Haunt season officially kicked off this past Friday with the opening night of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 23, and I was fortunate enough to attend both nights of opening weekend. Here are our thoughts on this year’s streets and houses:
The Walking Dead street experience
First off, let’s start with the streets. The various scare zones for Halloween Horror Nights 23 are entirely devoted to recreations of sets and scenes from AMC’s The Walking Dead television show.
If you’re a big fan of the show, you’ll probably enjoy seeing the familiar props and scenes, but if you don’t watch the show, the significance/meaning of the zones come across as pretty random sets for a Halloween event. Of course there are plenty of walkers (zombies) about as well, but the novelty of them wears off after about two hours. I think they did a good job in recreating actual outdoor sets for this year’s street experience — unlike last year — but personally, I hope Universal returns a little more variety to the scare zones next year.
Dan’s thoughts: I wholeheartedly agree. As I shared on Facebook over the weekend, when I first arrived at HHN and saw all the walkers, and all the props & effects, I thought it was very cool. As the night continued, so did I continue to be impressed with the Walking Dead takeover, particularly the set pieces like the tank in Atlanta, the gruesome photo ops, and Herchel’s Farm.
But about halfway through the evening I started to feel myself wanting more. Once you take two or three trips around the park, the Walking Dead scare zones all start to feel the same, particularly when it gets dark and you lose sight of many of the visual queues. While this year is a vast improvement over last year, by the end of the night I was dearly missing the individualized scare zones of year’s past, and more importantly, the FULL HOST of HHN characters that used to populate the streets.
HHN 23 haunted houses
Before I do the individual houses, I’d just like to say that I am really impressed with the overall attention to detail the Horror Night’s team put in to this year’s event. Even if I didn’t really care for a house, I could appreciate all the sets and the work that went in to them. (While you’re admiring those sets, be on the lookout for a ravens. There is one in each house and scare zone this year.)
Now, the houses, from A to Z. (Note: I went through every house at least twice, some as much as four times.)
Afterlife: Death’s Vengeance
The last few years of Halloween Horror Nights have included a 3D house, and Afterlife: Death’s Vengeance is this year’s edition. The house tells the story of what happens to serial killer “Bobby the Blade” after he is executed and his former victims seek revenge.
Given its similar design to 2011’s 3D house “The In-Between,” you’d expect that this house wouldn’t offer a lot in the way of detailed sets, and once you pass the opening scene of Bobby’s execution, it doesn’t. Instead, this house relies heavily on disorienting guests by using strobes, light displays, the infamous “tunnel” and other effects.
You’ll find a repurposed version of a room found in 2008’s Dead Exposure put to good use here, as well as creatures that appear to have escaped from the “In-Between” and have now ended up in Bobby’s hellish afterlife. As far as 3-D houses go, I found this one to be pretty good. It’s not an event favorite, but I’ll visit again.
Dan’s thoughts: Worth a visit if the wait time isn’t too long, but the truth is that the 3D schtick gets old after a few rooms.
An American Werewolf in London
Based off the classing 1981 film of the same name, this house provides spot-on sets that bring you right into the film. Director John Landis had a hand in helping to bring this house to life, and it shows.
You enter through the Slaughtered Lamb Pub and make your way through all the memorable moments from the film, including that unforgettable transformation scene. The overall attention to detail is just amazing, right down to the figurine of a certain mouse who lives across town that was featured in the film. (Doctor Who fans will also delight in spotting the TARDIS, or perhaps just a Police Call Box, on the London streets.) The wolves in the house are also incredible to look at and can be truly frightening, especially upon the initial run through.
Beware the moon, indeed. If I had to pick one house you don’t want to miss this year, it would be this one.
Dan’s thoughts: From everything I’ve heard and read, it’s clear AWIL is the winner for this year’s best house — many claiming it is the best house HHN has EVER done. While I certainly enjoyed it, I personally felt after the 20th werewolf jumped out that it was a little short on “scare” material. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great house, just not my favorite of all-time.
Cabin in the Woods
This house was one of my two most anticipated houses this year as I loved the film. There is a great queue video that provides “stat” cards for a lot of the creatures within the house, giving guests a quick primer on what to expect inside. (If you’d like to see the video, be sure to make a visit to the house after dark.)
Once you enter the soundstage, you see a quick, though a little hard to hear, introduction to the facility by an employee who is there to prepare you for your visit. Shortly thereafter, you enter the “Cabin in the Woods” where the scares start almost immediately — they really aren’t wasting any time here. Scenes within the house include an elaborately recreated “totem room” as well as several rooms from the facility, where you’ll encounter various creatures, chaos, and scares along the way.
While I found that this house did an excellent job recreating scenes and props from the movie, I felt some of the best creatures were not well represented. Unfortunately, the Merman is just a static prop as opposed to a scareactor, the Unicorn is seen only via film (especially disappointing), and the Sugar Plum Fairy is not allowed out of her box to dance gleefully in the purge scene as she does in the film. But I did enjoy seeing the entire Buckner clan in all their zombie redneck glory, and put Hell Lord Fornicus in coach, because he definitely looks like he’s ready to play.
For HHN fans, it’s noteworthy that the premise of this house allowed the inclusion of some past Halloween Horror Nights characters. Previous attendees of the event may recognize some familiar faces doing the scaring in the latter part of the house (and which I’ve heard may change from night to night), and fans of a certain iconic clown will want to be sure to look left and up in the last scene of the house.
Dan’s thoughts: This was my favorite house this year simply because of the variety of characters. Why am I so keen on variety? Because it’s a trait you can’t find in the HHN 23 streets and is even missing in some of the houses.
While I had really hoped this house was going to be based off the original (No Bruce Campbell? Come on!), the execution of the house from the source material was well done.
The entry to Evil Dead is set up much like the opening credits of the film, which is a set design nothing like anything I’ve personally seen at Halloween Horror Nights before. Once inside the actual cabin (and woods) where much of the film takes place, several key scenes are recreated in all their bloody and/or gorey detail.
This house makes use of film and technology, allowing for some brilliant effects. However, whether you get to fully enjoy them will depend a lot on having the luck of perfect timing. So if you have the chance to visit this house more than once, I recommend it, so you can hopefully get the full experience.
Dan’s thoughts: I’m not a fan of the movie series and I loved this house. All the little details had me hooked, and I’m pretty certain Evil Dead wins for goriest house of the year (Cabin in the Woods comes in second).
Havoc 2 – Derailed
This house is a sequel to the 2010 house “Havoc – Dogs of War,” which I’ll be honest wasn’t a favorite house of mine. This time, the soldiers are locked up on a train. Only that that train crashes, and now they are on the loose. (Who let the dogs out…)
The moving train effect in this house was clever, and I thought the look of the twisted wreckage of the train after it had crashed was cool, but the house itself just wasn’t a favorite. I didn’t find anything scary about the soldiers in the first house, and I didn’t find anything scary about them here either. I know the original house had a lot of fans, and I suppose this one might too, but this was my least favorite house.
Dan’s thoughts: You’ll see in a moment that I was not a fan of the Resident Evil house because I thought the video game material didn’t translate well into a haunted house. The odd thing is, for me Havoc 2 felt like a video game whose material actually did translate really well into a house. Of course, Havoc isn’t a video game, but the sets, soldiers, and atmosphere felt like it easily could be, and for this reason I got into it. Not my favorite house by a long shot, but enjoyable if you’re in that “first-person shooter” mindset.
Resident Evil – Escape from Raccoon City
This house is based off the Resident Evil video game series, and the sets inside the house are, for the most part, grand and detailed. Fans of the video games will also enjoy the “easter eggs” in the form of nods to in game power-ups. However, at this juncture, this house doesn’t seem to have a lot to offer the general public. The human characters seemed to be posing more than they were trying fight the monsters, and there weren’t a lot of scares going on, perhaps because there didn’t even seem to be a lot of scareactors. I wanted to like this house because I thought the sets were great, but I just didn’t really find a lot to love in it.
(If you’re not a fan of Resident Evil, but you are a fan of Halloween Horror Nights, there’s an “easter egg” for you too. There’s a photo of Mr. Sam Meetz from 2009’s “Leave it to Cleaver” on one of the walls of the restaurant.)
Dan’s thoughts: Resident Evil was my least favorite house this year. As I mentioned above, while you’d think the series would translate perfectly into an HHN haunted house, the material fell flat. In the end, the RE experience came off like a cartoon, not like survival horror, and I walked out feeling sad that so much great set and prop work went to waste.
Urban Legends – La Llorona
This house is inspired by the legend of “The Weeping Woman” who murdered her children by drowning them and is forced to wander earth for eternity searching for them. There was a version of this house at HHN Hollywood the past couple of years, but this house is not a carbon copy of what they did.
The outside of the house has one of the most beautiful façades I’ve ever seen for a tent house. It is gorgeous and really transports you to another place. I hope Universal continues to theme the façades for the tent houses so elaborately in the future, because it really adds to the experience.
The subject matter of this house is dark, and the visuals inside portray this very sad story while also delivering the scares. Be sure to look all around your surroundings to take everything in as there is a lot of great imagery. There were a lot of opportunities for scares in this house, and the cast really delivered on my visits.
I’d also like to provide one bit of information I think will help guests: The first half of the house takes place on land, and the second half of the house takes place underwater. There is a short scene that serves as a transition between the two worlds, which seems to have confused some people, so I just thought I’d pass that bit of information along.
Dan’s thoughts: A very imaginative, very dark house. I struggled to really love this one only because I have two young kids at home, and when I turned to the side in one room and saw children’s corpses floating in a waterway, I just wasn’t ready to be like, “Oh my god isn’t that awesome?” But don’t let my domestic situation ruin it for you. La Llorona is very well done, particularly the underwater scenes in the final third of the house (in fact, I wish the underwater scenes were more like two-thirds of the house).
The Walking Dead – No Safe Haven
The Walking Dead are back not only in the streets this year, but also in another house. A fairly elaborate outdoor facade that features the arena, complete with the bleachers to watch the action and walkers on chains who are ready to fight (and bite), welcomes you to Woodbury.
This year’s house allows you to revisit some of the more memorable scenes (The Governor’s wall of walker heads in fish tanks, the prison cell block) and characters (Penny Blake, Walker Merle, Walker Milton) from this season. The sets are more elaborate than last year, and there seems to be more walkers and more energy in this year’s version. (There’s also a guest activated scare. If you hear the phone ringing, pick it up… you never know who might be calling.) I think this house will be a hit with fans of the show, and I think in contrast to the streets, there is enough going on here to appease those who aren’t.
Even though I liked the house, I hope that this is the final incarnation of the Walking Dead that we are treated to at Halloween Horror Nights. I don’t know about you, but I am walker’d out.
Dan’s thoughts: No doubt this year’s Walking Dead house is better than last year’s in every way possible. My biggest recommendation is that you try to get to this house before you spend too much time in the streets. If you’re like me and you visit the Walking Dead house at the end of the night — after spending several hours with walkers trying to scare you all around the park — you won’t find a single thrill in this one (although, either way, the sets are cool to see).
This wraps up our review of the street experience and haunted houses at Halloween Horror Nights 23. We’ll have more to share in the coming days and weeks, so stay tuned as always. Now you have a few choices:
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