Florida Travel

Theme parks: More horror, gore at this year’s Universal fear fest

In Freddy vs. Jason, the characters aren’t too busy with each other to pop out and give visitors new nightmares.
In Freddy vs. Jason, the characters aren’t too busy with each other to pop out and give visitors new nightmares. UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

Ah, the good old days, when psychotic clowns indulged their murderous urges, ghoulish surgeons collected body parts and Frankenstein’s monster menaced.

They’re all back, along with werewolves, zombies, assorted criminals, demons and other icons of modern horror at Universal Studios Orlando.

Nostalgia is a force almost as powerful as terror this year as Halloween Horror Nights marks 25 years of gruesome, blood-curdling scares. This year’s event features more haunted houses (nine), more nights in operation (30) and the biggest house ever — but more importantly for fans, it’s brought back some past favorites for a resurrection.

That means show-stopping mazes from the past — think the gorgeously moody Gothic with its threatening gargoyles, or the monstrous World War I nurses from Nightingales: Blood Prey — have featured roles in the year’s largest house, Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem.

While it doesn’t create one overarching storyline, Mayhem has been drawing raves for its lineup of greatest hits.

“It brought back a lot of everybody’s favorites,” said Brian Carter, 36, who drove down from South Georgia for the event’s first and second weekends. “I thought it would be real jumbled up and wouldn’t really flow, but I thought they did a good job to make it a little more cohesive.”

He was less enthusiastic about a couple of other houses that may be too repetitive for regulars: An American Werewolf in London, which first appeared in 2013, and The Walking Dead, returning for the fourth year in a row.

The rasping, slow-moving zombies from the hit AMC show appear in nasty new scenarios this year, including memorable moments from the fifth season. But even with those highlights, zombie fatigue may be setting in.

Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem, one of nine haunted houses, has been drawing raves for its lineup of greatest hits.

Asylum in Wonderland 3D is an even-more-psychedelic-than-the-original retelling of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, sending participants through a swirling and dizzy-making tunnel into a colorful land of disemboweled bunnies and mad queens.

Fitness buffs might embrace RUN: Blood, Sweat, and Fears, set up as a televised competition for survival with goals posted throughout. (Example: Bonus points for the man thrown onto a wall spike.)

Run, Asylum and other houses have made appearances in the past. Charles Gray, the event’s show director for houses, said organizers sought to breathe new life into those favorites rather than just rehashing them.

“Although those are hearkening back to past houses, they all have a new story and content within,” he said.

In Freddy vs. Jason, the famed hockey mask-wearing slayer battles dream invader Freddy Krueger, though the figures aren’t too busy with each other to pop out and give visitors new nightmares.

Insidious, based on the horror film franchise, is especially disturbing, with empty baby walkers scooting forward on their own and empty rocking horses moving.

Outside of the houses themselves, highly effective “scareactors” roam five different zones on the grounds. Some of the scare zones, as they're called, are fascinating to look at but not so terrifying, such as the pumpkin-filled Evil’s Roots, the intricate Icons from years past and the tongue-in-cheek Scary Tales, featuring fairy tale characters in steampunk attire. At the All Nite Die-In — Double Feature, try to time a visit to see modern-day, in-color characters like the Chucky doll switch with black-and-white classics such as Nosferatu.

The escaped inmates of Psychoscareapy — Unleashed are spooky and unnervingly patient. One glared at our group through a Starbucks window for what could have been minutes before we noticed her creepy gaze.

Always good for a scream, chainsaws (without blades, but with a very diesel-y smell) are back in force. Gray said the event has more than ever this year.

“They’re in the houses, they’re in the streets, and a lot of the street sections will have chainsaws dedicated to them along with two roaming chainsaw hordes,” he said. Fun fact: The prop is so essential that some staffers are designated specifically as chainsaw wranglers.

Transitioning from a killer (ahem) scare zone last year to a tense, threatening maze this year is Purge, based on the films. Masked women in cocktail dresses might not sound frightening, but this twisted tale of regular life gone awry is a thriller.

One of the most disgusting — and, OK, fun —houses is Body Collectors: Recollections, set in a mental asylum during winter.

The atmosphere is carefully crafted with snow-covered trees and cool air. Inside awaits an operating theater populated with creatures that resemble Lord Voldemort and what has to be the biggest grossout scene of the year. We will only say: If you don’t have a strong stomach, you may not have the backbone for this.

Speaking of He Who Must Not Be Named, for the first time, Halloween Horror Nights attendees have access to Harry Potter experiences. The Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts thrill ride is open in Diagon Alley, and butterbeer (as well as Potter-themed actual beer) flows.

For Carter, the Georgia resident, that was good news for the simple reason that it would thin out the often-scary lines at the other attractions.

“I did not go in, but I was happy it was open for the crowd-eater aspect of it,” he said.

Hannah Sampson: 305-376-3742, @hannahbsampson

If You Go

What: Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 25

When: Starting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays until Nov. 1

Cost: General admission $101.99, but discounts available for Florida residents, theme park add-ons and for multiple-night visits.

Information: www.HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando

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