UNIVERSAL ORLANDO Resort
Universal Studios Theme Parks
Review by: Lance Hart
Halloween Horror Nights 23 (2013)
You’ve been watching and waiting... and Halloween Horror Nights 23 is now open, and I present to you my full featured review below. Enjoy!
Halloween Horror Nights 23 made big promises this year with five new haunts based on existing IPs, three original concept haunts, plus an new all encompassing theme for a oark wide scare zone themed to AMC's The Walking Dead. In general the gamble seems to have paid off and in several cases Universal Orlando really seemed to hit it right out of the park.
Touching on the concept of the latter, Universal has been trying to break the mold of the scare-zone concept for a few years now. Last year featured no scare-zones but replaced by roaming themed hordes of creatures that you might encounter anywhere... and perhaps everywhere throughout the night. The flaw there was that by pure chance or just dumb luck some guests would encounter very few of these roaming hordes. Traditional scare-zones work best when placed in heavy trafficked pathways making them virtually unavoidable.
This year I'm happy to say that the two concepts were mixed with success under the umbrella of The Walking Dead. Scenes and setting you would recognize from Seasons 1, 2 and 3 were set up around the park along with some fantastic set pieces like the tank from Atlanta, Dale's RV or Hershal's barn. Some functioned as a scare-zone while others were more like elaborate scenes that would expect to see inside a Haunt, each crawling with hungry Walkers. Meanwhile throughout the park there also seemed to be plenty of roaming walkers, creating a beautiful atmosphere where no place was safe from the undead.
While I'm on the subject of The Walking Dead, let's dive into the haunts, starting with The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven. This haunt was themed after the events of Season 3, taking you from the town of Woodbury (under brutal control by The Governor) and ending with the trip through the zombie-ridden prison used as a camp by the shows heroes. Your trip into this nightmare starts outside in the queue, looking upon Woodbury's combat arena, loaded and ready to go with Biters in cages or leashed by chains. When The Governor is ready to see you, you will enter the city and pass through iconic rooms (interrogation, zombie head aquariums) and even pass by a few characters you may recognize like Milton and Merle while Woodbury's citizens fight off "The Biters". Before you know it you are venturing inside the prison gates and into the dark catacomb tunnels connecting the cell blocks. There are lots of great visuals here placed as eye candy for fans of the show, including the finale scene which really looked and felt likeyou were passing through infamous cell block room from the show. The maze was great fun, but somehow it just felt a little short for me, as if it was somehow just missing something I can’t put my finger on. As a fan of the show, you still wont want to miss this one.
Story-4, Atmosfear-4, FearFactor-4
Evil Dead – Just to be clear, the Evil Dead maze is based almost entirely on the new Evil Dead film that was released on DVD / BluRay a few weeks ago and not on the original trio of films directed by Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness). The new film is a gory delight and as a remake it does share certain story elements and scenes with the earlier films, but you really do need to watch the new film to fully appreciate all the awesome detail they put into this new Evil Dead maze. You will pass into the cabin itself, through the various rooms and relive all the iconic gory and gruesome scenes from the film. Having seen the film beforehand will only make the experience even more creepy, as your mind will really fill in the blanks for you as you relive the story yourself, as well as make you really appreciate the detailed work that went into the creation of the set. Bottom line… you don’t want to miss this one.
Story-5, Atmosfear-5, FearFactor-5
Resident Evil: Escape From Raccoon City – If you’re only exposure to the Resiedent Evil franchise has been the film series, you may not get the entire experience here, as this maze is actually based on the scenes and story from the Resident Evil 2 and 3 video games. While the Resident Evil series is known for their own undead zombie-like hordes, it is also known for terrible monster like creatures such as fan-favorite Nemesis who plays a big role in this maze as well. The set pieces and color palette used here is very different from all the rest of this year’s mazes and really brings the look of the video game series to life… including fun spotlights that are focused on unique special items used in the game series carefully planted in several of the rooms. There is also a unique ‘Pause’ room, where the action is paused in mid-combat between the games hero and villain while you pass through. The maze was fun, but I didn’t find the scare level to be that high… especially when the iconic Nemesis character always seemed to be placed up in very high locations with poor lighting, making him not feel like a threat. I’m not the biggest fan of this game series myself, but for those who are, they loved the special details added for the game’s fans.
Story-2, Atmosfear-4, FearFactor-3
The Cabin in the Woods – This is another maze that I would include on my list of things not to miss. As someone who is very hard to scare anymore, I have no problem admitting that I about jumped out of my shoes half a dozen times in this one, so I really applaud the cast, crew and creative staff heavily here. This is also one that I highly recommend that you watch the film before coming to the park. Not that you wont be scared out of your wits here anyway, but I think having advanced knowledge of the film’s full plot will actually make this haunt far more scary to you. For example… when you come around the corner and find yourself standing in between the bank of six elevator shafts and hear the elevator ‘ding’, you will feel the dread for real. Much like the characters in the film, you wont know exactly what horror is about to emerge, nor from which elevator… you just know that you’re as good as dead. Add in to this a couple of fantastic scenes featuring the cubes, the control room, and before I forgot, you start it all off with a trip into the highly “Cabin in the Woods” itself, complete with a trip through the wicked basement. Wow… this one simply blew me away. Do not miss it.
Story-5, Atmosfear-5, FearFactor-5
An American Werewolf in London – This is another fantastic maze, based on the classic 1981 film directed by John Landis which also received an Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup for not only the horror style elements, but for the werewolf transformation scenes. For our younger readers… this is a classic film that you not only need to see, but will make you appreciate the detail that has gone into the building the various film scenes inside the maze, from The Slaughtered Lamb pub to the theater and subway station tunnels and more. The transformation scene where David becomes the werewolf for the first time is also very impressive to watch as you pass through, but the complete scene stealers is the werewolf itself as it attacks. Universal used very large puppets here to not only make the awesome werewolf come to life mere inches away from your flesh, but it also made it seem more “real”. In today’s age where people have become spoiled by computer generated special effects, the American Werewolf film had none of that back in 1981. No computer rendered wolves or gore… just good old fashioned makeup and puppet effects were used to bring the werewolf to lfe, and as such, the werewolf that stalks you in this maze seems just as real as the one used in the actual film, which is an awesome achievement.
Story-4, Atmosfear-5, FearFactor-4
Urban Legends: La Llorona – Based on the urban legend from Mexico about the weeping woman who drowned and killed her own children only to be shunned by the man she loved and killed herself in the same icy waters. La Llorona is a legend told to Mexican children through the ages in order to get them to behave and beware of strangers, or else La Llorona would come and take them away too. This is also expected to be the first of a series of “Urban Legend” themed mazes going into the future or HHN in Orlando, and also offers up the most highly themed entrance area to one of HHN’s two ‘tent’ mazes this year. While the themeing inside was top notch… something I’ve mentioned several times so far regarding HHN 23 in general, I didn’t find this maze scary at all. Maybe the threat of the legend was lost in translation somewhat, or perhaps it is just a difference in culture, but I came out of this one still a bit confused. It was pretty… I just didn’t find it scary.
Story-3, Atmosfear-4, FearFactor-2
Havoc Derailed – Havoc is a follow up to a previous Universal Orlando custom creation from several years ago called Havoc: The Dogs of War. The same crazy super-solders are back as you board a high tech and armored train that is transporting the captured prisoners; on route to a new more secure long-term storage location. Aboard the train you will pass through car after car where the super-solders are tied down in chairs for further experimentation, sealed up inside steel cages and watched over by armed guards. The train goes faster and faster until disaster strikes and it derails… releasing the super-solders who quickly arm themselves, forcing you to flee the wreckage in order to find some form of safety and escape. This one had a fun unique theme… and some great looking train car prison sets, but the ending seemed to creep up on you too quickly.
Story-2, Atmosfear-3, FearFactor-3
After Life Death’s Vengeance – The final of the three custom made story mazes at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights, you will experience the execution of a serial killer and his journey into the afterlife where he is tormented by the angry spirts of his victims and other supernatural forces from beyond the grave. This is also the park’s only 3D maze this year… and if you have read my reviews from past years, I don’t care for 3D mazes. I find them cheesy, too bright with hokey all-too-obvious 3D effects always in your face.
NONE OF THAT APPLIES HERE!
Universal Orlando have finally created the first 3D maze that worked for me on nearly every level and I think it should be used as a blueprint for others to follow. Instead of an assault of bright funhouse colors on your eyes everywhere you look, this maze was dark and created an almost ‘tron’ style dark world environment where things were highlighted by the 3D colors and laser style light effects rather than coating the entire world in bright colors. The darkness really allowed the 3D colors and lights to “pop” at the right moments and add that surreal other-worldly extra dimension to the environment as you moved through the After Life. This maze also featured the always popular vortex tunnel effect, made even more intense via the 3D effects. This is a 3D haunt done right and I applaud it!
Story-3, Atmosfear-5, FearFactor-4
With that I come to the end of my own adventure… as my night inside the realm of Halloween Horror Nights 23 only had enough time to visit all eight of the haunts and I was sad to have missed the park’s two shows this year. Screamscape’s backup writer Keith however has come through with his own reviews of the always popular Bill & Ted’s Halloween Adventure show and Rocky Horror.
Bill & Ted - This year’s show is pretty much going to meet everyone’s expectations who has seen this show in the past and certainly going to entertain any Bill and Ted’s first-timers. The phone booth is really down-played this year, but does make a cameo at the beginning and end of the show. There is not really much of a plot either, which for me is not a problem because that’s not why we go to the show. We go to see how many relevant pop-culture icons they can cram into a 20 minute show! The setting is Camp Morningwood. The tale of debauchery begins with “Teddykins” dating Taylor Swift and then she turns all zombie and shizzle and it goes from there. WARNING SPOILERS!! The remainder of the show is fast paced music, dancing, and one-liners. You can expect to see: Vanessa Hudgens, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, Melissa McCarthy, Paula Deen, Django, jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, Sophia Vergara, the Prancercise Lady, Game of Thrones Cast, Justin Beiber, the Screaming Sheep, Duck Dynasty and more!! An Avatar character shows up at one point announcing and Avatar Land coming to a theme park near you in the year 2065, if anyone still gives a sh#%! Walt Disney’s frozen head also makes a cameo. The show ends with high-energy dance and a mix of the current hottest dance pop songs. It’s just about the same as it always is, not any better, not any worse, but definitely worth the time and effort. Hint: Go to the last show of the night and get right in with no wait.
Rocky Horror - I was glad to see the Rocky Horror Show revival after a several year hiatus and not to great of a production the last year with some bad casting choices. This year’s casting is superb. There are many returns in the cast who do a fabulous job as always. The vocal talent is top-notch and every aspect of the show is performed well. This year a new, younger Frank-N-Furter is played by Michael Bundy who does a fantastic job in the role and gives the character new life and personality. The role is likeable and well performed. Great job Rocky Horror Cast!!!
As I said at the start, Halloween Horror Nights 23 featured perhaps their most epic line up of haunts this year, featuring five very different IP environments to create as well as three custom creations. The one thing I took away from the haunt experience this year was an increase in quality. Not just the scares, or the always great makeup effects, but in the environments and quality set pieces custom made for each of the haunts.
This is where the Hollywood park has always had a slight edge over Orlando, as the Hollywood park can puts the same top-notch Hollywood Union set creators who work on films to work on their Haunts, but this year I’d have to say that the gap has closed quite significantly as the sets built for Orlando looked and felt real in so many ways. The cabin sets (inside and out) build for Cabin the Woods and Evil Dead were amazing, the high tech sets created for the end of Cabin in the Woods or the train cars for Havoc were incredible. The Mexican style buildings, churches and crypts from La Llorona with their adobe mission stylings felt legit, as did the UK set pieces from American Werewolf and even the video game palette of colors used to bring the dark environment of Resident Evil to life… the eye candy was everywhere and proudly on display.
Halloween Horror Nights 23 really hit it out of the park this year and hit all new levels of quality for the mazes, moving far beyond the simple black wooden empty hallways and simple sets of the past. That said… I can’t wait to see what the creative team for Halloween Horror Nights 24 has in store for us next year. It’s a good time to be a Halloween fan for sure.