Note: This article will be updated after Friday night’s media night event with more thoughts and impressions.
Halloween Horror Nights is back! Select nights from Sept.16 – Oct.31, Halloween Horror Nights 26 haunts the streets of Universal Studios Orlando, and features Chance, previously Jack’s sidekick, front and center as this year’s icon.
We had the good fortune to attend the event as both employee preview Wednesday night as well as Friday night’s opening night media event, and are here to share our first review of the event!
First, check out our video of employee preview night (our opening night media event video is forthcoming):
After last year’s awesome HHN store, I had high hopes for this larger space. However, this year’s store was 100% focused on this year’s event, rather than featuring props from HHN year’s past. While not fully a complaint, as the store itself is still awesome, I was a little sad it was pretty much just a store, and not the store/museum combo we had last year. We filmed a video walkthrough of the house that you can view here:
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Ya know, I didn’t give a lot of thought to this year’s announcement of a TCM house. I figured I’d seen it multiple times before, what new could be done to it? And, to be fair, there’s not a ton in this house that UO hasn’t already shown us in TCM-related houses before, with one notable exception that incorporates the iconic camera shutter sound from the trailer. However, there’s just something about the effectiveness of the house decor, the scareactors playing the Sawyer family, and the sounds, that make this one of the most effective houses of this year’s event. Heck, on the way out of the house, Leatherface totally made me scream, and I’m not a screamer. Extremely effective and one of my top three houses this year. First Review Score: 4.5/5
- Krampus: As said in my preview video, I thought that Krampus would make a better haunted house than a movie and, having gone through the house, I truly feel that way. Krampus (which my auto-correct insists is “cramps”) is one of my favorite houses of HHN26. All of the excellent creature design is there, from the elves to the evil toys (the jack-in-the-box is especially fantastic), and, of course, the gingerbread men room is simply fantastic. Special callout to the work on the facades for the house, which make such effective use of a small space, it feels so much bigger. Make sure you look around (or take the Behind the Screams tour) because, not only are there a ton of Krampus-themed easter eggs, but there’s also some HHN-callbacks that only a keen eye (and some time) will notice in Krampus’ lair. First Review Score: 4.5/5
- Lunatics Playground – You Won’t Stand a Chance: We all know I’m not a fan of 3D houses, but I’ve been through some that I’ve enjoyed. Unfortunately, Lunatics Playground just didn’t work for me. While I understood what they were going for (jumping back and forth between Chance’s reality and her imaginary world), the 3D portions of the house just didn’t really work as well for me as the real world portions. I enjoyed seeing Chance getting one over on her captors, but the 3D portions of the house, for lack of a better term, felt rather generic. The best part of this house is the facade, which features a specially filmed intro and giant newspaper clipping explaining what happened to Chance after the events of last year’s HHN. I love stuff like that, so genuinely enjoyed that video. First Review Score: 2/5
- American Horror Story: This year’s biggest house, the AHS house takes you through the events of Murder House, Hotel, and Freakshow, and has some fantastic thematic elements. The work that went into this house is pretty amazing. Unfortunately, as someone who doesn’t watch the show, I think what they were going for was lost on me. Essentially a highlight reel from the aforementioned seasons, rather than its own cohesive storyline, the callbacks to the best scenes of the series will work on fans, but less so on non-fans. Also, be leery of lines, projected to go for multiple hours on peak nights. Try to hit this one early, or with Express. First Review Score: 3/5
- The Exorcist: This is another passion project for the creative team, but my fears regarding the house were a bit realized. Essentially a series of scenes from the film, you walk into the iconic bedroom at least five or six times and see different moments from the film. I understood what they were trying to go for, but rather than being overly scary, you’re essentially witnessing a play of The Exorcist. Obviously timing is very important on this one, as you don’t want to miss the moments in each room. While my preference would be to make this more of an “escape room” experience, I understand that would be logistically complicated. However, as a walkthrough, unfortunately, Exorcist struck me as ineffective. And the ending room (which I won’t spoil here, since the event just started) had me wondering what the heck was going on. First Review Score: 2.5/5
- Ghost Town – The Curse of Lightning Gulch: My favorite house of HHN (at least for now), Ghost Town not only reflects the passion UO has for their original properties, but also just how fantastic the talent is behind this event. Amazing set pieces, great scareactors, and a classic (non-gory) feel to this ghost-themed western town had me wanting to spend more and more time in it. This is definitely one to see on a lights-on tour as it’s not only a large house length-wise, but also has tall structures, multiple rooms, and a ton of amazing themeing. A scene in a saloon had me feeling like we were in a room actually large enough to be an operation saloon. Truly fantastic – kudos to all involved in the creation of this house. First Review Score: 5/5
- Tomb of the Ancients: On the flip side, this other original property goes for tight, confined spaces to be effective. While Tomb of the Ancients skews a little on the dark side (a concern of mine in the preview video), which makes it difficult to see all the intricate work that went into the storyline they’re trying to portray, there’s still a ton to enjoy in the house. Great creature work here, and hopefully as the event rolls on, UO will add a little more light to it so we can see some more of the work that went into it. The folks I walked through the house with had a hard time figuring out where to go, which sounds scary, but ultimately takes away from house enjoyment. First Review Score: 3/5
- The Walking Dead: I’m not a fan of the TV show, and I wasn’t a fan of the last couple of years of Walking Dead houses, but ya know what? I really liked this year’s TWD house. A “greatest hits” compilation, essentially, there’s a lot to see here for fans of the show, and even for non-fans like me. First Review Score: 3/5
- Vamp 1955: A fun idea, but relatively sparsely populated, I understand why they would put this in the Hollywood Boulevard section of the park, given it involves Homecoming floats that are relatively large and wouldn’t necessarily work in other areas of the park, but unfortunately, it doesn’t have quite the same “oomph” as previous scare zones in this section of the park. Perhaps I’m just used to the “series of stages” that the event typically employs in this area, but it just felt a little too open and empty for me. However, there is some strong scareacting in this one, so repeat visits may result in a better experience. First Review Score: 2.5/5
- A Chance in Hell: This actually was quite a bit different than I expected. This is the scarezone with “multiple stages,” however only one has a live act…and it’s Chance! The other stages show rather grisly scenes of murder from the escapees at the asylum, with Chance as a ringleader in the middle of it all. I appreciate the accessibility to Chance (something I felt that was missing from Jack, the icon, last year) for pictures, and for actual interaction with the attendees of the event. And while it would be easy to focus all the attention on Chance, her minions will be happy to scare you as they roam the scarezone. A solid entry to the event, and one that had me instantly feeling like Chance was definitely the event’s icon. Her presence is felt. First Review Score: 3.5/5
- Dead Man’s Wharf: While the set pieces in this scarezone are pretty ridiculously awesome, Dead Man’s Wharf is, essentially, two set pieces, right across from each other, right in front of where the Disaster ride used to be. It’s an extremely short scarezone that, unfortunately, has such tight walkthrough, it can’t help but get extremely cluttered trying to walk through, as everyone stops to look around. It’s definitely enjoyed the zone, just felt like it was very short and, unfortunately, going to result in traffic on peak nights. First Review Score: 3/5
- Banshee’s Lair: A fun, if a bit generic, scarezone, this is in the Central Park area of Universal Studios Orlando, and features numerous cave-like formations where creatures can hide. Tons of potential for scares in this zone, and the Irish music that plays throughout the zone may not really be dread-inducing, but certainly fits the theme. First Review Score: 3/5
- Survive or Die: In the New York section of the park, we get a very Purge meets Mad Max scarezone, Survive or Die. Different factions tell the story of a post-apocalyptic wasteland (something that’s been done in previous HHN years), but in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel repetitive of previous entries. I love the constant energy and fire throughout the zone, and definitely recommend walking through it in its entirety (including some tunnels across from the HHN Tribute Store). First Review Score: 3/5
- Roaming Hordes: Roaming chainsaw hordes travel throughout the park to scare you (though they’re definitely more centralized to certain areas) – make sure to keep an eye out for them, as the cheerleaders with chainsaws are pretty darn fantastic.
- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure: Guys, I’m gonna be honest. I haven’t really enjoyed Bill and Ted in years. I want to every year, because I remember this show being hilarious in years’ past, but this is another bit of a clunker for me this year. While I was excited to see this year would be Star Wars-themed, the jokes lost steam pretty quickly, and some were just downright unfunny. Of course we get our references to pop culture from the past year, but it all just felt a little…forced to me. First Review Score: 2/5
- Academy of Villains – House of Fear: On the flip side….holy heck guys, this show is freakin’ incredible. I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond a dance routine, but it’s so much more than that. Parkour, stunts, and, yes, AMAZING dancing, this show is one that I can’t wait to see again. This group is incredibly talented and had the audience eating it up the entire time. Fantastic music and choreography – definitely a highlight of the event. First Review Score: 5/5
For those worried that this year’s event can’t top last year’s anniversary event…well, you’re right. HHN25 was a hard to top event celebrating 25 years of what has become THE premier Halloween event in the US. However, HHN26 is something a little different. Rather than celebrating the past of the event, HHN26 focuses on licensed properties, to varying degrees of success. Krampus and Texas Chainsaw Massacre being two of my favorite houses this year show that IP can be done right.
However, where the event shines (at least for me) is in its original properties. Ghost Town is absolutely amazing, and the inclusion of Chance in this year’s event is definitely a selling point. A Chance in Hell is pretty fantastic, though Lunatics Playground is a bit of a letdown. Chance’s presence is felt in the event and having her a key feature of the scarezone helps curb any concerns of there not being a “Chance show” as there was a Jack show last year.
HHN26 is a solid year for the event, with good houses, scare zones, and an icon that sets the tone as soon as you walk into the park. Good job to all involved!
Keep it tuned here throughout the weekend (and to our YouTube channel) as we attend the event more and share more thoughts and video, including of our experience at the Scareactor Dining Experience, featuring Chance herself!