Preview: Universal Orlando opens archives of Horror Nights, attractions for ‘The Serious Art of Make-Believe’ exhibit at History Center

in Entertainment, Theme Parks, Universal Orlando

The Universal Orlando Art and Design Department is offering an unprecedented peek inside their artwork archives and prop warehouse in a new exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center in Downtown Orlando. When “The Serious Art of Make-Believe” opens on Saturday, Nov. 12, visitors to the History Center will find an exhaustive assortment of artwork from years of Universal Orlando history, with a focus on the popular annual events Halloween Horror Nights, Mardi Gras, and Grinchmas.

Orange County Regional History Center Andrew Sandall walked me through a preview of the exhibit, which has been in development for more than a year. Working closely with the Universal Orlando design team, led by director of art and design TJ Mannarino, the two groups assembled what is definitely not a theme park style experience, but instead a documentation of how the creative process works to create the magic and entertainment found within theme parks.

Artwork walls

The exhibit begins with simple sketches or “doodles” and progresses through the many stages that ideas go through before debuting in front of guests, getting detailed, colored, painted, mocked up, modeled, and ultimately produced. On display are more than 200 hand-selected works of Universal’s talented artists, illustrators, writers, costume designers, special effects creators, prosthetic makeup artists, and craftsmen.

To create the exhibit, Universal offered the History Center full access to their artwork archives as well as their massive off-sight prop warehouse. That’s right – the prop warehouse that became part of the advertising campaign and a scare zone for 2010’s Halloween Horror Nights 20 is a real life place, recreated in part as part of The Serious Art of Make-Believe. (In fact, the large photograph behind the displayed props is a blown-up picture taken within Universal’s actual prop warehouse.) The History Center’s team poured through shelf after shelf and book after book, even rummaging through designers’ cubicles and offices, to pick out the best pieces to showcase the museum-quality artwork created during theme park attraction design.

Prop warehouse

And they had almost complete freedom to pick out which pieces they wanted to display, with Universal only occasionally stepping in to reject a few either due to licensing issues or because they felt the unseen artwork may eventually work its way into a future event. (So it’s unlikely any hints at Halloween Horror Nights 22 will be found here!) In the end, the exhibit is not a marketing tool for Universal Studios but instead an exploration of artwork that just happens to have been created at a large entertainment corporation.

Theme park fans will recognize plenty of artifacts and props from Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure from the very entrance of the exhibit, marked by the Terra Queen’s bike from 2005’s Halloween Horror Nights.

Terra Queen's Bike

Just around the corner inside the exhibit, the prop warehouse recreation features familiar costumes and set pieces including a door from the old Ghostbusters attraction, the Tin Man’s costume from Halloween Horror Nights’ Fractured Tales, a sign from Horror Nights’ Zombiegeddon, weathered outdoor Christmas ornaments showing how quickly colors fade in the Florida sun, and the unmistakeable full-size Horror Nights “Gog” pumpkin hanging overhead.

Prop warehouse

Halloween Horror Nights props



Throughout the rest of the exhibit, artwork is carefully arranged on a winding wall-mounted path, leading visitors through on a journey from concept to completion. In addition to theme park fans, art and costuming students and professionals can learn from the creative process explained throughout the exhibit, with final products shown off at the end, in photos and in a handful of park-used costumes. Most artwork is from 2010 and prior, though one costume from Halloween Horror Nights 2011’s “7” scare zone is included.


Halloween Horror Nights costume artwork

Halloween Horror Nights 20 costume artwork

Halloween Horror Nights 20 costume

Developing the Concept

Halloween Horror Nights artwork

Halloween Horror Nights 21 costume artwork

Halloween Horror Nights 21 costume

Halloween Horror Nights 21 costume

Grinchmas costume

While much of the exhibit focuses on Halloween Horror Nights, the experience is entirely family-friendly, as the History Center team was sure to leave out artwork and props depicting blood and gore that’s present during the actual event. The goal here is to show off artistic talent and educate, not to scare. In fact, the exhibition ends with a small room featuring two drafting tables that offer hands-on activities. An instructional video with Universal Art and Design scenic designer Kim Gromoll shows visitors how to sketch and then invites them to try their hand at drawing something of their own. For young visitors (or those who don’t think they can draw), there are designs to trace and line art to color.

Drawing station

The actual footprint of The Serious Art of Make-Believe may be relatively small, the content packed into the tight space is on a grand scale, offering more than 10 years of creative efforts condensed into one room. But those who want more will have two chances to speak directly with some of the talents on Universal Orlando’s Art and Design Team.

On Thursday, December 8, 2011 from 6-9 p.m., 
the History Center presents a dinner event featuring 12 Universal designers, including a panel discussion and Q&A session. It costs $50 for members and $65 non-members. Limited seating is available by calling (407) 836-7010 to reserve a spot.

Then Sunday, December 11, 2011 will be the best day to visit the exhibit, as from 1-3 p.m., a handful of artists will be on hand to chat with anyone visiting, at no extra cost.

The Serious Art of Make-Believe opens November 12, 2011 and will be at the Orange County Regional History Center through April 29, 2012. The History Center is located in downtown Orlando and is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. General admission is $9, with various discounts available. It’s a small cost to access a wealth of artwork, information, and an inside look at how some of the world’s most elaborate theme park events are created – a must see for any theme park fanatic, particularly fans of Halloween Horror Nights.

More photos from The Serious Art of Make-Believe:

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