue Man Group – one of the most fun shows I have ever watched – recently brought a piece of their famous PVC instruments used in the show. Team Members play songs and show guests how to play. One of my favorite pieces of music from any movie is the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween, so it was like when peanut butter met chocolate when these drums played that tune.
Triple Threat Honorable Mention – THE CARNIVAL GAME PRIZES!
One of the hills I will die on when it comes to theme parks is Carnival Games. When done right, such as the games in Springfield USA or out in California at Pixar Pier, they are a great addition to theme parks featuring something both adults and kids can enjoy. When they are done wrong, they are called the Fossil Fun Games in Animal Kingdom. Universal brings out a separate set of games for HHN, and generally has really fun prizes based on horror films.
So there you have it: Six Reasons We Love Universal’s HALLOWEEN HORROR NIGHTS! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out the E-Ticket Report podcast. You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
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Special Thanks to our spirit animal Brandon Glover, my personal protege Hunter “Elvey” Underwood, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Mr. ‘Ohana Tim Grassey, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, the sweet siren of secret shopping Hedgehog’s Corner, and blogger to the stars Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.
FINAL PLUG! Did you know The 2018 Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando has a special edition of the SATURDAY SIX in it? Finally, someone came up with an actual reason to read a book. ORDER this baby now!\