Once upon a time, the fledgling Universal Studios Florida theme park introduced a small Halloween-themed event called Fright Nights in 1991. Little did anyone realized that the event, which was renamed to Halloween Horror Nights in subsequent years, would become a huge crowd pleaser that expanded from a single weekend to an extravaganza. Now it starts in September runs to Halloween and sometimes even a few days beyond.
Halloween Horror Nights takes place on select nights after Universal Studios Florida closes for the day. It always runs on the weekends, and at certain times in the season it’s open on Wednesdays and Thursdays, too. You have to buy a separate ticket, and there’s no discount for children because this is definitely not a kid-friendly event. It’s geared to the older tween, teen, and adult crowd, with blood, gore, and intense scares that make you feel like you’ve stepped into a horror movie.
Because Universal is a movie-based theme park, many of its Halloween Horror Nights haunted houses, scare zones on the streets, and shows have a tie-in to popular media. For example, for 2013, AMC’s popular series The Walking Dead was given a major presence. Not only were the Walkers featured in a haunted house, but they also made up the entire street experience.
Universal ties in with other media, too, including video games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Every year there’s a pop culture skewing show, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, loosely based on the Bill and Ted characters from the late 1980s/early 1990s. In years past, and returning in 2013, the cult hit Rocky Horror Picture show got its own live tribute performance, complete with audience call-backs.
The haunted houses are the meat of this event, and Universal features seven to eight of them each year. Some are in the sound stages, which means they have elaborate facades and sets. Others are in outer buildings, sprung tents, and even queue lines. Even when space is more limited, the park’s creative team makes sure they’re all immersive experiences packed with aggressive scareactors and amazing special effects.
The event is very intense, so even though kids aren’t banned, bringing them is not recommended. The Halloween Horror Nights atmosphere is completely different than the kid-friendly Universal Studios Florida environment during the day. The park is dim and gloomy, and when you walk through a scare zone, you’re easy prey for lurking scareactors who delight in jumping out and surprising the unwary. The haunted houses are dark and disorienting, and even adults are often seen scrambling for the emergency exits because they’re overwhelmed.
Also, alcohol consumption is prevalent at Halloween Horror Nights, adding to the adult atmosphere. Bars spring up all around the park, including in the queue lines, and “naughty nurses” walk around selling special drinks in blood bags. With all the imbibing, you get some spicy language and behavior.
What should you know about visiting Halloween Horror Nights? First, some nights sell out, so buy your tickets as soon as you know your preferred dates. If possible, arrange to visit the park during the day so you can stay in after closing time. You’re allowed to wait in a holding pen, and you get to the haunted houses ahead of all the people waiting at the front gates.
Second, decide whether or not you want to buy an Express pass. This pass lets you use a special shorter line one time for each of the haunted houses. It’s expensive, but it’s also a way to ensure that you’ll see all the houses in one night. As Universal brings more and more popular intellectual properties to the event, like The Walking Dead, Evil Dead, and Cabin in the Woods, the crowds keep growing every year. On busy nights, it’s not uncommon to see wait times of 60 to 90 minutes or more, so the Express pass becomes priceless.
Third, if you’re not staying in the park, get in line early at the front gates or be prepared for a long wait. Halloween Horror Nights is very popular, and everyone must go through metal detectors, which means you must wait in two lines (metal detector and entry turnstiles) to get in.
Fourth, be prepared for a long night. Even if you’re using an Express pass, it takes time to visit all the haunted houses, and you’ll want to spend time going through the scare zones, too. The major rides are all open, and there are at least two shows every year, so if you add those in, you’ll probably be at the event until closing time. There are plenty of open food venues, so you can easily grab dinner or a snack.
If you’re a fright fan and you’re in Orlando any time between late September and Halloween, Halloween Horror Nights is a must-do. It has a huge local following and fans around the country who plan their trips to Orlando around it. You’ll understand why once you experience it for yourself.