Halloween Horror Nights XX

By Tom Von Malder | Oct 30, 2010
Photo by: Universal Studios A promotional image for Halloween Horror Nights XX.

Owls Head — I don’t do Halloween. Not for a long time anyway. As a kid in the Fidelis Way project in Brighton, a section of Boston, it was a big deal, and pretty easy with 30 apartments to a building. But we moved away when I was 13.


Four years ago, my interest in Halloween was sparked by a visit to Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. It was a week to soon to see it, but they already had begun setting up for Halloween Horror Nights XVI. My interest was piqued and I vowed to come back and experience it some day.


Well, that day arriver Wednesday, Oct. 27, during the run of Halloween Horror Nights XX: Twenty Years of Fear, which began, on select nights, Sept. 24 and concludes tomorrow, Oct. 31. The event guide you are given starts off with survival tips, the first being: “Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare.”


Theme parks by their very nature are bright, sunny places, so the quick switchover to dark and spooky is remarkable. Entering the park, you first encounter a drill sergeant and some eight “soldiers” – slightly zombified – who gather in a circle, start their chainsaws and quickly go menacing into the crowd. With this and the other scare zones, it is all about design and sudden movements that change direction and bring a “scareactor” right in your face. Believe me, one is easily startled, although in my case, more with laughter afterwards.


There are six Scare Zones in all. HHN 20 Years of Fear has some of the most frightening characters of Halloween Horror Nights past mingling with the throng (and even on a rare Wednesday “off night,” the event was packed). A giant Fear creature emerges from the lit HHN XX stage as Fear is revealed in a plaza, while his minions menace onlookers, one pretending to be a photographer. A Zombie Gras parade features the undead, while the fog-filled Saws n’ Steam is set in a world in which the oceans have evaporated. Witches dominate The Coven and a glowing skeletal nightmare is the zone of Esqueleto Muerte.


Throughout, one is impressed by all the work that went into the costuming, something that is carried over into the eight haunted houses (well, really transformed sound stages) as well. But even some of the roaming sellers are transformed: Zombie nurses sell Jell-O shots in blood bags from hospital wheel-around stands.


You move through the haunted houses at rather a rapid pace (sometime though after a rather long wait; deep into the evening I was wishing we had gotten VIP passes), but still it is easy to be amazed at all the detail packed into them, especially the first, Horror Nights the Hallowed Past, which exhumes themes from the previous 19 years. There’s a distressed Chucky, among so many other familiar horror icons. Of course, there is fog every now and then, stuff hanging down that you have to brush through and, naturally, horrific creatures that jump out at you every now and then – some mechanical and some very inhuman (at least dressed that way). It was early in the six-hour evening, but I had goose bumps already.


Right next door was the Catacombs Black Death Rising. Hence, it was nothing like the Roman catacombs as I had envisioned. No, instead you move among the infected, the dying and the death of the 1534 plagues in Paris and Marseilles, and, I swear, some of them spit on me. For fantastical creatures, all you had to do was to step into Hades the Gates of Ruin, an underworld filled with creatures of myth. Oh yeah, you’ll jump in there.


Other houses are PsychoScareapy, filled with the criminally insane from Shadybrook, even 18 years after it closed; Legendary Truth the Wyandot Estate, where Spirit Seekers gather ghosts with a machine; Zombiegeddon, which is just what you’d expect, set six months after the zombie outbreak; Havoc Dogs of War, where you experience the side effects-turned super soldiers as killing machines; and The Orfanage Ashes to Ashes, a burned out shell of an orphanage filled with the souls of the forgotten and the lost. And, oh year, for The Orfanage, oxygen tanks are not allowed.


Not everything is horror, though. There are two shows. “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure” has the two most excellent dudes about to be replaced by a couple of more up-to-date characters. The fun show, which had an unexpectedly large amount of singing and dancing – quite good by the way (the dancing leaned toward the sexy side) – picked on some of the pop icons of the day, such as Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, The Last Airbender, the vampire versus werewolf dynamic of “Twilight” and even the Smoke Monster from “Lost.”


The other show featured illusionist Brian Brushwood (often seen on TV), doing some crazy stuff, like inserting a small nail in one eye and taking it out the other; escaping from a straightjacket in less than two minutes and having two audience members stand on him while he lay on a bed of nails. And then there was the human straw thing, involving his nose … ugh.


Those with cell phones could get text-based mobile games based on the haunted houses, and four of the rides were still open, those being The Simpsons Ride, Men in Black Alien Attack (a fun bit in which you get to shoot at aliens), Jaws and Revenge of the Mummy (another fun experience).


In the same trip to the park, we went to the Islands of Adventure side during the day and checking out the amazing Wizarding World of Harry Potter. While much of it consists of shops as seen in the film, and thus places to buy memorabilia, there are the two intertwining Dragon Challenge roller coasters. There also is the more kid-friendly coaster, Flight of the Hippogriff.


Best though is an exploration of the Hogwarts school of magic itself in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. As you wind your way toward the ride portion, you wander through the halls and classrooms of Hogwarts, where Dumbledore greets you in his office: portraits talk to you; and Harry, Hermoine and Ron invite you to a Quidditch match. You then get aboard the “magic benches” that swiftly carry you over and under Hogwarts, where you encounter Dementors, dragons, spiders and the Whomping Willow. It is both exhilarating and a little dizzying, especially if heights give you a touch of vertigo as they do now at my age.


All in all, the day at Universal Studios was all I had hoped for and more. Another trip Friday took in Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Disney World. It was another super fun day and included a 3-D Muppets film (excellent 3-D by the way), a great  Indiana Jones stunt show and live, but shortened, versions of “The Little Mermaid” (17 minutes) and “Beauty and the Beast” (30 minutes). There was a nice one-person host and film presentation on the development of an animated character (the Eddie Murphy-voiced Mushu from “Mulan”), with the host interacting with the cartoon character. Also very nice was the Great Movie Ride through a history of film, with live-like manikins of iconic actors, singing Munchkins, a gangster shootout, during which our ride host was kidnapped, and some Indiana Jones-like daring do.

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