October is usually a big month for Universal Orlando, and 2015 was no exception. On Oct. 22, NBC Sports Grill & Brew opened on the site of CityWalk's old NASCAR restaurant, with a red carpet ceremony attended by Bob Costas, Kaká and other athletic A-listers. I was dazzled by the sleek TV-centric design and enjoyed sampling the upscale steak and seafood dishes, but I found the sports-bar staples like wings and nachos somewhat bland, and was disappointed to learn that the stainless-steel brewing tanks are just for show (Florida Beer Co. makes their signature "862" ales off-site).
The following week, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon announced that he'll star in a 2017 "Race Through New York" 3-D simulator that's replacing the recently closed Twister show. Reaction online among theme park junkies was largely negative, but synergy should suck plenty of ordinary visitors into this Soarin'-esque attraction.
Unfortunately for Universal, the buzz around their additions has been drowned out by multiple news reports about Halloween Horror Nights guests getting arrested for assaulting actors, and popular performers publicly quitting after repeated attacks. Injuries to actors were an everyday occurrence when I worked there 15-plus years ago, but the volume and intensity of incidents this season pushed the issue into the mainstream media. There's no single solution to the problem because there's no single source: Some violators genuinely get scared and react violently on instinct, some become so intoxicated that they can't control themselves, and some are simply sadistic. As the only area journalist (AFAIK) who's also a former HHN stage manager, here are my nine steps to making the event safer for everyone:
Cap crowds: On peak nights, Halloween Horror Nights attendance is about equal to a busy summer day. Combining huge crowds with reduced attraction capacity and diminished visibility is a recipe for disaster. Set a hard occupancy limit significantly below what's currently allowed, then shut the gate once it's met.
Revive off-peak: Incentives to shift guests away from Friday and Saturday nights have backfired, making many "off-peak" evenings even busier than the weekends. Rein in the deep discounts for Sundays through Thursdays while adding additional weeknights to redistribute attendance; HHN should operate every night during the second half of October.
Ease off Express: After hours of watching Express users skipping ahead, small wonder some guests waiting standby are fighting mad by the time they finally arrive inside the mazes. Respect regular ticketholders by reducing the number of Express Passes sold (starting by eliminating Express options for Frequent Fear season passes), and restrict their usage during the first and last hours of the evening.
Quit conga-ing: The continuous "conga line" of guests crawling through Universal's mazes doesn't only destroy the illusion of isolation; it endangers scare actors by constantly exposing their hiding places. Design every haunted house with dual walking paths, then alternate guests between them in short pulses, giving performers proper time to hide and reset their scares.
Leverage technology: Flashlight-waving employees positioned throughout Universal's haunts ruin the atmosphere while doing little to deter bad behavior or apprehend offenders. Instead, wire every house with night-vision cameras, which would be less obtrusive and more useful for prosecutions. Installing panic buttons at each actor position is another sensible precaution.
Buddy up: Scare actors in the streets are especially vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks when spooking alone, and by the time authorities are alerted the perps are usually long gone. Pair performers up, taking care to partner vulnerable characters with intimidating ones, so backup is always within arm's reach.
Shift scarezones: Some scarezones create congested pinch points that guests can't avoid when walking from one part of the park to another. San Francisco's All Nite Die-In, which saw well-publicized attacks on scare actors, was problematically positioned between a maze exit and the lagoon. Stop sticking sets in the skinniest spots, and provide scare-free bypasses around each scarezone for guests wishing to avoid them.
De-emphasize alcohol: Drinking isn't responsible for all of HHN's issues, but it does exacerbate them. Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween went dry years ago and was still successful enough to add extra dates this year. Universal Orlando is unlikely to ever do the same, but eliminating the omnipresent temporary bars and roaming liquor sales is a smart compromise. Serious boozers could still fuel up in CityWalk, but less ubiquity might blunt the worst behavior.
Stop screwing around: Security should cease giving warnings and instead automatically press criminal charges against anyone victimizing an actor. If the assailant is part of a tour group (which should be required to increase their chaperone-to-attendee ratio), ban that entire organization from the park for at least a year. Of course, if they provided scare actors with actual weapons and gave them carte blanche to retaliate – the situation might just resolve itself ....