Halloween is by far my favorite time of year (sorry Christmas). As soon as I start seeing pumpkins and costumes — and especially horror movies popping up — I know its about to get really fun. One of the best things about Halloween is the plethora of haunted houses, trails and mazes that you can hit up over the course of the month of October. I’m sure you’re like me and try to check out as many as you can to whet your appetite for the scariness and cheesiness that these attractions offer. But a whole new standard for Halloween events has been set by my recent romp into the world of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando.

I think what impressed me most at first was that me, my wife and our two friends that were down in Orlando celebrating their honeymoon (what up Jeff and Taylor) went and enjoyed a normal day at Universal Studios, which was a ton of fun. If you’ve ever been there before, you know that while its a pretty decent size park its not gigantic enough to think that they can put together an entire Halloween event on, complete with 9 haunted houses and numerous scare zones within an hour and a half from closing the facility for daily operations. And aside from the occasional decorations that didn’t seem out of place and the part of the park that was to be the Purge area, you wouldn’t really guess that come night time, Universal would transform the entire place into a horror fans dream.

Entering the park was easy and you immediately see the difference from when we were there just a few hours earlier as a metamorphosis had taken place and it’s now officially Halloween Horror Nights time! You hear the chain saws in the distance and a few screams and, despite it still being daylight, it is on!

The best tip I will give anyone from the experience is that you better invest in the Express Pass so that you can go to the shorter lines. You might say “But Joey that’s a lot of money and I just want to be able to get in and enjoy it.” Well you’d be stupid.

Be an adult.

Get the Express Pass.

Like I mentioned the crowd was already larger than normal due to it being Friday the 13th (and it’s still THOUSANDS of people normally) so the standard lines got insanely long by the end of the night. The Express Pass allowed us to shave off a minimum of 30-45 minutes or more off of our wait times and we all agreed we would buy them again the next time. Without question. Because if you want to realistically check out all nine of the houses they offer this year (some years its more) then you have to get the Express Pass. Because even if you get there when it opens at 6:30pm and stay all the way til close at 2am, you most likely won’t even get to go through some of the houses. However, if you choose to skimp out, they at least serve beer in line so that’s a positive.

That transitions us into the houses themselves now and the only small complaint I had. That is with the capacity of the crowd, Universal had to send people through the houses in a line rather than one group at a time like smaller attractions are able to do. That does take away from the scares a little as you can see what’s coming up to surprise you often times. But it didn’t hurt the fun at all. As I mentioned, Universal offered nine different houses for the horror enthusiasts in attendance and I’ll rank them from worst to best and talk a little about them.

9. The Horrors of Blumhouse – I had high hopes for the newest powerhouse in horror film productions as Blumhouse partnered with Universal to create a combined experience of Insidious, Sinister and the Purge into one terrifying location. All 3 of those film franchises have had major success. So, for this house to end up at the bottom of my list is disappointing, but it really just wasn’t as solid as I hoped for. Don’t get me wrong, the production of it was outstanding as they hit all of the major monsters/moments of the films. but cramming three franchises into one house just didn’t work for me. However the Purge scare zone that was close to the Revenge of the Mummy ride was really awesome, and they even had a character standing on a bus, a la Purge: Election Year, “auctioning” off victims to the crowd to be Purged. That made up for the lackluster house.

8. Hive – Setup like a derelict residence, this house was themed around a nest of vampires that have holed up in a family dwelling. Naturally, the family is all kinds of dead throughout the house and various styles of vamps jump out at you from all over the place. Truthfully as great as the house looked itself, the vampires themselves were actually pretty shabby by Universal standards. Not a bad house but definitely not close to my favorite.

7. The Fallen – I’ll start by saying that this one might have been higher on my list because they had badass flying devil-angel hybrids going overhead at certain parts, except the quality of some of the other houses puts this toward the bottom. Overall this was a decent house with a unique concept. I never put much thought into a religious themed house like this where it had an almost Rapture feel to it. The characters in this house definitely had some of the coolest makeup of the entire thing.

6. SAW: The Games of Jigsaw – This was the first house we hit right when we got into the park. I found if funny that the SAW house was set up in the back of the Shrek 4D theater. I am glad I didn’t see Donkey in a mandible ripping machine that’s for sure. I actually loved the production value of the house immensely. With a movie franchise as big as SAW this house had a lot to live up to and for the most part it delivered. They included a lot of the famous characters and torture devices from the films like the Billy doll on the tricycle to greet you as you enter and people in the weird piggish outfit that Jigsaw wears to kidnap his victims. But it still left a little to be desired just because with SAW you expect a different level of intense.

5. Scarecrow: The Reaping – Another one of the original houses created by Horror Nights this year was themed around murderous scarecrows and escaping a not-so-family friendly corn maze.  It was a really great setup complete with real corn stalks at the beginning and at the end to disorient you that made it look and feel authentic. This is the first of the houses that actually managed to give me some good jump scares and I liked it a lot. The characters in the attraction had top notch costumes and the visuals of the corn field and old farm house were really effective.

4. American Horror Story: Volume 2 – Admittedly I haven’t watched much of this show over the years despite it being insanely popular with most of my friends but with its reputation I was pumped about this house.  And the only reason I don’t have it higher is because of the high regard I have for the final 3.  They were smart to bring American Horror Story back again to Horror Nights because of the positive response it was guaranteed to get.  It was the final house we hit up before calling it a night and, yet again, thank the Lord for the Express Pass because we would’ve been waiting until the park closed to go through. While waiting in line they had the different music from the show playing over the speakers so I thought that added greatly to the atmosphere. Then you go through the house as they featured scenes and characters from Season 2: Asylum, Season 3: Coven and Season 6: Roanoke and I thought, unlike with Horrors of Blumhouse, that it flowed together really well, and it was by far the longest of the mazes to walk through.

3. Dead Waters – This was definitely my favorite of the original houses that we went through.  I was skeptical because, well, its zombies and those like vampires recently, have been overdone so much that it has taken the nostalgia away.  But I couldn’t have been more wrong.  From the start you could tell this house was going to be different than the normal zombie setup.  It was themed around a riverboat that crashed in a swamp and was taken over by zombies and the Voodoo Queen.  They went as far as to having a huge sunken boat to walk through with tilted floors and other realistic features.  There were great scares throughout and the highlight was the zombie Mark Twain that comes out of nowhere!

2. Ash vs Evil Dead – The hit  show from STARZ and classic Evil Dead franchise starring the incredible Bruce Campbell is featured in my 2nd favorite house.  Universal did an amazing job of combining scenes and aspects from the current show with the old school films throughout the house. The also had the legendary one liners spoken by Ash throughout the character’s many years on screen. The campiness and hilarity of the house combined with the scares made this a great experience.  Anytime you can hear the line “I feel like a ninja losing his virginity” then you know its going to be a good night.

1. The Shining – When you decide to bring one of the greatest horror films ever made to life you have to make sure you do it right — and Horror Nights did this in spades.  I absolutely love The Shining but I was worried it would be lost on the younger generation … then I remembered that they probably didn’t give a crap regardless and were gonna go through it regardless. That’s the nerd in me coming out I presume.  But either way this house was remarkable.  It truly lived up to the film.  The atmosphere was really ominous and started out that way as you enter the famous garden maze of the Overlook Hotel from the movie. There’s naturally a lot of “Johnny” running around and little Danny on his tricycle and of course the creepy ass twins in the hallway and its a friggin blast. Also I need to watch The Shining again now.

If you’re planning on heading to Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando or even in Hollywood, I hope I was able to get you even more excited.  I recommend that you check it out at some point in your life, especially if you’re a horror fan of any capacity.  Remember to keep the kids at home, grab a drink and get the crap scared out of you. You won’t regret it … if you survive.

Sidenote: I highly recommend checking out the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure show as its the 27th and final year they’re putting it on nightly during Halloween Horror Nights Orlando.  Obviously with it going for 27 years it started back when the Bill and Ted movies were still fresh for everyone.  But this show was by far the highlight of the night! Its an absolute wild experience with scantily clad women and men dancing in all kinds of different costumes, tons of hilarious skits that poke fun at all sides of the political spectrum (including a woman channeling her inner Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer who appears as Bill and Ted’s new event coordinator and has an affinity for fidget spinners), and of course, Death from the films. We laughed the entire time and the whole crowd seemed to love it. Its sad that its going away but I’m glad we got to see it in its final year.

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