Halloween Horror Nights 2013 house-by-house review and tips as Universal Orlando unveils impressive scale in gory detail

in Entertainment, Theme Parks, Universal Orlando

What evil has taken root at Universal Orlando? Quite a lot. The insanity of Halloween Horror Nights 2013 officially began tonight, with licensed film and TV properties dominating this year’s event. “The Walking Dead” takes center stage, not only with an all-new haunted house but also filling the park with zombies (“walkers”) amidst scenery representing iconic moments from three seasons of the hit AMC TV show. But even beyond that, this year’s expanded line-up of eight haunted houses features more big names in horror including the “Resident Evil” video game series, the recent “Evil Dead” remake, the clever “Cabin in the Woods,” and the John Landis-directed classic “An American Werewolf in London.” They all stand out ahead of the 100% original ideas this year, though those do present a few enjoyable experiences too.

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

This year’s event as a whole is substantially better than 2012. When Universal Orlando moved from its 21st event year in 2011, which featured nearly all original haunted house and scare zone concepts, to an intellectual property-driven approach last year, longtime Horror Nights fans balked at the lack of a cohesive theme tying the entire event together in favor of a more “Hollywood” approach. Moreover, there was no central event icon last year, a first for many years. And the highly-themed, visually appealing scare zones that had been so popular for so many years were replaced by the roaming “Dark Legions” – a plan that ultimately fell way flat, leaving the streets relatively bare.

This year vastly improves upon the new Halloween Horror Nights formula, still sticking largely with IP-based experiences, but presenting them in such a grand fashion that no one can walk away without being floored by the massive scale and attention to detail that each of the recognizable franchises have been presented with. Scare zones have been retooled once more, for the first time ever incorporating one property across the entire park – “The Walking Dead,” naturally. After that franchise brought big ticket sales last year, it was handed down from above to Universal’s Art and Design team to go even bigger with it this time, and they have done exactly that with surprising and unique elements that make this year’s street experience stand out in many ways.

Below are my thorough thoughts and opinions on each of this year’s haunted houses, shows, and the entire street experience.

The Rules

As with the past three years of Halloween Horror Nights event reviews, below you will find each haunted house, “scare zone” / street experience, and show summarized 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. 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. Then return here often throughout the coming weeks for updated thoughts as the event evolves.

Read on for my review of Halloween Horror Nights 2013.

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Haunted Houses

This year’s haunted houses are largely based on outside properties, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less good than Universal’s own original ideas. While I normally enjoy the 100% original houses more (like last year’s Gothic), this year turns everything on its head with the IP-based mazes far better than the originals.

On opening night, creative director Mike Aiello and show director Laura Wallace described to attending media all of this year’s haunted houses and street zones with clips from each experience:

That was part of a larger and entirely hilarious Q&A session not only including those two Universal designers but also a “Resident Evil” producer from Capcom and “An American Werewolf in London” director John Landis, who stole the show by cracking quite a few jokes, many to Universal’s dismay:

(Look for photo and video-filled tours of all of this year’s haunted houses coming soon.)

Now my thoughts and rankings…

1. An American Werewolf in London

RANKING: Mind Blower, Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Simply perfect. It’s clear the Halloween Horror Nights design team pumped every ounce of passion into this maze that’s based on the classic 1981 John Landis film. Anyone who is a fan of “An American Werewolf in London” will be absolutely thrilled to step into each of its iconic scenes and settings, coming face-to-face with many of its characters and, yes, the wolf itself – many times. The haunted house follows the flow of the film exactly, from scene to scene. Starting in a spot-on recreation of the Slaughtered Lamb, audio dialogue clips set the stage, bringing Horror Nights guests along with Jack and David, stumbling into an unexpected mystery. “Beware the moon” is the last line heard before stepping out into the English moors, following David into the hospital, through his nightmares (yes the nazi wolves are there), and ultimately witnessing the unforgettable transformation in person, followed by a series of believable wolf attacks. The sets are huge and detailed while the characters look like they’ve stepped straight off of the big screen. Not everything is about the scare in this maze, though there are plenty of them. But sometimes it’s just an opportunity to marvel at how Universal has perfectly recreated scenes from the film. And the wolf is beyond believable, brought to life through perfectly crafted puppets. It’s like witnessing classic movie magic in the making and it’s all incredibly impressive.

It’s also worth noting that fans of “Doctor Who” will want to keep an eye out for a particular prop in the London streets of this maze.

Video: Full walkthrough of “An American Werewolf in London” haunted house at Universal Orlando

2. The Cabin in the Woods

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: The film “The Cabin in the Woods” took the horror genre and turned it on its head and now Universal has turned the film on its head with their haunted house that sends guests in as recruits of the “facility” behind the chaos. A fun (but a bit hard to hear) queue video sets the stage for attendees to first step through facility’s stale office and into the creepy, well, cabin in the woods. The scares start immediately upon entering this dilapidated shack, offering no time for any make-out sessions with the wolf’s head before moving through each of the cabin’s memorable moments, one-way mirror included. But it’s not long before guests find themselves passing through the basement and back into the facility where the real chaos ensues as the purge begins. “The Cabin in the Woods” is best known for its many creative characters, first contained in cubes but ultimately released – and all that is witnessed in this maze with many of the most memorable creatures lurking around every corner. The bloody elevator scene is huge, though sadly underused with only a couple characters briefly popping out occasionally. But overall the feeling of the film is completely captured, not only making this a feast for the eyes but also offering many opportunities for big scares from a bizarre set of characters.

Video: Full walkthrough of “The Cabin in the Woods” haunted house at Universal Orlando

3. Evil Dead

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Though it’s disappointing it took a remake to get the world of “Evil Dead” into Halloween Horror Nights, this maze is entirely successful with a particularly unique approach to retelling the story of the film. Since there’s already another maze with a “cabin in the woods,” this one presents itself in a particularly cinematic fashion, even somewhat abstract, sending guests stepping into the movie itself. Its first few scenes are like a film’s title sequence, setting the stage for what’s ahead without scaring anyone. But it’s clear that devilish happenings await as the first scene inside the famous “Evil Dead” cabin exclaims to all, “You’re all going to die tonight!” Through special effects including Pepper’s Ghost and projections, this maze is the most technologically interesting of them all this year. But there are plenty of practical thrills too. Much like the recent “Evil Dead” remake, this maze features some of the goriest moments at Horror Nights with the action taking place a mere foot or two away. With so many scenes reliant on triggered special effects, it’s all about timing, but when it’s right it’s great. The flow is unusual and keeps visitors on their toes never knowing what to expect around the next twisted corner.

Video: Full walkthrough of the “Evil Dead” haunted house at Universal Orlando

4. Urban Legends: La Llorona

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Arguably the most visually stunning of all the mazes this year, La Llorona is an improved take on the Mexican legend that was first featured in Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights over the last few years. Orlando has presented a similar approach to the first half of the experience, showcasing the backstory of how this fabled mother descended into madness after killing her own children, dealing with her guilt long into the afterlife. But from the moment when guests see two children lying face down in a bubbling stream with their weeping mother looking down overhead, things get creepy fast. Stepping into La Llorona’s world takes guests down a dark chilling path, among the most eerie this year. It’s a maze that frequently triggers goosebumps, far more effective than the over-the-top finale scenes of Hollywood’s version. As a whole, this maze has the potential of scaring many guests the most with its atmosphere and subject matter coupled with frightening appearances by La Llorona herself. This maze may very well move its way up my rank as the weeks go on. There’s a lot to appreciate here.

Video: Full walkthrough of the “Urban Legends: La Llorona” haunted house at Universal Orlando

5. Resident Evil: Escape from Raccoon City

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: Bringing “Resident Evil” to Halloween Horror Nights means bringing years of video game fanaticism to life. It’s the franchise that invented the term “survival horror” and in this maze gamers can finally step into that world in person. But all is not perfect. While the settings are perfectly recreated from their digital counterparts, from the vast Raccoon City streets to the huge RPD police station, the characters do little to scare. Many favorites are there – Leon, Jill, Lickers, zombie dogs, Hunters, and even Nemesis – but there’s never any real sense of danger present. Walking through this experience will be entirely enjoyable for any fans of the game, but those looking for a true Horror Nights experience will find few frights. The maze wins major points for its attention to detail, including so many recognizable elements from the game, but as a haunted house experience it kind of flops. It’s really fun to walk through and a joy to finally step into Raccoon City. Just don’t expect to be too scared while doing so.

Video: Full walkthrough of “Resident Evil: Escape From Raccoon City” haunted house at Universal Orlando

6. The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven

RANKING: Screamer

REVIEW: There’s something about the gritty realism of “The Walking Dead” that just doesn’t translate well to haunted houses. The same problems that plagued last year’s maze based on the TV show are present again this year, though with many improvements. The show’s success comes from its character drama. It’s a show about people first, the undead second. But at Halloween Horror Nights, it’s all about the zombies/walkers, so while exploring the prison or the Governor’s office, the focus is largely on the creatures that pop out of dark corners. Many of the sets feel flat, difficult to duplicate the wide open expanses of the show in the tight spaces of the haunted house. The town of Woodbury feels like a fraction of itself and the prison isn’t quite as grand as it should be. Thankfully this year there are some recognizable character appearances – those who have already turned, including Merle, Milton, and Penny. But even the most iconic of season 3 settings, the prison cell block where Rick and the gang set up camp, is inexplicably flipped around in the maze so its most recognizable “shot” isn’t even seen unless you turn around and look back on the way out. It almost feels like this entire maze plays out in reverse chronology, starting in Woodbury and ending at the prison, the opposite of the season. Fans of the show will enjoy the smaller details in the maze, like the ringing phone that sparked Rick’s temporary journey into insanity, but those who haven’t seen it may already be tired of zombies by the time they make their way through the streets. I’m a big fan of the show and I only momentarily became excited while wandering through this experience.

Video: Full walkthrough of “The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven” haunted house at Universal Orlando

7. Afterlife: Death’s Vengeance

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: I have not been much of a fan of Halloween Horror Nights’ 3D houses in recent years. Two years ago, The In-Between was my least favorite and last year, sadly, Penn and Teller New(kd) Las Vegas was amusing but never entirely fulfilling. Fortunately this year “Afterlife” finally succeeds for me as a disorienting and enjoyable 3D experience. It’s not as good as the highly-themed mazes above, which is why it’s so low on this year’s list, but it actually is a fun haunted house. There isn’t much detail to any of the scenes, instead relying on bright colors, laser lights, and black walls to completely spin guests around not knowing which way is up or which way they’re supposed to go. I actually got lost in one scene, which took me a minute or two to find my way out of. I wouldn’t be surprised if Universal’s design team will secretly watch guests become completely and utterly confused while trying to find their way through this “fun house” of sorts. And there are several startle-scares, including the reappearance of a few familiar blacklight characters from The In-Between, much to my dismay. Overall, it’s a solid 3D house that I’ll have fun walking through again.

Video: Full walkthrough of “Afterlife: Death’s Vengeance” haunted house at Universal Orlando

8. Havoc: Derailed

RANKING: Grave Digger

REVIEW: The original Havoc: Dogs of War haunted house in 2010 was loud, in-your-face, and not at all appealing to me. It just seemed like chaos for the sake of chaos. Now three years later, the “Dogs of War” are back. These amped up super soldiers are now escaping from a train after an accident derails it, as the maze’s title suggests. The train effect is at first wonderful, offering a sense of motion while skirting by these soldiers confined to cages. But once the train “derails,” so does the overall experience. It is indeed a train wreck with exactly the same problems as the original. Every character is exactly the same, a bald-headed, gun-wielding, fatigue-wearing muscle man (or woman), snarling and yelling after popping out of unexpected places. It gets old fast and is sure to remain at the bottom of my list for the duration of this year’s event. The train itself is fantastic. The rest? Not so much.

Video: Full walkthrough of “Havoc: Derailed” haunted house at Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Scare Zones / Street Experience

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

Improving over 2012, specific scare zones return for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights. But this time they’re not clearly labeled on the event’s map, instead allowing guests discover areas themed to all three seasons of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Each area is carefully crafted to resemble memorable moments from the show, many from specific episodes. And throughout are masses of walkers in various stages of decay, some aimlessly roaming while others are on the attack. None of it is particularly scary, as the zombies often blend in with the tired masses already plodding along like zombies, but it is all quite enjoyable to walk through as well as sit back and witness, especially for fans of the show.

Here is a complete tour of this year’s new street experience:

Below are rankings of each of the areas themed to “The Walking Dead” along with a few photos of the most recognizable elements from each.

1. The Fall of Atlanta

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

REVIEW: With all of this year’s street areas themed to “The Walking Dead,” it’s tough to pick a favorite, as they all represent their various seasons and episodes so well. But the transformation of the New York streets of Universal Studios Florida into Atlanta stands out to me as the most impressive for several reasons. First: the tank. Universal built a tank and it looks exactly like the one in the early episodes of the show. Second, little scenes play out in this Atlanta area featuring actors who blend in with regular park guests, hamming it up until they are bitten and dragged off by walkers. It’s an unexpected twist that can take place anywhere at any time, heightening the realism. Lastly, it smells absolutely awful. Normally this is a bad thing, but in the case of freshly decaying reanimated corpses, it makes perfect sense. The smell of rotting flesh permeates through the air and it’s simply gross – but brings it all together.

2. The Farm

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

REVIEW: A close second, Hershel’s farm packs a big visual punch. Universal built his burning barn with fire effects, smoldering smells, and walkers inside. Plus the Well Walker is lurking out back. It’s a short walk-through experience in the streets, which is always a nice touch. Nearby a pile of burning corpses nearly turns to ash, adding to the ambiance. And with plenty of walkers roaming the surrounding area, it’s always a visually enjoyable place to be.

3. Survivor’s Camp

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

REVIEW: One particular special effect lands this area in third. Though seeing Dale’s RV is nice, it’s the tent projections that make this zone special, showing a walker disemboweling an unfortunate victim sleeping inside. The area does give a nice feeling of setting up camp, overrun by zombies as well.

4. Woodlands

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

REVIEW: The woodlands is fairly uninteresting featuring a bunch of walkers simply lurking amidst dimly lit foliage. But it does have visual impact with two iconic walkers present. The Deer Walker is feasting on the side of the path, with squirts emerging from the deer as he digs his teeth in. And then there’s Bicycle Girl, on display crawling back and forth, always attracting a crowd. This walker is special, missing half of its body. And it’s no special effect, as Universal has hired an actor who is actually missing lower limbs. It’s joyously creepy.

5. Clear

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

REVIEW: Based on one single dramatic episode of “The Walking Dead,” the Clear zone features zombie traps throughout the Hollywood area of the park, surrounded by text projections on the buildings reading “CLEAR” and “EVERYONE TURNS.” There are many walkers in the area, some seemingly impaled in the traps though lunging at opportune times, but overall the lack of variety makes this area a bit less interesting.

6. Highway

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

REVIEW: A repeat of last year’s “The Walking Dead” zone in front of Disaster, this dimly lit area only features a few walkers and is so tight and crowded that it’s easy to miss them. Sure there’s a school bus but not much else interesting about this area.

7. Chainsaw Drill Team

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

REVIEW: Though it’s always exciting to hear the Chainsaw drill team is back at at Halloween Horror Nights, this year’s incarnation is nothing special. The chainsaw guys are dressed rather ordinarily, accompanied by an obnoxious girl on a bullhorn spouting insults at guests. People will always be scared of chainsaws, but it seems this year they are a little trite.

As a footnote to the street experience, there’s another element from “The Walking Dead” that doesn’t fit in one particular area, randomly showing up around the park. A van pulls up, drops a bunch of walkers into an area to flood it with activity, then a group of masked men summon them back in, baited by fresh meat. It’s a fun, amusing, and a little startling moment.

Video: Zombie van at Halloween Horror Nights 2013

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Live Shows

Opening Scaremony

This year’s event features a brief opening ceremony (or scaremony) outside the front gate minutes before it opens for the night. A survivor appears on the second floor of the ticket window area shouting tips for everyone to remain safe. Meanwhile a hoard of walkers rushes the front gate. But things don’t go perfectly smoothly for the lone survivor.

It’s a brief but entertaining moment that does well to kick off the event without taking up too much of anyone’s time.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure

RANKING: Gut Buster

REVIEW: Bill and Ted’s annual stage show is always unpredictable. Some years it’s hilarious, but more often than not it’s a confusing mix of pop culture references with a little comedy mixed in. This year, things have definitely been amped up in every way. It kicks off with an exceptionally scantily clad dance number featuring sexy versions of horror icons like Jason and Freddy Krueger. The show continues its strong start with a bigger Halloween theme than is usually the case, presenting evil versions of teen stars. But somewhere in the middle it veers off course, reverting to a random assortment of pop culture characters showing up for no good reason and only being half funny. Fortunately, it does eventually get back on track and ends with a bang, including some hilarious jabs at Disney films and theme parks. There are no taboo topics this year, not even the Mouse. Overall, it’s a fairly solid year minus the fluff in the middle and well worth seeing.

Rocky Horror Pictures Show Tribute

REVIEW: After a three-year hiatus, The Rocky Horror Picture Show – A Tribute has returned to Halloween Horror Nights in the Universal Orlando theater that hosts the Beetlejuice show by day. It’s a roughly 40-minute version of the cult classic Richard O’Brien film featuring the highlights with an emphasis on most of its most popular songs. This year’s cast is excellent, with Frank channeling Tim Curry quite well through “Sweet Transvestite,” Janet nailing every single note and shriek of pleasure in “Touch-A Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me,” and Magenta sounds just like her movie counterpart. And yes, Columbia is indeed wearing Mickey Mouse ears during that number (as seen above), despite being in a competing theme park. Rocky is stiff, but on purpose, Brad doesn’t seem to be able to hit those high falsetto notes during “The Floor Show” and Columbia tends to lag a little behind her songs. And then there’s Riff Raff, who looks and sounds great, nailing every note that even Richard O’Brien couldn’t, perhaps too well, adding many runs to the songs. Audiences are clearly excited to join in the fun, yelling call backs throughout the performance. Unfortunately with cramped seating this venue doesn’t allow for much room to do the “Time Warp” along with the performers, no matter how much they encourage it. Overall, it’s time well spent away from the haunted houses to sit down and enjoy this show. I’ll definitely catch it several more times before the event’s run is over this year.

Video: Full “The Rocky Horror Picture Show – A Tribute” at Halloween Horror Nights 2013

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Merchandise

Universal has quite a wide assortment of merchandise this year, including T-shirts for several of the individual properties featured at the event with the most from “The Walking Dead,” naturally. And I hear there will be a special Jack the Clown vinyl figurine released some time soon, a great tribute to Horror Nights past.

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Orlando

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Tips and Tricks

  • Arrive early and get to the front gate before it opens for the best view of the opening scaremony. It’s brief and easy to miss if you’re not right there.
  • Linger around the street areas for the most enjoyment, particularly in The Fall of Atlanta. There are little scenes there that play out that shouldn’t be missed, if you can stand the stench.
  • In The Cabin in the Woods, look all around you, but beware when looking up. The Buckners are sneaky.
  • Keep an eye out for spotlighted items throughout Resident Evil. Each are familiar pick-up items from the game series, like herbs and ammo. And definitely look all around for static creatures you might otherwise miss. Don’t just focus on the action.
  • Go watch “An American Werewolf in London,” “Evil Dead,” and “The Cabin in the Woods” before going through their mazes. The experiences are so faithful to the films that a far greater appreciation is received after recently seeing the movies. Likewise, go play some “Resident Evil” to have a clue what’s going on in that haunted house.
  • It’s okay to turn around for a few seconds while walking through haunted houses. Universal expects guests to look all around them and designs accordingly. You’ll be surprised how much detail you miss if you don’t keep your eyes open.

  • The above opinions are my own and can and will likely change as Halloween Horror Nights 23 is tweaked and improved over its many nights that remain. I will be frequenting the event throughout the rest of September and all of October, returning to this review with updates and observations, both good and bad. So keep checking back!

    Halloween Horror Nights 2013 continues on select nights in September and October at Universal Orlando. You can buy tickets now and find more information at HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando.

    Photos from Halloween Horror Nights 2013:
    (Photos by Ricky Brigante and Michael Gavin)

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