If you’re a horror or theme park fan (preferably both) living in Southern California, chances are you are well aware that there is a brand-new walk-through attraction based on AMC’s The Walking Dead opening July 4th at Universal Studios Hollywood.
And, if you’re not or weren’t aware… now you know.
Under the creative direction of John Murdy and artful eye of Chris Williams, The Walking Dead will become the newest addition to the Los Angeles park, which is still undergoing an epic transformation that will see more exciting additions in the wake of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, which opened this spring. While involved in other aspects of creative development for Universal Studios Hollywood, Murdy and Williams are best known as the dynamic duo of terror behind the theme park’s wildly-popular Halloween Horror Nights event.
For the past five years, The Walking Dead has been showcased in a big way as part of Universal Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights event, from mazes to walk-through scare experiences. Its popularity as a television series has firmly embedded it in pop culture, ensuring a place at HHN likely beyond the final season of the program, whenever that may be (probably not any time soon). Rather than re-hashing The Walking Dead each year in HHN maze form, Universal opted to up the ante and fill a void that was left with the closure of the Los Angeles park’s House of Horrors – a year-round haunted attraction. Teaming up with Executive Producer and Director of The Walking Dead, Greg Nicotero, John Murdy and Chris Williams have led the charge on a rapid design and install push that will see the terrifying year-round attraction open in just a few more days.
Donning hard hats and safety vests, we ventured behind the work walls for the first time recently, led by Murdy, who gave us blow-by-blow descriptions of each room and the show beats that will unfold as groups of 12-15 guests at a time make their way through the darkness as they dodge and avoid walkers at every turn.
Theme Park Adventure isn’t into spoilers, so if you’re looking for the gory details, I’m afraid this isn’t the story you’re looking for. We prefer to encourage folks to get out and see these attractions for themselves rather than ruin the surprise by discussing everything here; that’s not why Universal gives media these tours. In fact, we weren’t even allowed to take photos or video during the tour, which is why at the time of this story’s publication, we don’t have any up-to-date photos other than the ones we shot from outside the attraction.
One of the first challenges Murdy and his creative team faced was how to work the façade into the newly-designed shop fronts on the Upper Lot near Baker Street. During Halloween Horror Nights, mazes kind of spring up anywhere there is room around the park; for a permanent attraction that is going to operate every day, more thought had to go into the cohesive integration with the new frontages, which are really nice, by the way. The answer was to make the exterior Harrison Memorial Hospital, which is where the TV series begins in King County, Georgia. That works. It works very nicely. What will clue guests in that this isn’t an alternate entrance to Starbucks, which is just a few doors down, is the smoking wreckage of a military helicopter that has slammed into the side of the building and exploded. The chopper is the visual attractor – the “weenie” – for The Walking Dead, and will signal to everyone that something crazy is going on. The front of the building will feature a Harrison Memorial Hospital sign. Once guests pass under the Emergency Room archway into the alley next to the building, they will find themselves in an exterior switchback queue underneath flat screen monitors that will be playing a backstory loop of The Walking Dead for those who may not be familiar with the show. The outside queue will also feature signage strongly recommending the attraction not being suitable for kids under 13 years of age. Of course, we all know that parents will take their petrified kids into the attraction regardless – so… yeah.
Passing through the Emergency Room entrance to the hospital, the real world is left behind and guests are immersed completely in The Walking Dead. There are no more monitors, no more warning signs – all of that is left outside. While the majority of the queue exists inside (that A/C during the summer is going to be a godsend), once you’re through the doors, the true experience begins.
And our description ends. C’mon, it’s not so bad – you can see for yourself starting in a week or so! What we will say, is that if you’ve been a fan of the Halloween Horror Nights mazes based on The Walking Dead, you’re going to be very happy with what’s been done with this permanent attraction. That said, if you have been through the mazes over the years at Universal Studios Hollywood, you have seen pretty much everything that is included in the new attraction; that’s not a bad thing – it’s just the way it is, considering John and Chris poured over the most memorable and terrifying moments and locations from the show just as they have each year for the HHN maze, and the fan favorites don’t really change. There are a total of four “sequences” that guests will pass through as they experience The Walking Dead at Universal Hollywood; if I had to guess (because we went really slowly with John), I would say the entire experience once you are sent in from the queue, will be approximately 6 minutes or so – pretty much the same length of an HHN maze experience.
The sets are very detailed and packed with “Easter eggs” – too many for even the most hard-core to ever see, simply because of placement and the sheer amount that John has put into the attraction. State-of-the-art special effects will accompany animatronic props and walkers in just about every scene, as will dramatic show lighting and even scents. A makeup and wardrobe area has been designed into the attraction’s mezzanine level, so that talent will truly begin and end their day within the Walking Dead show building.
There will be live actors throughout the experience as well – 12 is the amount they are looking to have in the maze at any given time. With Halloween Horror Nights in mind, extra hiding spots were designed so that during the popular event in October, even more walkers will be waiting for fans throughout the maze. As we mention Halloween Horror Nights, we can’t help but ponder if this will bolster and increase the number of mazes the event will have, or if it will be counted as an HHN maze each year now, the same way House of Horrors did. Likely, this new Walking Dead attraction will be counted as an HHN maze for the next many years; that’s definitely the most cost-efficient and logical approach.
We are excited to have a brand-new year-round haunted attraction right here in Los Angeles at Universal Studios. It felt like something was missing once House of Horrors closed its doors. We’re grateful that Universal gave this concept a green light, knowing that it would be a necessary people suck away from Potter as crowds increase now that summer vacation is well underway. John, Chris and everyone involved with The Walking Dead should be very happy with their accomplishment – it’s a fun, “wow”-filled haunted attraction that will have people screaming (literally) for more!
- Rick West