Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hooray for Halloween (in Orlando it Starts in September)

People often complain about the Christmas season starting early. Once upon a time its kickoff was after Thanksgiving, but now it's here before the last jack o' lantern leaves the shelves. And speaking of jack o'lanterns, Halloween starts earlier now, too, especially since I live in Tourist Land. In Chicago the local haunted houses opened in mid-October. In Central Florida, they usually kick off in the last weekend of September.

Our two main Florida gigs are Halloween Horror Nights (Universal Orlando) and Howl-O-Scream (Busch Gardens Tampa). Both are big blow-out bashes full of haunted houses, scare zones and shows. I celebrated my first Halloween when I was literally only days old, so my blood runs orange at this time of year.

This year, I thought the fun would start today (Thursday, October 23) with Scream Cam at Busch Gardens. Each year us lucky media folk get a sneak peak at one of their houses, with a camera aimed directly at our faces to capture our screams. I figure that's a fair enough trade off. This year it started even earlier; I received an invitation to the Team Preview of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal on Wednesday. It's mainly for employees, but this year they invited some bloggers to come for a very special treat. We were issued flip cams and allowed to do something that is normally a HUGE no-no: film inside the houses. We only got an hour to do it, and then Universal collected the cameras to edit what we had captured. We all had to agree not to post any details of our sneak preview until Thursday night/Friday morning as midnight rolled into a new day.

My husband and I decided to park in the garage, even though we get free valet with our Premier passes. Uh oh, bad idea! The line stretched so far back that for a minute I thought I was flashing back to the opening days of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We get free Preferred, which is in a much better location in the garage, but I had no idea whether they would honor it at night. They did, thank goodness! Just another reason why I'm a huge Premier pass fan; they make it up in Valeet and Preferred parking fees alone, not to mention that you get free non-peak Halloween Horror Nights tickets too.

CityWalk was jammed back with people, but we finally made it to the globe and entrance arch where we were to meet the P.R. person. I itched with anticipation as we watched the crowd swell. It looked like a peak night, not just a limited preview. My husband taped the video that plays over the entrance; since it's outside, we didn't have to worry about the same prohibitions as posting our inside footage. Soon enough we were escorted inside, along with bloggers from the major Halloween Horror Nights websites. It felt good to be among people who are just obsessed with Halloween events as I am. Each of us was assigned to an escort, handed a flip camera with brand new batteries and turned loose in the park. Thankfully I own the exact same type of flip camera so there was no learning curve.

My husband had been studying the event map on (one of the sites that was also there) and had made some sort of plan in his mind. I had mentally plotted out which houses I wanted to see, but I deferred to him because he seemed to have created his plan for efficiency and I wanted to tape in as many houses as possible. I knew it would be a bit different than my usual experience since I would be narrated and wielding the flip, but it will still give me (and hopefully my readers) a flavor of what they were in for.

Actually the worst part of using the flip was the fact that Security is so engrained with the "No video or photography" rule that a good part of my tape audio is, "You have to put that camera away," spoken by various Team Members in various houses. I tried wielding my yellow neck badge but it's not very readable in the dark so I usually had to convince them that yes, I really did have permission to do it. Oh well, I'd much rather have them be paranoid because I hate it when people try to do flaash pictures during the event (at least our cameras were not very intrusive). Hopefully they'll keep up the same level of enforcement.

We actually made it through five of the eight houses with the camera and got some scare zone footage too. We then hit the last three houses and the Bill & Ted show. I am still waiting for the edited footage, which I should get sometime on Friday, but in the meantime here are some quick impressions of the houses. I don't want to go into detail because this was technical rehearsal, so things may change, plus I don't want to spoil anything.

Horror Nights: The Hallowed Past - A must do for any Halloween Horror Nights fan, if only for the wonderful memorabilia and scenes from favorite housese of years past. I won't say which ones, but my most cringe-inducing scene of all time was there and it still made me cringe as much as ever. I will warn that the spinning tunnel of doom can be found in here; I don't consider that a spoiler, since you find it somewhere every year. I want to go through this one many more times just to catch the amazing detail. This is one of the two houses entered by the Barney theater.

Catacombs: Black Death Rising - I definitely felt like I was in the catacombs in this one, and there were a ton of good jump scares and plenty of disorientation. Overall I actually noticed quite a few strobes this year, which is one of my favorite haunted house elements because of that disorientation factor. It primes you for the attack. This is the other Barney theater house.

Havoc: Dogs of War - Another good house for jump scares, startles and disorientation. It's behind Simpsons/Men in Black.

The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes - This is Cindy's house (in the Jaws queue); she's the"lost icon" who has finally come into her own. I didn't get a lot of quality scares in this one, although that could well improve as the event goes on. I was more intrigued by the use of fire...yes, you will see real fire. I was amazed that Universal was actually going to use it since safety is a huge concern for haunted houses. They do it in a way that looked plenty safe even to a fire paranoic person like me.

Psychoscareapy: Echoes of Shadybrook - I love the Psychoscareapy franchise, especially "Home for the Holidays," but this is a much darker version of the theme. Don't expect a comedy house with light-hearted lunatics. This soundstage house is a dark spin on things with some very interesting effects.

Hades: Gates of Ruin - This one (a soundstage house) will assail your nose as well as your eyes, and it's another great jump scare house.

Legendary Truth - I don't want to spoil the effects in this one (a soundstage house), but trust me, it's good...really, really good. They had one particular effect I've only seen once before, back in a haunted house in Indiana. It made me leap in the air because it was so totally unexpected. I love how Universal brings back some of the good old stuff but ups the ante with the new stuff too.

Zombiegeddon - This is the year's comedy house, over in the Disaster queue. Everybody loves zombies, although quite honestly I must say I liked the scare zone even better than the house. The zone mixed zombies and Mardi Gras. Dfinitely a winning combination.

I know my opinion will change...often quite drastically...over the course of the event so I just wanted to give some generalities. For example, last year I was really "meh" on Leave it to Cleaver, but it became my favorite house by the end of the season. Same thing with Doomsday in 2008, ironically located in the same spot.

I'm hoping to have that coveted in-house video before we leave for the official Halloween Horror Nights grand opening on Friday, but in the meantime here is the video that plays at Universal's front entrance archway. When you're done watching it, check out my Orlando Examiner articles, including Halloween Horror Nights tips, by clicking here.


Sera said...

Hi -- I just wanted to ask (this will be my first HHN, so I'm trying to look into what to expect. I frighten sort of easily, haha) what the difference in a soundstage house is from I guess a regular house?

Anonymous said...

Most houses are either created in a tent that's erected or an existing building used for a queue during normal park hours. Each year, there are always three houses built inside three of Universal's soundstages. Because these areas are massive, they tend to always have the most visually stunning sets and backdrops. Much better of an area to work with. But, once you're inside any of the houses, you can't tell if you're in a tent or soundstage. They've really improved on the setup of all houses.

Being your first time, you'll have so much fun. In the houses, it's just one long line moving through them. So you can, most of the time, see a few steps in front of you and anticipate where someone is going to jump out. Most of the time that is.

GERALD said...

I miss your reports. I hope we'll hear from you soon.