Back in 2006, I wrote a cautiously optimistic review of Nights of Terror, a haunt event on I-Drive that attempted to challenge Universal Orlando's dominance of the spooky season. That effort flamed out after a single installment, and in the 13 Octobers since then, we've watched numerous other ambitious independent haunted attractions – from Skull Kingdom to Terror in Orlando to Shallow Grave – come and go. This year, another upstart is seeking to swipe a share from Halloween Horror Nights' candy bowl, and it comes here from California equipped with something that might help it endure where others withered: a track record.
Dark Horizon may be an unfamiliar name in Central Florida, where Universal's HHN and Busch Gardens Tampa's Howl-O-Scream have build a generation's worth of brand loyalty. But that's nothing new to its producers Epic Entertainment Group, whose Dark Harbor event at Long Beach's Queen Mary has thrived over the last decade, despite competition from not only Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween event, but also well-established haunts at Knott's Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain.
Located in the back parking lot of a Holiday Inn near Disney (formerly the Nickelodeon Hotel), Dark Horizon lacks the luxury of large indoor soundstages, and the Labor Day hurricane forced them to take down their half-finished haunts, resulting in the delay of its originally scheduled debut. When I took a preview tour of the project with co-producer Charity Hill and line producer Kevin Burton a week before its premiere, crews were still working around the clock to rebuild. While I'm impressed that they crossed the finish line ahead of my return on opening night, you still shouldn't expect the same level of scenic polish or special effects as you'll find at Universal; plan on seeing plenty of plywood walls and jute netting.
Even without expensive intellectual properties or digital projections, Dark Horizon brings four elements to the table that help set it apart from its rivals:
For me, the scariest thing about Halloween Horror Nights has become the suffocating crowds, which turn every haunted maze into an endless conga line. At least on opening night, there were no such overcrowding issues at Dark Horizon – I was able to easily experience each of the three haunted houses multiple times without needing the extra-cost express option. More manageable masses means that guests can be "pulsed" through the attractions in small groups – allowing the scareactors to reset for optimal scares – and reduces the need for the distracting flashlight-wielding attendants that mar Universal's mazes.
Speaking of scareactors, the performers at Dark Horizon are some of the most engaged and engaging that I've ever encountered in a Halloween event. The committed cast contains a mix of Dark Harbor veterans imported from California, along with local talent including actor Bruce Ryan Costella and aerial acrobat Tempestt Halstead. They've been allowed the freedom to improvise and expound on their elaborate back stories, instead of just jumping out to prerecorded sound effects, and they're eager to get in your face and show off their fabulous, festering makeup effects. Most intriguingly, a free "Terror Up" option randomly offered to about 1 percent of attendees gives a select few an opportunity to squeeze through special detours within each house; I was grabbed by a fearsome fisherman inside the "Vodou" maze and forced to crawl through a tunnel on my hands and knees, which was made especially memorable by a painfully unpadded ceiling beam.
Surviving vengeful spirits can be thirsty work. Luckily, Dark Horizon's drinking scene indicates their outreach to fans who feel Universal's event has gotten a little too family-friendly. With personable bartenders and frequent visits from fearsome fiends, Dark Horizon's multiple themed watering holes raise the bar on bars; there's even a secret one hidden inside the "Ghost Ship" maze that can only be accessed by inserting special souvenir coins into a hidden door. The signature cocktails are premixed but quite potent for the price, and (unlike at HHN) don't all taste like spiked Kool-Aid; try soaking them up with a bag of BBQ-topped Fritos, the gutbusting response to Universal's puzzlingly popular pizza fries. And once you're full of liquid courage, the "Murder Island" walkthrough (by far my favorite maze at the event) brings the legend of real-life serial killer Bloody Ed Watson to life with the goriest finale in any Orlando haunt this October.
Gate prices at the theme parks' events approach triple digits, but general admission to Dark Horizon tops out under $40, with an early bird special at only $20. Not everything about the event is a great value – the $20 fee for offsite parking seems excessive, and the plotless Panic House 4-D film wouldn't be worth the $5 upcharge even if it were in focus. But the ability to experience everything in a couple of unhurried hours – as opposed to the all-night marathon that HHN demands – and exit without aching legs or an empty wallet means that Dark Horizon delivers solid boos for your buck. I'd hate to curse it with my compliments like its now-closed predecessors, so I'll simply urge my fellow fright fans to visit Dark Horizon early, and hope the event finds enough success to return even bigger in 2020.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 16, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.