Everything is more extreme when it comes to Halloween at Universal Studios Hollywood. With its Orlando counterpart offering a surprisingly tamer-than-usual version of Halloween Horror Nights this year, the California theme park follows a successful formula from recent years, recycling some ideas while utilizing talented Hollywood professionals to not only draw plenty of scares but also put on a solid evening of all-around entertainment. And with a few added perks, an evening at Halloween Horror Nights 2012 in Hollywood can be a real scream – in the best way.
This is a particularly unique year for Halloween Horror Nights, with events on both coasts sharing more haunted house themes and ideas than ever before. The Florida and California events each feature mazes based on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the video game and movie series “Silent Hill,” and the music of shock rocker Alice Cooper. But despite the shared themes, the art and design teams from each theme park independently created all of their experiences, making it quite interesting to compare and contrast the creative decisions made, for better or worse.
As an Orlando local, I have been frequenting Universal Orlando’s version of Halloween Horror Nights since it debuted several weeks ago. But I only had one single night to spend at the event in Hollywood. To maximize the meager six hours it was open on the night I visited, I bought the VIP pass, offering unlimited front of the line access to all the mazes, reserved seating for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, plus a few other unique perks. So after a full night from opening until closing, I now offer an in-depth look at all the excitement of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights for 2012.
Halloween Horror Nights 2012 Scare Zones
Universal Hollywood packs in the street entertainment immediately inside the front gates. Though Halloween Horror Nights is largely intended to be a scary event, there are definitely other adult themes present in the recurring form of dancing scantily clad girls. This is one area where Hollywood flaunts its California-ness in a way that Orlando’s event never will, not only featuring seductively dancing girls at the very front of the park, but also within one of its mazes and prominently featured in a live show. (More on those a bit further below.)
Drawing eyes into the event, crazy clown go-go dancers flank the park’s only path inside. They energetically dance to loud rock music throughout the night, instantly immersing Horror Nights attendees in an over-the-top world of sensory overload.
Video: Clown go-go dancers at Halloween Horror Nights 2012
They’re sexy and quirky, acting as a playful introduction to the scares that immediately follow.
I’ve only attended Halloween Horror Nights in Hollywood once before in 2010, but on this visit two years later I was surprised to see so very much the same as it was then. Though these go-go dancers sported different outfits, dressed as Freddy’s Fly Girls then, the Klownz scare zone that immediately followed was identical to what I previously witnessed. It’s still entirely fun, but was no longer new or novel to me, so it didn’t have the same thrill as it did on my first visit.
Three other scare zones are present in this year’s event: Toyz, Witches, and Silent Hill. Though I found Hollywood’s scare zones to be over-the-top with energy and frightening environments in 2010, this year felt rather drab in the streets. The Toyz zone is overrun by fog and strobe lights, making it quite difficult to see what was happening in the area, let alone get scared, though it does have its moments of creepiness from odd cross-dressing toy creature thing. The Witches zone is simply too dark to see much of anything. It’s highly entertaining to watch the Silent Hill characters, including Pyramid Head and the nurses, roam around the large lower lot area of the park, from the escalators to the Transformers ride, but ultimately very few scares occurred in this brightly-lit area, wide open area.
Video: Scare zones of Halloween Horror Nights 2012
But even as Orlando switched from organized, highly visual, unique scare zones of the past to roaming hoards featuring rather uninspired characters this year, Hollywood’s street zones are still far less interesting. For first-timers, the stretch from the park entrance through the huge Klownz area is sure to be exciting and exhilarating, but for repeat visitors it feels all too familiar. And the rest of the park offers too much dead space with little Halloween to be found beyond some scary music.
Halloween Horror Nights 2012 Haunted Houses
Where Hollywood lacks in excitement in its scare zones it vastly makes up for it in its extraordinary array of haunted houses this year. After going through each multiple times, I definitely have my favorites, reviewed in order from best to worst below. And unlike Orlando’s event, Hollywood allows photography and recording inside its mazes, so each review below is accompanied by a full walkthrough video. (Be warned: The videos are extremely dark as they were shot under normal show lighting, so they really only act as teasers for the full experience. It’s highly recommended to attend the event to fully see and appreciate each maze!)
1. The Walking Dead
With excellent makeup, recognizable moments from the AMC TV show, and a flow from scene to scene that makes sense, my favorite maze at Universal Studios Florida wasn’t the scariest, but definitely the best overall experience. While the Orlando version of this maze does a good job at reproducing many scenes from the show, the settings don’t make sense next to each other, moving from a hospital to a store to a countryside barn with little thought as to how you got there. But in Hollywood’s maze, each scene is longer, with multiple rooms that connect in a manner that takes visitors through the first season of the show in a way that simply makes sense. The makeup in Hollywood is astounding, particularly with recognizable characters like the Well Walker and Bicycle Girl. Though it occasionally overuses static figures in place of real actors, The Walking Dead overall is an excellent representation of the show.
Video: Full walkthrough of The Walking Dead haunted house
2. Texas Chainsaw Massacre
For a franchise that’s been used to death at Halloween events, this year’s maze based on the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a surprise standout, nearly topping my list for shear scare factor and the ability to gross out visitors with horrid smells and unsettling visuals. It’s a gory maze filled with insane characters and some huge scenes. The scares often come from surprising directions throughout this rather long haunted house. It’s the first time I’ve seen this franchise used to its fullest.
Video: Full walkthrough of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre haunted house
3. Silent Hill
Despite the fact that I prefer Orlando’s version of the Silent Hill maze, I was still highly entertained by Hollywood’s take on the popular video game series. Where Orlando overuses the nurse characters and severely underuses Pyramid Head, Hollywood is the opposite, with Pyramid Head and the sinister girl Alessa appearing far more times than necessary, while the nurses appear just once. But Hollywood uses those nurses far more appropriately in a fun scene that feels ripped straight from the games, twitching and all. Pyramid Head thankfully does have a weapon in this Silent Hill house, unlike in Orlando. But overall, Hollywood’s maze is lacking a complete Silent Hill feel. The siren is there. The metal fences are there. The characters are there. But it never truly feels like stepping into Fog World or Otherworld like it almost perfectly does in Orlando. If it wasn’t for the fun characters, Hollywood’s maze would be rather drab.
Video: Full walkthrough of the Silent Hill haunted house
4. Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3-D
Though I’m not a fan of Alice Cooper’s music, I did thoroughly enjoy this 3-D maze, blasting a variety of his music while exploring the seven deadly sins through twisted scenes. Some work better than others, both in representing the sins and in their usage of 3-D. This maze starts and ends strong, with a bit of aimless meandering in the middle. A scene that’s supposed to represent the River Styx comes off as more of a pond, strangely glowing orange. But the variety of visuals keeps the experience interesting throughout.
Video: Full walkthrough of the Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3-D haunted house
5. Universal Monsters Remix
It’s always tough for Universal Studios Hollywood to re-theme their year-round House of Horrors maze to something interesting for Halloween Horror Nights. This year the twist is blasting dubstep music throughout scenes of classic and contemporary horror icons, including the Wolfman, Frankenstein, Chucky, and Norman Bates. Somehow, it works! It’s not scary in the slightest, but it is highly entertaining to walk through darkened environments while grooving to electronic dance music. And when the Bride of Frankenstein appears as a go-go dancer and Dr. Frankenstein a DJ, it’s entertainment at its weirdest.
Video: Highlight room of the Universal Monsters Remix haunted house
6. La Llorona
For those familiar with the legend of La Llorona, I suspect this maze is extremely intriguing and at times frightening. For me, it just kept getting more bizarre the further I got into it. It’s a long and winding maze that begins in a chapel and culminates with repeated attacks by oversized female heads, devouring people and lunging from the darkness. This is certainly the most unusual experience of Halloween Horror Nights 2012, but also the least exciting for me.
Video: Full walkthrough of the La Llorona haunted house
Halloween Horror Nights 2012 Shows and Attractions
Outside of the scare zones and mazes, there are two standout experiences that complete the Halloween Horror Nights experience at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is a staple in Hollywood and Orlando. But while Orlando’s version of the show has faltered with confusing plots and bad jokes for several years, Hollywood this year offers a highly entertaining show, wrapping a hilarious roast of pop culture in a “Hunger Games” themed story that allows them to “kill off” TV and movie personalities many wish would go away in real life. There’s no holding back in Hollywood’s version of the Bill & Ted show, clocking in at over 40 minutes long, beginning and ending with elaborate dance routines that total more than a quarter of the show. And much like the go-go dancers at the front of the park, the girls dancing in this show often strip down to very little while strutting their stuff.
Video: Opening dance from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure 2012
Video: Finale dance from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure 2012
Familiar faces who make parody appearances in this year’s show include Katniss and Peeta, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Men in Black, John Carter, dueling Catwomen, Bane and Batman, Fozzie Bear, Justin Bieber, Magic Mike, Michael Phelps, and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
And then there’s Psy, doing it Gangnam Style with Bill and Ted:
It’s a non-stop comedy fest filled with funny one-liners and plenty to look at, particularly during the over-the-top finale dance routine:
Taking over the backlot tram tour for Halloween Horror Nights 2012 is “The Walking Dead,” the theme for this year’s Terror Tram. The zombie excitement begins immediately upon stepping off the escalator down to the tram loading area, with the show’s famous Teddy Bear Girl wandering along with a few other fiends. From there, guests are driven to the backlot and dumped into the world of walkers who have taken over the Bates Motel and War of the Worlds sets along with the surrounding areas.
Video: Terror Tram at Halloween Horror Nights 2012
It’s an exciting theme for this year’s Terror Tram that carries throughout the experience. Though removing the “Psycho” aspect of the Bates Motel may be a bit disappointing for first-timers excited to have a chance to walk across that set. Fortunately, this year Universal Studios Hollywood has added a separate line for photo ops with Norman Bates in front of the famous “Psycho” house, an excellent change from previous years in which guests were hurried along.
Halloween Horror Nights 2012 VIP Experience
The most expensive ticket available for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood is the VIP ticket. Priced at nearly $200 for the night, this option allows attendees to be relatively free of time constraints, offering unlimited front of the line access to all six haunted houses, the Terror Tram, and all open rides, as well as reserved seating for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. It also provides access to a special air conditioned lounge not only offering comfort, but a full buffet of dinner and desserts, as well as a bar serving up to 2 alcoholic beverages per person, offered nowhere else in the park during Halloween Horror Nights. In addition, a special backlot tour is scheduled for each VIP guest.
In many ways, the VIP ticket is the ultimate way to experience Halloween Horror Nights. No one wants to wait in 60+ minute lines to walk through a 4-5 minute haunted experience. For roughly $60-70 more than the standard front-of-the-line tickets (depending on the night), food, drinks, and a few additional experiences are included with VIP. And the buffet is decent, featuring better-than-average options, certainly better than most of the food served throughout the rest of the park.
And instead of the standard backlot tram, VIP guests get something more like a bus, with cushy seats in a single private car, driven through King Kong 3-D and other areas of the backlot.
But the special VIP backlot tour unexpectedly consumes more than an hour and with the event only being open for 6 hours on the evening I was there, I wasn’t thrilled with having a large chunk of my time hijacked for what turned out to be a mediocre experience. Seeing King Kong 3-D on a comfortable tram was a nice treat, as was watching the backlot flood effect unfold at night while the tram guide told the story of La Llorona, drowning her children and weeping enough tears to cause the flood.
Video: Backlot flood during Halloween Horror Nights 2012
After all that, what was supposed to be the highlight of the VIP backlot tour ended up being a dud. The tram stopped near the Jaws lake and was boarded by a man described to be a Hollywood creative type, clearly an actor playing the role. He led the VIP group on an extremely dark walk across a few western sets, telling ghost stories about deaths that have occurred on the Universal lot. Every once in a while, he would “notice” something odd inside a set or facade, muttering to himself while checking it out. Though a couple quick startles did come out of this lengthy walking tour, it wound up releasing everyone into the standard Terror Tram tour with no grand finale, other than a quick and rather lame “ghost” sighting. This VIP backlot tour is new for 2012 and I suspect it won’t be returning in this form in the future, doing a better job at wasting guests’ time than entertaining anyone.
Overall, a VIP ticket purchase is worth every penny simply to have unlimited access to the event’s mazes and shows, as well as an included buffet. But the additional backlot tour “perk” should simply be scrapped, allowing VIP guests to spend more time focusing on the event’s far more entertaining offerings.
Chainsaw Chase Out
Universal Studios Hollywood ends each evening of Halloween Horror Nights with a special moment called the chainsaw chase out, in which a variety of characters wielding chainsaws coax everyone to leave while making a whole lot of noise. By this point in the night, few people are still scared by chainsaws or creepy clowns, but it’s always entertaining to watch them come out in mass numbers navigating the crowds on their way out.
Halloween Horror Nights 2012 continues at Universal Studios Hollywood on select nights through October 31, with tickets selling out frequently, particularly front of the line passes. More information can be found at HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Hollywood.
More photos from Halloween Horror Nights 2012 at Universal Studios Hollywood:
(Video by Ricky Brigante and Vince Masciale, Photos by Ricky Brigante and Natalie Masciale)