Theme Park Ranger
September 23, 2010
It wouldn't have been shocking for Universal Orlando to turn its Halloween Horror Nights event into a "greatest hits" package this year. Like a hungry vampire lurking around a darkened corner, many fans expected a "best of" theme to swoop in and mark a milestone — the theme park's 20th edition.
Instead, the Horror Nights creative team opted for all-new programming — with a few nods to its heritage.
"It's not just this big Carol Burnett special of Halloween. … It's not a clip show," says Jim Timon, senior vice president of entertainment at Universal. "That would have been the easy thing to do — a let's-rest-on-our-laurels Halloween. There was no desire creatively to do that."
Yet two decades of chills could not be ignored totally.
"We want to make sure we touch on, in some sort of house form, some sort of street form, something that bases us in the 20 years of Horror Nights … But then that's it," says Mike Aiello, show director. "Everything else about the event, we want to make sure we are pushing this event forward, establishing a groundwork for the next 20 years."
The common thread of the previous 19 sets of Horror Nights, the creative team determined, has been fear itself.
From all that fear springs Fear, a character who has been the mastermind behind the big badness every year, according to Universal lore.
"Fear is going to show himself this year," Aiello says. "The one thing we've been growing and bringing to the guests every year is going to physically manifest itself this year and be that sort of puppet master or string puller. He's been the one entity that's been pushing this event year after year to create fear to feed him."
Previous icons of Halloween Horror Nights — Jack, the Storyteller, the Director and company — were integral in bringing Fear to life, the Universal team says.
"These icons were a piece to the puzzle that all had to exist physically in order to bring fear, to open that lantern and bring Fear into existence," Aiello says.
Take a peek at the 8 haunted houses
Terror will loom at the event but in new ways in the eight haunted houses, show director Patrick Braillard says. Each house presents an element that Universal hasn't attempted before, such as an open flame and a guest-triggered effect (watch for the red button), he says.
There's also a more subtle switch in tone: All "scare actors" in the houses portray aggressors. No one plays the victim, Braillard says.
"Every single person is out for blood," he says.
Fortunately, there were no scare actors around when Braillard guided me through a daylight tour of the houses. Here are some details Universal revealed about this year's mazes.
Ghost of a chance
First of all, another first. "We have never in our last two decades ever done an actual haunted house. We've never gone the ghost route," Braillard says.
Looking for those spirits is the story behind Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate. Inside, expect an alarming amount of wiring to be used for a broadcast from the estate — said to be one of the most haunted spots in the country.
Outside, expect an actual house.
"You walk into the soundstage and see that we built a house. It's not that we built a façade — we didn't build just one wall. You see a house, and you walk into this gigantic estate," Braillard says.
Greek to me
This skull-lined maze called Hades: The Gates of Ruin is based on Greek mythology and populated by Medusa, Hydra and the like. It should be difficult to miss a 7-foot-5 Cyclops.
"You'll see some minor characters that you haven't seen very prevalently as far as Greek mythology is concerned," Braillard says. "That was part of the fun of that because we got to design or put our take on what we consider to be ancient monsters."
"There are two very divisive camps in the zombie-fan realm," Braillard says. "It's like this: I like slow-moving zombies or I like fast-moving zombies."
In Zombiegeddon? "We give them both," he says.
In the story, guests learn to deal with zombie infestation from not-too-bright guys who managed to develop "pacification suits" and collars for zombies.
"As long as electricity is flowing to these collars, everything is fine. When the light is yellow, your zombie's mellow. When the light is red, you're dead," Braillard says.
Oh, but there's a power outage — time for those fast-moving zombies.
This house exits into a similarly themed scare zone in the theme park called Zombie Gras.
None of the keys words for Havoc: Dogs of War are particularly inviting. Terms such as hyper-aggressive, supersoldier, bunker, muzzle, gas mask and heavy gore.
Shadowcreek Enterprise, the story goes, was contracted by the government to create a warrior that could do the work of 10. They achieved this with a gas that increases adrenalin and testosterone but decreases sensitivity to pain. Cue the gas leak.
Havoc's scare actors have a distinctive look. "Every single person in this house — male and female — is shaven," Braillard says. "Their heads are completely shaved, and they all have UPC symbols tattooed on their head. They're our property."
The Catacombs: Black Death Rising house contains a little history lesson. Meet the plague doctors, public servants charged with helping those dying from the black plague in the 1500s. Best of all, they wear rose-colored glasses and dress like the Spy vs. Spy guys in Mad magazine.
Panicked townspeople locked the diseased under the city. Fast-forward 500 years, when a museum is being built on the site.
"They knock down a wall and, lo and behold, the victims of the plague — as well as the plague doctors — are still very much alive, and they're not very happy that they've been there," Braillard says.
Burn, baby, burn
A burned-out orphanage is the setting for the Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes. The person responsible is Cindy, who fans have latched onto through previous Horror Nights, but she's never had a starring role.
Braillard provides this back story for Cindy: "She has taken under her wing all of the orphans, and they're not going to take it anymore. So therefore they decide to burn it to the ground and go after any guests that may try to enter their domain."
Must be insane
It's the fourth installment of the "Psychoscarepy" brand at Horror Nights. This year, the story takes place 15 years after asylum closed, but criminally insane souls abound still. (The cells were spooky even in daylight.)
HHN fans are familiar with this scene, but Psychoscarepy: Echoes of Shadybrook will be a throwback. Braillard says it has been carrying the "I'm going to laugh as hard as I scream" reputation.
"That's not what it's going to be this year," he says. "This year it goes back to its roots where it's going to be a terrifying house."
The Horror Nights: The Hallow'd Past house plays off the idea that Universal has a museum-quality warehouse devoted to its Horror Nights paraphernalia. (Fun fact: It doesn't.)
"We wanted to take our favorite rooms from the last two decades and put them in an experience for our guests," says show director Mike Aiello. "You could literally walk through this house 10 times with no scare actors in it at all and you would see something different in every single time."
Universal expects the house to get repeated visits from hard-core HHN fans.
Look for banners, favorite set pieces and icons stacked high as if in a Sam's Club. (And "maximum carnage," Aiello says.)
Halloween Horror Nights
What: Intense Halloween event featuring eight haunted houses, six "scare zones," shows by illusionist Brian Brushwood and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure"
Where: Universal Studios, Interstate 4 and Kirkman Road, Orlando
When: 6:30 p.m., Sept. 24, 25, 30; Oct. 1-3, 7-10, 14-17, 20-24, 27-31
Cost: Admission varies with day and frequency and ranges from $39.99 to $239.98
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