Halloween Horror Nights 2009
The theme of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights this year seemed like something right up my alley – Ripped from the Silver Screen. The poster boys for the campaign were Chucky, the Wolf Man, and the puppet from the Saw films. In reviewing the haunted house list, it looked like Universal heard my complaint about the lack of traditional monsters last year because, in addition to the Wolf Man, they also had houses based on Frankenstein and Dracula. This was starting to look like an exciting year.
At the conclusion of our visit in 2008, my friends Byron Rocher, John Thrailkill and I agreed that the event warranted a return visit but that it might be worth paying the added fees for the Fast Passes to avoid the lines. Since 2008 had been my first year at HHN and both Byron and John were relative newcomers, it had made sense for us to take that year at a leisurely pace. For 2009 though, we were ready to roll and see just exactly how much horror we could pack into one long night. Byron got us a discount on the general admission tickets through AAA but our total cost with the Fast Passes still came to a little over $125 per person. This was by no means an inexpensive endeavor.
In addition to the Fast Passes, the other major change we made to our game plan for 2009 was attending the event with our friends from Jacksonville, Brandon “The Trivia Man” Tomasello and Jeanine Holmes. Brandon is an impressive seventeen year veteran of the Halloween Horror Nights experience and as close to an expert on the event as you are likely to find outside the employ of Universal Studios. They had both attended the Spooky Empire Show for the first time with me earlier that day. Brandon and Jeanine also invited another group of their friends to join us but that proved to be a less than beneficial decision.
We converged on Margaritaville, located in the nearby Universal City Walk area, around 5PM on Saturday evening. It was a little cooler than last year but it rained as Byron and I were on our way to the park and the humidity was unpleasant. Brandon and his team were already there when we arrived. John was on his way back to Orlando and would be joining us late. We exchanged introductions and enjoyed the calm before the storm of the evening’s event. This was my first visit to Margaritaville and I very much enjoyed the laid back atmosphere. I did, however, decline any alcoholic delicacies in reverence to the heat and humidity that I knew awaited us.
The official start time for Halloween Horror Nights was 6:30PM but Brandon has always cautioned us that the park tends to open early to accommodate the traffic. Brandon’s friends headed out to wait in line while the four of us spent a few more minutes relaxing. At almost 6PM on the dot, Brandon received a call that gates were open. We were already stoked and ready to roll by this point, so Brandon settled the tab in short order and we headed off to satiate our blood lust for horror.
It took a few minutes at the gate for me to get our Fast Passes squared away and traverse the security screening, which did not seem as thorough as last year. It was at this point that we realized Brandon’s other friends had not only started without us but had gone in the opposite direction of what we had determined was the optimal path. It took multiple phone calls, cajoling, and coordinating to finally reassemble our fractured party. This would not be the last set back of the night. John caught up with us about the same time as the other group, so he did not miss much. At least the five of us were able to stick together for the remainder of the night.
In the interests of efficiency and for those wishing to cut to the chase, a break down of the haunted houses and the Scare Zones from this year’s Halloween Horror Nights appears at the end of this article. Comments are provided on the houses by me, a second year novice, and Brandon, a seasoned professional. A final word wrap of the entire event by Brandon follows the reviews.
For some reason, Universal only keeps a small selection of their normal rides open during the Horror Nights. According to a representative Brandon spoke to on the phone, the new Rocking Roller Coaster was closed because it is not considered “horror themed”. The Simpsons ride was, however, open, so I am not sure I follow that logic. This also happened to be the only open ride we skipped due to time and energy. I had my first opportunity this year to try Revenge of the Mummy and it lived up to all the rave revues I had heard in the past. I hope this mix of roller coaster speed and thrill ride special effects will be the template for future attractions. There was no way I would miss my second chance to go on the Jaws ride, since I love its blend of story and shocks. I could have done without doing the Men in Black: Alien Attack this year but we ended up using it as a time killer during one of several regrouping sessions. I broke a long standing tradition when Byron and I split the cost of a photo package from the ride. Generally speaking, I think these are rip offs but the picture they took of the four of us was just too classic to pass up. I have no idea at what point in the ride this was taken and we were not posing. The first thing I thought of when I saw the photo was “Deliverance in Space”!
Bill & Ted’s Halloween Adventure is a tradition at Universal and the theme of this year’s show sounded like a sure fire winner. After a hard night of partying with an ultra-nerd, referred to as Fanboy in the show, Bill and Ted find themselves stranded in the Land of the Lost Pop Culture. It seems Fanboy has used pieces of their time machine phone booth to build a device capable of bringing any character he wishes to his personal purgatory. Rather than kill Bill and Ted and fill the place with female porn stars, this nerd brings in pop culture characters, most from recent films and television shows, to entertain him. Some of the bits, like Priceline’s William Shatner meeting the new Captain Kirk, had their moments. Unfortunately, the majority of the jokes fell flat and some were downright painful like a running gag about Twilight that brought the show to a screeching halt several times. If the writers of this show have run out of ideas and this is the best they can do with the material available, it really is time for a new theme.
Thanks to the Fast Passes, we were able to see every haunted house this year and go on the rides we chose to. We ended up staying a few hours later than last year but we spent minimal time waiting in lines and were almost always doing something. This kept our momentum up but by midnight or so I was starting to drag. We made it through our last house and then Byron, John and I parted company with Brandon and Jeanine who went off to try and find their other group of friends yet again. By the time we hiked back to the car, it was 1AM as we were pulling off the Universal lot. Since the park closes at 2AM, I don’t think it is possible to do everything in one night without the Fast Passes. You might be able to go through all the houses if you get there when they open and that is all you do but even that would be cutting it close. One thing we learned this year is that large groups do not travel well through this event and we will keep it small in the future. We had a good time overall this year but made no predictions about 2010. If it really looks like something interesting next year, we may consider going but otherwise we could easily skip a year or two.
ED: The beginning of this house was a recreation of a winter ravaged forest that was really impressive. The remainder was scenes from the forthcoming movie with werewolves jumping out at you. After a nice build up, the rest of the house was too quick and too dark to really be appreciated.
Brandon: I went through this house twice and on the first visit found it hardly scary. The set pieces may have been the most impressive of all the houses: you walk through a forest with gypsy village remnants scattered about before entering a chateau of sorts. Once inside there were few scares and little creativity for anxiety and anticipation. My second visit was quite surprising as it was a much better experience than earlier. It wasn’t because there was still daylight out when we first went. It was likely because the extra work shift had not arrived until maybe after seven; there were more werewolves than before and believe me … it made a difference. I was legitimately scared twice in this house, the first was walking through the forest – nothing like hearing in full, deep stereo the low growl of wolves who come at you from the left … NOPE … got me from the right.
Dracula: Legacy of Blood
ED: Another great looking setup as you entered through the front gates of a very realistic castle. Inside it was mainly vampire brides providing what few scares there were. My favorite part of this house was where the brides were running overhead like they were flying. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall seeing Dracula at all. Maybe he was in the bathroom while we were there.
Brandon: Very nice set, particularly the castle entrance, but ugly looking vampire brides with fangs does nothing for me.
ED: I enjoyed this house but not as much as I thought I would. The design veered away from the classic Universal concept and reminded me more of the Van Helsing film. The Monster still looked good and I always enjoy mad scientist’s labs and lightening. My one real shock of the evening came from Frankenstein’s bride who was laid out on an operating table. The lovely lass looked so thin I suspected she might be a mannequin but when I peered over for a closer look she bolted upright and screamed at me! I also noted the recycled teleportation chambers from The Fly in a later portion of this house.
Brandon: I had higher standards for this one because I was anticipating that this would be the house ED was most eager to see. Disappointing. Unimaginative (see this word used several times). I confess despite what was just written, one misdirection did scare me for the first of only three scares in the night.
Leave It to Cleaver
ED: This house had one of the best set ups but also one of the poorest pay offs. The phony hygiene style films about meat packing shown to the waiting entrants were neat and certainly put you in the mood. The off kilter slaughter house and butcher shop that followed just didn’t live up to the hype though and the 1950’s style happy faced Halloween masks weren’t that scary. For something presented by Fangoria magazine, this haunted house was a surprising let down.
Brandon: Seriously? The face of Frisch’s Big Boy used as a scare tactic? Maybe the worst house of the evening
ED: I was concerned when I first saw this one listed that it would be difficult to make a haunted house out of this gritty film series. What were they going to do, kidnap victims from the crowds walking through or spring traps on visitors? I was basically correct in my assumption and this walk through Jigsaw’s latest converted warehouse torture chamber was pretty dull over all. There was one stand out area though where you entered a room that appeared to have one of the cloaked pig face henchmen from the film in every corner.
Brandon: This set was the most interesting to me overall, perhaps because 5 sequels in I am still a fan of the plot twists and limb twists of this movie series. Again, not many scare corners and the creativity bar was low, but the set was ornamented with the Jigsaw killer’s contraptions throughout.
ED: This house was another example of the excellent craftsmanship Universal puts into designing their sets. The concrete exterior of the faux municipal water building and the sewers inside looked great. Unfortunately, the monsters running loose inside looked pretty much like people in frog Halloween costumes and never generated much in the way of scares. It’s a toss up as to whether this house, which was also presented by Fangoria, or Cleaver was the worst one this year but I would probably give this one slightly higher marks just for the design. Apparently Fangoria needs to stick to magazines and leave the haunted house business to someone else.
Brandon: Angry looking teenage mutant ninja iguanas? Definitely the worst house of the evening. At least Leave it to Cleaver had a minimum degree of creepiness
ED: Without a doubt, this was the best house of the year. It’s not like they didn’t have me at the haunted movie theater concept but they also recreated scenes from some horror classics. As you entered the theater past the dusty box office, you could smell popcorn in the air. Inside, you walked from theater to theater but this menacing multiplex put you IN the movies rather than just showing them to you. In the outer area of each theater, there were props and a poster from the film you were about to literally walk into. Some of the films included Phantom of the Opera, My Bloody Valentine, Army of Darkness (cleverly listed under its original title of The Medieval Dead), and the 80’s version of The Thing. The final area was based on the crappy recent movie The Visitors but I tried not to hold this against them. As we headed through the gallows of victims hung by 35MM film behind the screen to exit of theater, I couldn’t resist telling one of the zombie ushers that I was ready to move there!
Brandon: Maybe my favorite haunted house over all. This one, finally, may have had the best balance of set, creativity, and scare corners – or perhaps with one word the most “entertaining”. I may have had a scare here, but it was unmemorable. But this year’s iconic host, the theater attendant, looked great and the homage to the horror of yore was enjoyable.
Chucky: Friends to the End
ED: I thought the original Child’s Play was a decent horror film but, like Freddy Kruger, the character of possessed doll Chucky got less scary and more annoying with each passing sequel. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a haunted house based around him and would have probably skipped this one if I hadn’t wanted to be a completist this year. This haunted toy factory wasn’t great but it did have a few creative scares, most of which didn’t even involve Chucky. The entrance to this house was a rickety bridge through a rotating tunnel that wasn’t easy to navigate. Just as I managed to reach the other side, I saw someone behind our group fall on his butt as soon as he stepped on.
Brandon: My standards were extremely low here, particularly because we all find the character to be annoying, not scary. But this house had the most scare corners and pop out characters. And at the beginning there is a long neon psychedelic spin tunnel that harkens back to the old funhouses (remember that slasher classic?)
ED: Universal did a great job on the set ups for most of the haunted houses this year but the execution (no pun intended) left a lot to be desired. We did our best to go through the houses slowly but this is not an easy thing to do with employees stationed every few feet to motion you forward. I really think they should divide the houses up and do some that last longer and go slower so you can appreciate the impressive set decorations. They could even have tour guides to lead groups through and tell background stories for the houses. I also noted, in going through all the houses for the first time, that there is a tendency to use a similar layout for many of them. Ending half the houses with a lot of noise and strobe lights ceases to be exciting after the first one and gets monotonous fast.
Brandon: My overall experience of the houses, as you can see, was disappointing. Is it because I’m getting older and therefore less scared about things that go bump in the night? No, it is because it seemed like they put very little effort into the scare tactics or the creativity of the sets. Last year I thought it was the most disappointing HHN I had ever went to, but I remember how much I liked the set design and even more so the costume designs. There was a lot of thought put into them. This year? Well, I was so disappointed over all that I may actually skip next year just to get a fresh experience the following year. Byron expressed the same sentiment. Where was the 3D house? Where were the cool visual effects and illusions? No fake mirrors. Very little misdirection. Heck, I even miss the absolutely putrid mental health institution bathrooms where you swear some Universal Studios disgruntled employee took their feces and smeared it everywhere. Hey, I’m just saying there was more thought put into that than anything I saw this year. I mean back in the day there were hanging corpses that would jump down towards you and then their nooses would snap them back up onto the platform. This year we had a guy under a sheet in Frankenstein.
This was a biohazard style zone that they seem to have every year. The only thing setting this area apart from the others was a cloud of radioactive smoke that visitors were warned not to breath.
Apocalypse: City of Cannibals
The title of this one sounds a lot better than it was. This was basically mutants running around with machetes. The only interesting parts of this one were the sound and lighting effects they did to simulate helicopters.
Cirque De Freak
As you can probably guess, this zone was a plug for the movie of the same name that will be released shortly. The carnival style atmosphere was fun but this show could have used a few more freaks.
Here’s another item on the list it would be extremely hard to disappoint me with. The only thing better than a recreation of a 50’s style drive-in movie theater is one with zombies and other assorted ghouls wandering the lot! This was a very well thought out zone – even the vintage vehicles had blood splatters from some recent massacre coating their interiors. My favorite part was the killer from My Bloody Valentine hiding out in the snack bar!
Lights, Camera, Hacktion
We skipped this zone in favor of the next one. This sounded like the typical “chainsaw squad” area they do each year with the guys carrying chainless saws. I think we made the right decision.
War of the Living Dead
It wasn’t due to any planning on our part but we saved the best zone for last. This was a very cool recreation of a World War II battlefield where the reanimated corpses of slain soldiers carry on a timeless battle. Smoke filled the streets and the lights and sounds made bullets seem to be whizzing by everywhere. Zombies in various stages of decay shambled through the ruins of this literal no man’s land to fight a war that time forgot. This was just like walking into the pages of an old issue of DC’s Weird War comics!
ED: Universal can do some really great Scare Zones when they put their hearts in it (again, no pun intended). They had a couple of good ones this year but others seemed to be phoned in or just rehashes of what had already been done before. The layout was poorly done. They left a huge area of wasted empty space covering almost one entire side of the park. Even if budget concerns limited the number of zones they could have, it would have still been nice to make them a little roomier and spread them out better. While 2009 had a couple of really stand out areas, I think the 2008 Scare Zones were better overall.
Brandon: The Scare Zones this year were sub-par, and to make it worse the layout was horrible. They were positioned in these hardly trafficked places with nary a hiding place to spook you. I don’t mean to sound like a grumpy old man, but back in the day the ghouls would be camouflaged in the background and come at you with really intense costumes and make-up. And if they weren’t camouflaged, there were fog machines that added to the atmosphere. This year there were zombie soldiers.
From this review one might think I didn’t have a good time. To the contrary, I had a great time but that is due to the attitude I go in with (did I mention the Margaritas?). This was my first year attending with ED and Byron and their friend John, so we had good conversation along the way. But this was also the second year in a row of disappointment and I’ve come to expect, no … DEMAND that Universal Studios produce a high quality, imaginative and creative, and let’s not forget SCARY experience, especially with the money it now costs to attend. HHN XIX had none of the above and it really doesn’t take much. I would have been just as pleased if they brought back some of the great houses from the past, especially the Psycho house. But Frisch’s big boy? C’mon!
Special thanks this week to guest reviewer Brandon Tomasello for sharing his insights and opinions on the 2009 Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando.