Walkers have invaded Universal Orlando for Halloween Horror Nights 2013. Though the popular annual event doesn’t begin until next week, we had a chance to preview this year’s terror-ific experiences based on the hit AMC TV show “The Walking Dead.”
After “The Walking Dead” brought huge crowds to last year’s event, Universal has returned to the franchise in an even bigger way, filling their theme park streets with familiar scenes from the show as well as an all-new haunted house based on season three, set inside the prison and the fortified city of Woodbury.
“The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven” is the name of the maze that will take Horror Nights visitors into the depths of the strongholds established by Rick and the Governor. But unlike in the 2012 haunted house, this year’s experience features recognizable characters from the show, including Merle, Milton, and Lori - though they’re not exactly in their prime condition. The maze seems to be set an episode or two before the end of the third season, just as everything began to go sour for the two leading camps and Horror Nights visitors are thrust into the middle of the madness.
Video: Full “The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven” haunted house at Universal Orlando
Quite a few scenes are instantly recognizable while exploring the maze, which flows from Woodbury into the prison, starting outside with the walker pit fighting arena and ending in the famous cell block that housed the show’s good guys. In between guests are forced to wander between walker-infested zones separated by fences that don’t quite feel safe. It’s often a claustrophobic experience that ensures no visitor will leave without at least a few close encounters with the undead kind.
But “The Walking Dead” reaches far beyond the confines of a single maze this year. Due to its tremendous popularity at Halloween Horror Nights in 2012, Universal higher-ups decided to expand its presence across the park, taking over the entire street program packed with five big-budget scare zones taking guests to Atlanta, Hershel’s farm, Dale’s RV, and even into memorable episodes like “Clear.” Spanning all three seasons, fans of the show will come face-to-face with recognizable “hero” walkers throughout the streets in various stages of decay, accompanied by the pungent smell of rotting corpses.
To learn more about the return of “The Walking Dead” to Halloween Horror Nights, I spoke with three of the creative minds behind the event: creative director Mike Aiello, show director Laura Wallace, and makeup designer Michael Burnett. From their enthusiasm and passion for the project, it’s clear they aim to one-up the experience that the single maze based on “The Walking Dead” provided last year.
Video: The Walking Dead costumes, makeup and scare zone preview for Halloween Horror Nights 2013
After the streets of last year’s events were relatively free of scare zone set pieces, instead featuring roaming “legions of horror,” this year Universal is returning to creating impressive permanent show elements that fans of the AMC TV show will want to see. Most impressive is the from-scratch built tank, constructed by Universal’s design team to transform the park’s New York streets into Atlanta from season one. But that’s just one of many big scenic elements that will be present at this year’s event, also including a burning barn that guests will be able to walk through, like a small haunted house.
The Universal team hasn’t spilled their guts completely on all the surprises from “The Walking Dead” that they will be featuring in the streets, though both Aiello and Wallace hinted that they are including quite a few elements they never have before - the impressive “you’ll know it when you see it” kind.
And Wallace believes even those who have never seen an episode of “The Walking Dead” will still enjoy the streets filled with zombies, er, walkers. She has faith in Universal’s scareactors to create terror around every turn even if guests don’t specifically recognize why there’s a station wagon, school bus, or tank in the middle of the park. But with millions of viewers faithfully tuning in to each new episode of the hit show, the big name franchise is sure to once again bring big crowds when Halloween Horror Nights 2013 kicks off on September 20.
Photos by Michael Gavin