Universal Studios Florida is again overrun with gore-crazed shuffling hordes ... and that's just the guests at Halloween Horror Nights, the world's top-rated haunted event. Opening-weekend buzz suggested that this year's 1980s-influenced lineup is its best and busiest edition ever, so I set out to see firsthand if HHN28 really is that great and if all 10 haunted houses can be enjoyed in one evening without expensive Express passes.
TL;DR: Yes, and yes, if you follow in my footsteps.
First and foremost, this plan works best on a Wednesday (or Thursday), and taking advantage of Universal's Stay & Scream early admission is essential if you have a daytime ticket or annual pass. Finnegan's holding pen will be full of Stranger Things fans fighting for first dibs on the headlining house. Instead, enter Springfield before 5 p.m. and relax with a pint of Dufftoberfest until you're released around 5:40 p.m. If you can't enter early, line up outside the park gates by 5 p.m. and head toward KidZone when they open around 6. In lieu of ratings, I'm reviewing HHN28's attractions in the order I experienced them and listing both the length of time I queued and how long I'd be willing to wait again.
Seeds of Extinction
Waited: 0 minutes (plus 10 walking there and back); worth: 15 minutes
Killer concept – alien plants overtaking a small town – and clever creature designs, but aside from an impressive overhead aircraft, all I saw was camouflage netting and ghillie suits; maybe it's better with the grow lights on?
Trick r Treat
Waited: 0 minutes; worth: 45 minutes
I've never seen the 2007 film, but I need to after surviving this amazing maze. Sam is an iconic presence even to the uninitiated, and the full-scale suburban streets, wrecked schoolbus and animatronic wolf are truly cinematic.
Waited: 0 minutes (both times); worth: 30 minutes
This Grindhouse-esque compilation of "living trailers" for B-grade horror/comedies only Joe Bob Briggs could love is right up my alley, but the movie poster transitions seem longer than the actual scenes; I wish they had cut a couple of the weaker entries and extended the Critters-inspired ending.
Dead Exposure: Patient Zero
Waited: 0 minutes (both times); worth: 45 minutes
The only thing freakier than zombies? French zombie monkeys. I seldom get disoriented or scared inside haunted houses, but the unrelenting ultraviolet strobe effects nearly made me lose my shit.
Horrors of Blumhouse
Waited: 0 minutes; worth: 0 minutes
I've never seen Happy Death Day or The First Purge, and after enduring this advertisement I have no interest. Repetitive and rushed-looking, it's the only real loser in this year's lineup.
Waited: 20 minutes; worth: 60 minutes
I never thought American Werewolf in London would be topped, but this is the best classic film tribute HHN has ever tackled. Every trick in the book – non-linear storytelling, puppetry, forced perspective – is expertly employed in taking guests to the Other Side.
Waited: 11 minutes; worth: 111 minutes
More than just a maze, this is a museum-worthy work of found-object folk art, assembled from actual antique amusements and lovingly littered with interactive fan-service Easter eggs. When HHN is over, I want to move in.
Scary Tales: Deadly Ever After
Waited: 3 minutes; worth: 45 minutes
From the Wicked Witch flying overhead to the sickly-sweet smell of candy to the triumphant return of HHN Bear, this 360-degree assault on the senses is easily my favorite execution of the sinister storybook theme since 2001's original Scary Tales.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
Waited: 10 minutes; worth: 15 minutes
Not a bad maze, but after two prior appearances there are diminishing returns; I'm holding out for one based on the new sequel starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
Using this route, I saw half the houses before 7 p.m. and completed nine out of 10 by 8:30 p.m., spending a total of 44 minutes standing in line. At that point, you could see the Academy of Villains dance show in the Fear Factor Live, but be warned that it's no Excellent Halloween Adventure; AoV's crew are crazy-talented athletes with slick production values (including lasers and slack-lines), but a pace-sapping script and too-large venue makes their awkward attempts at audience interaction fall flat.
The real heirs to the extinct Bill & Ted show are the souped-up scare zones (which should probably be renamed "selfie zones"). Better yet, bail on the boos to booze for a couple hours (I suggest a bourbon and a bao at Bar 17 Bistro atop the new Aventura hotel) before returning after midnight for the final maze:
Waited: 15 minutes; worth: 30 minutes (60 for serious fans)
Like the source material, it thrills more than terrifies, but the Upside Down-infested sets are spot-on. More importantly, so is the casting; these scareactors look like they stepped off the TV screen. I only have two quibbles: You see too much of the stunning Demogorgon costumes, and there's barely any Barb. Next year: pool party!