Gorelando: What's it like to visit Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios?
Daragh Keany discovers that Universal Studios in Florida has a creepy-yet-exhilarating dark side
When most people choose a holiday destination, they look for a hotel room with a view or an all-inclusive package. Holidays are supposed to be more snore than gore and certainly more chill than kill.
Most people certainly wouldn’t be looking to travel over 4,000 miles to tremble through spine-tingling haunted houses and elaborate scare zones in one of the world’s most famous theme parks. But that is exactly what I did last week, and I am still not completely right after it.
On the recommendation of Universal Studios in Orlando, I left my family behind because this holiday was strictly for the over 12s. In truth, I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for - but the hype surrounding the annual Florida fright fest that I had watched on social media channels and read about for years was too good to pass up.
I’m not a horror movie fan and never will be, but that didn’t take away from the thrill of a 33-night event that the sick geniuses at Universal Studios call Halloween Horror Nights (just search for the hashtag #HHN28 to give you a glimpse into how popular this is).
Imagine closing a theme park at 5pm on a scorching September evening and opening it again one hour later after it has been completely transformed into a hauntingly stunning theme park that thrives on scares more than thrills? That is exactly what happens at Universal, and tens of thousands of fright fans lap it up each evening.
Murderous dolls, knife-wielding monsters, chain-saw carrying 80s disco dancers, faceless aliens, terrifying demogorgons and slow-moving killer clowns are all waiting to pounce on unsuspecting tourists from all over the world.
This is the 28th edition of the frightening gore fest and, true to form, the creative directors behind it keep ramping up the entertainment and scare factor. An incredible TEN haunted mazes await you, if you are brave enough. There are previous fan favourites as well as some new additions including a Stranger Things house that transports fans into the hit Netflix show and cranks up the horror.
The complete list of houses included this year as part of HHN28 is Halloween 4, Poltergeist, Trick r Treat, Carnival Graveyard, The Horrors of Blumhouse, Dead Exposure, Scary Tales, Seeds of Extinction, Slaughter Sinema and the aforementioned Stranger Things.
Even the world’s most ardent and blood thirst horror fans wouldn’t take on all ten houses in the same night, and in truth there simply isn’t time on a normal night. That is why most park tourists and horror fans spread the scares over two or three terrifying evenings.
Unfortunately I didn’t have that luxury. Sometimes getting the VIP treatment is not necessarily a good thing. I could have done with some down time in between haunted houses as I was whisked from one to another with the help of a guide.
The haunted mazes are done so well that four of your five senses are terrorised. And if the freaky characters were allowed touch you… you would be able to add the fifth sense to it too.
It is a feast for your eyes from the moment you pass the gate. The sheer size of HHN28 is magnificent to look at and the finer details are mesmerising (if you can hang around long enough to appreciate them).
There is no corner that offers peace and quiet. All you can hear from start to the end are shrieks from excited punters or screams from the famous scareacters.
Your nasal passages are also haunted by various scents in each scare zone from buttered popcorn to general fear.
And your sense of taste is taken over regularly by the deliciously spooktacular sweets and treats.
You are in a constant state of elated stress and your body is almost-permanently covered in goosebumps. But when I left I just wanted more.
This is definitely not for the faint hearted. In fact, Universal makes it clear that under 13s are not allowed in and anyone over that age should only be brought if the parents are familiar with what lies ahead.
It’s not just the haunted houses that create the screams and tears. This year there are five specific scare zones created to catapult you into a state of fear while you make your way between rides or mazes.
Plaza of the Stars has been magically transformed into ‘The Harvest’ where foul creatures lurk between the hay bales, ready for a harvest of blood and screams.
New York is now called Vamp ’85 that is converted into one giant New Year’s street party dominated by cheesy 80s music and scary characters.
Central Park has been converted into ‘Twisted Tradition’ where an ancient evil has been reawakened and transformed Halloween into an abomination.
The once fabulous and peaceful Hollywood Boulevard now houses the ‘Revenge of Chucky’ world where childhood toys have been twisted into nightmares.
And finally, Universal’s iconic Outer Space is now where Killer Klowns emerge from their interstellar circus tent and roam the streets attempting to convince you that you should have stayed at home.
So what is actually like?
I am as far from a horror fan as you can get and I loved every second of it. I may not have picked up on all of the tiny minute details and homages that Mike Aiello and his team created for true fans of horror, but it didn’t take away from the enjoyment. I received a dozen genuine scares that will haunt me for a while to come but that is why I was there.
I wanted to experience something unique and special. I did. I wanted to see what all the hype was about and I was pleasantly surprised by the level of professionalism and the budget behind HHN28. And I was completely shocked by the level of fandom throughout the nocturnal theme park.
Thousands queue outside the main gate for an hour in the blistering sun to get early access and at 1am when the event is officially over there are still thousands wandering the frightening streets looking for one last scare before bedtime.
There is also a live dance show from world-renowned Academy of Villains called CyberPunk that offers the only respite from six straight hours of frights. The high-octane 30-minute theatre show is in keeping with the theme of the park but doesn’t get up in your face and try to scare the living death of you. It is pulsating and energetic and is well worth the short queue for if you want a break from the mazes and zones.
The next couple of days I spent my time trying to remember all of the amazing details and thrills while taking in their THREE different amusement parks… Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and the newest addition Volcano Bay water park. They are as fun and imaginative and thrill seeking as you would expect and are definitely more family-orientated. But for me last week it was more about the frights than the sites. And I am already planning my return.
NB: For more on Universal, see universalorlando.com.
How to do it
Enjoy seven nights at Universal Orlando Resort with Virgin Holidays, including flights from Dublin connecting via London Gatwick onto scheduled Virgin Atlantic flights to Orlando, with accommodation at Universal’s Aventura Hotel (complete with their new super high tech ‘V-Hub’ partnership with Virgin) from €1,587pp.
The price is for two adults and is based on a Skyline view room on a room only basis with car hire included. The package includes a 3 Park Explorer Ticket for access to Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal’s Volcano Bay AND the Halloween Horror Nights Frequent Fear Plus Pass Ticket – offering multiple nights of admission from September 14th through to November 3rd.
To book call 0044344 557 3859 or visit virginholidays.com.
Read more:10 of the world's scariest travel destinations for Halloween