Although our family has been going to Universal Orlando since 1991, I never really paid much attention to Halloween Horror Nights. First of all, even though I am a huge fan of horror movies, I always hated fun houses as a kid, especially the ones with live people in them. So even though I was aware of Universal’s HHN event, I never had any desire to visit.
A tradition begins
Two years ago, one of my industry’s national trade show happened to take place in Orlando during early October. Never one to miss an opportunity to visit the parks when I had an excuse to go, I booked the trip and brought along my Art Director Lea. Leading up to the trade show I kept wondering about HHN, which was taking place the nights we were scheduled to be in Orlando. I mean, I’m 50 years old. How scary could it be? On the other hand, it didn’t matter to Lea. She closed her eyes when scary movie trailers came on TV, so there was no way she was going to help convince me to go.
But she’s a gamer, and so we took the HHN plunge that year.
It was a revelation — after the first house, I was hooked. The detail. The creativity. The scares! I was having the time of my life. Lea not so much. In fact I think I still have the scars from her fingernails imprinted on my arm from her holding on so tightly. Needless to say, we only made it through a few houses and scare zones before Lea had enough. But not me. I was so pumped up that on the way back to the hotel, I excitedly called my wife and told her to grab the kids and get down to Orlando immediately. They had to see what we had been missing all these years.
She said no way and hung up.
We finally made it back last year, and my family loved Halloween Horror Nights as much as I did. So much, in fact, we agreed that each year going forward we would figure out how to come down for HHN as a way to make up for all the year’s we missed.
However, this year proved to be a challenge. When you have a daughter in college and a son in high school, and you live 1,000 miles away in New Jersey, it’s not as easy as heading down to Six Flags for a night. No, attending HHN takes some planning.
Making the impossible possible
Due to classes at school and high school football, I tried to map out our trip as far in advance as possible. My son’s football schedule came out in late July and, of course, there were no varsity Friday night games during HHN, just Saturday afternoons. That meant that in order for us to get a full night, we would have to attend a Sunday. But with HHN getting more and more popular, I wasn’t sure if we’d get to see everything in one night even with Express Passes. So I figured, since all his Saturday games are played at 1:00pm, I could fly my wife and kids out of Newark by 6:00, get them to the park by 10:00, and have a good four extra hours of HHN on Saturday night. Sounds good right? Wrong. The only flights going out of Newark were at five and nine. There was no way they could make it for 5:00, and the 9:00 was too late. So I found a flight out of LaGuardia in New York leaving at 7:30. I had to have a car service get them there because it’s about a half hour further away then Newark. My wife wanted to shoot me. Especially because she was going to be on her own. You see, I don’t fly. I take the 22-hour Amtrak down to Orlando four times a year while everyone else gets there in two and a half hours. But I regress…
The plan looked solid until the coach informed my son that the game time had been changed to 2:30pm. So now our only option was to get them on the 9:00pm flight out of Newark. I would arrive by train earlier in the day, rent a car and be waiting at the airport to pick them up. I figured, with their arrival at midnight, I could get them back to the Hard Rock Hotel and to HHN by 12:45 and at least see a couple houses before the 2:00am closing time. Then we’d have all of Sunday night, and I could get them on the 6:00am flight back to Jersey Monday morning.
Executing the plan
I arrived in Orlando Saturday and got situated in our Hard Rock Hotel room. I kept checking the wait times at HHN and sending them to my kids, trying to gauge what they’d be when we got there. So far so good. No waits were over 70 minutes. With the Express Passes we should be fine.
By the way, we have been staying at the Hard Rock Hotel for over a decade and I cannot tell you how incredible the staff is there [especially TB]. We have stayed at almost every on-site hotel in Universal and Disney and nothing tops the Hard Rock for service, LOCATION and intangibles.
Before heading out to the airport to pick up my family, I tracked down one of those bicycle cabs that you always curse as they almost run you over on the path from the Universal hotels to the parks. I asked the guy for his number and if I could text him when we got back from the airport so he’d be waiting at the hotel in order to get us to HHN as quickly as possible. I got to the airport around 11:00pm and, according to the United Airlines website, our luck was changing: the flight was 30 minutes early! My wife texted me as soon as they got inside and we were on our way back by 12:10am. I did my best Mario Andretti imitation and we made it to the Hard Rock at 12:30am. My new friend the bike cabbie was waiting at the water taxi dock, and we were in the Cabin in the Woods (finally!) at 12:40. Phew…
Our HHN experience
Believe what you read on this site folks because, if you need to move quickly through Halloween Horror Nights, there is nothing more important than getting an Express Pass. On our first night we were able to see Cabin in the Woods, An American Werewolf, Evil Dead and ALL the scare zones by 1:30am! I’m sure we could have seen at least two more houses, but we wanted to save some for Sunday.
The following afternoon came quickly and we were ready to see everything we missed the night before, and re-experience all the good stuff again. First, we had to get into the park, and because we were staying on-site, we attempted to use the on-site guest priority entrance.
When we went to enter the park, we were met by this evil woman who demanded to see our hotel keys (no she wasn’t part of the HHN cast). A logical request and I showed her my key and my wife showed her hers. Then she asked for my kids’ keys. My kids didn’t have their keys. They stay in our room and we are always together so they never carry their keys. When I politely explained this to her, next year’s HHN star attraction told us to move on to the main gate. I began to argue but it was getting late and the line in the main gate was getting longer so I just walked away. Of the dozens, maybe hundreds of people I came into contact with over this trip, this woman was the ONLY one who had an attitude.
I was greatly impressed with the way HHN’s main gates were run. The lines moved incredibly fast, and even though we must have been 40 people deep, we got into the park within five minutes. Once in, I realized that it is important to get there before dark: you get a chance to appreciate the makeup on the zombies so much more in the light.
We once again headed to Cabin in the Woods. Loved the house. Details and scares were excellent. My son and I had seen the movie so I think we appreciated it more than my wife and daughter. I think that’s a common problem with the movie/video game themes. They are all great but if you aren’t familiar with them, you don’t get the full effect. That’s why I tend to enjoy the original theme houses more.
Evil Dead was next. Definitely the scariest house, whether you’ve seen the movie or not. Great effects and scares.
An American Werewolf in London was my favorite. I’ve loved the movie since it came out, and the recreation of the sets was simply amazing. The dialogue from the movie was an added joy “Excuse me, but what’s that star on the wall for?” Loved it.
We then headed to the Fall of Atlanta scare zone, and I found it be underwhelming both in the day and the night. The zombies were excellent, but there just weren’t enough of them. Plus, since they were all dressed like normal people, they tended to blend in, which works well for the first few scares but then gets old fast. Although I was no fan of the wandering scare zones last year, the different kinds of monsters and demons mixed in with zombies is much more entertaining.
Havoc was creative but kind of pointless, while the Rocky Horror tribute show was exactly what I thought it would be — and that was cool, especially the huge biker dude with the skullcap sitting in front of us who sang every word and acted out every movement.
After Rocky Horror we headed to Bill & Ted’s. I love the energy and the pop culture references. Definitely suited for a much younger demographic than me; my kids were dancing and singing throughout.
I didn’t have high hopes for After Life, so I was pleasantly surprised. It was so discombobulating that it felt like a wild acid trip. Definitely a nice change-up.
La Llorona was very eerie and cool. The only house that had an old-time ghost haunt feeling.
Walking Dead started off slow, but once I ran into Merle and then the jail, it came alive. Much better than last year.
On the way back towards the front of the park we entered the Survivors Campsite and The Farm scare zones, which offered the best outdoor scares. Lots of zombies and fog. Unfortunately that brought us to the anti-climactic Clear zone. The graphics on the buildings were cool, but by that time the zombies became redundant.
Our last house was Resident Evil, which none of us was familiar with; however, we came out impressed. That’s the thing about all of these houses. They may be unfamiliar or not that scary, but you cannot come away from any of them without a sense of wonder of how they pull them off.
All that being said, the one thing I missed more than anything this year were the original Universal Monsters. I have always felt that they should be included in some form at HHN because they were the foundation on which the studio was built. Even if only to have them as scareactors, it would be nice to keep them in the mix as a nod to history.
Another notch in our belt, a final laugh for HHN
Well, we did it. We got back to the hotel at 1:30am after doing and seeing everything we set out to.
But as we should have suspected, Halloween Horror Nights had the last laugh…
My wife and kids flew out at 6:00am Monday morning because, for my son to be eligible to play in that afternoon’s JV football game, he had to be to school by 10:00am. When they landed, they found out that game was cancelled due to a tornado warning. Very funny.
As I write this I am sitting on the train somewhere in southern Georgia longing for my bed in Jersey, yet mapping out in my head next year’s HHN adventure!
Thanks to Orlando Informer’s Dan Hatfield for all his advice and all the info his site provided for our insane trip.
- Thomas Greco
Editor’s note: You’re very welcome, Thomas, and thank you for sharing your story with us! Your family is truly dedicated, and it is certainly because of fans like you that the creative minds at Universal strive each year to hold HHN’s position as the nation’s premier Halloween event.
Readers, if you would like to start planning your visit to HHN this year, visit our HHN 2013 pages in the OI Universal Center. If you’ve already read through everything in our guide, then you can check out all of our HHN blog posts.
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