Universal's Halloween Horror Nights scarier than ever

srocco@bradenton.comSeptember 26, 2013 

ORLANDO -- It's been less than an hour since the first evening of Halloween Horror Nights has begun and the line for the "American Werewolf in London" maze is already irritatingly long.

But park guests have a little distraction. Just a few feet away, "American Werewolf" director John Landis, the man also behind Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, is casually speaking with a small group of media before a walk-through of the new maze.

"There are no wolves! Don't tell them about it," Landis jokes. "What the (bleep)? Don't tell them about it!"

Michael Aiello, creative director for Universal Studios, teases back with a smirk: "There are no wolves. This is just the 'American in London.' "

But there are actually plenty of wolves. And boy, are they gorgeous.

The "American Werewolf in London" maze, which has been in the works for nearly five years, is one of eight beautifully put together, panic-packed mazes at this year's Halloween Horror Nights. And it contains the chief scare of the entire affair, the one that shows off Universal's true talent and budget.

After you see a very real David Kessler laying in a hospital bed, after you see him morph into a werewolf on a living room floor, a curious Mickey Mouse figurine lurking from the side table above, a hulking, nasty wolf head with murderous fangs tears through a wall and roars right into your face.

Let's be clear: This is no puppet from Party City. This thing was thoughtfully, intricately designed to make you pee your pants.

"We've never done anything like this before," Aiello said. "We've never used huge puppets. It's always been character-driven. Mask, costume, jump out."

Brilliant, right? Only if you didn't see it happen to the five people in front of you.

These mazes are meant to feed the masses; so much that scares are ruined if you're not in the right place at the right time.

Because the lines are so long, guests may not be able to see every house in a night, so prioritizing is key.

Save this one for last.

The line for "After Life: Death's Vengeance," a 3-D maze about a serial killer going to hell, was 60 minutes too long. The maze, mostly containing 3-D paint splattered on walls, fun house mirrors and disenchanted character pop-outs, reminded me of Universal's less moneyed Halloween-time competitor across I-4.

However, there are a few nice touches: Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" blares at the entrance and Bobby "The Blade," the killer, getting zapped in a 2,000 volt electric chair was so life-like I almost felt bad for the fella.

Then comes a house like "The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven," a dazzling re-creation of one of America's most-watched TV dramas and the best overall house of HHN.

"Dead" nerds will marvel in the most iconic places of season three: the prison, the guard tower, the floor-to-ceiling cell block infested with walkers and their victims, the Governor's aquarium full of submerged human heads and a cameo from Penny, the Governor's dead daughter.

And if that's not enough, Universal's streets are crowded with aggressive walkers and other familiar scenes.

On Hollywood Boulevard, Morgan's traps are set and "EVERYONE TURNS" is scrawled on the side of a building. Hershel's burning barn is planted next to Mel's Drive-In (or, on this night, Die-In) and the New York area has been transformed into Atlanta, complete with a massive true-to-scale Army tank rolled out on the street. And somewhere in the park, a walker is eating a deer right under your nose.

Almost as awesome is "Havoc Derailed," a maze containing a thwarted train full of psychotic, seriously furious Army soldiers.

The story line builds throughout, getting more intense as time goes on. At the end, a machine-gunner sprays bullets at his intruders (aka YOU), a truly terrifying encounter.

Other houses, like the "Cabin in the Woods" and the "Evil Dead," are set in Universal's sound stages where creators can control each and every jaw-dropping variable. The sound is crisp and the design -- tremendous.

Both houses have top-notch scares: the blood bath room inside the "Cabin" was awesomely disgusting and a possessed girl staring up from underneath a floorboard inside "Evil Dead" was equally disturbing.

When Landis called this event "immersive theater," he wasn't kidding.

Sabrina Rocco, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter

What: Halloween Horror Nights

When: Select nights through Nov. 2. Event starts at 6:30 p.m.; closing times vary nightly.

Where: Universal Studios, 1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Orlando.

Rules: Not recommended for guests under 13. No costumes or masks are allowed.

Tickets: General admission is $91.99; Florida resident discount tickets are available.

Information: www.halloweenhorrornights.com.

And a few extra tips...

• If you can swing another $49-$109, invest in an Express Pass to bypass the regular lines at the mazes and rides. Most lines during opening night were an hour long.

• Buy tickets and Express Passes ahead of time, because many nights will sell out.

• Be there when the gates open. If you choose not to buy an Express Pass, you can knock out a few houses at the very beginning when the lines aren't painfully long.

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