Halloween Horror Nights 2018 – Universal Orlando

Tender lumplings everywhere know that life's no fun without a good scare, which is why we don't need any arbitrary restrictions like it, you k

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The shadowy entrance to the Twisted Tradition scare zone.

Tender lumplings everywhere know that life’s no fun without a good scare, which is why we don’t need any arbitrary restrictions like it, you know, not actually being October yet, interfere with the fact that Halloween has come to the fair state of Florida. Specifically, Halloween Horror Nights is here at Universal Studios Orlando! And with it, weeks upon weeks of thrills but not many chills due to the overwhelming humidity. So kick back, relax, and let’s recap what makes HHN28 great, and what might be… not so great.

Let’s start off with the meat and potatoes. The nitty-gritty. The good stuff. As mentioned, Halloween Horror Nights 2018 has a whopping ten haunted houses. You might be worried that this might mean the quality of them could be up and down, or that Stranger Things has devoured most of the budget, but happily that isn’t the case. One of the best surprises this year is Slaughterhouse Sinema, which puts a schlocky spin on the classic horror films of yore. Chtulhu-esque worshipping sorority girls, a werewolf biker gang, something that is most definitely not 1986’s Critters or a Triffid for copyright reasons, and a demonic baby (and more!) all add up for a gleefully weird and high-energy experience. Each room is so small that it can be easy to miss things, but this is one that’s definitely worth an extra go or three.

The walk down the main street of Universal Studios is full of interesting creatures, like this half of a pair of towering pumpkin heads.

Other houses are good, but more predictably so. After the success of last year’s scare zone, Trick-r-Treat is a fun and noisy walk through the anthology-themed movie, though with a bit less of the film’s icon than you might expect. Poltergeist does some brilliant tricks with perspective and wind to make for a fabulously ghostly experience that is packed with detail and clever use of scenes. Seeds of Extinction has some creepy-cool plant monsters and great architecture, plus the return of that severely angled sloped floor at the end from previous houses that seems determined to act as a sobriety test for everyone at the event. Dead Exposure: Patient Zero is a little more iffy, if only because the constant strobe effect and darkness is more on the annoying end of the spectrum than frightening; you can get glimpses of some interesting areas and even a storyline, but it’s just so dark so frequently that it’s hard to take anything in or care. Even then, that isn’t to say Dead Exposure: Patient Zero isn’t “worth” a walk through. There’s a reason Halloween Horror Nights is legendary for its designs, and they have never skimped on quality.

One of the new outdoor full liquor bars for the event.

As far as Stranger Things itself goes, the best descriptor for it is less “scary” than it is “beautiful” or maybe just “immersive”. Haunted houses made of established properties, as opposed to original designs, are always in an awkward space. It can be hard for designers to cram in enough sly nods and easter eggs to satisfy diehard fans and make them feel clever for spotting them, while also not alienating people who have never seen the show before. It’s true that people who know Stranger Things will get the most out of the house. Much like last year’s Ash vs the Evil Dead, Stranger Things excels with its gorgeous set design and scenes that could be lifted straight from the screen. But is it scary? Well… that’s a little harder to say. Being based on the first season of the show, the house is definitely limited in terms of what it has to work with, so you should brace yourself for lots of shouty military people brandishing guns, and lots of demogorgons popping out of walls. But there’s something almost weirdly fairytale-like about the house’s design that really sucks you in, and the fact that the actors playing the kids looks almost eerily like them doesn’t hurt either. There’s something here for both fans and newcomers, but if the house gets another encore next year (which seems likely due to the parade of t-shirts swarming the streets during the event), it’ll be a lot stronger with if it opts to work with season two as well.

The weakest of the batch might wind up being The Horrors of Blumhouse. Anyone will tell you that any run through a Halloween Horror Nights haunted house is subjective, both to personal taste, and time. It’s very easy to have a bad experience with the house simply because you were too slow or quick to miss the timed “scares”, after all. The problem with The Horrors of Blumhouse is that it’s just too… generic. Room after room of baby masks and the by now familiar Purge masks just fails to impress. Since the premise of Happy Death Day is of a woman reliving the same day over and over, the repetition of the room she wakes up in is a clever bit of storytelling in theory, but in practice just means walking through the same tiny, boring dorm room three or four times.

While the big flagship maze at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights is obviously Stranger Things, based on the hit Netflix show, you don’t need to worry about the event flying over your head if you haven’t seen it. This year, HHN28 boasts a whopping ten mazes total to traipse through and overreact to things, more than any year in recent memory, and five fiendish scare zones festering in the street. So if you’re not in touch with pop culture, you’re not going to be missing much. Additionally, most of the rides in Universal Studios remain open at night (though this year the Simpsons Ride remains closed), as does Diagon Alley. Let me tell you, if you want Harry Potter’s iconic world to feel even more magical than it usually does, you can’t do much better than wandering its streets at night.

Universal Studios remains packed with things to see and do during Halloween Horror Nights. And of course… things to eat and drink. With Stranger Things in attendance, it should be no surprise that waffles feature heavily in a lot of the themed food on offer. You can enjoy a triple-decker waffle topped with whipped cream and candy galore, or a fudge dipped waffle on a stick to name just a few. These are about what you’d expect and thus hard to sum up without sounding pretentious. Do you like waffles and sweet things? Then you’ll like these. (Although you might want to steer clear of the cloyingly sweet syrup and waffle flavored frozen drink.)

If dessert isn’t your thing, but revisiting traumatizing pop culture moments is, you can stop by Benny’s Burgers. This pop-up stand slings exactly what it sounds like, ranging from your basic tasty cheseburger to a much fancier chili garlic chicken sandwich. Most of the items available at Benny’s are actually available at Richter’s Burger Co or elsewhere in the park, but without the bittersweet association of the death of a beloved character, so. Y’know. Do as thou wilt.

Other staples remain open during the event, and I’m a personal fan of the Korean Beef Taco at the Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck in Springfield. You can enjoy it kicked back at Duff’s Brewery, which has the benefit of some prime people watching being right across from the good ol’ fashioned chainsaw territory. Pizza fries have made a comeback, and while for some people this plate of grease and salt is going to be a bit much, let’s face it. At certain points of the evening, that’s exactly what you want to keep yourself upright. If you’re looking for something a bit chiller and more air-conditioned, grab at table at Finnegan’s. While the bar is often slammed, for good reason given the steady pours of the staff, the restaurant itself is often much emptier and offers a menu full of sandwiches and heartier options. If you think that there is ever a bad time to enjoy a scotch egg and an iced Irish coffee, then you are wrong. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules.

Revenge of Chucky has some very impressive, and freaky, set pieces.

Of the scare zones themselves, none really flounder. Revenge of Chucky is a highlight with its imaginatively twisted take on classic toy designs, and a talking, animated Chucky doll that hits the stage to interact with (and make fun of) passersby. Vamp 85: New Year’s Eve might just be one of the company’s best for entertainment in years, with so many vampires done up as classic rock stars and two stages with special, short skits on either end of the zone that you really want to spend some time soaking it all in… and of course the absolutely excellent soundtrack in the area, or the fact that it’s located right outside of both The Mummy and Finnegan’s Bar and Grill doesn’t hurt either. Even if you weren’t old enough to be traumatized by it when it first came out on film, Killer Klowns from Outer Space also dazzles with some absolutely brilliant costume design and an infectiously upbeat atmosphere. Who knew hanging out with murderous alien circus folk was such a great way to spend an evening?

Lastly, 2018 is the first year of Halloween Horror Nights without Bill and Ted. While the show had its share of controversy due to its tendency towards over-the-top and risque humor, the pop culture celebration and snark fest had been wildly popular for years before finally shutting down with a memorable (and, yes, misty-eyed) final performance. This year sees Academy of Villains take the venue. In years past, the dance show had been out on the street in front of Mel’s Drive-In on a much smaller stage… and, to be frank, it was a bit better for it. Though the techno-inspired performance of HHN28 is high energy and fun, it also feels very generic. The show has always been at its best when it showcases eccentric use of shadows, art, and its high-energy, passionate cast as they interact with the audience up close. The stage show now, by comparison, feels like just another dance show that could have been put on by anyone, anywhere. Check it out, especially if you’re looking for a chance to sit and relax some, but don’t expect to be dazzled, especially if you’ve seen Academy of Villains in the past.

So if all this sounds good to you, you may be asking… where does Halloween Horror Nights fall short? That can be summed up in one photo.

Just a portion of two side-by-side lines for houses at HHN28.

Crowds have always been an issue for Halloween Horror Nights, and HHN28 is no exception. I mean, okay. A large-scale, popular Halloween event at one of the world’s most popular theme parks, in what is arguably the state’s most tourist-y town… it’s to be expected. But that doesn’t make it any easier to take. Weekend lines for houses can start out at 40 minutes or more, topping out at triple digits, and while it’s true guests with a daytime park pass can use stay-and-scream areas to mitigate the damage, without express you’d better get used to being crammed in alongside hundreds of other people for a long, long time. You’ll be walking a lot, you’ll be standing a lot, and, with a particularly hot and humid late summer here in Florida, you’re going to be sweating a lot too. Believe it or not, I wouldn’t even consider that photo to be of a particularly heavy night. That particular honor is reserved for what most locals call Hell Week; it’s the week in mid to late October where most schools have a Friday off, so you can expect the crowd capacity to skyrocket.

The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit runs even during the night during Halloween Horror Nights.

What can you do to ensure you still have a good time? Well, a couple things. First and foremost, fork out for an express addition to your ticket. Yeah, it’s a bit frustrating that you should need to spend even more to have a chance at getting through more than two or three houses in one night, but if you’re not attending HHN28 multiple times, you’ll be glad you have it. Secondly, plan to stay late. One of the worst things you can do is come to Halloween Horror Nights in a hurry, or leave early in the night. In the last hour or two of the event, lines often empty, and you can see and do a lot more than you might otherwise even without express.

Finally, if possible, get a day ticket to the park and make use of stay-and-scream. This allows people who have a ticket to Universal Studios to stay in certain roped off areas (typically Duff’s in Springfield, Finnegan’s, and one other) before the event starts. You get let out of it a bit earlier than the event officially opens to the public, allowing you to breeze through a few of the houses without any wait at all. If you’re already planning on visiting the theme park during the day at some point and you aren’t a passholder, wrapping it up in Halloween Horror Nights makes the process a little easier on you… even if it makes the day a whole lot longer.

Halloween Horror Nights 28 is Universal Studios at the top of its game. Though the crowds may be a force to contend with and the weather may get you down, for the forces under the company’s control, it puts on one heckuva show. If you’ve never been to the event before, 2018 is an excellent year to make the trip. HHN28 is full of some of the best craftsmanship and energy around by people who clearly love what they do. If I were a smarmier woman I might end with a pithy quote about how this event is sure to turn your perspective of the season Upside-Down. But honestly? It doesn’t need it. It might be resource intensive and require some commitment, but if you love Halloween, Halloween Horror Nights is the place to be. And you can trust me on that one. After all, friends don’t lie.

The Vamp 85 – New Year’s ball drop ceremony stage.