I didn’t even make it out of the airport before I saw the t-shirts. Dracula. Demodogs. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Oh my.
It’s time, once again, for Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights, where the syrupy fog rolls in and the pizza fries sell like hotcakes. Ten new haunted houses. Five new scare zones. Two new shows. Six more nights of fright than last year (and counting, if they tack more on at the end as they tend to).
In stature, synthwave, and puppeteered abominations, Halloween Horror Nights 29 is bigger than ever, but there wasn’t as much fog as I remembered.
Twenty-nine is a stressful age. At 28, the event cracked open a wildly popular Pandora’s box with the first Stranger Things maze. Lines stretched to a near-constant two hours. Merchandise left cartoon dust clouds as it flew off shelves. Universal eventually did the unthinkable and opened the house during normal park hours for a day. As expected, they don’t publicly brag about how much money changed hands, but the sheer volume of last year’s Stranger Things t–shirts still walking around this year is metric enough.
However, like any good monkey’s paw, there’s usually a catch, and that catch is the size of those t-shirts.
The average Halloween Horror Nights visitor has gotten considerably younger in the last few years. There’s never been a hard age restriction. Ads still caution against bringing anyone under 13, but more middle school daredevils are rolling those dice than ever before. Some long-time Halloween Horror Nights fans see that as side effect and symptom of a more insidious problem.
Is Halloween Horror Nights going soft?
The event designers themselves have offered assurances to the contrary, and, in their defense, a yeti does stick its arm through a man’s sternum in one of this year’s houses.
Walking through those gates, though, tells a more complicated story. The sweet, sweet fog is thinner. Scare zones seem to be built to abide bigger mobs, with more elevated stages and fewer roaming ghouls. The parkwide soundtrack is wall-to-wall synthwave, and while I love Carpenter Brut as much as the next guy, the lack of 28’s movie-specific music takes a lot of the edge off. By the end of the night, instead of making me watch the shadows and steer wide of blind corners, I wanted nothing more than to put on massive aviators and speed down I4 in a sportscar with motorized headlights that break real easy.
Not a bad feeling, but a different one.
Halloween Horror Nights 29 is an ‘80s nostalgia overdose in purple neon. Not all the houses and scare zones fit the VHS vibe comfortably, but the two with the most billboards do – the inevitable Stranger Things and the unbelievable Ghostbusters zones, two pop cultural juggernauts with wait times and family-friendly accusations to match. It’s a strange time for a strange event, stuck halfway between the year that changed the game and a landmark anniversary. Will you be scared? Sure, but probably not in every haunted house. Will you be hunted on the streets? Sure, but you might have to make yourself a big enough target. Will you find Members Only Nirvana in the ‘80s That Never Were? Sure, but without much of that Halloween feeling. Will you have fun?
For better and worse, softness allegations or no, there’s never been a better year for souls curious and cowardly to give Halloween Horror Nights 29 a try. Here’s the laydown:
I went two nights, the last Friday and Sunday in September, on a promo ticket Universal had started offering in the late spring. Any two non-Saturday nights are about $80. Compare that to $120 for a single night at the front gate, or even the date-variable pricing online in the $70 to $90 range, and it sells itself. If you’re in town for longer than a weekend, consider a Frequent Fear Pass, which gets you every night that isn’t Friday and Saturday for the price of one at the front gate.
Then there’s the Express Pass. It’s an extra $120 (at least, depending on the date) and gets you into a special, shorter line for all the mazes. I had one on Friday. Like most weekend nights, Halloween Horror Nights 29 opened at 6:30PM and closed at 2:00AM. By 10:30, I’d already braved eight of the 10 haunted houses. The advantage is obvious. But, I survived Halloween Horror Nights 29 the same weekend as Halloween Horror Nights 28 – the last weekend in September – and the crowds were surprisingly lighter this year. Stranger Things was easily the longest line, but didn’t reach much past 90 minutes. Everything else flirted with an hour wait time, but mostly hung around the 40-minute mark. On Sunday, without Express, I walked three houses, rode a few rides, saw a show, shopped, and wandered without having to stay much past 11:00. Even without the Express Pass, two nights would’ve been plenty of time to take it all in. The closer you get to Halloween, though, the heavier the crowds, so plan accordingly.
Halloween Horror Nights 29 is living theater. Sets are built. Effects are installed. Hideous scars are applied. Then, they let in the real maniacs to see it all. It’s worth remembering that no two walkthroughs are the same. Sometimes, the actors miss you. Sometimes, the whole cast is swapping out for the next shift. This is all to say that nothing of the inevitable wear, tear, and abandoned gags pile up over a shindig this massive, especially with this many plates spinning nightly. There’s no right or wrong time to go, and no two trips are ever the same. Should you read any of the following opinions and think me a scurrilous hack, this is also my legal defense.
The first part of my review will cover just the five(ish) IP-based houses, starting with…
Remember when this show was about a kid on a bike seeing an odd shape in the road? That’s not a criticism so much as a genuine question. In just three seasons, Stranger Things went from a show that David Harbour assumed was the end of his career because Netflix didn’t promote it at all to a brand that has its own section at Target.
That seismic shift plays out in blinding fast-forward in this year’s house. It opens with the last scene of its first season – Eleven pinning the Demogorgon to the blackboard – and ends with a twenty-foot monster in a shopping mall, the biggest ever built for Halloween Horror Nights.
The expanded canvas of seasons 2 and 3 alleviates the one-monster problem of last year’s house – the Flayed residents of Hawkins especially earn their paychecks – but it does present a few new ones. There are Demodogs to spare, but not many that move. More lookalikes make up the difference, some of them uncanny under strobes, but most are only there to set scenes without even the possibility of a jolt. Hopper’s cabin is recreated with a massive, impossibly detailed set, but the tentacular assault from season 3 is reduced to Eleven, Nancy, and Max nervously staring at a bunch of unmoving limbs.
If you loved streaming it, you’ll love living it. If you didn’t, it’s still an impressive recreation. If you’ve never watched, it’s incomprehensible long before pudgy Magnum P.I. unloads an AK-47 in your general direction.
Favorite Moment: In lieu of last year’s projected opening credits, all the game cabinets in the Palace Arcade scene glitch out at the same time and play in sync.
Full disclosure: I am the target audience for this. The original Ghostbusters is my favorite movie of all time, and I will defend Ghostbusters II if sufficiently provoked.
I absolutely loved this haunt. That said, it’s easily the least scary house of the year. But what it lacks in teeth-chattering terror, it makes up for in sheer, pun-intended spirit.
You can hear the Ray Parker, Jr. pumping before you even get into the sound stage. Every scene you could want from the 1984 classic is present and lovingly accounted for. It has the only Rick Moranis jump scare in the whole of human history. Like Stranger Things, if you love the source material, you’re going to love this.
But if you don’t or aren’t familiar with the franchise, it still makes a pretty convincing case for its goofy, occasionally grotesque charms. The scare quotient is on par with a Laff-in-the-Dark carnival ride, with only a Slimer or two that could really ruin your night. The iconic effects are as good as they get for something this fundamentally temporary – I shed an empathetic tear for the guys who have to run around in proton packs all night – and the iconic lines still get laughs, even if a few of them could’ve been employed as distractions for scares instead of unleaded nostalgia.
Terrifying? No. The most infectiously good time I had all night? Absolutely. I’ve never seen people dance out of a house before.
Favorite Moment: I went twice, and, at the end of my last run, the marshmallow-smeared Peter Venkman high-fived me.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space
Like fellow cult favorite Trick ‘r Treat before it, Killer Klowns From Outer Space (read our retro review here) made the leap from love-letter scare zone to bigger-love-letter haunted house. I’m assuming they used the same suits from last year, but let me tell you, they seem a lot taller indoors.
The unmistakable womp of John Massari’s “Klown March” sets a familiar pace. Marvel at Klowns of every size, including Parade Float. Squint at the stunningly recreated Day-Glo funhouse spaceship. Politely decline the Terenzi Brothers’s offer of a creamsicle for the road.
It’s the ultimate Killer Klowns From Outer Space experience, but if you’re not down with these particular klowns, the goofiness probably won’t do much for you, although a primal fear of The Red-Nosed Ones should be enough to get your blood pumping.
Considering its cramped and convoluted footprint, the Shrek 4-D theater is something of a Halloween Horror Nights 29 short-straw, but Klowns never feels squished (see: Klownzilla). It’s easily my favorite of the houses they’ve wedged in here.
Favorite Moment: The cotton candy gauntlet that weaponizes the way an actor in a Klown suit and a mannequin in a Klown suit are virtually indistinguishable.
Hands Across America happened in the ‘80s. It counts. If you don’t buy that, c’mon. It’s a Jordan Peele movie. You’re on a horror site. The math is not hard.
Considering its white-hot source material, it’s only appropriate then that the Us (read our review here) haunted house is the most contentious one in the bunch, based on my scientific eavesdropping that has a little to do with prior feelings about the movie and a lot to do with the scares.
Us plays by different rules than the other houses. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel – a tall order for any three-minute walk – but it has its own rhythm. Stillness is the name of the game. When you walk into the house and see Red watching through the open front door from the end of the driveway, the little hairs on the back of your neck don’t know whether they’re coming or going.
Fear not (or much), there are jumps aplenty. Some of that stillness is baited-breath suspense, while some of it irresistible distraction. But when the admirably re-enacted moments border on full vignettes with necessarily long reset times, that silence can feel a lot like dead space.
On its own unique terms, with the doppelganger dynamic muddled in translation despite the best lookalikes across the park, Us ends up more tense than terrifying. It’s a bit of an experiment, but by no means an unwelcome one. No offense to killers in coveralls wielding sharp objects, but a little variety never hurt anybody (that badly).
Favorite Moment: The sound stage entrance hall, with nothing to occupy you but carnival lights overhead, along with that remix of “I Got 5 On It.”
House of 1000 Corpses
I’m not a Rob Zombie fan, but dang if I don’t respect him. He makes the movies he wants to make, and you can tell they’re his from a mile off. Loud, proud, and grimy enough to need a wet-nap. Also, the music is good.
House of 1000 Corpses (read our retro review here) nails the trademark Zombie texture with the fluorescent bulbs outside, flickering a green shade of electric mold. I walked it with someone who’d never seen the movie, and, upon safe escape, asked what they thought the plot was:
Someone goes into a gas station, then there’s a bunch of weird people in a house, then dead people underground, and the clown shows up again at the end.
So, this is a pretty solid approximation of the movie.
Given the at-times obtrusive darkness, it’s hard to see what they did include, but Captain Spaulding’s Murder Ride is glaringly omitted. Without a few hokey animatronics to mix it up, House turns into one long, well… house. The locations bleed into one another, all with the same Probably-Sticky-To-The-Touch aesthetic.
It’s a real shame about the dark, too, because this is the most authentically lived-in environment of the event. Just don’t squint too long, because it’s also the most intense IP house by a country mile.
Like its inspiration, this thing’s a walkthrough jack-in-the-box of Kentucky-fried depravity. Enter, if you dare.
Favorite Moment: Captain Spaulding threatening us to buy chicken. RIP, Sid.
Keep your eyes turned to PopHorror for part II of my Halloween Horror Nights 29 review, wherein I’ll polish off the five remaining original(ish) houses, all the scare zones, and both shows.