Last year's 25th anniversary of Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights carried the burden of elevated expectations, and as a member of the general public I found the experience disappointing from both an artistic and operational perspective. This year, I was fortunate enough to attend the opening night media party. Maybe it was the line-skipping VIP tour, or the opportunity to see makeup maven Greg Nicotero and the cast of AMC's Walking Dead in person, or even the half-dozen complimentary Jim Beam-and-ginger ales (which paired delightfully with bat-shaped chocolates and worm candies), but by the time I shuffled out at 1 a.m., I was happy to declare Halloween Horror Nights 26 a creative return to form – and the best may still be yet to come.
The first improvement to this year's HHN greets guests before they get near the front gates. The gauntlet of metal detectors formerly erected outside the theme park's entrance, which generated rage-inducing bottlenecks around USF's iconic archway, are now located in the parking garage hub, making entry far more efficient. You'll still want to clear security and enter the event as early as possible (gates typically open at least 15 minutes before the official start) because wait times for some attractions reached 45 minutes before the official opening, and hit triple digits by 8 p.m.
After retiring the event's original "Icon" spokes-characters after HHN's 20th anniversary, Universal resurrected fan favorite Jack the Clown. This year his Harley Quinn-esque girlfriend, Chance, has been elevated to top billing with a 3-D haunted house (featuring the strongest pop-out paint effects yet) and a psycho-stocked scarezone devoted to her story. Chance, as embodied with unhinged glee by actress Erin Nicole Cline, threatened the assembled press with bodily harm – usually something only Donald Trump can get away with – and posed for photos near the front of the park. I only wish she also headlined her own stage show, like 2015's Carnage Returns, but from the brief glimpse I got of this year's Academy of Villains, that intensely acrobatic dance show is a more than worthy substitute.
Speaking of shows, writer-director Jason Horne helms the 25th edition of Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure, which by now is an institution immune to analysis or critique. This year's Star Wars-inspired set is the most elaborate in years, and the plot (such as it is) boldly bites the hand that feeds it by mercilessly mocking the social media-addled millennials who make up B&T's target audience. I laughed out loud at nods to Stranger Things, Weekend With Bernie (Sanders) and Steven Tyler's shocker, and appreciated the finale tribute to Bowie and Prince. However, half the viral video references flew right over my graying head; a show that once made me feel "in on the joke" now makes me feel out of it.
Of the nine haunted houses at HHN26, six are licensed properties, and it's hard to pick a favorite among them. Mike Aiello and his team (including show directors Patrick Braillard and Charles Gray) nailed every gory detail of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre's decor, down to the decapitated chicken; I'll be forever grateful to them for taking me inside the Sawyer farmhouse to witness Leatherface bludgeon Kirk and slam the sliding door. Halloween 2 is a fine follow-up to one of my all-time favorites, featuring convincing suburban streets and a fiery finale that out-smells Spaceship Earth. I admired The Exorcist's creative method of circling in and out of the infamous bedroom, and adored the aesthetic nods to the absurdly awful sequel. The Walking Dead, which was a crushing disappointment last year, bounced back with a greatest-hits recycling of past props. Even American Horror Story and Krampus, neither of which I've seen on screen, proved very entertaining thanks to their stylistic variety and surprising vastness.
But to longtime HHN fans, the original concepts matter most, and this year's didn't disappoint. Ghost Town features amazing atmospheric effects and impressive outdoor environments, while Tomb of the Ancients is as claustrophobic as any maze I can remember; if you don't like tendrils touching you, stay far away. Scarezones also seemed re-energized, especially New York's Max Max-ish apocalypse (with flames and projection mapping), and the hilarious vampire-ridden Hollywood homecoming. I'm just surprised San Francisco's spectacular sea-themed walkthrough is so narrow (I had trouble squeezing through with a tour guide) after numerous safety incidents were reported in that location last year.
One final element of HHN26 wasn't previewed for the media, but I've already bought my $50 add-on ticket for "The Repository" virtual reality experience on Oct. 2. After talking to designer T.J. Mannarino and watching VRcade's demonstration videos, I'm hopeful this will be the next great leap forward for fear that we've been waiting for.