Halloween Horror Nights 2011 house-by-house review and tips for Universal Orlando

in Entertainment, Theme Parks, Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 is here, the first year of the popular event to descend upon Universal Orlando since its creators ushered in a new “era of darkness” last year. For this 21st year, the sights and screams of Halloween Horror Nights are loosely linked by icon Lady Luck, whose double-sided personality has apparently been luring victims for hundreds of years. It’s those victims stories that are told through all eight houses and six scare zones that pack this theme park-wide Halloween fright fest.

While the 2010 event paid tribute to the first twenty years of Horror Nights with plenty of nods to its horde of fans, 2011 brings the terror in a new direction, leaving behind all the characters of the past to focus on creating new favorites. And now that I have experienced all of the houses, scare zones, and shows at this year’s event, which opened to the public last night, I can share my thoughts, good and bad, on what guests can expect when taking a chance and testing their luck at Halloween Horror Nights 21.

Overall, this year’s haunted houses are some of the most detailed, elaborate, and completely immersive that I’ve ever seen. And while guests marvel at their surroundings, the lurking creatures seize the opportunity for a good scare.

Video: Halloween Horror Nights 21 event overview, inside the haunted houses and scare zones

Read on for specifics and my thoughts about every twist and turn.

The Rules

Like last year’s Halloween Horror Nights event review, below you will find each haunted house, scare zone, and show summarized with my thoughts and ranked into one or more categories: Screamer (scare-filled), Gut Buster (comedy-packed), Eye Popper (visually-stunning), and/or Mind Blower (overall best in show). And in the case of a complete dud, I refer to it as a Grave Digger. This year I am also ranking the houses and scare zones, reviewing them in order from favorite to least favorite. Use my thoughts as a guide to help you plan your attack when you visit Universal Orlando’s event – and see if you agree with me.

And now, on with my review of Halloween Horror Nights 2011:

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Haunted Houses

While I have reviewed and ranked this year’s mazes from most to least favorite below, it’s a close battle. Spots 2-5 are nearly interchangeable, with each house having only a slight edge over the one below it. But that could change as the cast of each house improves their scare tactics and subtle timing and effects changes are made over the course of the event. But this is how the houses stack up, for me, for now, as of opening night.

1. Nevermore: The Madness of Poe

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper, Mind Blower

REVIEW: As a longtime Edgar Allan Poe fan, I was thrilled to find out that both Halloween Horror Nights and Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream were basing new haunted houses this year on the master of horror’s terror-ific tales. His short stories and poems may be more than 150 years old, but they’re still just as hauntingly effective today. In fact, to prepare for my first-hand journey into his madness, I reread several of his most popular works prior to visiting the Halloween Horror Nights “Nevermore” maze.. I had high hopes for what I would witness inside and my expectations of what real-life versions of these classic pieces of poetry and prose would look like were far exceeded.

The Universal creative team has achieved wonders in constructing an incredibly detailed environment in which Poe’s stories are not only literally reenacted, but the feeling of being part of those stories is delivered. Poe himself drives the maze, with visitors witnessing his own descent into madness, watching him become more agitated as the house progresses. Instantly recognizable scenes from “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” each evoke the same internal emotions that Poe has so masterfully described in gore-ious detail. The scene representing “The Raven” combines wonder with shock. The massive room inspired by “The Tell-Tale Heart” inspires confusion, disorientation, and a sense of urgency. “The Black Cat” scene is abrupt and startling. “The Pit and the Pendulum” room evokes a desire to escape. And “The Masque of the Red Death” brings curiosity and, ultimately, a revelation.

In addition to scenes inspired by Poe’s familiar works, Poe’s own stories of love and loss combined with his oft-used literary theme of young beauty finding death (or vice-versa) are repeated throughout the house and while not literally audible, I could almost hear faint cries of “Lenore!” while walking through.

But “Nevermore” is not a Poe museum. It is indeed a haunted house, with scares around every corner. Each of Poe’s tales serve only as inspiration for the horrors that are in store for all who enter. The stunning visuals and subtle but important sound design serve as perfect distractions and misdirection for startles and scares.

“Nevermore” is the house for Halloween Horror Nights 21 that I intend to visit as many times as possible. Before entering, I strongly encourage reading the stories and poems listed above, along with a selection of Poe’s other works, to receive the most enjoyment and entertainment out of this phenomenal haunted attraction.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): After visiting this house a couple more times since opening night, it still tops my list. While the scares aren’t the strongest, the overall feel and the actors’ performances (particularly the final “drunken” Poe) make it a joy to experience. The lights-on tour of this house only made me appreciate the Poe-inspired scenes even more.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): One cast of Poe actors is decidedly better than another in this house. They each have their own styles of acting the part, but I prefer the wildly-flailing drunken Poe near the end to the more morose staring-you-down Poe.

2. Winter’s Night: The Haunting of Hawthorne Cemetery

RANKING: Eye Popper, Potential Screamer

REVIEW: Winter’s Night is the most visually appealing and impressive house of the bunch this year, beginning from the moment guests lay eyes on the massive cemetery facade. As the maze’s name suggests, it’s winter inside this house, and it’s definitely cold. With eerie blues and greens lighting the way through, ghosts and ghouls pop up around every corner, many with unique hiding places and interesting effects. And while this house offers what I feel is the best atmosphere of all, it suffers from timing issues. Like the Legendary Truth house last year, Winter’s Night is fantastic if the scares are timed to happen to you. But if you’re off by a few people, which is more likely the case, you end up wandering through looking at rooms of impressive decorates and architecture, but very little else. Fortunately, the house details are enough to make walking through entertaining enough, even without scares. A view into the Hawthorne Cemetery is particularly impressive and stands out as a “wow” moment at this year’s event.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): Here’s the first major review shake-up of the year. I’ve moved Winter’s Night from 4th ranking up to 2nd place as a result of multiple visits, including a lights-on tour. Each time I walk through, I see new details and find new scares. And when the timing is just right, this can be the most startling house of the event. The whole house is simply beautiful, in a horror-ific kind of way.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): Still a favorite. Don’t forget to look up when passing through the mausoleum.

3. Nightingales: Blood Prey

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: If I wasn’t a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, this would be my #1 house. The World War I theme is impressively immersive, from the texture under your feet to the constant echoes and flashes of gunfire around you. But that’s all secondary to this house’s main characters, the Nightingales, who were created for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights event. We’ll definitely be seeing more of these nasty nurses, who prey on the wounded rather than helping them. This house features an evolution of these characters, who start by looking mostly human, with some gnarly teeth, to ultimately becoming disfigured creatures ready to pounce. And pounce they do, tearing apart the living in the process – only to feast afterward. This house is filled with excitement, gore, unique special effects, and surprises coming from all angles. It’s a long and winding house where you never know what scares await each turn. I suspect by the end of Horror Nights, this house will be getting the most screams.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): Even two weeks after opening night, Nightingales remains the most scream-filled of Halloween Horror Nights 21. Despite repeat visits, I still haven’t memorized where all the scares come from and the main characters do a great job at leaving me on edge.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): A couple nights ago, I walked through this house nearly alone, on a low crowd night. And everything I thought about this house was absolutely true, each scare being aimed directly at me. I jumped several times. Quite enjoyable.

4. H.R. Bloodengutz presents Holidays of Horror

RANKING: Gut Buster, Eye Popper

REVIEW: I’m always a sucker for Halloween Horror Nights comedy houses and H.R. Bloodengutz exceeded every expectations I had. Its theme of twisting happy holidays into gory gatherings is fun from beginning to end. Bloodengutz himself makes an appearance and is eager to chat with guests as they enter his house of horrors. From there, you’ll never look at Thanksgiving, Christmas St. Patrick’s Day, President’s Day, or even Arbor Day the same way again. My only complaint with this house is that I can’t spend nearly enough time looking at all of the imaginative details that decorate every inch of the space. I plan on visiting and revisiting this maze as many times as I can between now and Halloween. I’ve been through three times so far, each time noticing something new, and each time leaving with a smile on my face after having laughed hysterically all the way through. Yes, there is horror and a few decent startle-scares to be found, but to me this house perfectly represents the spirit of having Halloween-themed fun.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): While I thoroughly enjoy the humor of this house, it’s actually becoming less entertaining the more I visit it. I think the surprise factor is what made it a favorite the first couple times through. It’s the most visually absurd house of the year, but I sense that I’ll be visiting it less and less in the coming weeks.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): Walking slowly through this house, taking all the details in, can really enhance the experience. Unfortunately, it also ruins it for the people behind you, as you get all the scares and they miss out on just about everything. I found this out by following a couple through who literally would stop and stare at every scene for a few seconds before moving along. The actors played to them in each scene, but skipped me each time. Be courteous and share the scares.

5. Saws n Steam: Into the Machine

RANKING: Gut Buster, Eye Popper

REVIEW: As the first scare zone to ever be turned into a haunted house, Saws n Steam succeeds this year in every way the scare zone did last year – and then some. The house starts light-hearted and welcoming, but only for the first room or two. After that, guests are immediately thrust into the heated world of sharp blades, blowing steam, and the goriest sights at this year’s event. Some flesh-based gags are so over the top they’re both hilarious and horrifying at the same time. And since the story of this house centers around a group of deranged individuals harvesting the water out of humans, you can bet you’ll get wet – but there are no guarantees it’s always with water. The steampunk style present throughout the house builds a perfect atmosphere for a Halloween event, different from any other house. It was tough to put this house at fifth place, as it’s hugely entertaining with room after room of unique and surprising elements. But the lack of solid scares and somewhat repetitive feel places it just a bit further down the list than those above.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): I’m very close to bumping this house up in the ranking, as each time I walk through I find new scares. The actors are honing their craft, teaming up to achieve maximum screams.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): As with Nightingales above, I walked through this house with a large gap ahead of me a few nights ago, resulting in many more scares. I wish Universal could find a way to offer individual experiences, or at least pulse small groups through. I understand large crowds make it impossible, but it’s wonderful to imagine how much scarier these experiences could be.

6. The Forsaken

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: The Forsaken is the house with the most potential for the future. The decor is impressive, with winding paths and off-balance pathways. The house is full of more than enough actors to scare anyone. And the whole story is set amidst a wild storm, with wind and rain blasting through most of the maze, with some fun projection effects found in one room. Unfortunately, the green glowing eyes on most of the actors gives away their location, making surprise scares nearly impossible. It’s an elaborately decorated house with surprisingly large rooms, but ultimately is neither scary nor even creepy. It’s entertaining to walk through, but that’s about it.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): I love everything about the environment created for this maze, particularly after seeing it with the lights on. However, the green-eyed “forsaken” crew members have a distinct disadvantage, with guests seeing them coming. I even overheard a guest recently laugh about the eyes on the way out, noting that scares were few and far between as a result of the giveaway glowing eyes.

7. The Thing

RANKING: Screamer

REVIEW: For a promotional movie-based house, The Thing is one of the best in a while. Most of the haunted houses at Halloween Horror Nights that have ever been based on a movie that isn’t out yet (prequel, sequel, remake, or otherwise) have been bad to downright awful. Fortunately, The Thing, while not entirely original, has several good scenes and surprises. Loud gunfire, flashes of light, and creepy creatures make this house enjoyable to walk through. But it all has a “been there, done that” feel to it for those who have been to Halloween Horror Nights before. There are just enough moments in this house to produce some screams, but not enough to ever feel completely scary.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): I’ve overheard several guests mention this house has made them want to see “The Thing” when it hits theaters tomorrow. I don’t share the same desire.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): Things have changed inside “The Thing.” One noteworthy scene where a young girl shoots wildly at a mutating human literally flying by has been changed such that the mutated person now appears from behind some filing cabinets. Apparently the harness needed to make the actor “fly” was causing problems. It was a great moment before, replaced with something less spectacular, but still entertaining now.

8. The In Between

RANKING: Screamer and Eye Popper for most, Grave Digger for me

REVIEW: I’m going to take some heat for this one. I’ve been through this 3D house three times and have disliked it more each time I went through. I’ve heard many raving reviews, calling this house exciting, thrilling, and amazing. I unfortunately found it to be more of the same when it comes to 3D houses – and possibly even less of the same. Guests don prism glasses to make bright, neon colors seem to “pop out” while walking through. Unfortunately, this gimmick wore off on me many years ago and without that, there is little else to enjoy about this house. I only remember seeing 7 or 8 actors in the entire house, the rest of the time spent staring at room after room of brightly-colored lines, lasers, and wall art. If you’re going to skip a house this year, I say skip The In Between. But based on others’ reactions, you might want to give it a shot for yourself. Maybe you’ll like it more than I do.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): I haven’t been back to walk through this house since opening night, but plan to soon to see if it has improved. But I doubt it will move up in my ranking. Many love it, calling it a favorite. But not me.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): I had a much better experience in this house recently – but still the worst of the bunch. There were more actors that I’d ever seen before, including one overhead, but it still didn’t make it “work” for me. Each night, I overhear many describe The In-Between as “trippy.” And that’s not what I’m looking for in a maze. But it’s also a favorite for many, so don’t take my word for it.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Scare Zones

Unlike the photo opportunity-rich scare zones of 2010, the streets of Halloween Horror Nights 2011 are for the most part darker, foggier, and altogether spookier. But so far, despite the eerie ambience, I haven’t seen all that many scares while walking through. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call them scary, the zones are visually appealing and still quite entertaining.

This year’s scare zones are spread far apart through the theme park, leaving a lot of “dead” areas. While wandering around the event, I frequently found myself thinking there was a noticeable lack of “Halloween” in many parts. The stretch between the Beetlejuice theater, past Disaster and Jaws, and all the way around to Men in Black and The Simpsons Ride is completely free of scare zones and other than some creepy music, it seems like any other night in the park. Without making a conscious effort to spend time in the street zones, guests will find the most Halloween-style enjoyment inside the mazes.

Video: Overview of all six scare zones of Halloween Horror Nights 2011

Getting to specifics, below is my ranking of the six scare zones, with a closer video look available for each, featuring a few words from Universal Orlando Art and Design Director TJ Mannarino. Watch the videos, visit the event in person, and see if you agree with my assessments.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11):

0. Lady Luck photo op / Bonus scare zone

I’m not sure how or where to rank this newly-formed area near the front of the park. Previously a relatively empty zone, the streets just around the first corner heading toward the “7” scare zone are now filled with Lady Luck’s “death dealers,” each sporting chainsaws. Off to the side is Lady Luck herself, posing for pictures with guests in front of her famous roulette wheel. And roaming the streets is also an evil, scary version of Lady Luck, getting in people’s faces as often as possible. The area doesn’t have a name and isn’t officially a scare zone, but serves as a great introduction to the Halloween Horror Nights experience.

1. 7

RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer

REVIEW: The most visually pleasing, entertaining, and unique scare zone of the six is easily “7.” On each of seven small stages, the night begins with one of the “deadly sins” is embodied by an attractive, but masked young girl. The sins, of course, are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The sensually dancing females are accompanied on the streets by males that offer the scares for this zone. Chainsaws, hissing, growling, and shouting are just some of the sounds that are found here while a faint girls choir echoes a gentle cover of Marilyn Manson’s, “The Beautiful People.” But as the night progresses, this somewhat peaceful zone evolves into a furious environment, as the girls’ masks are removed, revealing their horrible true selves, with all the scareactors becoming more aggressive. It pays to return here late at night, when the gentle choir is replaced by the original hard rock version of “The Beautiful People,” amping up the energy. There’s a lot to look at, with at least 15-20 actors filling this large zone at any given time. And with so much going on, it tops my list of scare zones this year.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): I have spent the most time inside this scare zone since opening night, taking hundreds of photos of the female temptresses and their evil male minions. It’s the most well-lit outdoor environment at Halloween Horror Nights 21 and just begs to be photographed. I’ve updated our HHN 21 photo gallery with some of the best I’ve snapped. The scares have increased in this zone as well, with chainsaw and zombie-like guys getting more aggressive, moving from victim to victim at a rapid-fire pace.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): I believe I have spent far too much time photographing this zone, as it no longer appeals to me. There is such a thing as overexposure at Halloween Horror Nights. I’m going to take a break from it for a while and return next week. Regardless, it’s still the most visually entertaining.

2. Acid Assault

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: Universal has achieved an exciting and unique environment for this scare zone, using projection technology to make its familiar buildings crumble to the ground, piece by piece, layer by layer, with loud crashes and booms matching each falling piece. Coupled with chunky “acid rain” falling from the sky, there’s a sense of uneasiness in this zone. For now, the scareactors seem to wander in the same manner a drunk homeless person does in a big city, muttering to themselves and waving their arms around wildly. But I have a feeling as the weeks go by, the actors will pick up new scare techniques as people are distracted by the impressive “crumbling” buildings. Until then, it’s not a scary zone, but certainly a visual treat.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): With the right timing, this scare zone can be full of actors. I’ve seen upwards of 10 at a time. And with melting faces and some wielding chainsaws, I’ve heard upwards of 10 screams at a time as well. But when the actors thin out, the area becomes a bit too calm for a scare zone. Guests are often intrigued by the “crumbling” buildings.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): I finally spotted the rat lady in Acid Assault – twice. She appears off to the side of the school bus, “trapped” in a glass box with 10-20 rats crawling all over her. She draws quite the crowd, marveling at her ability to keep cool with all the rats around her. But more importantly, she offers some fantastic scares as people inch closer and closer to the glass – and she slams her palm against it, startling everyone around. Likewise, she acts as an excellent distraction for the other scareactors in the zone to take advantage of unsuspecting onlookers.

3. Grown Evil

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: The ambience of Grown Evil is the eeriest I’ve seen at Halloween Horror Nights in several years. With strains of the “Silent Hill” soundtrack ringing out and the area bathed in blue light and fog, the overgrown garden hides winged creatures big and small. This zone gives an overall creepy feeling, rather than offering startle-scares as so many scare zones do. It’s not somewhere most guests want to linger for long, feeling like someone – or something – is peering over their shoulders. And it’s probably true.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): I am impressed by the methods in which the actors in this zone use to create screams. Despite their large, unwieldy costumes, the scareactors manage to hide in the darkness and fog, emerging at the opportune moment – one after another. There is a lot of teamwork in this zone, with one bat creature slowly and visibly flapping its wings to act as misdirection while an oversized raven thrusts its beak surprisingly close to unsuspecting guests’ faces, often causing them to turn and run. I have even witnessed an impromptu creature battle between a stilt-walking bat and raven, the ultimate misdirection for a swarm of shorter beings to swoop in for the scare.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): The stilt walkers steal the show, when they’re out, even chasing some screaming guests beyond the dark gardens’ confines.

4. Canyon of Dark Souls

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: I don’t see many scares happening in the black cloth clad “canyon” that has been erected for this scare zone. What I did feel while walking through was an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, being in a tightly enclosed space, seeing nothing but blackness and orange light around me, along with the peering eyes of skeletons of all heights. Towering overhead are giant skeletons alongside shooting flames. Within the zone are cloaked evil spirits, some at eye level, others just above. It’s hard to discern which will stay put and will move and follow you through, staring you down. Like Grown Evil, it’s a sense of creepiness that is most prevalent in this zone – but not scares.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): This zone was not scary two weeks ago, but the actors have really stepped it up – literally – since then. With fast, strong, and precise movements, the tall reapers appear to put all who pass through the canyon in immediate danger. Of course, no real danger exists at Halloween Horror Nights, but there is a perception of wanting to get the heck out of this zone as quickly as possible, with running guests often rapidly pursued by staff-pounding cloaked skeletons.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): Like Grown Evil, the tallest reapers in this zone get the biggest scares, able to blend in with the “canyon” surroundings until they’re ready to strike. They all work together well to gang up on screaming guests, approaching them one after another all the way through the dense fog.

5. Your Luck Has Run Out

RANKING: Screamer

REVIEW: This year’s icon, Lady Luck, does not have a haunted maze of her own, but she does have a scare zone. And it’s definitely the scare zone that will have the most screams this year – but most won’t be coming from guests. Lady Luck has two forms, a pretty woman who entices those passing by to take a chance with her, only to be double-crossed by her other side, a grotesque monster with bulging eyes, large teeth, and an ear-piercing scream. It is these loud screams that are present throughout this zone. Several “pretty” versions of Lady Luck stand high on balconies, acting as distractions for the “ugly” Lady Luck banshee types lurking in the fog below. And speaking of fog, on opening night, this narrow alley was flooded with so much fog, visibility was no more than a couple inches, leaving guests shuffling and feeling their way through. As a result, I bumped into Lady Luck, quite literally, several times. But once this fog clears, this zone will certainly prove to be the most alarming this year.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): Of all the scare zones, this one has evolved the least since opening night. Other than the addition of Lady Luck’s famous roulette wheel from the Horror Nights TV commercial and web site, it’s essentially the same as it was two weeks ago. It was decent then, but has gotten weaker by comparison to the zones which have improved, and thus dropped two spots on my ranking.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): With the addition of the new “scare zone” of sorts near the front of the park, this zone helps emphasize Lady Luck’s presence. But that aside, it’s still largely the same as it was when the event began a few weeks ago. It’s a strong zone, but a small one that I skip often.

6. Nightmaze

RANKING: Grave Digger (for now)

REVIEW: I was really looking forward to experiencing Nightmaze, as it sounded like an entirely new and unique experience – an experiment in scare zones. Unfortunately, so far, this experiment isn’t producing exciting results. While a nearly pitch-black area with “morphing” walls sounds good when read, in reality it’s just a dark area with a bunch of black fences that are occasionally moved around by people wearing dark, hooded outfits. Technically guests can walk in any direction to try to make it through this outdoor “maze,” but since guests generally follow the crowds in front of them, tending to the right hand side, Nightmaze ends up being less of a maze and more of a dark, winding sidewalk. When I tried to take the path less traveled, flowing away from the crowd pouring through, I found myself at a dead end and had to turn around and go back the way everyone else was walking. It wasn’t a thrilling experience, but rather felt like I had accidentally wandered backstage. (I hadn’t, of course.)

I’ll admit that this area did give me one small startle, as when I followed one of the black hooded figures moving a fence/wall, he/she suddenly stopped and turned around, thrusting the fence at me. It was unexpected and surprising – but definitely not scary. It was more of a “please don’t hit me in the head with a fence” startle than a “yay it’s Halloween” scare.

It’s almost always the case that the least interesting scare zones at Halloween Horror Nights each year are changed for the better as the event progresses, and I imagine that Nightmaze will look and behave dramatically differently in the coming weeks. And if it improves, I will gladly revise this review.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): Nightmaze has gotten better in the last two weeks, but not enough to move up the rank. It’s darker and surprising sound effects are louder, creating startling and unsettling moments. But mostly I still find myself accidentally bumping into other guests, actors, and fences, rather than being scared.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): I’m quite tempted to move Nightmaze higher in the ranking with the more screams I hear from within. It’s a heart-pumping experience to walk through and actors have gotten much better and timing their scares and moving around the walls. Maybe next time…

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Live Shows

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure – 20th Anniversary

RANKING: Grave Digger (again)

REVIEW: In a year where news stories and pop culture included figures such as Charlie Sheen, Anthony Weiner, Osama Bin Laden, and plenty of bad movies, the writers of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure had plenty of material to work with. But while all the right references were made and celebrities were impersonated, this year’s show was most heinous. Granted, I haven’t laughed hard at a Bill & Ted show in several years, but this year, I didn’t even find the crowd around me laughing. In fact, the laughs were pretty scarce, with the most entertaining portions of the show involving girls in small clothing dancing for no apparent reason (a welcome Bill & Ted staple).

On the plus side, a new set was constructed for this year’s show, modeled after the famous Circle K that Bill and Ted frequented in their films. In true Halloween Adventure form, the convenience store featured at Universal is called a much more raunchy name involving a certain suggestive number. I’ll leave it at that. The posters on the convenience store set windows offered bigger laughs than most of the jokes in the show. Out of the 20+ minute skit that this year pits Bill & Ted against a green alien threatening to have a giant Kirstie Alley devour Earth, I only found myself laughing at a single joke, pointed at “True Blood” and the “Twilight” series.

As always, the actors and performers of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure are a largely talented bunch. Unfortunately, the material they have to work with doesn’t give them the positive audience response they deserve for their hard work.

Like anything else at Halloween Horror Nights, the script for this show will change over its run – but I likely won’t return to see the difference.

Death Drums

Zombie version:

Hip-hop / Pop version:

Rock n Roll version:

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: I am unable to rank Death Drums using any of the usual Halloween-themed categories as this show is just barely Halloween-related. Two towers packed with drums and drummers make their way through Universal Studios streets, meeting at a street corner where a hoard of zombies emerge to dance and drum along to a variety of songs and beats. The 7-8 minute performance has three different shows each night, of which I saw one that featured Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Despite having zombies and “Thriller,” this show never once feels like it belongs at Halloween Horror Nights. It’s an entertaining show that would go over well during Universal’s daytime hours, if the undead were replaced by regular, living dancers. But without any horror, it simply does not fit in at the nighttime event.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/13/11): Death Drums is growing on me. I’ve now seen two of the three show variations, with the “hip hop” version offering scantily-clad dancers in place of cloth-draped zombies. As one can imagine, it’s entertaining simply for that fact. And crowds seem to really be enjoying it, regardless of which version of the show is presented. The show has also moved in front of Mel’s Die In, a much better spot, allowing full a 360-degree view of the performance while blocking less foot traffic. But entertaining or not, I still don’t feel like it fits into the overall Halloween theme.

REVIEW UPDATE (10/21/11): After watching and photographing Death Drums a few more times, I’ve come to the conclusion that while it doesn’t entirely fit within the Halloween theme, it is a welcome addition to Halloween Horror Nights. With its rock and hip-hop versions, It adds the “sexy” element that’s been missing from the event outside of the Bill & Ted show. In Hollywood’s version of Horror Nights, guests are hit with “sexy” upon entering the park, with the sight of scantily clad go-go dancers that are simply unmissable. While not as extreme as that, Death Drums gets a lot of hooting and hollering from guys and girls alike as each performer whips off his or her cloak, revealing tight clothing underneath. It’s not scary, but still within the “spirit” of Halloween. It has become a crowd favorite. Check out the two added videos above, now with all three versions of the show.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Tips and Tricks

  • Timing is everything in several of this year’s haunted houses and it may take repeat visits before seeing all the scares and effects. While you might be timid to take your time while walking through a maze, give it a shot. There’s more detail than ever featured in the houses of Halloween Horror Nights 21 and you don’t want to miss any of it.
  • Look up and around – often. Many of this year’s haunted houses feature elements above, below, and behind you. Don’t just focus on what’s in front of you, but turn your head and look around to find that the details are everywhere.
  • Visit the “7” scare zone as soon as you arrive, then return a couple hours later to find a whole new experience. You might not be scared the first time you walk through, but there’s a lot more “life” to it later in the night.
  • Lines can get very long at Halloween Horror Nights. If you find yourself having to make a choice between visiting more haunted houses or seeing the Bill & Ted or Death Drums show, go for the houses. The shows are entertaining, but the houses are where the most enjoyment can be found.
  • Most Halloween Horror Nights merchandise (T-shirts, cups, etc.) can be purchased at carts in CityWalk, on the way out of Universal Studios. So if you find yourself in need of a souvenir at the end of the night, skip the long checkout lines in the park’s stores and grab what you need outside.

  • Halloween Horror Nights 2011 at Universal Orlando has 24 nights remaining, on the following nights:
    Sept. 24, 29, 30, Oct. 1-2, 6-9, 13-16, 19-23 and 26-31.

    You can buy tickets now and find more information on HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando.

    Photos from Halloween Horror Nights 2011:

    View Comments (44)