Cross another item off the bucket list.
For years, my friends in the theme park enthusiast community have been telling me that I HAVE to check out Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights event. But I’ve been to Halloween events and haunted houses in the past. They kept telling me how this was DIFFERENT.
They were right.
Last week I flew down to Orlando and checked out HHN for the first time. Over two nights, I experienced every one of the haunted houses and checked out much of what the event had to offer. HHN attracts a large crowd every night, and with so much to do, it can be kind of intimidating for a first time visitor. I thought I would answer some questions you might have about how it works, some observations I had as a newbie, and I’d share my rankings of this year’s haunted houses. First up…
What is it?
The Universal Orlando Resort has two theme parks – Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. During the months of September, October and a few days in November, Universal Studios closes at 5pm. Once the park is cleared of daytime guests, it reopens as “Halloween Horror Nights.”
The park offers 10 different haunted houses as well as five scare zones. The haunted houses are mostly held in soundstages, which are located backstage at the park. The scare zones are right in the middle of the main walkways. You’ll cross through them as you walk around the park.
The haunted houses have different themes every year. Fans get excited as the park announces what they’ll be walking through each season. Universal usually has some houses themed after popular shows and movies. This year featured a Stranger Things themed haunted house, as well as a house themed after the new movie The Exorcist: Believer.
The scare zones feature different themes with actors roaming around in costumes or spooky Halloween makeup. All of these things are included with your Halloween Horror Nights admission.
When does this happen?
This year’s event started on September 1st and runs through November 4th. The event runs Wednesday through Sunday nights. It officially opens at 6:30pm every night but you can get early access through their “Stay and Scream” option. I’ll explain that in a bit.
I’ve been to haunted houses, how are these any different?
Honestly, the houses at Universal need to be seen to be believed. According to a report in Forbes, analysts estimate that Universal spends upwards of $100 million to stage, market and staff the HHN event. It shows from the moment you step into one of these houses. The set design, sound, lighting and even the smells are all part of the attraction. One second you are standing outside of a boring looking soundstage building. The next moment you are walking into another creepy world.
Each of these houses has a unique storyline. For example, the Stranger Things house has you walking through season four of the show. Many of the classic moments from the latest season are recreated with actors who look and sound like the actors from the actual show.
Another thing that was different for me, guests walk through the house in a continuous single file line. Many haunted houses have groups go in together, then have the next group pause for a few moments and wait for actors to reset. That can’t happen with the massive crowds Universal draws. I was worried that walking in a continually moving single file line would mean I would miss some scares. And yes, you definitely miss some scares. But it also means that each experience through the house is a unique one! I went through a few houses multiple times and encountered different actors jumping out at me in different spots. There were more than enough scary moments to make up for any jumps that weren’t timed to my spot in the line.
Let’s talk about those jump moments. You know how jump scares work in movies? It’s not always a monster jumping out into your face that causes you to jump out of your seat. Walking through some of these houses, I got a scare with all kinds of random things, like a police officer popping out of a bush with a flashlight. Most of these are accompanied by a loud sound effect or music cue. The actors have a trigger that sets off that sound…so it’s always perfectly timed for maximum effect.
Long story short – Universal spares no expense on these houses. They are elaborate and a ton of fun for fans of scary stuff.
Are there things to do besides the houses?
Yes! As I mentioned, you can grab a drink and just walk the park experiencing the scare zones. The actors are very good at coming out of nowhere and popping right up into your face. It’s fun to watch people walk through these and get genuinely freaked out, usually followed by laughter. The event also features a stage show called Nightmare Fuel that is performed multiple times a night. You can also get lucky and run into some random performances on the street, like Dementors in the Harry Potter Diagon Alley section of the park or dancing M3gans from the 2022 horror movie.
Are any of the rides open?
Yes! While not every ride is operating during Halloween Horror Nights, a handful were. They include Revenge of the Mummy, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Men In Black: Alien Attack, Transformers: The Ride 3D and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit.
What are the crowds like?
There are crowds and they are big. Obviously the weekends are the most popular. You’ll generally find the smallest crowds on Wednesday nights, but the event is popular every night it is open. My advice is to be prepared to spend a lot of time on your feet and quite a bit of time waiting for houses. At peak times of the night, you can wait over an hour for the most popular houses. That said, everybody there seemed to understand this and was having a good time just being outside in this environment. It felt like a big Halloween party.
Do they offer express passes for houses?
Yes! I used an express pass on my first night there. I found that the express pass enabled me to wait about a third of the published wait time. So if a house had an hour standby wait, I waited about 20 minutes in the express pass line. You can determine if an express pass is worth the extra cost or not. But if you only have one night at the event and you would like to experience all 10 houses, it’s probably worth the investment.
What is that Stay and Scream thing you mentioned? Will that save me time?
As I mentioned before, Universal Studios closes to daytime guests at 5pm. If you have a ticket to Halloween Horror Nights, you have the option to hang around in the park while they clear out daytime guests. The park sets up gated waiting areas near some of the haunted houses. So if you really want to check out the more popular houses, you can stick around and hang out in the area near those houses.
I chose to do the Stranger Things house first so I opted to go into the Stay and Scream area near that house. I was not alone!
This is the crowd of people that were waiting for Stranger Things on a Wednesday evening in the Stay and Scream zone. The big perk of being in this zone is getting early access to the house. They tend to open them around 5:30 to guests who are there early. That means you can check off one of the most popular houses quickly and move on to other houses – all before the main gates to Halloween Horror Nights open. If you plan to squeeze in all of the houses in one night, it’s probably a necessity for you to do Stay and Scream, especially if you don’t have an express pass.
Basically, you are still waiting to visit a haunted house when you are camped out in a Stay and Scream zone, but you are choosing to spend that time waiting earlier in the night instead of later. Grab a drink and meet some interesting people while you are waiting. I found the crowd to be festive and fun.
What is the best order to see all of these haunted houses?
This is really going to depend on what your goals are. Do you have multiple nights? Is there one house you really want to visit multiple times to catch all of the Easter Eggs? I followed this suggested order from the Orlando Informer and it really helped me get into nine houses in one night!
How old do you have to be to attend this? Should I bring my kids?
While there is no age requirement to enter, Universal’s official policy states that Halloween Horror Nights is NOT recommended for guests under the age of 13. There is a reason they recommend this – there are some legit scary things all around the park.
What were your favorite haunted houses this season?
Thank you for asking! Here are my rankings of the 2023 Halloween Horror Nights haunted houses, starting with my least favorite to my favorite!
#10 – Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count
I’m not a big fan of the slasher genre when it comes to horror, at least not like I used to be when I was younger. Chucky was never my favorite franchise in the genre, either. So this house really wasn’t really for me from the jump. I didn’t find a ton of scares in this and seeing that I’m not a big fan of the series, it came in last on my list.
#9 – Dr. Oddfellow’s Twisted Origins
Dr. Oddfellow is one of the original characters at Halloween Horror Nights. Universal describes the house this way: “You won’t be able to resist going inside Dr. Oddfellow’s menacing menagerie of twisted oddities. But the price for you and your friends is steep: the cost of your souls to feed his immortal power.”
I loved the tent setup for this house. There are a lot of creepy carnival related spooky characters and items throughout. It’s a solid house, but seeing that I’m new and not that familiar with Dr. Oddfellow as a character, I probably didn’t take as much from this as the frequent HHN visitor.
#8- Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate
This house is themed after the former fan favorite Dueling Dragons roller coaster that was located at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The park removed it to make way for the Harry Potter themed Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure coaster, which has been a huge hit. Still, fans miss the B&M suspended Dueling Dragons, and Universal went above and beyond to pay tribute to the former attraction with this haunted house. As you walk through, different dragon-like characters emerge from around corners. They reminded me of the White Walkers from the Game of Thrones series. This might not be the scariest house in the group, but I love that Universal put in the effort for all of the fans of the ride. Plus, you get to “Choose Your Fate” at the end and pick which direction to walk. That was a fun way to mix things up!
#7 – The Last of Us
I am a huge fan of the Playstation game, as well as the HBO series, so I was really looking forward to this house. I left a little disappointed. The costumes and makeup were outstanding…especially the bloater! There were some good scares throughout. But I felt that the storytelling element was surprisingly lacking, with minimal focus on the series’ two main characters Joel and Ellie. Seeing how well the story in the Stranger Things house came together, I feel like this could have been better. All of that said, I still believe the costumes and theming make this a must visit for any fan of TLOU.
#6 – The Exorcist: Believer
I have not seen the new Exorcist movie, so I can’t comment on how well it sticks or strays from the plot. The set design is fantastic from the start and the scare actors did a fantastic job bringing these demon-possessed kids to life.
#5 – The Darkest Deal
I found this to be one of the best storytelling experiences at this year’s HHN. You follow the saga of Pinestraw Spruce, a musician who sells his soul for fame and fortune. There is so much great sound in this house as you walk through his downfall. Such a great job by the actors who bring the story to life. I loved this house.
#4 – Universal Monsters Unmasked
I am a huge fan of the classic Universal monsters, so I was really looking forward to this. It didn’t disappoint! I will say this house was especially gory in spots, particularly the Wolfman tearing somebody apart or the Phantom of the Opera making himself a new mask.
However, this house gave me the biggest scare in all of Halloween Horror Nights. It involved the Hunchback of Notre Dame standing on a platform above as you walk underneath. Suddenly, the actor appeared to be falling right on top of me …. until I noticed he was roped into the set above. It was an incredible effect that legit had me jumping out of the way! This was an awesome scare and the actor really sold it.
#3 – Bloodmoon: Dark Offerings
This house is another Universal original with a story about a Colonial-era cult worshiping the blood moon. The house is eerie from the moment you walk into the village and see the full blood moon glowing off in the distance. The highlight has to be the creepy church you walk through, wondering which person in a row of pews is going to come to life and make you jump. This is just a creepy house with all kinds of disturbing content coming at you from high and low.
#2 – Stranger Things Season 4
I’m a huge Stranger Things fan and this house lived up to the hype. While it wasn’t the scariest of the houses for me, it was so cool to walk through the different scenes from the season. The costumes were fantastic and the actors really look and sound like the actors from the show. I didn’t want this experience to end. Just a well done experience from start to finish, especially that last scare as you’re heading out of the house.
#1 – Yeti: Campground Kills
I loved this Universal original. You walk through a campground as yetis are tearing campers apart. It’s a campy, dark humor house that apparently has a lot of throwbacks to Halloween Horror Nights of past years. Being a newbie, those references flew over my head, but I still loved this house! It was a ton of fun and I swear the yetis were getting bigger and bigger as the house went on. This house has a great mix of scares and laughs, which is the perfect blend of what I’m looking for during Halloween. I did this house multiple times and loved each trip!
Any last minute tips or thoughts?
Yes! Just a few things:
Find tips from locals!
There are so many bloggers and reporters local to Orlando who are posting updates from the parks throughout the season. Find some of your favorites and stay tuned to the things they are seeing and sharing.
Bring a battery backup for your phone!
Like I mentioned, you’ll be doing a lot of waiting and you’ll likely want to take a lot of photos and videos around the park. If you forget, you can buy a FuelRod at the Men In Black store – they cost about $35.
Prepare for rain
It’s Florida, it’s hot, and when it rains, it RAINS. Get yourself a poncho that you can easily access, something lightweight that won’t have you overheating underneath it.
Try something new!
I ate at the new Minions Cafe for the first time on this trip. I went with the Green Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese and Pimento sandwich. It was delicious…I loved the crispy pork belly pieces in the soup.
And finally, the most important tip I have for you….
RESPECT THE ACTORS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSES.
You’ll notice a few things in the haunted houses. First, there is a monitor when you walk into each house showing you all of the security cameras throughout. You are being watched! And each room with a scare actor in it also has a plain clothed Universal employee standing by. They aren’t there to ruin your scare experience, they are there to protect the actor and stop people from doing anything dumb, like touching or hitting them. Despite all of that, I still hear stories about guests getting confrontational or aggressive with scare actors. Not only is it unsafe for the people working there, but it also ruins the experience for everybody trying to enjoy these houses. Simply put – have fun and DON’T TOUCH THE ACTORS.
You can find more information with dates, times and prices for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights on their website. In addition to Orlando and Hollywood, the company is also building a year-round horror experience in Las Vegas – Universal Horror Unleashed. Judging from the crowds and all of the interest, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the HHN concept continue to expand to even more locations.