It’s been exactly one week since I stepped off the Disney Magic, and my sea legs had barely worn away before I stumbled — for the sake of Best Week Ever — into Halloween Horror Nights 25 at Universal Orlando. The event’s 25th edition was the first in almost a decade whose opening weekend I missed, so to say I was anxious to experience upon returning to the States is an understatement.
Driving into Universal Orlando’s parking structure, I snapped a photo of the parking rates. Little did I know this would be the last time I’d ever see these prices, as Universal raised their general parking rate up to $20 per day only hours after I took this picture.
There was steady pedestrian traffic heading in and out of the park by 5 p.m. Everyone play nice out there and follow the rules!
As you can see below, wait times at IOA were mostly mild by this time of day.
The Incredible Hulk is down, but don’t count the big green guy out. When IOA’s iconic coaster reopens in 2016, he’ll boast brand new track sections and trains — because the old ones are currently in the trash. The only thing that won’t change: he’ll still be the Hulk!
It’s interesting to note that the construction wall features an art style that hearkens back to Hulk’s Silver Age origins, as opposed to the very 1990s stylings of the current (former?) ride. It remains to be seen whether the new exterior and queue will be influenced by that retro style, or the more current Marvel Cinematic Universe look, as has been widely speculated.
While Hulk is out of commission, his free lockers have been commandeered as paid all-day lockers and cell phone charging stations.
Not much call for Toon Lagoon’s water rides on a rainy afternoon. The only thing of note here is the refurbishment walls around the central hub. Worry not, there’s still plenty of room to pass through to Popeye’s raft ride.
Progress on the facade of Skull Island: Reign of Kong has moved along in the month since I saw it last. You can see the mural-like treatment on the “mountains” concealing the show building, and the shape of Kong’s skull marking the entrance. I can’t wait until next spring to see what’s inside!
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey had only a 5 minute single rider wait when I stopped by, and the ride is in beautiful condition. All the major effects were working, including the animatronic dragon, who was MIA during my last enchanted bench flight. Better still, most of the recent controversial changes that brightened the lighting and tempered the motion appear to have been removed, and the previous programming restored…at least for the time being.
I had hoped that I’d be able to ride the Hogwarts Express into Universal Studios, as I did last year when Diagon Alley was a stay and scream zone. Unfortunately, while non-HHN guests with park-to-park tickets can exit USF via the train, departures from Hogsmeade Station to London cease at 5 p.m. sharp.
While hoofing it out of IOA to enter Halloween Horror Nights, I happened past the former home of CityWalk’s NBA City restaurant. There’s no official word on what the venue will become, but beyond the removal of the big basketball player statue the only significant changes thus far have been to the interior.
This was the scene on Sunday night shortly before Universal Studios Florida opened its gates to the Halloween Horror Nights hordes.
Waits for the standard TSA-style security screening can be long, so avail yourself of the “no bags line” and save some time if you are traveling light. Just look for the sings to the far left of the main entrance arch.
The gates for HHN opened a few minutes before the official 6:30 p.m. start time, and the eager crowd surged forward. I suggest going for the center gates; the temporary ticket scanners used there usually process guests more swiftly than the permanent ones to either side.
If you want to plan out your evening of terror, here is a look at the event guide-map for evenings when HHN closes at 1 a.m.
Ironically, I selected the first Sunday in October because it is traditionally one of the slower nights of the event. But even before the gates opened, Universal management had extended the haunted mazes’ closing times until 2 a.m., with added performances of both stage shows after midnight.
As soon as I saw the wait time at the first house, I knew my dreams of a quiet night were out the window. The event wasn’t even officially open yet and the 25th Anniversary maze was already posting a 50 minute wait time. Due to its location closest to the entrance, you’ll want to save this house for last if you aren’t among the first few folks through the front gates.
Moving into the New York area, I saw that Freddy vs. Jason had a 25 minute wait and jumped in line, assuming (correctly) that it would be late in the evening before the queue dropped that low again.
In order to prevent line cutting, a few of the mazes are making use of numbered paper tickets, which are handed out near the start of the queue. They are supposed to be checked and collected at the end of the queue, but their enforcement seemed inconsistent at best. Even so, hang on to yours if you receive one, lest you be booted out of line.
The actual wait time for Freddy vs. Jason turned out to be about 10 minutes longer than the initial estimate, which was still short compared to the crowds it would see later in the night.
Freddy vs. Jason was a bit of a mixed bag for me, with impeccable scenic work but spotty scares. I was disappointed that nearly all the scareactors inside are portraying Voorhees or Krueger, with most of the “victims” from their iconic kills represented by unconvincing static mannequins. The alternating victors are a nifty gimmick, and thanks to timing errors I managed to see both endings in one visit.
Next up was Body Collectors Recollection, a return to the Psychoscareapy mental asylum in the company of the Buffy-esqe smiling gentlemen.
The queue was almost exactly the 25 minutes advertised, and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset while waiting.
Body Collectors was easily the best maze of the night, and one of my favorite houses in many years. Gory, gothic, and genuinely scary with a sly dose of humor, the signature spinal ripping scene is not to be missed.
It’s a good thing I got in line when I did, because wait times were heading sharply higher as night fell.
The path to my next destination took me through the New York scarezone, where the psycho citizens of Shadybrook were throwing a bloody good block party.
This will likely be the last year for a haunted maze in the former extended queue of Disaster, which is being demolished for a future Fast & Furious ride. Thankfully, this location is going out with a bang. RUN: Blood, Sweat, and Fears was my favorite of the three mazes that have borne that name, and a real treat for fans of 80s films like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and The Running Man. The campy queue video sets just the right tone for the hyperviolent game show found inside.
RUN exits into the All Nite Die-In Double Feature scarezone, where modern movie monsters alternate with classic cinematic creatures.
Need a break from the madness of HHN? While Diagon Alley is usually the most packed part of the park by day, at night it’s relatively empty. Wait times for the Gringotts coaster never got much above 30 minutes, and refreshments were far more accessible at The Leaky Cauldron than at any of the crowded temporary food stands around the rest of the park.
As a side note, the Shutterbuttons souvenir video studio has relocated from its original shop adjoining Weasleys Wizard Wheezes, to the seldom-used Owl shop between Madame Malkin’s robes and Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlor. One prop owl remains in the rafters to recall the former theming.
Want to remember your night of terror? Here’s a selection of the T-shirts for sale at the event. Even if you can’t attend HHN, the shop next to Twister is now selling halloween merchandise during the daytime.
New this year is The Carnage Returns, an ultra-violent variety show starring popular HHN icon Jack the Clown. Magic tricks, aerial acrobatics, and copious stage blood combine in an entertaining orgy of excess. The performances are standing room only, but you’ll want to arrive a few minutes early to get a good view spectacle and skin.
By the midpoint of the night, wait times for all the most popular mazes approached or exceeded an hour. The rides, however, had pleasantly non-existent queues; I was in and out of Transformers via the standby line in under 10 minutes.
The Purge was posted at 60 minutes, but I was pleasantly surprised to wait barely 30 minutes for it.
Sadly, that unexpectedly brief wait was the best part. According to insiders, Purge was originally supposed to be based on the Scream franchise (before a licensing deal fell through) and the last-minute change is evident in the generic suburban environments; at one point I was sure I was walking through recycled rooms from last year’s superior Halloween haunt. The cast was admirably aggressive, and I got one of the best scares of the night when one Purger slaughtered a fellow guest (actually a planted actor) right behind me. But as someone with little interest in the Purge films, this one didn’t fly to the top of my list.
While I was slightly underwhelmed by The Purge, this year’s Walking Dead maze was a crashing disappointment. Even as an avid watcher of the show, Universal’s over-reliance on the AMC zombie series has been popular among casual fans, but yielded diminishing artistic returns in the eyes of most HHN fanatics. This year’s Walking Dead house is easily the weakest since the first year Universal began using the property, with the “flooded food bank” effect being a particular letdown.
In contrast, the Evil’s Roots scarezone through the Central Park area is a real treat, marking the return of the eerie jack-o-lanterns that have long been among my favorite elements of HHN decor.
No matter how long the queues for other houses got, the wait for American Werewolf in London remained modest. Maybe that’s because the maze is 98% identical to the original version from 2013, but it remains one of the best Universal has ever built. Even if you’ve seen it before, the PO’ed puppy puppets never lose their bite.
Once the midnight hour passes, wait times around the park begin to plummet rapidly.
Performances of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure play to packed houses during the heart of the evening, but by the 1 a.m. show you can have your pick of seats right up until showtime. This year’s script suffers from a lack of solid pop-culture villains (Kim and Kanye are more tiresome than terrifying) but there are plenty of sharp pokes at both Disney and Universal itself.
The last half hour of operations is a golden time to hit the last few houses…
…but first, there’s just enough time to say hello to past HHN icons in the Hollywood scarezone.
Last but certainly not least, I bit the bullet and spent my final moments of HHN in line for the 25th Anniversary house. It meant missing Alice in Wonderland and Insidious (both of which I’ve heard good things about) but the sacrifice was worth it. Jack Presents 25 Years of Monsters & Mayhem features a mashup of HHN’s most memorable monster mazes, and brought back pleasant memories of murders past. To the uninitiated it must seem like a chaotic mess, but for hardcore Horror Nights junkies it makes the ideal evening ender.
My final Halloween Horror Nights 25 tally was 7 out of 9 mazes, 2 out of 2 shows, 4 out of 5 scarezones, and 2 rides. That’s a decent count considering I didn’t use Stay & Scream or Express passes to trim my waits. That much frightful fun took a physical toll, since I was moving almost non-stop for nearly 9 solid hours. If your idea of entertainment is coming home at 3 a.m. reeking of sweat, spilled beer, and vape-pen residue, with blistered feet and screaming leg muscles…well, there are still 4 more weekends of Halloween Horror Nights 25 waiting for you!
Have you visited Halloween Horror Nights 25 yet, or do you plan on visiting? Share your thoughts on the event in the comments below!