I had an opportunity with a few other online journalists to have a Q&A session with TJ Mannarino, the Director of Art & Design at Universal Orlando. TJ and his design team are the ones responsible for the concepts, design and development of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights month long event, now about to enter it’s 16th year.
HHN has a truly obsessed fan base who eagerly begin a hunt for any information they can get about the next HHN months in advance. Knowing this, TJ and his team began to use the event’s website as a giant pre-show for the event itself, often beginning two months in advance.
This year’s website is a perfect example. The website started off as a virtual history of all fifteen Horror Nights from the past, but over the last month each of the four returning HHN Icon characters have come in to change the site contents and add their own comments here and there.
“We’re having a lot of fun with the website this year,” comments TJ with a laugh. It’s become such a useful tool to allow them to shape the event’s atmosphere well in advance through back-stories and hints about what can be expected.
There is a lot of work that goes into the design of each year’s event however. According to TJ the next couple of months after Halloween are spent in reviewing the event. What worked from a guest point of view, what didn’t work from a park operational side, what can be improved next year, along with guest comments and feedback from HHN’s rabid fans. After that they begin to jump right back into the chaos and begin the preliminary designs for the next year’s event usually by December or January.
At this point they have to begin the long process of deciding what elements will be in the next HHN along with a new problem that no other theme park based Halloween event has… the location. Universal Orlando is unique in this aspect, since they have been able to have past events at the original Universal Studios Florida park as well as inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure park next door, as well as using the many production soundstages in between the two parks to house many Haunted Houses and Scare Zones.
TJ says that they look at the themes involved in each year’s event and can made decisions about the actual footprint of the event from that. If that year’s theme will involve many real world locations and an attacking horde of Zombies perhaps, then obviously a location inside the Studios at the New York or even San Francisco streets sets would be the best choice. If they need a jungle or a more fantasy style setting, obviously Islands of Adventure becomes the most logical choice.
Obviously you already know that this year’s Sweet 16 event is a homecoming of sorts and will take place back in the Studios, where each of the haunted houses is based on a haunt from the past. TJ and his crew took guest surveys to help pick some of the most popular mazes from the past, as well as listening to comments made from the biggest HHN fan sites about what their favorites were to decide which themes to bring back.
That’s where the similarities end however. These will not be carbon copy mazes in any fashion. In some cases the new haunts will simply have the same popular characters from the past, but this time placed into an all-new setting. In other cases, the maze itself may be similar in look and theme to it’s past counterpart, but the inhabitants have all changed.
TJ mentioned the new PsychoScareapy specifically as a great example of this. It’s going to still be a walk through an asylum as it was before, but the atmosphere inside has changed quite dramatically due to the inclusion of the newest inmate, Jack the clown.
We talked a bit more about Run, both the 2001 and 2006 versions. TJ said that Run 2001 really didn’t change very much from their original plan. Obviously, like everything else that year, they backed off from the gore quite a bit, but the maze was still a chaotic and confusing run through an actual chain link fence maze. “Run this year will be a completely different experience, it’s not a game show this time,” according to TJ. Eddie is back and this is an all-new “business” he has taken on. “Eddie has moved on to a more sadistic world over the last five years,” a world where things are more intense and in your face.
Eddie apparently wont be the only returning mystery character known to some of the fans either. Though she wasn’t mentioned by name, I’d say that it’s a pretty solid bet that we may see Cindy in some form this year due to her connection to the Caretaker. These aren’t just the same characters you’ve seen from the past, they’ve evolved over the years and guests will get to see how their stories have continued on. Another interesting thing to note is that many of the icons seems to have moved on from being solitary in nature to having a group of followers or various supporting characters being added to them this year. For example the Storyteller will be back… continuing her path into darkness with a strict adherence to discipline. We will also be introduced to her group of support characters within the Dungeon of Terror, otherwise known as “Her Family”. The Director will sort of remain a lone wolf however… he’s not the kind of person to get social with other people but he does have a love for film characters.
Diving back into the event itself, it seems you will be able to find many of references to past HHN items and themes throughout the park. For example, while the parade has been retired, they will be using a few of the floats around the park as static props. So when you’re walking around keep your eyes open. TJ and his designers will be leaving lots of little clues and references to popular themed from the past 15 years all over the park that many hardcore fans will enjoy discovering.
You will also want to keep your eyes on the website over the next few days according to TJ. Even more fun changes are on the way it seems, even though all the icons have already made their own personal changes to the site. “Like I said, we’ve been having a lot of fun with the website this year.” In fact, you can expect to see changes made to the website through Halloween.