In the battle of Southern California Halloween event giants, the dominant force in the Los Angeles region is Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights. Headed up by John Murdy and Chris Williams, HHN has become a smash success that is known for its movie-quality sets and maze design, along with incredible make-up and hot intellectual properties that the company wrangles each season including The Walking Dead and Insidious in 2013!
Halloween Horror Nights has come and gone over the years in Hollywood. When it returned (at this point, it looks like it’s going to be sticking around) to the theme park in 2006 under the direction of John Murdy, Halloween Horror Nights became a major contender with shows and attractions heavily connected with IP themes, which over the years have included Rob Zombie films, Alice Cooper songs, Halloween, The Thing, The Walking Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There have been a few non-IP-driven attractions over the years such as the wildly successful La Llorona, and this year’s El Cucuy mazes; however, HHN remains pretty much a commercial venture with the hottest horror and rock properties of the moment, and that has worked incredibly well for Universal, as crowds continue to swell each season for the scare event.
This year, Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights properties are no exception; their maze line-up includes The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven, Evil Dead: Book Of The Dead, Insidious: Into The Further, Black Sabbath: 13-3D, El Cucuy: The Boogeyman, and Universal Monsters Remix: Resurrection.
Each of the mazes this year were brilliantly executed, with Universal Monsters Remix marginally at the bottom of the list (since the maze is changed little from the year-round House of Horrors attraction, it’s really hard to appreciate this as a full-blown HHN production). My personal favorite is The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven, which is the best Halloween Horror Nights maze I have ever been through.
The design and sheer scale of The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven is mind-blowing, from its enormous prison facade to a two-story cell area and a real helicopter further into the experience; it’s crazy! A masterpiece of a maze, The Walking Dead is definitely a huge draw to Horror Nights, with a wait time of 145 minutes halfway through opening night (let me do the math for you – that’s nearly 2 1/2 hours)! Yikes! The unfortunate downside for fans – the dreaded conga line through the maze; the upside for me – I got to really take in all of the incredible design work that the team pulled off with this maze, and was giddy by the end.
Another favorite this year is Insidious: Into The Further. Based heavily on the film series, Insidious takes guests on a very dark (figuratively and physically) journey into the spiritual realm of the Insidious franchise, with glimpses and personal encounters with the films’ demons and ghouls via special effects and fantastically made-up scareactors! The look and feel of this maze are spot-on, and the use of shadows and various spooky visuals make this a true “haunted house” adventure that we totally love!
Evil Dead: Book Of The Dead is a beautifully-constructed maze featuring scenes and imagery from the remake film that most horror fans really dug this year. Universal’s design team really knocked it out of the park with Evil Dead, and in conjunction with Larry Bones‘ incredible make-up wizardry, truly brought this IP to life in the worst/best way possible for HHN fans to enjoy! Of all the mazes, this was the most wet – Universal really loves using water gags in not just their Halloween mazes, but pretty much everything they do in their theme parks – but some lucky split-second sidestepping left me mostly dry as I managed to escape the infamous cabin and demon tree-infested woods in one piece!
John Murdy is a huge fan of hard rock and roll (he’s a musician himself), and that is evident by the music-based IPs that are introduced into the Halloween Horror Nights mix each year, much to the approval of the event’s fans, I will say. When this year’s Black Sabbath: 13-3D was announced, I will admit we kind of crinkled our noses here at TPA. Neither Johanna nor myself are Black Sabbath fans, and mostly see Ozzy Osbourne now as a stuttering, rambling reality television icon, although we are well aware of his history and respect him completely as a musical legend. That said, the whole Sabbath fan aspect was completely lost on us going into 13-3D, which is located in the Metropolitan Sets area of Universal, right next to The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven. In fact, neither of us are fans of 3D mazes either, so there were two strikes against us liking this maze from the get-go. Universal distributes 3D glasses for free, which is something we have always given HUGE props to them for – if a haunt is going to sport a 3D maze, it’s unfair to ask the public to cough up another cent after gate admission to see this type of maze as intended. So again, kudos to Universal for not milking the fans for more money for glasses this year. When we stepped in to Black Sabbath: 13-3D, we were really impressed by the level of artistry and detail, from its facade to various interior scenes. The colors were outrageous and popped (for the 10% of the time we used our glasses – like I said, we’re not fans of the medium in mazes) nicely, but what we really enjoyed were the cool sets and artistic interpretations of Black Sabbath songs. The fact that this maze is housed in Universal’s old Stage 747 gives us theme park fans an added bonus while visiting Halloween Horror Nights this year!
El Cucuy: The Boogeyman is a very interesting, albeit slightly disjointed maze (two very strong stories that seem to go head-to-head half way through the experience) that immerses guests in the Latin story of a monster that comes in the night to take naughty children to its cavern lair, where it tortures and then kills them. Many fans see this as an intentional follow-up to La Llorona, which was a popular maze for the past two years at Halloween Horror Nights. The fact is, neither Murdy or Williams intended it to be that way (and neither of them is Latin, so there is no cultural bias going on); it just kind of “happened” as they were researching spooky monsters and folklore. However, it’s very interesting how Universal has unintentionally tapped into the Latin community in Southern California, which makes up a massive portion of its customer base. Both a great theme and a cultural “icon”, El Cucuy is a really popular attraction, further propelled by the narrative of actor Danny Trejo, whose raspy voice is a perfect fit for the production, although the sound mix is a bit rough and at times, it’s impossible to hear what is being said from room to room. Nevertheless, El Cucuy is a really great maze and definitely one not to miss!
Universal Monsters Remix: Resurrection returns this year, bringing a bizarre mixture of iconic horror monsters and blaring dubstep with it. Our least favorite Halloween Horror Nights Maze last year, Universal Monsters Remix brings up the bottom of our list yet again, although this year’s execution of the idea seemed to be a bit better, however a long way from the quality and style of the other HHN mazes. If it were up to us, we’d ram a stake through this one’s heart and call it a night. It’s popular however, so someone out there likes Universal Monsters Remix; just not us.
The only true show that Universal Studios Hollywood produces for Halloween Horror Nights is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, which is a 45-minute send up of pop culture figures, along with very good – although way too long – dance numbers. If someone has been a dumbass in the news, if it’s been a popular movie (or terrible movie) that’s come out recently, or if it’s a well-known entertainment figure, they’re in Bill & Ted’s. We enjoy this show, and always make a point of seeing it. SoCal Halloween fans will obviously draw similarities between Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure and The Hanging, which is Knott’s Scary Farm’s signature lampoon show of similar type (the latter being much older than Bill & Ted’s), for good reason. Some years, the two shows are almost identical in content, which is always interesting to see which park does a more clever and brutal public trashing of someone or something. The downside of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is that the theater where this plays out is really uncomfortable; guests sit on padded benches that feel like concrete slabs after 10 minutes, and are forced to sit sideways or awkwardly straddle the person in front of you; no bueno, which is why we typically avoid this theater for the rest of the year. This year’s version of Bill & Ted’s was good, with some genuine belly laugh moments. One of the main differences between this show and The Hanging at Knott’s is the use of “adult” language, and sometimes, it gets a bit annoying – like a kid that’s discovered he or she can swear among peers and does it simply because they can; the writing feels a bit like this during Bill & Ted’s, which comes across as lazy to me. Other than that, we do recommend it; an extremely awkward invasion of personal space when seated, it does feel good to rest your feet after a night of queues and walking.
The problem with Universal not having more shows during Halloween Horror Nights is that the crowds have very little to do other than load the queues for the mazes, resulting in horrendous switchbacks and hour-plus waits for everything. Shows are an essential component to any theme park operation, and it doesn’t matter if you’re holding a special event or not – the crowds need somewhere to go other than maze queues. Years ago, Waterworld was dubbed Slaughterworld, and was part of the HHN show line-up. That type of thing helps suck up huge amounts of guests at a time, and that is the one thing that HHN desperately needs to step up with in the coming years as the event becomes even more popular and ultimately, more crowded. It’s simple Theme Park 101. Add shows to your mix.
One people-eater than isn’t a maze or show is the Terror Tram: Invaded by The Walking Dead. This takes place on the Backlot, and guests basically get to walk/hike from The Grinch sets past the Psycho House and through the War of the Worlds wreckage while encountering zombies and other evil entities, such as Norman Bates. If you haven’t been to Universal Studios or Halloween Horror Nights for a few years, this is definitely a cool part of the evening. However, it doesn’t change a whole lot from year to year, leaving it to become more of a, “Man, are we gonna do that again?” question for returning fans as opposed to being something new and exciting each season like the mazes. It’s a huge area and definitely works well with the whole zombie thing – but Horror Nights generally draws locals, and so, it’s going to get old much sooner than later. This is the one portion of HHN that Theme Park Adventure would really love to see get serious attention in 2014.
The scare zones at Halloween Horror Nights are small, but pack a definite punch. This year, they are The Curse of Chucky, The Purge: Survive the Night, Cirque Du Klownz, Scarecrowz, and The Walking Dead: Dead on Arrival. Beside the grating use of substituted letters in their titles, the zones this year at HHN are rockin! I will say, the random theme of scarecrows (sorry – can’t do the “z” thing) roaming the area between Transformers and Jurassic Park catches me oddly; this was probably the weakest of the scare zones thematically in my opinion, although it’s always very impressive to see monsters roaming around and scaring people while navigating crowds on stilts – pretty damned crazy. The talent in each of the HHN scare zones is always on fire, and we love just chilling and watching them do their thing. While Clowns don’t frighten us in the least (yeah, not doing the “k” or “z” thing here, either), this was by far, our fave of the evening! The costumes are amazing in Cirque Du Klownz, and the talent absolutely works it! HUGE props to the clowns! The Walking Dead zone leads into the queue for both the Walking Dead maze as well as Black Sabbath. The area is freaking nuts - military vehicles, zombies and an exceptional soundtrack. Having a scare zone in the Metropolitan area of Universal is a no-brainer, and we hope to see more of this next year, because it was absolutely awesome.
The best thing by far in The Curse of Chucky zone is the puppet show that is on-going high above the street, where the pint-sized murderer appears to taunt the crowd below. This is the new version of Chucky’s Insult Emporium, which has come and gone in years past at the whim of Universal’s management. At least on opening night, the Chuckmeister was delivering a rapid barrage of ear-stinging commentary and responses to guests below. Definitely not kid (or prude) friendly, but damn - really funny! It’s very strange to hear F-bombs being dropped so frequently or effortlessly when at a theme park watching character interaction with guests, but you know what? It works, and if any executives have a problem with that, it’s ridiculously ironic, considering the amount of gore and blatant violence Halloween Horror Nights depicts and glorifies shamelessly throughout the park. It’s a Halloween event. It’s an adult Halloween event. I think having Chucky go off at people is awesome – we stood and watched very amused for quite some time, and I hope interested TPAers get to do the same; genuinely funny and razor-sharp!
The physical layout and placement of the various Halloween Horror Nights elements was a challenge this year, due to all of the construction that is taking place to prepare for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2016 (yes, these things take time). John and Chris had to get really creative with the programming of the event, thus, a scare zone and two mazes ended up in the Metro sets. While we’re all gonna deal with the major construction at Universal over the next few years, this could be a blessing in disguise for the HHN creative team. Having components of the event in new locations ultimately pays off with a brand new guest experience, and in the case of the Metro area – a world-class immersive environment that no one else has to offer!
One last thought before your eyeballs fall out from reading so much (hey, it’s the whole damned event in one long review – what did you expect) and my fingers bleed at the tips from typing over 2,700 words…
Halloween Horror Nights has more than reached its saturation point, and the park is PACKED each night. When I say packed, I mean it, kids. Unless you want to spend your entire night rushing from maze to maze in a militaristic manner, I cannot recommend one of Universal’s Front of Line pass options highly enough. Yeah, it makes for an expensive night. The way I see it is this – you have a year to plan and save up for HHN. It’s always in October and that’s probably never gonna change. If you’re a hard core Halloween fan and want to make the most of your evening at Universal Studios Hollywood, their VIP Experience during HHN is an excellent package. Again, not cheap, but you won’t spend your whole night rushing and waiting in excruciating queues from Hell, plus you get food and booze/drinks. It’s an investment you’ll be happy you made, as Horror Nights is a whole different animal when you don’t have the stress of lines to worry about as you enjoy the spooky goodness that Chris Williams and John Murdy have come up with!
Congrats to the entire Halloween Horror Nights 2013 team on a job well done. It’s a great event this year, and just about everything easily falls into the “Badass” category! Check out our pictures, watch the video (it’s mostly Terror Tram and scare zones) and get your butt over to Universal and experience Halloween Horror Nights!
What did YOU think of Halloween Horror Nights 2013? Sound off below!
- Rick West