Universal Orlando takes a Chance with their Halloween Horror Nights mascot and comes out a big winner – and so do guests looking for scary fun. Last night, Universal Orlando hosted a media event to kick off HHN26 and reminded us why they reign supreme in immersive entertainment. Not wanting to rest on the laurels of an incredibly successful 25th anniversary, scare-makers created a sequel event for this year. As 2015’s Carnival of Carnage was brought to an end, Jack and his sidekick Chance are brought to justice and Chance is locked away in Shadybrook Asylum. It’s a safe bet she won’t be there long, leaving her own trail of carnage as she climbs to the top spot for this year’s event.

The welcome reception began with incredible food and drinks, including enough desserts to fuel sugar-induced nightmares. The room, dominated by a long red curtain, was hauntingly decorated and video clips of movies featured in this year’s houses created an atmosphere of anticipation. Suddenly, lunatic inmates from Shadybrook Asylum ran through the crowd, the curtains parted and Chance’s sweet and deadly voice invited us to be seated. Chance herself took over the stage, reminding us that “while Jack’s away, Chance will play” and that anything he can do, she can do better. I believe her.

To prove her point, we were introduced to several members of Universal’s Art and Design team and Show Director Charles Gray who would lead us through this year’s nightmares. Joining them on stage was Greg Nicotero, Executive Producer of the Walking Dead. This special effects and make up guru is a 30-year veteran of the movie industry with a staggering list of accomplishments.

Universal’s Patrick Braillard shared the storyline that connects 2015’s HHN with this sequel event and provided an overview of the nine mazes – three original and 6 based on movies/TV. For the fifth year in a row, Universal Orlando features a Walking Dead house, and to underscore the intensity of this years’ experience with the undead, 5 cast members from the Walking Dead joined the stage:

Lauren Chohan (Maggie Greene); Alanna Masterson (Tara Chambler); Seth Gilliam (Father Gabriel Stokes); Tiffany Morgan (Erin); and Jordan Woods-Robinson (Eric Raleigh). Having just been through the maze – using Greg Nicotero as a shield – they assured us it was amazingly terrifying and shared a survival tip with the audience: If you think it’s less scary with your eyes covered, the answer is, “No”.

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After an overview of the houses, scare zones and live shows (more on those later), TJ Mannerino (Universal Art and Design team) tantalized us with a new, cutting edge vision we would have to wait to experience. The Repository promises immersive storytelling that combines virtual reality with scareactors and thematic sets that you experience as part of a group as you have to survive and find your way out of a warehouse of artifacts beset by creatures. This won’t open until September 29 but illustrates Universal’s continuing commitment to upping the ante on immersion.

“The Repository” will be available to guests during select Halloween Horror Nights events, beginning Sept. 29 and running through Oct. 31. Guests can upgrade their Halloween Horror Nights event ticket to become a part of the ultimate paranormal experience.

This limited-time experience can be purchased for $49.99 plus tax and will be available for purchase by calling 407-224-7840. Halloween Horror Nights admission is also required.

The floor was opened for questions, and the first was for Universal’s design team – How would they keep us on our toes in mazes featuring movies we had seen? With an evil grin, Patrick Braillard promised that our flat screen experience would become an Achilles heel as we moved into the immersive 3D experience of the houses.

But it was clear the audience was most anxious to talk to Greg Nicotero, and Andrew Warner (representing Horror Buzz) got a chance to ask him about some favorite experiences from his dizzying list of accomplishments. While specifically mentioning from Dusk til Dawn, Walking Dead and Sin City as just some of his highlight moments, he emphasized the fact that every day is a different challenge and he appreciated for being a “fly on the wall” for some of the best cinematic moments of our time.

The rest of the questions centered on the Walking Dead, such as trying to pin down the victim from the season ending cliffhanger (“You’ll find out soon enough!”) and his favorite season (“Every season is different. The fourth season represents when the show really took off into the stratosphere, but I’m really excited about season 7. Every year we kill ourselves to keep the show feeling fresh.”) Oh the irony – killing yourself to keep zombies fresh!

Greg wrapped up by reminding us that if you don’t want to watch the presidential debates, there would be a 2 hour Walking Dead retrospective airing at the same time. I’m pretty sure my choice is clear – Walking Dead over Talking Dead!

Finally, it was time to face our fears so we joined our guides Zak and James and headed into a park illuminated by a full moon and rent with sounds of chainsaws, screams and explosions.

 

The Houses

There are 6 houses based on film and TV and three that are original. First up – the film and TV houses.

Halloween – Hell Comes to Haddonfield

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Sounds and visuals mingle ominously as you enter the elaborately recreated set from the Halloween movie while the haunting tune of Mr. Sandman raises the hair on the back of your neck. All too soon, the eerie piano refrain that punctuates the appearance of Michael Myers plays and we are face to face with the legend that won’t die.

This sequel to the 2014 Halloween house begins exactly where the first left off, with Dr. Loomis shooting Myers 6 times only to find his body missing from the spot it had fallen.  This maze does not disappoint as major scenes of Halloween II come to life, leading to the iconic finale of explosions and fire.

 

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

dsc06349Universal cuts straight to the heart of fear in this maze, one of the best this year. Using the actual house plan from the film, the set is incredibly detailed and realistic in its reproduction, leaving you spell bound as you experience this horror classic from the inside. This is what the production team was talking about – 360 degree immersion creates a new experience, even within a familiar story. The maze is filled with lots of shocks and thrills that aren’t over until you are well away from the set!

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American Horror Story

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This house was met with lots of shouts of excitement when introduced during the welcome reception and for good reason. Featuring scenes from seasons 1, 4 and 5 (Murder House, Freak Show and Hotel, respectively) this “uber maze” fills nearly the entirety of soundstage 19. Like the seasons themselves, Freak Show and Hotel outshone Murder House, with stunning visuals and chilling scenes. Conjoined twins Belle and Dot, Twisty the Clown and others promise to haunt your dreams for some time to come, while The Countess welcomes you with open arms and bodies climb out from mattresses.

The Walking Dead

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Last year’s Walking Dead maze was an uneven experience, with some scenes delivering shocks while others feeling…well, a bit dead. But this year Universal redeemed themselves. This Walking Dead maze is the best of the 5 years it has been featured at Halloween Horror Nights, and at the very top of the list of this year’s houses.  Previous mazes featured specific seasons, but this year you get to shuffle through the very best of all seasons. From the hospital and trailer scenes in season 1, to Terminus, Alexandria and some very very slimy tunnels, you have never been closer to the dead center of the action!

 

Krampus

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A trip through this black comedy about the importance of keeping your Christmas spirit provides some comic relief to the more intense houses. When young Max Engels tears up his letter to Santa, a blizzard brings forth the “shadow of Santa” – Krampus. In this maze we see the destruction Krampus and his cohorts (like the evil gingerbread men, elves, and toys) bring to the family. Beautiful snowy sets and creepy interiors keep the horror feel amid the dark comedy.

 

The Exorcist

Universal has waiting a long time to ‘possess’ the Exorcist, and it was finally time to see if heads would spin! For me personally, this was the most anticipated house. Growing up, The Exorcist was the epitome of fright and I was betting big that this house would waken those old terrors. This house presented Universal with some challenges – such as 90% of the movie takes place in a single bedroom and could become boringly repetitive if not handled properly. The production team took some very creative approaches to immerse you into Regan’s hellish journey.

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As you enter the maze, you are standing outside the house, a bright light streaming from the upstairs window (think back to the original movie poster!) and the eerie Tubular Bells playing as the narrative voice builds the tension for what awaits inside.  Every head spinning, body hovering iconic scene unfolds before you (yes, even the puke, which is handled with an innovative approach that still leaves you disgusted) as Father Merrin compels the demon to leave. This maze may become the standard against which all others will be judged!


Tomb of the Ancients

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Original houses allow Universal to spread their wings and move in unanticipated directions. The first of these we explored allowed us to dig up some fun as we explored an ancient archaeological setting. The decorations here were phenomenal and the low, vine-covered ceiling created a nice creepy atmosphere, although the scares weren’t as clever as the setting. Definitely fun, but this house is overshadowed by the strength of some of the others.

 

Ghost Town: The Curse of Lightning Gulch

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Expanding on a concept from HHN 2004, this maze continues the story of a town cursed with gold fever. After everyone in the town kills each other, it is destroyed. But whenever a storm arrives, the town returns with all of the dead bodies and their ghosts. Lucky for us, just such a storm was passing through so we could experience this death and destruction first hand! As we moseyed through the town’s buildings and gold mines, we experienced this house’s interesting approach:  you get to see the towns peoples’ bodies killed in various ways with their scareactor ghosts sporting matching injuries to their corporeal remains. The scareactors did an excellent job and this house was rootin’-tootin’ fun.

Lunatics Playground 3D: You Won’t Stand a Chance

This house tells Act 1 of Chance’s storyline after the end of Carnival of Carnage. Arrested and placed in Storybrook Asylum, she and other insane inmates take over. The premise of the house is fantastic and Chance is a great anti-heroine. Funny, scary and deadly, she definitely has what it takes to anchor Halloween Horror Nights. This house bounces between scenes that are in Chance’s mind and reality of what’s happening in the asylum. While the 3D is a great idea to enhance the effect of her insane ramblings, it could have been used to better effect.

 

Scare Zones

The five scare zones have a tough act to follow. HHN 2015 saw two fantastic zones – Steampunk Fairy Tales and The Root of All Evil. This year, the zones don’t quite reach those epic proportions, but still give great solid thrills.

 

Survive or Die

Set in the streets of New York, complete with lighting effects that create the illusion that the buildings around you are crumbling to the ground, three clans are battling in an apocalyptic world. The Artifice clan, dressed in yellow, are smart and work together to survive. Dominion are strong – and they have oxygen! (Apparently, good air is hard to come by!) The Highway Hounds are crazy and just might be cannibals. You’ll have your work cut out for you to make it through these warring clans in one piece!

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Dead Man’s Wharf

This was probably my favorite scare zone. Creative and made even more convincing as it is placed on the water in the old Jaws area, a shipwreck of the Annabelle Lee marks the spot where the not-quite-dead, barnacle-encrusted fishermen haunt the wharf.

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Lair of the Banshee

Banshees are known to scream, and they definitely do! This zone features caves and trees and wandering banshees, and it definitely delivers some fun as you pass through. But since it is in the same spot as the magnificent Root of All Evil from last year, it’s hard to not draw comparisons and feel that it needs more.

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Vamp 55

1950’s Homecoming parade meets greaser vampires! This area is bloody fun as the girls on the homecoming court scream at passersby for help, and vampires in leather jackets create mayhem. This area could nearly rival the Steampunk Fairytales from last year.

A Chance in Hell

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The scare zone that features our villainess Chance is comprised of stages with gory scenes and one with Chance herself interacting with the crowd. Our hectic schedule limited the amount of time we had to enjoy her mischief, but this area is considered the 2nd act of Chance’s storyline (the first being the Lunatic Playground maze). Now free from the asylum, she’s able to wreak her murderous havoc on the Halloween Horror Nights crowd.

Shows

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Halloween Horror Nights 26 boasts two live shows. The first – Academy of Villains: House of Fear – we were unable to see due to timing. This show features performance artists from the west coast that provide a high intensity show that grabs you by the throat and slaps you until you walk out. At least, that’s how it was described to us by the Universal team! I’ll definitely be making a return trip to check this show out.

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Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure makes its 25th appearance this year, and I’m happy to report that it’s a definite improvement over last year’s show. Featuring a Star Wars themed storyline, Bill and Ted face off with the Hamilton-listening, spoiled, whiney brat Rylo Ken as they pass through a montage of pop culture (and political) icons and references. Definitely some “most excellent” laughs.


Halloween Horror Nights 26 at Universal Orlando delivers a well-crafted, immersive event that puts you right in the heart of the thrills and chills. With some of the best mazes ever and new innovations to come, there isn’t a Chance in hell you won’t enjoy yourself!

For more information on Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights, visit www.HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando. For details on The Walking Dead Attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, visit www.UniversalStudiosHollywood.com.