After Universal's two decades of building the tourism calendar's unprofitable dead zone into a monstrously successful gorehound magnet, I half-expected the company to rest on its moneybags for All Hallow's Eve. After the exhausting Harry Potter opening, it would be understandable if the creative team made the 20th edition of Halloween Horror Nights a greatest-hits album of past fanboy favorites, with a few licensed big-screen baddies to pad things out. Instead, Universal went all-out, creating new environments that hint at HHN history without merely reliving it. The production is thematically (if thinly) tied together by the new character, Fear, whose retconned (or "retroactive continuity") back story fingers him as the Big Bad behind all the evil of the past 19 events.
None of the eight mazes (plus six outdoor scare zones) is a stinker, but even the best have flaws that keep me from declaring a clear champion. With more express passes being sold than ever before (paradoxically making them more necessary and less valuable), you'll need a guided R.I.P. Tour if you visit on a peak night – or a lobotomy. If you can't afford either, arrive extra early and use this guide to decide which haunts are worth the (often extensive) wait.
Horror Nights: The Hallow'd Past This tribute to popular scenes and scares from former houses is a HHN fetishist's dream come true, and it sports a striking water effect in an S.S. Frightanic homage. But I found it to be light on actual scares.
The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes Favorite cult character Cindy returns with evil kids in animal masks (and echoes of 2008's the Skoolhouse scare zone) inside a burnt-out orphanage. It's very creepy, creative and extra-crispy, but with a few disappointing dead spots.
Hades: The Gates of Ruin The mythological maze owes as much to Ray Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans as Sony PS3's God of War. I appreciated the unconventional theme and variety of creatures, if not the uneven pacing and rubber masks. With tweaks, it could become a sleeper hit.
Psychoscareapy: Echoes of Shadybrook The perennial insane-asylum simulation is back – darker and louder than ever. The infamous shit smell is absent, as is the sense of humor, but don't miss the interactive effects. (Hint: Hit the red button!)
Havoc: Dogs of War With super-soldiers run amok inside a military base, this feels like 2007's superb The Thing: Assimilation, plus skinheads. The scares are unevenly paced, but they pick up in the end. Look for scenic shout-outs to the creators near the entrance.
Catacombs: Black Death Rising An evocation of a plague-ridden archeological dig, this maze is remarkably authentic: dark, dirty and monotonous. But it was the misdirecting medieval medics on multiple levels that gave me the sharpest scares of the night.
Zombiegeddon I'm a fan of anything zombie-related, and this house has a pitch-perfect blend of goofy and gory. It even synergizes with the Zombie Gras scare zone at the exit. I only wish it was a little longer.
Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate Director of art and design for Universal Orlando's entertainment department T.J. Mannarino calls this haunted house, custom-built in the style of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 2010's scenic "wow" moment. It's packed with high-tech ghost effects, which may require multiple tours to catch, but the silly glow-in-the-dark masks kill the mood.
What you won't find inside the houses are icon characters from past events, like Jack the Clown, the Caretaker, the Storyteller, the Director or the Usher. Instead, they're all hanging out in a Hollywood scare zone with Fear, who turns out to be a stilt-walking demon with bad skin and orthodontic issues. Fans should take photos while they can; show director Patrick Braillard says these now-classic characters will be retired for at least a few years, leaving a "clean slate" for 2011.
Another longtime element that bids farewell in its current form is Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure spoof show. No, the dumbass duo aren't over and done with, though this year's plot has them being replaced by Justin Bieber and Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino.But writer/director Mike Aiello, who has helmed Bill & Ted's for most of the last decade, will move over to create haunted houses. Unfortunately, this year's pop culture was too banal to bother satirizing. Aside from a brutal smackdown of Lindsay Lohan, the really stinging stuff must have been sanitized by Universal's legal department. Appearances by Mr. T, Tom Cruise and Sesame Street's Count induced an awkward '80s flashback. Hopefully, new blood will shake up B&T's familiar formula, because this year's edition feels like the end of the road for the established dance-joke-stunt-dance pattern.
I do recommend seeing two shows offered by magician Brian Brushwood, best known for his Scam School instructional Internet videos. His entertaining "Menace" act (which alternates with "Malice" on the Beetlejuice stage), features gory psychic surgery and an E.V.P. (Electronic Voice Phenomena) illusion to take home on your camera phone.
One last HHN tradition lives on: The absence of the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit; the coaster is MIA for its second season. This year, a previously unannounced and indefinitely long "scheduled refurbishment" has started just as ride manufacturer ;Maurer Söhne sent out a warning about a yet-unresolved design flaw. Forget monsters and maniacs: That twisted red machine is what gives Universal executives real nightmares.;; email@example.com