Fans can simply never get enough of Universal Orlando’s annual Halloween Horror Nights, screaming many an evening away from the moment the event kicks off in September each year. This year the shrieks will extend beyond the haunted holiday with two nights in November, but Universal isn’t stopping there, offering more terror than ever before.
The first-ever Halloween Extreme convention took place in Orlando this past weekend, bringing haunt industry professionals together with consumers on International Drive. The biggest presentation was given by Universal Orlando on Saturday, revealing new details about plans to expand Halloween Horror Nights 2013 beyond the scheduled 27 nights.
Announced to return this year is Legendary Truth, an interactive experience / viral online campaign Universal first launched in 2008 to more completely involve and immersive fans into the world of Halloween Horror Nights. The concept brought fans together into “The Collective,” offering an opportunity to investigate further into the carefully crafted story lines, both inside and out of the park’s boundaries.
And at Halloween Extreme, Legendary Truth’s Dr. Thorncastle and other military-looking officials from this “secret organization” made an appearance, kicking off Universal’s presentation with flair, followed by an extensive history of the evolution of interactive experiences Universal has offered throughout the years of Halloween Horror Nights. The nearly 2-hour presentation also offered a chance for fans to learn more about where the event has been and where it’s going from the “masters” behind it all, summarized in the 23-minute video below.
Video: Halloween Horror Nights Legendary Truth presentation at Halloween Extreme 2013
So what was learned about Halloween Horror Nights 2013 (and beyond) at Halloween Extreme? Plenty.
Legendary Truth and Legions of Horror
Universal Orlando is planning on rolling our more interactive storytelling than ever beginning this year. Not only is the concept and story of Legendary Truth returning, but it’s also being combined with last year’s elaborate Horror Unearthed experiences that sent fans rapidly searching through the park for hidden clues to reach rewards at the end of the October event. Universal now aims to up the adventure with increasingly social experiences.
“What we realized is that Halloween events and haunted attractions are highly interactive,” said TJ Mannarino, Director of Art & Design for Universal Orlando. “You don’t go by yourself. You come with a group of people. This is something that we’ve known for many, many years. And the experience keeps growing.”
Halloween Horror Nights 2012 introduced the Legions of Horror, six factions that fans could align themselves with to earn points in games online and take part in special gatherings in the park. This year, they’re returning in a big way.
“There’s still six Legions of Horror out there that Legendary Truth will investigate,” said Mannarino. While that doesn’t mean the legions will actually appear in the park in roaming scare zones like last year, it does mean fans can (and should) stick to their loyalties to continue to interact with each other and with the event to unlock new experiences.
Beginning in June, Universal’s online store will offer first-ever merchandise sporting the Legendary Truth logo as well as the insignias for each of the Legions of Horror, allowing fans to show off which they belong to and spot each other more easily in the parks. Merchandise will include T-shirts, baseball and wool hats, keychains, and more.
But the return of Legendary Truth and the Legions of Horror is by no means only about selling merchandise.
Universal Orlando has announced plans to keep the thrills of Halloween Horror Nights going year-round.
“Legendary Truth is here for a long time,” stated Mannarino to the Halloween Extreme crowd. “It’s probably going to be a yearlong campaign. [...] Horror does not end at January 1, so why does horror need to end with Halloween Horror Nights on January 1? It does not.”
Universal’s creative team plans to interact with fans throughout the year, discussing the past 23 years of the event, offering ways for fans to “investigate” the ongoing storyline and its hidden meanings. “It really is taking horror to you 24/7, year round, in interactive activities that get you guys involved, get you excited, at the same time keep you engaged with understanding what we did, what we’re doing now, and possibly what we might do in the future.”
Social media will be a big part of the new Halloween Horror Nights experience, not only via web site games, but also on Facebook, Twitter, and on cell phones in the park. An unofficial Horror Unearthed Facebook group has even been embraced by the event’s creators as a method for communicating with fans, occasionally releasing new cryptic information to decipher for clues as to what the event will feature and how the story progresses.
“A haunted event cannot really change as quickly as you experience it. But these types of interactions can,” explained Mannarino. “That’s what we’ve learned - is that they grow with you. They change day to day. So when you start your event at Halloween Horror Nights on the first night, it is different on the second night. It is different on the third night. As many nights as you come, it becomes as different as you want to make it and we realize that is an unbelievable driver for us and for you guys for storytelling. It is something that you guys actually thrive on to the point where we’re here in May talking about Halloween.”
Next-Gen Halloween Horror Nights
Further enhancing Halloween Horror Nights is the use of RFID technology, first introduced during last year’s Horror Unearthed experiences. Universal tested the concept by offering guests a chance to scan cards at the exit of haunted houses, unlocking achievements and badges along the way, all connected with their online profiles.
Last year over 500,000 games were played on Universal’s web site by more than 7,000 people. Of that, 823 RFID tags were used with each of these loyal guests returning to the event more than 9 times on average. One fan even visited last year’s haunted houses 162 times, scanning one particular house 31 times throughout the course of the event. And Universal says repeat guests stayed longer in the park on event nights due to taking part in Horror Unearthed, on average 4-6 hours.
But there’s much more in store for this technology.
“The next step of haunting - which is how do we keep taking it to you, making it personal, playing on your exact fears,” said Mannarino. “Not just everybody’s fears, but your fears.”
They’re working on ways to change the Halloween Horror Nights experience to personally scare everyone who participates. Potential uses of this technology would be to tell Universal in advance what is the most frightful thing imaginable - and then using that data they could summon that fear with the simple scan of a card, be it in the park’s streets or walking through a haunted house. The scan could even be automatic, reading an RFID card in a guest’s pocket as they pass through a darkened haunted maze. Universal’s technology experts are dreaming of days when a haunted house room could be a blank slate that presents scares for each person who passes through via personalized special effects.
Universal Orlando certainly isn’t the only theme park resort to be developing RFID-based experiences. Walt Disney World has reported invested more than $1 billion into its MyMagic+ program, including the RFID-equipped MagicBands which they plan to use to allow guests easier access to theme park entry, the FastPass system, hotel rooms, dining and merchandise payment, and special customized experiences on rides and interactions with characters. But while Disney is preparing extra magical moments with its high-tech developments, Universal hopes the simple tap of a card will then tap into guests’ deepest fears.
“What do you like? What are you afraid of? How do you want to be scared? How can we do that for you and at the same time you walk away with knowing that is unbelievable,” said Mannarino.
Most importantly, Universal is looking to its guests to help grow and shape Halloween Horror Nights year after year. “For us as designers, this is actually, unbelievably, a focus group for us,” Mannarino admitted, talking to the crowd of hundreds of die-hard Horror Nights fans at the Halloween Extreme event. “We used to, years ago, go sit in a room with a bunch of people that we didn’t know and listen to what they said about the event and we kind of said, ‘well yeah, that’s what we want to do.’ But actually having you guys, who have been a part of this event for many years, seen the evolution of it, you’re our harshest critics - but at the same time [...] if we make you guys happy, everybody’s happy, and that’s what’s important.”
Halloween Horror Nights 2013 officially begins on September 20, but the terror begins online much sooner as Universal Orlando launches its soon-to-be year round campaign to keep fans guessing.
Footnote: As seen in the video above, my own coverage of last year’s events even received a few nods during that presentation with Universal showing my Horror Unearthed wrap-up video and a few photos taken during the event.
More photos from the Halloween Horror Nights presentation at Halloween Extreme 2013: