A year ago, I was preparing for another Southern California haunt season. To me, that meant covering Halloween Horror Nights, Knott’s Scary Farm, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, and a variety of other Halloween delights. The vibrant SoCal community offers it all increasing diversity and a seemingly constantly growing number of late summer and early fall nights. However, even in the midst of enjoying an exceptionally strong 2018 season, I was selling my home, and preparing to leave the only place I had ever really lived my entire life. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy knowing I was preparing to leave the dark dense fog of Ghost Town behind….even for the attraction rich community of Orlando, Florida.
Now, I’m not a political refugee, merely a financial one and emotional one. We had a family loss, and it simply became too expensive for me and my small family to live in the dark and creepy places we were accustomed to. So just before Thanksgiving, after the sliders had retired back to their crypts for their long hibernation, we packed up and drove across country.
I wish I could say it’s always been easy for my family adjusting. In many ways, the life is better, but we are still strangers here. It has really weighed on our hearts knowing the mazes, monsters and people we love are thousands of miles away this season. I know that many of you reading this might be considering the same type of radical life change, so let me be the first to assure you, there is a dark and sinister afterlife here on the other side of the country.
Not attending as part of the press event was a gift, because I have never been to the Orlando Horror Nights event before. For the first time in a long time, I was there on opening night, without a video camera or an agenda, and because it was on my own dime, I did not have to consider my words. More importantly, my wife and I got to do something we really hadn’t done is a very long time which is particularly special to us: experience everything together.
So let me say right from the start…the event was really good! It was also very different. I thought it might be fun, as a part of our coverage this year, to record my first impressions and also really highlight some of the differences between the haunt life on both coasts.
To begin with, Universal Studios Orlando has several direct advantages over its Southern California counterpart. Size and space are the two most immediate physical differences. Hollywood is still very much a working studio, and for better or worse, the theme park has always felt shoehorned into very tight spaces not required for film or television production.
Orlando conversely tried to shove working television production space into unused portions of the theme park, and when the production companies didn’t come pounding down the doors, they had a surplus of unused studio space that could be utilized for houses. In Hollywood, the mazes are crammed into the even tinier spaces the already tiny footprint of the theme park, and when production permits, part of the backlot.
For many years, they had tram service to shuttle everyone out to the remote “maze” locations, but in recent years, everyone has had to endure the up hill (both ways) trek through the innards of the fabrication shops to get out to the London/New York set areas for at least three of the offerings.
Orlando is blessed with extra sound stage space, extra parade float space, extra space for tents, no height restrictions for the vast majority of their offerings. In fairness we didn’t see them all because of the crowds, but we were really blown away by the few we saw early on (being a huge Killer Klowns from Outer Space fan, I was delighted and amazed…I will leave it at that for this article).
Another big difference is the exterior theming. We were accustomed to facades beckoning us to journey inside most of the Hollywood maze offerings. Here in Orlando, most of the exteriors were very minimal if themed, if at all. The Universal Classic Monster maze, which is fittingly accessed through the Barney the Purple Dinosaur queue, has nothing more than a logo painted on the side of the parade building it inhabits. The vast rich depth of theming seems to be all saved for the wondrously detailed spaces inside.
The scare zones are also huge here in the East. Back home, the best scare zone always seems to be the entryway to the backlot mazes, because there is at least enough room back there to create some twist and turns in the trail to wind through. There are also some tough fits like the strobe light nightmare that always infests the carpentry tunnel that links the studio front lot to the backlot. The only real downside to the zones here is that they really depend on a lot of people wandering through for the monsters to have “corners” to scare from.
Also, there isn’t a lot of fog. Yep, that’s right, they do Halloween out here without 20,000 smoke machines. This really makes sense because most of the time Orlando is quite hot and humid even in the fall, but it was strange not to have the all too familiar odor surrounding me. Speaking of odor, Hollywood Horror Nights “mazes” are notorious for it. Everything from burnt blood sent to the “ahem” pungent smell of the bathroom from the movie SAW are not only seen, they linger in your nostrils and occasionally on your clothes. The Houses here do not have those distinct smells, but that’s not to say we didn’t smell stale beer, and yes even vomit, as we exited last night.
Yes there are bars here…that’s actually an understatement. Technically, you can find alcohol vendors even in the middle of some of the longer line queues. This is a party atmosphere, and let’s face it, some people can’t handle their partying. It comes with the territory, I suppose. Despite the more intoxicated haunt goers, we really didn’t witness any fighting or overt drunken behavior, beyond a rather inebriated woman trying to re-tie a queue rope she had mistakenly knocked off. Which actually was wonderful unscripted entertainment for 5 minutes or so…
So for the west coast haunter contemplating the reverse pioneer journey back east, I was hoping that the offerings here would be really good. I am so much happier to report that they are even better than I could have anticipated. And if you have to leave home behind, take heart, we may have had a treasure trove of Halloween mazes to explore, but the east coast haunted houses are just as magnificent to explore.