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Halloween Horror Nights 2016 house-by-house review: “American Horror Story” leads an all-around frightfully good time at Universal Orlando

in Events, Haunted Attractions, Theme Parks, Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Florida

Following a fantastic 25th year of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Orlando brings the screams back in 2016 by delivering a first for the event: a direct sequel.

Picking up the story where Jack the Clown left off last year, his longtime sidekick Chance now takes the spotlight for the first time. She’s seen in ads everywhere across Orlando, with her laughter echoing throughout the entire park each event night, and she’s featured in her own haunted house and scare zone.

Here’s her introductory moment for press on opening night:

But while Chance is a fan favorite and plenty of attendees have enjoyed taking selfies with her just inside the front gate, the real stars of this year’s event are its mazes – 9 in total, ranging from enjoyable to shockingly perfect. There really isn’t a bad move to make during this 26th year of the country’s ultimate Halloween event, though some parts are definitely more worth braving the long lines than others.

On with the specifics…

The Rules

As with previous years, this Halloween Horror Nights event review includes each haunted house, scare zone, and show summarized and ranked into one or more 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. Use my thoughts as a guide to help you plan your attack when you visit Universal Orlando’s event and see if you agree.

Read on for my Halloween Horror Nights 2016 review from Universal Orlando.

Halloween Horror Nights 2016 Haunted Houses

2015 was a strong year for Halloween Horror Nights and the creative team behind the event has clearly figured out a solid system to balance original ideas with licensed intellectual properties. It’s a combination that brought a sold out crowd to its very first night this year.

For 2016, it’s truly difficult to rank all the houses, as there are so many that are excellent. And opinions are varying widely across this 26th year, as different styles, aesthetics, and weird worlds appeal to different people. I personally favor experiences that rely on elaborately artistic scenic work and effects over what I believe are cheap thrills reliant on simple startles. And based on that, I present to you my house-by-house review, starting with…

1. American Horror Story

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RANKING: Mind Blower, Eye Popper, Gut Buster

REVIEW: Fans have been clamoring for Universal to bring this popular FX TV show to Halloween Horror Nights – and all their wildest dreams have come true this year. Based on seasons 1 (Murder House), 4 (Freak Show), and 5 (Hotel), this haunted house does an absolutely perfect job of placing event goers inside of some of the most iconic moments from the series. Among the finest decisions the design team made was to cast strong lookalikes for all the familiar characters from these seasons and arm them with sound triggers that play dialogue directly from the show, which they mouth along to. The result is just one small step removed from actually being on set when they filmed those parts. And if I didn’t know better, I would think many of the sets presented here were the actual ones they used on the show. They are spot on. Though the experience is not particularly scary, neither is the show. And in that sense, this is a perfect recreation of the look and feel of one of TV’s most popular horror series – and a far better haunted house than any of “The Walking Dead” ones Universal has ever presented.

My personal favorite moment: Dandy’s tantrum happening right before my eyes. I laughed out loud, while simultaneously wanting to get as far away from him as quickly as possible. Brilliant.

See it for yourself:

2. Tomb of the Ancients

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RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Some might be surprised to find Tomb of the Ancients so high on my list. But this experience is exactly what I look for when I visit a haunted house. Found within are extremely dark environments, detailed sets, unpredictable scares, winding paths, special effects, an original story and characters, and a whole lot of stuff dangling in your face. While I am not particularly attached to the Egyptian theme of this tomb, it is brought to life in an unexpected way, far more realistic than over at the park’s “The Mummy” attraction. And look out for a surprise double-scare moment. It’s the one that got me this year – a rare occurrence!

3. The Exorcist

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RANKING:Eye Popper

REVIEW: No one can argue that “The Exorcist” is one of the finest horror films ever made. So how does its first-ever haunted house equivalent stack up? Well, it’s hard to completely live up to such a classic cinematic experience – but this maze does hold its own. Given that the film takes place largely in one room, I applaud the design team for taking creative approaches to replicating iconic moments from the film. There’s the lamp post outside, the head spin, the green vomit, the spider walk, and – of course, the power of Christ compels you. Add in flashes of creepy faces and some surprising special effects and this experience almost gets there. I have a feeling it will continue to improve on its strong base over the next few weeks to remain one of this year’s best.

Here’s a video walkthrough:

4. Ghost Town: The Curse of Lightning Gulch

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RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: This haunted house revisits a theme and fictitious location from Halloween Horror Nights history in an impressive new way. The sets are massive and monumental throughout this western-themed experience. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan of westerns, but even with that being the case I still tremendously enjoyed this maze. It just keeps going. Meeting this Ghost Town’s afterlife residents is one unexpected encounter after another, with exciting shootouts and other scenes playing out around you throughout. And did I mention the insanely impressive scale of the sets? It strongly reminded me of being at Knott’s Berry Farm, famous for its own Ghost Town – but somehow I feel like Universal one-upped Knott’s at its own game.

5. Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield

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RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer

REVIEW: Michael Myers returned to Halloween Horror Nights two years ago in a strong way – and does it again this year with a journey through the second “Halloween” film, picking up right where the haunted house left off last time. This one feels a bit too familiar though, bumping it down a few notches on this last. But familiarity aside, it’s another thrilling trip through one of horror’s most beloved franchises. The scares are toned down a bit from last time, but the finale is especially impressive.

6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Another property to frequent Halloween Horror Nights, Leatherface returns with grotesque scenes of chain saw-created gore. Yet somehow it’s executed in an elegant way. The maze flows quite well, leaving patrons always in plain view of the action – when not cowering. I’m not personally a fan of this franchise, but I still enjoyed the haunted house experience.

7. Krampus

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: I’m really not too sure what to make of this haunted house after one time through. I didn’t see the movie “Krampus” though am completely familiar with the character and its story. I always enjoy a dark horror comedy, especially one set during Christmas time. So this should have been a great experience for me. But it just wasn’t. I didn’t understand it. The sets are fun (and nice and cold!) and the sweet smell of evil gingerbread men permeating throughout is great. But I was expecting much more of… Krampus. Instead, I was attacked repeatedly by what appeared to be large-headed characters from the Mardi Gras parade. Really odd. I know some have highly praised this maze. It just didn’t do it for me.

8. The Walking Dead

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RANKING: ?

REVIEW: Sigh. If this had been the haunted house for “The Walking Dead” a few years ago, I would have loved it. But today, after this TV series has been featured at Halloween Horror Nights for so many years, I just feel like this is an unnecessary blast from the past. This year’s maze is a “best of” – and a very well executed one at that. It’s really a great experience. But at the same time, I simply have lost all care for this franchise and thusly there really is no incarnation of it at Horror Nights that will leave me satisfied at this point. Anyone who hasn’t already seen a haunted house based on the series will no doubt love this.

9. Lunatics Playground 3D: You Won’t Stand a Chance

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RANKING: Grave Digger

REVIEW: Universal Orlando took a chance on their icon this year and many have no doubt found a lot of great things to say about Lunatics Playground. But anyone who has read my house-by-house reviews knows that I very rarely enjoy 3D houses. The bright colors and lighting just takes away all sense of “horror” to me. While Chance is a fun character, this maze just felt like every other 3D maze I’ve ever walked through. I know 3D is all the rage with some haunted house fans – and those fans would probably place Tomb of the Ancients down here at the bottom. But for me, without realistic scenery amidst a dark and creepy mood, I’m lost.


Halloween Horror Nights 2016 Scare Zones

Universal Orlando features a really strong lineup of scare zones this year, all of which truly feel like Halloween Horror Nights of the past. I am impressed to find that even some large and elaborate set pieces have made their way back into the event along with some incredible ambience that I’ve never seen before. It’s a fun year to wander the streets!

1. Vamp ’55

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RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer

REVIEW: It was truly difficult to choose a top scare zone this year as I really like two the most. Vamp ’55 is a fun trip into the past, set in a homecoming parade gone horribly wrong. Watching high school students get mauled by greasers-turned-vampires is more enjoyable than I could have imagined. This zone is filled with both villains and victims and it’s exciting to see scenes play out.

2. Dead Man’s Wharf

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RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: The former San Francisco streets of Universal Studios have been transformed into an eerie underwater adventure in this impressive scare zone. Through lots of fog and careful lighting, the feeling of being trapped underneath the sea is quite accurately created. Of course, it helps that there is a giant barnacle-covered ghost ship docked on the side of the street, while undead divers slowly move around you.

3. Survive or Die Apocalypse

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: Mashing up elements from the “Acid Assault” scare zone from a few years ago with undertones of “Mad Max,” this post-apocalyptic zone is huge in every sense of the word. Crumbling projections on buildings couple with roaming armored vehicles to create a sense of scale while the whole area is filled with actors, not only on the streets but high above on platforms spouting fire. There’s a constant sense of movement in which you never quite feel safe.

4. Lair of the Banshee

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RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: The darkest and foggiest scare zone of Halloween Horror Nights 2016 features a variety of inventive characters seemingly in command of a series of beautiful banshees. It’s eerie and ghostly – everything Halloween should be.

5. A Chance in Hell

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RANKING: ?

REVIEW: Once again, Chance hits the bottom of the list. The zone has 5 great vignettes that, so far, seem to be severely underused. The expectation seems to be that Chance herself would hop between the vignettes, performing some sort of sinister act with her own brand of twisted humor. But instead, she has planted herself in just one area telling bad “knock knock” jokes and posing for selfies. It leaves me wondering if the development of this scare zone just wasn’t finished in time for the event to begin and may evolve in the weeks ahead. I certainly hope so.


Halloween Horror Nights 2016 Live Shows

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure

RANKING: Gut Buster, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Another win for Bill & Ted in their 25th year! It’s a laugh-fest from start to finish, with a larger-than-ever cast of sexy dancers and strong actors. Thankfully, the writers didn’t rely solely on the year’s obvious politics to generate jokes, keeping things varied and lively throughout. And it all wraps up with wonderful tributes to David Bowie and Prince.

Academy of Villains: House of Fear

RANKING: ?

REVIEW: I didn’t see this show personally, but our reporter Adam McCabe absolutely loved it. I’m surprised Universal didn’t opt to give Chance her own stage show, instead giving her haunted house and scare zone. But I am looking forward to seeing this one for myself!


Halloween Horror Nights 2016 continues on select nights in September and October at Universal Orlando. You can buy tickets now and find more information at HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando.

(Photos by Michael Gavin, Ricky Brigante, Universal Orlando)

3 Comments

  1. Dana

    I wanted to take the time and thank you for doing these reviews each year. They are incredibly valuable as we plan our night and are always accurate. We appreciate the time you dedicate to help others enjoy the event.

  2. Thanks for the in-depth review of Halloween Horror Nights! Missed it this year, but this made up for it 🙂

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