The year is 1931; Dracula has just descended the stairs of his castle towards the unsuspecting Reinfield, greeting him upon entry. He walks slowly, allowing his cape to flow behind him. He stops, the camera closes in on his face, and he grins. The audience gasps in fright, and the horror genre has forever been changed. Monsters saved Universal Studios in the 1930s, so it's no surprise they would honor their legacy of fright.
In 1990, Universal Studios Florida opened its doors. What would set this apart from its original Hollywood counterpart was that it was explicitly built as a theme park with movie elements, but the acreage afforded them the space to place visitors in the movies in a way Hollywood couldn't. One year later, Orlando would host its first "Universal Studios Fright Night" event. For three nights (October 25, 26, and 31), guests could visit The Dungeon of Terror and see a collection of stage shows. In 1992, the event would be renamed Halloween Horror Nights, and the rest is history.
In 2002, I was watching the travel channel with my mother when a show discussing the making of the event and featuring footage from some of the scare zones and houses came on. I couldn't get this event out of my mind, and while other little girls dreamed of growing up to work as a princess up the block, I wanted to make monsters, something that now, twenty years later, hasn't really changed. I finally attended the event in the fall of 2014, and I haven't looked back, even indoctrinating my husband in the annual ritual.
Universal outdoes itself every year. With ten houses, five different scare zones, plus a stage show and food booths, you need more than one evening to soak in all the frights. Five of these houses will have an already established IP, putting you in the midst of your favorite scary movies. Everyone from Leatherface to Michael Myers has graced these hallowed halls of the sound stages, and this year, they brought in some truly heavy hitters. Starting with the return of Stranger Things Season 4, HHN has previously done two other Stranger Things. This year, we pick up in season 4 with the introduction of 001 and fan favorite Eddie Munson. The artists and fabricators behind this house left no detail untouched, and I was blown away at the use of color, fog, and lighting design that really brought us into Vecna's curse.
In Chucky Ultimate Kill Count, visitors are treated to a 'greatest hits' of that menacing little doll's best kills over the movie franchise and now the SyFy Series. The Exorcist: Believer is the newest addition to the lore and world of the original 1973 film. While the movie comes out on October 6th, HHN has taken this opportunity to create something that has never been done before — a living, breathing trailer. Follow the maze as you search for Angela and Katherine, two young girls who have no memory of their departure. Evil has returned with them, and in this house, you play the role of the parents, uncovering the truth. One of the most anticipated houses by fans this year was undoubtedly The Last of Us based on the acclaimed video game. Now, I never played the game, but I appreciated the small details to make you feel like you were inside it. The wigs were one of those details; they had the flow of CGI hair. They were thick, and the movement was minor unless they really moved around. They also touched on scenes exclusive to the game, but no spoilers!
Every year, Universal spotlights different monsters from their Universal Monster collection and creates a house around the legacy characters we know and love. This year in Monsters Unmasked, we are strolling through the streets of Paris while gruesome murders are happening around the city. (This year's Hollywood counterpart will take guests below the City of Lights into the Parisian catacombs.) We discover the murders are the work of not one but FOUR of these classic creeps. The Phantom is severing faces as you wind through the halls of the opera house, complete with the smells of opening night roses, which is a wonderful touch. Protect yourself in the alleyways from the notorious Mr. Hyde, the dark counterpart to Dr. Jekyll. Listen closely and beware of your surroundings to avoid strangulation from Dr. Jack Griffin, aka The Invisible Man. When you think you've found sanctuary in the nearby église de Notre Dame, The Hunchback has come from above, and there are no singing gargoyles here! Anyone who knows me knows my deep love for these classic monsters, so I wait every year to see how they will reimagine the stories to really engage guests in the frights.
While Universal excels with the established IP, the bar is really raised in their original houses and scare zones. Some of my favorites and the houses I remember throughout the years have been crafted by Lora Sauls, the Assistant Director of Creative Development and Show Direction for Art and Design, and her team. Each year, HHN has an icon, an event MC, if you will, who oversees the chaos and brings in their own flair. This year that crown was bestowed to Dr. Oddfellow, the twisted ringmaster who gave past Icon Jack the Clown his immortal power. Dr. Oddfellow is looking for souls to stay in power, and he's set up places around the park to try and collect. Drawing inspiration from moments in his history when he was on his quest for power, visitors will encounter five scare zones throughout the park that tell his dark tale. When you enter the park, you will meet with Dr. Oddfellow's Collection of Horror. Going around the lake counter-clockwise, you'll see Dark Zodiac, Jungle of Doom Expedition Horror, Shipyard 32: Horrors Unhinged, and Vamp 69: Summer of Blood.
All of these scare zones allow you to live through his story, but if you want a deeper dive into his lore, I highly recommend checking out the Discover Universal Podcast. They do a six-episode series on the scare zones and Dr. Oddfellow's story. To learn where it all began, step into the house of Dr. Oddfellow's Twisted Origins, where we learn where he got his power, and the carnival where the cost of admission is your soul. From twisted clowns and circus oddities, this carnival isn't what you're used to as you encounter his minions out for blood.
The creative team behind this event really listens to the fans, providing extended storylines or sequels to fan favorites and even serves up doses of nostalgia for the real die-hearts. Take Lil' Boo, for instance. The origin of this little cutie started in 2021. Upon entering the house Wicked Growth (a favorite of mine that year), guests walked past hundreds of carved pumpkins. One of the smallest ones was carved with a crazed little face, bug eyes, and a slit for a mouth. The fans ate Lil' Boo up! A cult following was formed around this pumpkin, and last year, Universal devoted merchandise to the character and brought them back for the Pumpkin Lord's scare zone. Two years later, the fans are still craving Lil' Boo, and the character has become an icon in their own right. So when Universal announced that another fan-favorite attraction was being turned into a house, the fans went wild.
In Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate, fans are treated to the nostalgia from the opening day of Islands of Adventure before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter existed. In the land The Lost Continent, which was themed around dragons, wizards, and Arabian tales, there was a dueling roller coaster aptly named Dueling Dragons. When you entered the queue, you were asked to 'choose thy fate' and had to pick whether to ride Blizrock the ice dragon or Pyrock the fire dragon. The line was a menagerie of mythical lore, Merlin's magic, and the creativity of the Universal team. In this house, guests witness the fight between the two wizards turned dragons and get caught in the middle. At the end of the house, you will once again choose your own path. This house is unique because there are two paths with four possible endings. You don't have to follow your party when the path splits. Fans will be delighted by the Easter eggs from the past queue sprinkled throughout. It took me right back to my first trip to the parks and riding this coaster several times by myself (only child problems).
Yeti: Campground Kills is the third installment in our Sasquatch storyline, having originated in arguably my favorite house from 2018 Slaughterhouse Sinema. It's the 1950s and we're on a family camping trip in a National Park. But when one of the young yetis is found dead, the family enacts their revenge on all those staying in the park. This is definitely the campy B-Movie house that will leave you startled and laughing at some of the creative ways the Big Foot family have claimed their victims. Rounding out the original houses, The Darkest Deal asks, what would you do for fame and fortune? When blues musician Pinestraw Spruce sold his soul for musical fame in the Mississippi Delta, he didn't expect the collector to come for his soul so soon. This house has to be one of my favorites from this year. Mixing great music, costumes, and atmosphere, there are details to take in everywhere you look. On the tables in the jazz clubs, posters on the walls, and the smells of fresh earth as you follow The Collector to the underworld. When a house can fully immerse you, it brings the fright to the next level, lulls you into a sense of security because you are taking in the sights, and disarms you so that when those scare actors appear, you're caught by surprise.
For the final house, Blood Moon Dark Offerings grand scale village mazes are what Universal Orlando really excels at. Upon entering this colonial village, it's apparent something is wrong, and guests are immediately treated to a sacrificial offering. One of the bloodiest and most grotesque houses this year, the fabrication team spared no expense for blood, with kills reminiscent of films like The Wicker Man, The Village, and the creative killings of the Saw franchise. The cult is tasked to kill any non-follower of the Blood Moon and has done so in the most creative ways. Blood, guts, and body parts litter the streets, smear the walls, and have even been creatively presented on tables. And don't forget to look up, the blood moon is following you. Let's just say you'll never look at a Maypole the same again.
Halloween Horror Nights has become a yearly tradition in my family, not just because my husband and I are spooky people, but as artists, the appreciation for crafting these houses, writing these stories, and creating this immersive environment never goes unnoticed. These craftspeople truly care about the product they're making, and because of the Universal name, you are getting movie quality. I highly recommend one of their lights-on tours during the day. These give you a behind-the-scenes look where the process is explained and allows you to really take in the details.
By the time you exit a house, you have been fully transported to another place, so much so seeing security upon the exit can disorient you at first. The love for this event is apparent. The people who make it love it just as much as we do, and it shows. One of the biggest indicators of this is the Tribute Store, the massive gift shop they do yearly. Each year, the theme changes. This year, transports visitors to a 1960s NYC Comic Book shop where each room of the store is a different panel in the comic, available for purchase! This experience goes beyond buying HHN-related merchandise, so take your time exploring every nook and cranny. Whether you're an HHN veteran or noob, you will find small hints of past events, nods to horror films and legends that came before, and even clues to the next season's story. The stories told from event to event are all interconnected, and it's these spaces where they plant the seeds for what's happening next!
The Dead Coconut Club is the most clever example of this. This is a classic monster overlay to the existing Red Coconut Club, a nightclub at City Walk. This past summer at the All Hallow's Eve Boutique at Islands of Adventure (a year-round Halloween store at the sister theme park to the Studios), the theme for summer was the classic monsters making a film. Check out this article for more information and images. The monsters have completed their film Revenge of the Red Planet in 3-D and invited you to their movie premiere. Sip drive-in-themed cocktails and mocktails as you join the monsters in the screening, complete with aliens. I can't stop nerding out at how clever this is too!
So please roam around, take in the atmosphere, and sample your way through all the food and drinks you can. Food booths themed to the houses line the streets and have a plethora of vegan and non-vegan options. Might I suggest the vegan burnt ends poutine? It hit that midnight craving spot I was looking for. Have you ever wondered what Surfer Boy pizza actually tastes like? Now's your chance to indulge.
In Diagon Alley, notorious Death Eaters cast spells and do the Dark Lord's bidding. But the real highlight for me was the incredible M3GAN flash mob. This campy dance troupe of killer dolls delights the crowd with their sweet moves, but keep your distance, you know what happens if you hurt Katie.
This was another year of top-notch offerings and spooky fun. Bonus: If you stay in one of Universal's onsite hotels, you can hop over to Cabana Bay Beach resort and take part in Chucky's Twisted Playground, a photo opportunity exclusive to hotel guests, then grab a spooky cocktail/mocktail at their Swizzle Lounge with their pumpkin overlay. Halloween Horror Nights truly is the most wonderful time of the year, and I hope that you are able to experience the magic of this event. Whether you're a casual fan and want to get scared or a rabid theme park lady like me diving deep into the lore and history of the event, Universal Orlando Resort and Halloween Horror Nights has something for everyone. The event runs from now until November 4th, get your tickets for Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights now.