The sun had set and the sky was indigo. As you walked passed the revolving globe and up to the arches, the eerie music coming from the loudspeakers and musky, earthy smell of the lingering rainfall set the scene perfectly.
Though Universal Studios Orlando can't control the weather (and they likely wouldn't want it raining on their parade as often as it does), the trickling mist after the afternoon downpour made the opening night of Halloween Horror Nights 24 (HHN) feel as if you were transported into a classic horror movie.
And after walking through the gates and encountering any scare-actors roaming the streets with chainsaws, yeah, you totally felt like Laura Strode.
For the last 24 years, Universal Orlando has been inviting guests to lurk a little longer and experience some night terrors at the park after hours. With the exception of a few staple haunted houses, the creative team revamps the frights every year. At this year's horror nights, for example, there's an entire haunted house dedicated to the upcoming Dracula Untold movie. The film hasn't even reached theaters, but they can sense it's going to be a good one (at the very least, it made for a hell of a maze).
Set up inside large production studios on the back lot of the park, the haunted houses are the main attraction. This year, there's one dedicated to a colony of ancient cannibals, the always-disturbing creepy clowns, some messed up dolls, aliens and predators, vampires, more vampires (duh), zombies, and a boy who grows up to be a serial killer after seeing his sister do "it" (the fictional Michael Myers, obviously).
While you're not waiting to have strangers pop out at you from dark corners, there's the totally tubular Bill & Ted Excellent Halloween Adventure Show. A staple of Horror Nights since 1995, the show focuses on the most noteworthy aspects of pop culture from the past year: Two radical dudes named Bill and Ted go down a run-sheet of simple references while some attractive dancers shake their abs and asses.
We don't want to spoil anything, but there's a fantastic rendition of Frozen's "Let it Go" that'll put any other parody to shame.
May we recommend hitting up this 40-minute show before getting in line for the scares? And there will be lines. Expect wait times as lengthy as those for the theme park rides during the day. The lowest amount of time we witnessed was 90 minutes -- and opening night wasn't even considered a peak night. Adding a fast pass (starting at $59.99) or opting for the RIP experience (starting at $109.99) might be worth the extra bang on your buck.
But, if you want to manage your time best, we've ranked the houses from must-see to okay-to-miss:
From Dusk Till Dawn
Based off Robert Rodriguez's movie by the same name and now his television show spin off about the Gecko Brothers, this house strives for authenticity. You'll walk through a torn-up bar and see the brothers peering out from behind curtains. Major points to the scare-actor casters, because these boys look a lot like Zane Holtz and DJ Cotrona from the El Rey network series. FYI: season one of the show is now available on Netflix. You're welcome.
One of the best aspects of the film -- and one of the reasons it gives you goosebumps and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand -- is the soundtrack. That classic screeching sound paired with a house full of masked Michael Myers and excellent room replicas from the original film make the Halloween house a must-see.
Dollhouse of the Damned
Everything encapsulated in this house is the reason why many of us never played with dolls as a kid and why Chuckie remains such a terrifying film. Warning: you might not want to spend too much time checking yourself out in one of the mirrors.
Dracula Untold - Reign of Blood
We haven't seen the flick yet (opens in theaters October 10), but if this haunted house walk-through is any indication of what we can expect, we're excited for it. The best moment was seeing the Luke Evans look-alike -- made up with blood smeared on his face and protruding fangs -- pop out, grab a victim, and stealthily pull him back into the darkness.
HHN is not all about the wholly fictionalized scares; you can stand to learn some real history, too. Roanoke was once an English colony here in the United States, and three years after it was started, all the colonists disappeared. No evidence was ever discovered indicating what occurred. Well, Universal offers their take on it: they turned into cannibals and ate each other, and a walk through this house will show you what life was like at Roanoke colony.
The Walking Dead: End of the Line
What was most impressive about The Walking Dead house is how it has double the amount of scare actors working it. We were told there are at least 50 players within the haunted house -- making that double the amount of the other seven houses. The props were cool, too. The house features an abandoned supermarket -- and the ending will probably make fans of the show pee from excitement.
Giggles & Gore, Inc.
Clowns. Creepy, ugly, always-smiling clowns with arched, dark eyebrows. Oh, and they're holding knives and stuff. There, that description is scary enough.
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator
Meh. We felt very meh toward this house. Other than the loud noises and people dressed in rubbery, black suits popping out, there's no need to prioritize the AVP house.
The reality is that after you go through one haunted house, you've gone through them all. The dimly lit passageways, the flashing lights set with loud music, the screams, and above all, the scare actors popping out of every which way. It's a no-brainer that they like to hide in corners and pop out when you least expect it (unless you strategically let someone go in front of you and use them as bait).
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However, Horror Nights is still worth the drive, especially if you've never experienced it. The production value of the haunted houses is impressive, as is Universal's keen attention to detail. The scare-actors are trained well and won't physically touch you, so you're safe there. Plus, there are workers scattered throughout each house to assist if you take a scare a little too seriously. The best sound you'll hear mixed in with all the ear-splitting screams is the laughter that follows.
Our best pro tip: don't forget to look up.
Halloween Horror Nights runs select nights in September through November 1, Wednesdays through Sundays. Florida Resident tickets start at $45.99 online ($95.99 at the gate) and there are also hotel packages available. Visit halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando.