A first timer’s review of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando

in Events, Theme Parks, Universal Orlando

Photo courtesy of Universal

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 kicked off this weekend at Universal Orlando. A menagerie of monsters, murderers and maniacs were unleashed on the guests of Universal Studios Florida and for the first time ever, I was there to see it in person.

Ever since I first heard of Halloween Horror Nights back in 2011, I have been fascinated by the event. The mix of familiar intellectual properties and original ideas, the incredible theming and the interesting characters seemed to make it better than any other Halloween event I had ever seen. Once I came across that first advertisement with Lady Luck, I was hooked.

Since then, I have followed along every year. I’ve watched the hype build as houses were announced, read the backstories on all of the characters and scoured the internet for walkthrough videos. Unfortunately, things just never worked out and I was never able to actually attend the event.

That is… until now.

I was finally able to attend the premiere Halloween event on the east coast, and it I was everything I could have wanted. Without having any previous Horror Nights experience to compare everything to, I came in with a clean slate. While others may have seen elements of the event done better in the past, it was all brand new to me. That being said, the houses, scarezones and shows are all very impressive. So much so in fact, that they each deserve some individual attention.

So let’s start with the houses:

Following along with the announcements for this year’s houses, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little disappointed by the IP’s being used. I was always a fan of “The Shining” and “The Purge” but “Saw,” “Ash vs. Evil Dead” and “American Horror Story” were never really my thing.

With that said, I didn’t expect to like those houses nearly as much as I do.

“American Horror Story” is a marathon of beautiful theming, great effects and intense jump scares, the likes of which I have never seen before. The house spans three seasons of the show, beginning with Asylum. On my first run, after finishing the Asylum portion of the house, my first thought was “that was just a third of this house!?”

That’s how long this house is. It spends a considerable amount of time on each season, moving into Coven next and later Roanoke, and yet somehow never feels drawn out or excessive. Every turn is exciting, every room well-themed and overall this house is a lot of fun, even if you know nothing about the show.


“Horrors of Blumhouse” doesn’t have nearly as much space to work with as “American Horror Story,” and it unfortunately suffers a bit because of it. Covering three of their most popular properties, “Sinister,” “The Purge,” and “Insidious,” this house just can’t spend enough time with each of them. “Sinister” and “The Purge” feel rushed, with just a couple of rooms dedicated to each. “Insidious” gets considerably more attention and finishes the house up strong. Overall, it’s still a solid house. I just wish I could have seen more.

“Ash vs. Evil Dead” and “Saw” are the weakest houses of this year’s event in my opinion. Again, these two properties are just not my thing. They’re still well stocked with impressive sets and dedicated casts, they just don’t provide my style of horror. “Ash vs. Evil Dead” does provide a fun experience and “Saw” does have some interactive elements that are pretty cool, but these houses are just not as good as the others.

“The Shining” is the crown jewel of all of this year’s IP-based houses. If you’re a fan of this classic horror film, you will love this house. The iconic scenes are all there and they’re done in a way that can still provide the jump scares that this film wasn’t necessarily made for. An incredible cast is anchored by a haunting pair of twins that will stare right into your soul. This house is a perfect homage to the film and one that I really enjoyed.


With a lineup of IP houses that didn’t really excite me, I was most looking forward to the original concepts. They did not disappoint.

“The Fallen” was the house I was looking forward to the most, as I wanted to see impressive scenery and unique effects rather than focus on intense scares. As it turned out, this house is more of a balance of all of the above. The scenery was impressive, but not the best I’ve seen. The scares and effects were unique and intense, but they were done better in other houses as well. Overall, it’s a fun house but despite being the one I was most excited for, it’s middle of the pack.

One of the houses with more impressive sets is “Dead Waters.” An amazing facade sets the tone for what is really a beautifully macabre house. The bayou/voodoo style of horror has admittedly never really been my favorite, but there is just no denying how impressive this house is.

And speaking of impressive. “Scarecrow: The Reaping” is the house with the best scares, some of the most impressive sets and a final room that will completely turn you around. The ominous barn surrounded by nightmarish cornfields create the perfect setting for horror, and this house has plenty of it. There are scares at every turn of this house and with so much to look at, you’re bound to be caught off guard. And if you can imagine a corn maze combined with a maze of mirrors with killer scarecrows thrown in, that’s what you can expect for your finale.


Finally, “Hive” was a victim of a bad run for me. Haunted attractions are all about timing. If you’re a few steps behind someone getting all the scares and effects, well then you’re not getting those effects. I had heard people talk about having bad runs in these houses before, and now I understand what they meant. I went through the first half without ever really seeing anything. I expect to like this house more the second time around because I do think it had potential. For now though, it’s near the bottom.

The Scarezones:

One of the IP’s that I was excited for was “The Purge,” and while it was under-utilized in the house, the scarezone is perfect. The costumes look like they’ve come right off the set of the movies and the cast has clearly done their homework.

The original scarezone I was most excited for was “Invasion!” and, despite not being what I expected, I still really enjoy it. It’s not as scary as some of the other zones but it is fun. The aliens seem to be more curious and playful than menacing and dangerous, which makes for some great interactions and good laughs.

“Altars of Horror” is pretty straightforward. It’s all of the icons of the IP-based houses lined up. This zone is more for photo opportunities and less for scares.

Unfortunately, because of Hurricane Irma, it appears that some elements of the event were not quite ready for opening weekend. “Festival of the Deadliest” falls under that category. There are a few set pieces out on the street, but they’re not really used. There are a ton of scareactors, but no real cohesiveness. I expect this zone will get better with time. The costumes are impressive and if they keep that whole cast out there, it definitely has potential.

In my preparation for the event, I watched “Trick r Treat” for the first time and it instantly became one of my favorite horror films ever. After watching the film, the scarezone is absolutely perfect. All of the characters are there, the sights and sounds are spot on and the overall atmosphere is fun but with a dark underlying tone, just like the movie. This scarezone might honestly be my favorite part of the whole event.

The Shows:

If you’ve followed Halloween Horror Nights at all, you’ve probably heard of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure.” The show has been a staple of the event since 1992, and sadly, this year is the farewell tour. The Wyld Stallyns say goodbye to the audience with an emotionally-charged, hilarious culmination of pop culture references and callbacks to past shows. Even as someone who has never seen the show in person before, I could feel emotion in the performance, especially during the video montage of years past.

Another unfortunate effect of Irma was the delay of the planned “Academy of Villains” show. On the bright side though, this dance crew is a top-notch talent, and they threw together a 10-minute show that they joke was “brought to you by Irma.” For something that was just thrown together in a week, the show was fantastic. I’m excited to see their full show whenever it gets up and running.

All together, Halloween Horror Nights is a spectacular experience. It’s an intense horror event loaded with nightmare-inducing scares, but it’s also a lot more than that. It’s an opportunity for a team of extremely talented people to create amazing things and bring those nightmares to life, and most importantly, it’s just fun.

After all those years of following the event, I worried a bit that I had built it up so much in my head that it could never possibly live up to my expectations. It became a holy grail of themed entertainment in my mind. And now, after seeing it in person, not only did Halloween Horror Nights meet my expectations, it exceeded them.

The theming of the houses and scarezones was exactly what I had expected and the shows were funnier and more entertaining than I could have dreamed. The one thing about Halloween Horror Nights that has put it over the top for me though, is the atmosphere. There’s just a buzz around the park that isn’t there normally. Everyone is having fun either being scared or watching others get scared, and that’s what really matters.

I didn’t think it was possible for Halloween Horror Nights to be better than I had expected. I’m happy to say… I was wrong.

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