This year’s Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood is particularly unique, with changes and enhancements transforming the look and feel of the popular event. Though the basics remain the same, with ample haunted houses, scare zones, and shows to entertain all who pass through the park’s famed archway, there are enough tweaks to even keep event regulars intrigued.
A few weeks ago, we sent Horror Nights first-timers Jeremiah and Josh Daws to cover opening night, reporting primarily on experiences based on the hit AMC TV show “The Walking Dead.” Now, as promised, I personally have had a chance to witness the terrors that lurk around the event this year.
Below are my thoughts and opinions on each of this year’s haunted houses, shows, and other experiences, including extensive video and photos throughout.
Unlike last year’s event review, this time I am pulling from my annual Horror Nights Orlando review style categorizing each Hollywood haunted house, scare zone, and show summarized into one or more of the following categories: Screamer (scare-filled), Gut Buster (comedy-packed), Eye Popper (visually-stunning), and/or Mind Blower (overall best in show). And in the case of a complete dud, I refer to it as a Grave Digger.
Without further ado, here is my review of Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Studios Hollywood…
Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Haunted Houses
Hollywood tends to recycle haunted houses from year to year, keeping fan favorites for an extra look. But this year, the only returning experience is in the year-round House of Horrors, with the other five mazes completely new, as well as an all-new VIP backlot experience. It’s a nice change that offers an evening filled with surprises. As a whole, this year’s mazes are a mixed bag of great, good, weird, and dull, featuring some overlap with Orlando’s event to warrant a few comparisons.
On to my thoughts and rankings…
1. The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven
RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper, Mind Blower
REVIEW: After “The Walking Dead” was prominently featured both in Hollywood and Orlando’s Horror Nights events in 2012, it was a surprise to see it coming back for 2013. But while Orlando has produced another enjoyable, but average experience for this hugely popular property, Hollywood has gone above and beyond immersing guests into the excitement of the series. The most impressive part of this maze is not even the maze itself, but rather its lead-up. Guests board a special tram to visit an area of the Universal Studios backlot never before used for Halloween Horror Nights. Immediately upon stepping off, a foggy, strobe-lit area is filled with walkers, requiring guests to pass through while heading toward the maze. It’s an intense introduction. Upon stepping into the backlot, the huge scale of the surrounding buildings is impressive, adding to the feel of really being immersed into the world of “The Walking Dead,” with set pieces, lighting, and plenty of walkers keeping the energy going.
Then after a long walker-filled walk through this area, guests find themselves at the prison, straight out of the show. Universal has constructed an incredible facade for this maze, including the tall prison tower and surrounding chain link fences. The maze then flows perfectly inside, taking guests through prison corridors, into the cell blocks, and ultimately passing outside and over to the city of Woodbury. Along the way, there are lots of surprises, including particular walker moment that has a small hoard lunging at guests all at the same time through an unexpected special effect. As a whole, this truly feels like “The Walking Dead” and it’s fantastic.
Video: Full walkthrough of The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven
2. Insidious: Into the Further
RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer
REVIEW: A close second, this maze is largely based on the first “Insidious” film, with bits of the sequel near the end. It’s not as important to have seen the newer film as it is the first, which helps tremendously in understanding what’s happening in this literal haunted house. I always enjoy Halloween experiences that return to the basic definition of a haunted house and in this case, guests step into the house from the film, recognizable from the maze’s facade. Inside, familiar characters from the movie pop out regularly, particularly frequent appearances by the freaky red-faced demon. This is definitely a hit-or-miss kind of maze, easy to have all the scares happen ahead or behind you. But as is seen in the video below, with the timing just right (I managed to time it just right to walk through all by myself somehow), the combination of startles and interesting scenic elements make it a success. I particularly enjoyed the flash bulb-lit seance scene.
Video: Full walkthrough of Insidious: Into the Further
3. Evil Dead
RANKING: Eye Popper
REVIEW: Immediately putting aside that this maze is not based on the classic “Evil Dead” films but instead the 2013 remake, this is a fairly strong experience. Orlando’s version plays out almost like a bit of horror theater, with small scenes happening around guests. Hollywood’s version is far more in-your-face, with scares directed at guests. There are some great special effects moments, particularly the tongue splitting and chainsaw-fueled finale. And few can argue that a haunted house filled with bloody, demonic girls in night gowns threatening to kill you is a bad thing. That just has Halloween written all over it.
Video: Full walkthrough of Evil Dead
4. Black Sabbath: 13 3D
RANKING: Eye Popper
REVIEW: I am not a big fan of brightly-colored 3D mazes but I was quite impressed by this one. I was worried that another in the line of musician-based houses would follow in the rather uninteresting footsteps of Alice Cooper previously. But having Black Sabbath music pumping throughout this house enhances the experience, though I’m not entirely sure what any of the visuals have to do with the band. Regardless, it is entertaining and the brightly lit environments still manage to feature plenty of surprise scares, making it easy to watch (and laugh at) others getting startled. By the end, things do get a bit darker and even I received a startle or two, a rare occurrence.
Video: Full walkthrough of Black Sabbath: 13 3D
5. El Cucuy: The Boogeyman
RANKING: Grave Digger
REVIEW: Following a few years of La Llorona being the predominant Hispanic-based experience in Hollywood, El Cucuy steps in narrated by Danny Trejo of “Machete” fame. Though the concept of featuring “The Boogeyman” sounds like a great idea, this maze simply fell flat for me. To start, it’s placed in an odd location in the park, which has had to reconfigure Horror Nights this year due to construction for upcoming attractions. This maze wanders inside and out, leaving a few long passages of nearly nothing to look at. And when there are characters, they’re essentially the same Boogeyman over and over. I do like how the concept plays on childhood fears, particularly the monster hiding under a bed, but overall I left rather uninterested.
Video: Full walkthrough of El Cucuy: The Boogeyman
6. Universal Monsters Remix: Resurrection
RANKING: Grave Digger
REVIEW: While last year I kind of enjoyed the mixture of dubstep music with classic horror icons, this year’s House of Horros overlay is essentially the same thing repeated with very few changes. It was nice to see the “Face Off” and design-a-character winner creations, though I only encountered Frankenstein’s monster ever so briefly. The rest of the house is nearly the same as the daytime experience that’s year-round in this park, with the addition of dance club lighting and wub wub beats. Hopefully this is the last year for this concept.
Video: Full walkthrough of Universal Monsters Remix: Resurrection
Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Scare Zones
The scare zones at Universal Studios Hollywood this year could not be any more different from each other, with high energy and lots to look at in some, leaving others to be completely uninteresting. It’s a bizarre mix of concepts that simply don’t flow well together, rehashing some old tricks while introducing new elements that point to a better future in the streets of this event.
Here is a tour of this year’s scare zones:
And here are the scare zones, best to worst…
1. The Walking Dead: Dead on Arrival
REVIEW: As noted above in the maze review, this scare zone surrounding the lead-up to The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven thrusts guests into a frenetic world of walkers, first immersed in fog and strobe lights, then surrounded by the Universal backlot turned into Atlanta streets. It’s an exciting environment to spend time in and explore - all while avoiding a constant onslaught of walkers.
2. The Purge: Survive the Night
REVIEW: Filled with high energy the instant guests enter the park, this scare zone based on the movie “The Purge” is big and exciting. It starts with titillating views of scantily clad go-go dancers (much more on them below) acting as a distraction to the mask-wearing fiends wielding chainsaws and large knives throughout the unavoidable path leading in to the park. Everyone must pass through this zone that only gets bigger as the path leads on, culminating in a flame-topped visual moment at the end. “The Purge” is when all crime is legal for 12 hours once a year and in this zone all of Universal’s guests are subject to that chaos-filled evening - and a lot of fun.
3. The Curse of Chucky
REVIEW: This is not so much a scare zone as it is a place for some adult-themed laughs. Though there are scareactors roaming, all attention lies overhead when Chucky appears on a balcony hurling lewd insults at guests, much to everyone’s delight. There’s a sampling of his comedic stylings in the video below, but be warned that the language is strong and not suitable for younger audiences.
4. Cirque Du Klownz
REVIEW: Hollywood once again features a scare zone featuring clowns, except this time they’re less interesting than ever. Aside from one entirely amusing clown with extra-long arms messing with people, the rest of the bunch is fairly uninspired and the area itself isn’t particularly scary, other than being dimly lit. It’s definitely time for the clowns to go away from the streets of this event.
REVIEW: This is one of the worst “scare zones” I’ve ever seen at this event. The open area on the lower lot of the park is difficult to populate with characters, but I have seen it done far more effectively than with these stilt walking scarecrows who do look creepy, but tend to just kind of wander around. The only time I saw them scaring anyone was when they surprised guests coming off of the Walking Dead maze tram. The area is so dense with people, mazes, rides, restaurants, and stores that there is barely any room for these actors to have a chance to do anything but wander around. This whole area needs a reevaluation in years to come.
Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Live Shows
This year’s front-of-the-park go-go dancers have gone through a bit of a change since opening night. When Jeremiah and Josh first brought us a look at these sultry performers, they donned “The Purge” masks while wearing very little else. Ultimately this mix was neither sexy nor sinister. So now the girls retain their masks while stepping into their cages, but quickly remove them to reveal their alluring faces, only to cover up again before changing shifts. Still brandishing shiny knives and wearing bloody clothes, there is an element of Halloween with the dancers, but for the most part their half naked moves are what draws a whole lot of attention.
Video: Opening night go-go dancers with The Purge masks
Video: Go-go dancers without The Purge masks
REVIEW: This year’s Terror Tram features “The Walking Dead” once again, with few changes to last year’s experience. It’s always great to be able to walk the “Psycho” set of the Bates Motel, though it’s so disguised with orange lighting and zombies this year that it’s almost unrecognizable. The Norman Bates photo op remains on the steps of the “Psycho” house, which is definitely the highlight. There are some small walk-through areas featuring zombies that lunge over the top of fences, but they’re short and simple. First-timers will love the Terror Tram and its surprises, but repeat visitors are left wanting something new. The “War of the Worlds” set is impressive but perhaps should be retired for a year or two in favor of a new path for this experience.
[Video coming soon.]
Insidious VIP Experience
REVIEW: For those who purchase the most expensive tickets, there is an added VIP experience on the Universal backlot. Last year’s “ghost tour” was a giant waste of time, with a lot of lead-up and no results. Fortunately, this year the experience has been given a complete overhaul, now based on “Insidious.” But this is totally different from the maze, with tour guides still taking VIP guests on a barely-lit ghost tour of the Universal backlot. This time, however, guests meet with Spectral Sightings, the paranormal investigation team from the film, who are in the middle of monitoring strange occurrences. The experience culminates with a special effects-driven show that results in some great visuals and a few good scares. It’s quite entertaining.
Video: Full VIP “Insidious” experience with night vision
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure
REVIEW: One never knows what to expect from a Bill & Ted show. This year’s oddly ventures into the world of “The Wizard of Oz” for the entire duration, somewhat inspired by the recent “Oz: The Great and Powerful” film, though never exactly referencing it. The setting is strange and when combined with countless pop culture references, it’s a weird trip through the last year of entertainment “news” that never makes any sense at all. Some of the jokes are funny, but most of all the show is visually pleasing. Hollywood’s dancers are top notch, in perfect form as they perform elaborate routines that make the audience not care about anything else in the show.
An additional finale dance has been included since opening night, offering an extra bonus of high-energy dancing at the end. And, naturally, much of the cast spends the show half naked, stripping live on stage, often at the most unexpected times. Sitting in the front row affords quite a view - and lots of outstanding photography opportunities. Hollywood is no longer allowing video recording of the show, a change from previous years. But the exhaustive photos below offer a good look at the best parts of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure.
Halloween Horror Nights 2013 Tips and Tricks
Halloween Horror Nights 2013 continues on select nights for the rest of October at Universal Studios Hollywood, selling out often. You can buy tickets now and find more information at HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando.
Photos from Halloween Horror Nights 2013:
(Photos by Ricky Brigante and Josh Daws)