With three kids into Harry Potter, we’ve flown from California to Florida four times now to visit the Universal Orlando theme parks. The thing that’s impressed me is how much there is to do there beyond Harry Potter, and every year as the kids are taller we’ve gone on more rides throughout the two parks, and more coasters, and enjoyed the parks in different ways. We had never timed our visits for Halloween Horror Nights, however.
I recently had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Universal Orlando and see Halloween Horror Nights up close. It was an extraordinary experience. Being in California and not seeing the annual advertising, I had no idea how big an event this was or the extent to which people looked forward to it every year. If you aren’t aware of it either, here’s why you may want to travel to Florida for Halloween at Universal Studios Orlando for it this year or next.
First, what is Halloween Horror Nights (HHN)? Every year between mid-September and Halloween, Universal Studios Orlando transforms into essentially a very large Halloween-themed experience. Well, during the day it’s still a normal theme park, but then the park closes at 5pm and re-opens an hour and a half later dedicated to the dark side of Halloween. This is NOT an event for young kids. Fourteen is probably a good minimum age. This year HHN runs for 31 nights – September 16-18, 22-25, 29-30, October 1-2, 6-9, 12-16, 19-23, and 26-31.
Halloween at Universal Studios Orlando
HHN includes nine themed haunted houses scattered throughout the park as well as five scare zones. The scare zones let you stay in the Halloween spirit while walking between the haunted houses – think people with chainsaws jumping out from behind trees and coming after you, or coming up behind you when you’re least expecting it. And even if you are constantly expecting it, the actors are good and will catch you off-guard at least a couple of times.
When I went in 2016, there were six haunted houses based on television or movies – Halloween II, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Exorcist, American Horror Story, the Walking Dead and Krampus – and three based on original themes – a 3D prison of carnage, a haunted ghost town and a haunted ancient (more or less Egyptian) tomb. I went through several of the houses during the day and the attention to detail was impressive – things that most people would never notice during the few minutes that they’re in each house with the lights out. The designers are huge horror fans and create houses that are truthful to the source material and that immerse fans of the originals in those worlds. If you love American Horror Story, you’ll feel like you’re in several of the sets as you walk through the house.
The scare zones around the park were themed for an apocalypse, a 1950s vampire homecoming parade, a woodland filled with evil spirits, a haunted fishing vessel/harbor and the twisted cellmates from the 3D haunted house. The cool thing is that the designers created elaborate backstories to every one of the scare zones and houses and the actors played their roles so that they fit into those stories. The entire experience was immersive – an entirely different theme park than during the day.
Going through the haunted houses during the day with the lights on, I honestly wasn’t sure how many I wanted to see at night. I don’t love horror, I don’t love being scared, and I kind of wanted to be able to sleep again. I am happy to report that I went through all nine houses and I loved the Halloween at Universal Studios Orlando experience. You’re traveling through the houses with a constant stream of people, so essentially you realize that you’re going to be fine and the characters can’t touch you.
You see some of the scares in advance so you’re ready for those, but it’s the ones that haven’t occurred in the last 20 seconds that can get you when you’re not expecting it – you already saw someone jump out from a staircase so you know that could happen, but then someone jumps out from the other side. I saw people who were screaming constantly and people who never got scared. Regardless, it’s a fun experience. And yes, I slept just fine afterward!
There are pretty cool themed dancing/variety show that you can go to or simply see as you’re walking past it, but the main event was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, which has been running for over 25 straight years (with a new script every year). The show is, well, nothing like you would expect at a theme park. It’s adult-oriented, very irreverent, and very funny. It runs several times a night for around half an hour and allows you to rest your legs.
The Rest of the Park
So even though Halloween at Universal Studios Orlando was completely transformed at night for the theme, a lot of the normal rides were open, and there were virtually no lines. Go to as many houses as you can, but also jump on a coaster or head through Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Stay late.
There are a few different options for Halloween Horror Nights tickets based on your budget and how keen you are to wait in line for the houses. Everyone needs a standard HHN ticket, which generally runs $56-105 depending on whether you already purchased a park ticket that day. Then you can add express passes for $90-140 depending on the day that let you go into shorter lines for each house. The regular lines I saw (on a Thursday night) were anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes at each house. The express passes will reduce that to 10 minutes or less and allow you to get to more houses, if not all of them, in one night.
There’s also an R.I.P pass, the HHN version of Universal’s daytime V.I.P pass. For $179.99 per person (on top of the standard HHN ticket) you have a guide who tells you all about the various HHN attractions, optimizes your time with the best path through the park, and takes you to the front of every line. There are also free drinks and snacks in the middle of the park for R.I.P. pass holders and other benefits like valet parking and preferred seating for the Bill and Ted show. If you have the money, it’s a great way to go – you can see as much in one night doing that as it would take you two nights to see on your own. A note: buy tickets well in advance and buy them online – there’s usually a discount.
I really enjoyed Halloween Horror Nights. If you’re looking for a unique Halloween experience, it’s worth flying in for. But do it right – don’t spend money to come to Orlando and then wait in lines for every house. Splurge on the R.I.P. pass to have the best experience. And leave the kids with the sitter. Oh, and the event has won the Golden Ticket Award for Best Halloween Event multiple years in a row, so this is the premier event in the world. It’s the one to come to.
Note: Universal flew me in for Halloween Horror Nights and covered all costs, but I was skeptical that I would like it, and I wasn’t planning on writing about it. I did this post because I loved the event and the attention to detail. It was a very fun night. Another note: it’s virtually impossible to capture HHN in photographs, as there’s no photography allowed in the houses at night and everything is happening so fast through the park and scare zones. The event is far more impressive than my photos!