Saturday, November 01, 2008

Last of the Screams

It's November 1st, and the Halloween season is almost over. Almost, but not quite. The good thing about living in Tourist Land is that celebrations start early and get extended far beyond the norm. Such is the case with Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studio, which starts in the end of September and runs through tonight, even though Halloween was last night.

We've gone to HHN on almost every off-peak night, with the exception of while we were gone on my birthday cruise and while hubby was in Chicago. I think that brings us to somwhere like eleven visits. That may sound like a lot, but we have to get our fix in a very short time period since we'll be deprived for a whole year before it returns.

HHN is a far cry from Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party. It's most definitely adult oriented, with liquor stands every few feet and no child-price tickets. That doesn't stop the idiots from bringing terrified tots; last night, I watched as Security hustled a freaking youngster out of a haunted house and I've seen more than one parent berated a crying kid who refuses to even enter. Granted, some kids can handle the event. October is my birth month, and I come from a family that makes the Addams clan look wholesome, so I probably would have loved it from the age of 7 on, if not earlier. But not all kids enjoy being chased by chainsaw-wielding maniacs or watching a woman literally get her spine ripped out, and parents need to take that into consideration.

This year there were eight haunted houses. Over the course of the event, our favorites actually changed order. My original favorite was "Dead Exposure," in which zombies have taken over while a photographer struggles to survive. Thus it is pitch black, with only strobing "camera flashes" to guide you through. Of course, the flashes light up the day-glo paint on the zombies that are jumping out at you at every turn. I like darkness and disorientation, so this one won me over. However, over the course of the season the number of scareactors inside seemed to lessen so it got bumped down the list.

Meanwhile, "Doomsday," which started off as our least favorite house, ended up skyrocketing to the top three. I think it's based on a movie (something about viral research gone bad), but all I know is that the chainsaw-wielding maniac at the end nearly gave my husband a heart attack last night. That shows just how stealthy they are, since we've been through the house countless times and have a good idea of where the scareactors hang out. I got triple-teamed in there once too and was ready to curl up into a little ball on the floor while hubby laughed his butt off (of course, I returned the laughter when the chainsaw guy got him).

Two other great ones are "Body Collectors" and "Scary Tales." BC is pretty much full of creepy serial-killer types and the best special effects of the year. This is where you can find the spinal-extracting scene. Depending on your timing, it has some really good scares too but it's worth it for the scenes alone. SC won hubby over before it won me, but I like it quite a bit now. It's full of fairy tales gone bad, like Cinderella getting her foot chopped off by her stepmother and Alice disemboweling the White Rabbit while the Mad Hatter manically taughts guests trying to make it through the colored strobes. The Tin Man is particularly vicious in spraying water (actually, several of the houses feature the risk of getting sprayed this year).

We also really enjoy "Creatures," which puts us in the minority, since most people hate that house. I can understand their feelings, since it was a good concept that just didn't translate well to reality. It's supposed to be like one of those 1950s comics where alien creatures take over a backwoods town. In reality, creatures have little to do with this house. It's pretty much full of scary rednecks, which is a concept that could very well stand on its own. They should have just made this the Deliverance house and added some banjo music. Really, that's how I look at it...I go in imagining I'm stuck in a bar in the Deep South, and the scareactors definitely pull off the scary hillbilly routine.

"Reflections of Fear" is the icon house, with this year's icon being Bloody Mary, the bane of giggling middle school girls everywhere. I remember sleepovers where we all dared each other to say Mary's name 13 times into a darkened bathroom mirror. If you did, supposedly she would burst out and scratch up your face.

Universal's version of Mary is a demented psychologist whose phobia therapy on others turns her into a demented murdered. Since she is the icon, I was expected her house to knock my socks off. Last year's icon was Jack, the homicidal child-murdering clown, and he had an awesome 3-D house that was rather similar to "Dead Exposure." It was most definitely one of the best of 2007.

Unfortunately, instead of putting Mary's house in a tent like Jack's or on a soundstage, they put it into a queue. This means limited space so they just didn't carry off the concept like they could have. Instead of being "Wow!" it's rather mediocre. They do have one good effect, taken from Jack's house last year, where you have to push your way through two sets of inflated walls. Having cut my teeth on houses where you had to crawl through tunnels and the like back when I was a teen, I like little cluastrophobic touches. Unfortunately, they've only been turning on one side of the walls for weeks now, and only early on. As soon as it gets crowded, they turn 'em off entirely. Supposedly it's to get more people through, but they were on all the time in Jack's house last year so I don't entirely buy that excuse. Without the walls, you just have two "dead" spots.

They really under-used Mary this year in general. Last year, besides his house, Jack was out for photos and also had a show. No pics. with Mary and no show either, although she does appear on a giant screen as you enter the park.

The last two houses are "The Hallow" and "Interstellar Terror." Most people tend to love Hallow and its line shows that fact, but I'm very neutral on it. It's in a tent, so if you go in during the daylight the ambient light pretty much ruins a couple of the scenes. Even at night it doesn't wow me. Not that's all that bad, but there's nothing wildly unique about it either and I've only gotten a couple of really memorable scares in there (although one was VERY good).

"Interstellar Terror" doesn't grab me at all. It's an "alien is loose on the spaceship" theme, which can be quite good if it's executed correctly. IT doesn't quite pull it off; there is little in the way of scares, and they recycled one big effect from last year. I don't have a problem with that, except that you can't just rely on effects to pull off the house. They do have a new effect that is pretty cool, too, but I don't think I've ever had one good, memorable scare in there.

It's funny to read other reviews on line because there seems to be no consistency in people's opinions. I've found some who think "Interstellar Terror" is the ultimate and that "Dead Exposure" and "Doomsday" bite the wad. The only consistent theme I've noticed in the online community is that Universal really needed to do more with the icon house.

There are also three shows, although we haven't bothered with them much this year. Every year there is a new Bill & Ted show, and usually it's a highlight. Basically they lambast the news, entertainment, movies, and other goings on of the previous year. Last year we saw it at least once on every trip. This year it's totally and utterly flat. The only really funny bit is about the election, but that stuff pretty much writes itself.

This year they also brought back the Rocky Horror tribute from 2007, which I was quite happy about. I'm a Rocky fan from way back, although more on the fringes rather than a hard-core freak, and I love the music. Universal does a great job casting the singers, and it's always a high energy show. Usually there is lots of audience participation, which also means that there's usually a contingent of pissed off parents dragging out little Suzy and Johnny because people are shouting the f-word, among other explicit things. Uh, duh, it's Rocky Horror! One night we were walking past the theater on our way out of "Doomsday" among a group of people, and the theme song was playing (you can hear it in that area). I wonder if the clueless among the crowd wondered why a bunch of us suddenly shouted, "F--k the back row!"

Sadly, we've only seen Rocky a couple of times because the overall crowd volume has been down this year most off-peak nights. It's hard to give up quality house time to kill 45 minutes at a show.

One show I don't regret missing at all is the Brian Brushwood magic act. We saw him last year and were underwhelmed, so we haven't bothered this year. It's just as well, as I've heard that he does the same old stuff anyway. The only good thing about it is that it pulls crowds of people away from the lines. Or maybe it doesn't...almost every time we walk past, they're practically begging people to come in. I really, really wish they would have done a Bloody Mary show instead. Jack's show last year was a riot in a perverted, sadistic sort of way. I liked it, but hubby loved it so I ended up seeing it way too many times and even got sprayed with "blood" once.

Last year, being HHN virgins, it took us a while to learn the ropes. We didn't even know that we could upgrade the free tickets we got with our Premier Passes to Frequent Fear (unlimited off-peak visits) for a nominal fee...thankfully, a helpful Guest Services person told us. This year, we upgraded 'em right off the bat and made sure that we were in the park before closing every night. By doing that, you can wait in a "Stay and Scream" area where you are normally released early, with a couple of the houses already open. That gives you a jump on the crowds at the front gate. A couple nights ago this was particularly good, as "Creatures" had opened early and the scareactors were in fine form and jumping out at us from all directions. Yesterday we waited in the other S&S area by "Scary Tales," but even though it was open it didn't seem to be ready, as some of the scenes and scareactors were missing. Oh well, it was still bonus time.

If you get there early, you can get some power housing done before the crowds get really bad. There's usually an hour or two of minimal lines, depending on the night of the week. We get an Express Pass for the busy nights, then do what we can before the lines get long and we're forced to start using it. What cracks me up is the people who use their Express Passes even if there is no line. You can only use it once per house, so why waste it when the line is 5 minutes and then end up waiting with the unwashed masses later when it's an hour?

My favorite extreme example of this stupidity was a group of people who were there for Stay and Scream a few nights ago. They were bound and determined that they were going to be the first people to use their Express Passes. "Creatures" opened first, so that's where we all headed. Of course there was zero wait, but they still insisted on using the Express entrance. The big irony was, they ended up waiting longer than the rest of us because they had to stop and have the passes checked to get into the line, then stop again to have them scanned. Meanwhile, the rest of us were already in the house. Oh well, maybe it's a modified form of Darwinism...when the genetic weaklings waste their passes early on, it means they won't be cluttering the Express Lines with the rest of us smart people later.

Express lines usually aren't longer than 15 mins., and most of the time they're considerably less. However, on the busiest night we visited, even Express was running 30 mins. and up (the regular lines were two or more hours so I guess everything is relative).

Of course, HHN isn't just about haunted houses. There are lots of scare zones, too, and they aren't all on the map. These are areas that you walk through at the risk of being accosted by scareactors. My favorites this year were Streets of Blood, American Gothic, and the Zombie Drill Team. Streets of Blood is near "Body Collectors" and features the same creepy undertaker-looking dudes. Don't walk through there while eating food because they'll take full advantage of the fact that you're distracted and go in for the kill. American Gothic didn't wow me early in the season, but by the end it was awesome! Every time I went through, I was a magnet for all sorts of creepy characters. The Zombie Drill Team is (appropriately) over near "Dead Exposure," and they periodically perform dance routines. When they're not doing that, they're busily terrifying passersby. I had one chase me for so long that I thought she was never gonna stop! I finally managed to escape by taking refuge in the entrance to the Men in Black shop. The very next day I had the same zombie after me again, and this time she ran me right into the clutches of yet another one.

The other scare zones are okay, although none have grabbed me like those three. Path of the Wicked has flying monkeys that actually do fly, which is cool. It also has stilt walkers, which creep me out every since one scared the daylights out of me over by the Mummy ride a year or two back (they're out all the time over there, not just at Halloween). Asylum in Wonderland has an Alice theme, and there is also a general fairytale scare zone near "Scary Tales" that's pretty good. There are also demented little trick-or-treaters at The Skoolhouse and some weird silver-clad dudes wandering around near the park entrance. At first I thought they were spacemen, but finally I read on the internet that they're supposed to be mirror-things. If you say "Bloody Mary" to them, she appears on their faces. Of course I had to try it, and it was indeed true.

That pretty much sums up HHN 2008. It's a great event if you know what you're getting into. I don't just mean the scares; you also have to realize that it's pretty much a drunkfest. They sell lots of alcohol all over the park, including red jello shots in a blood bag which was rather cool. But the free-flowing alcohol also means that a lot of patrons lose their common sense. Universal has a zero-tolerance policy on stupid actions, which means that I've lost count of the number of people I've seen getting hauled away by Security or the police, presumably for touching one of the scareactors, drinking under age, or doing something else idiotic.

The one thing there is no enforcement of is the smoking ban. In public areas, you're only supposed to smoke in designated areas. The lines themselves are supposed to be totally smoke free. Unfortunately, HHN seems to be populated by prime nicotine addicts who can't go ten minutes without lighting up. Smoke triggers respiratory issues for me, and in the close confines of a line it's particularly bad. I always have a park map handy so if the offender is close enough I can tell them to put it out and point out the rule to back me up if they're not cooperative. Most are fairly polite, but one night I did end up spending half an hour listening to the two totally smashed jerks in front of me discussing that a bitch I was after I stopped them from lighting up. I was really, really hoping they would say something directly to me or do something else stupid so I'd have the pleasure of watching their sorry asses get hauled out, but they weren't quite drunk enough to make that mistake. Every now and then I would see a worker tell the smokers to stop in the lines, but in 12 visits I can count on one hand the number of times that happened.

Other than the smoke, the general level of drunken rowdiness doesn't bother me too much. Sure, some of the people get loud and obnoxious, but it usually doesn't affect me personally. Most seem to be happy drunks rather than belligerent, and some are good for amusement like the woman who stuck a turkey leg down her pants (chronicled in an earlier blog entry). The only time it's really a pain is if you get stuck going through a house with a really obnoxious group that harrasses the scareactors and spoils all the scares but thankfully that hasn't been too much of a problem. If I get a bad vibe from the party directly in front of me or behind me, I'll usually let others pass to get some space inbetween us.

Tonight will be the last hurrah, and I'm looking forward to it with a melancholy mix of emotions. I know all good things must come to an end, and after tonight I'll have the giddy anticipation of looking forward to clues about next year's theme (Univeral usually starts updating their website with teasers around June). But heading out to HHN has been a weekend tradition for several weeks now; granted, we can just switch back to USF/IOA and Disney, but after the high-end horrifying fun the regular theme park experience always seems tame by comparison. I guess I'll have to think about HHN has a giant bag of trick or treat candy. It's so much fun to gorge on the stash, but for maximum enjoyment you have to stop before you overdo it...having too much takes away the pleasure that is enhanced by the relative rarity of the treat.

1 comment:

bekki said...

ah... i can't wait to move to florida. i usually get to visit celebration once a year to see friends/family, but i have yet to be there at halloween. i can't wait! i'm going to have to remember some of your trick for the parks when i finally do get down there.