Do you love horror movies, haunted houses, and Halloween? Then you would love Halloween Horror Nights, which draws huge crowds to Universal Orlando each fall and is the nation’s premier Halloween event (in conjunction with the West Coast version of Halloween Horror Nights at sister park, Universal Studios Hollywood). The houses and scare zones boast incredible attention to detail and high production value along with themes that draw heavily on popular horror films and TV shows.
While Halloween Horror Nights is really not for young kids, the predominantly PG-13 event is a ton of fun for teens, young adults, and grownups of all ages. Crowds can be huge, and lines can be long, but there are strategies to minimize wait times. Here’s a primer on how to get the most out of the blockbuster event.
When and Where Does Halloween Horror Nights Happen?
Dates for 2018: Select nights Sept. 14 to Nov. 3
The event takes place over several weeks leading up to Halloween (and sometimes, a few days beyond) at Universal Studios Florida, one of two theme parks at Universal Orlando. (Universal's second Orlando park, Islands of Adventure, is open as usual.) Because of its popularity, the resort has been extending the run and adding midweek dates. It is an evening-only event that requires a separate ticket from a regular daytime pass to the park.
There are three primary components to Halloween Horror Nights: walk-through houses, scare zones, and shows. The houses are presented in Universal’s soundstages, repurposed attraction buildings, and in tents that the resort set up expressly for the event. The scare zones take over some of the existing lands at the park, while the shows are presented in the park’s outdoor theaters.
2018 Event Highlights
The featured house at the 2018 edition of Halloween Horror Nights (which includes ten houses in total, the most ever) is based on the Netflix blockbuster show, Stranger Things. Many elements from the series, including Hawkins National Laboratory, characters in Hazmat suits, lots of icky Demogorgon sightings, and—obviously—the Upside Down, make their way into the maze. It rewards fans of the show with its rich detail.
Stranger Things’ 80s setting helps set the tone for much of the event. Another house, based on the classic 1982 film, Poltergeist, is even more alluring. The famous scene, in which a little girl holds her hands on a snowy television screen and intones, “They’re here," is included. But in the house, visitors get to follow her toward the light and into the netherworld. Chilling audio clips from the film amp up the scares.
Other houses based on existing intellectual properties (IPs) include Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, with multiple masked Michaels stalking guests, the stylish Trick ‘r Treat, which delivers way more tricks than treats to unsuspecting visitors, and the Horrors of Blumhouse, which mashes together two movies, Happy Death Day and The First Purge, from the famed production company.
As good as the IP houses are, two of Universal’s original entries are even better. Dead Exposure: Patient Zero, which reprises a theme from a previous HHN house, uses utter darkness, blinding strobes, and eerie sets to create what is surely this year’s most unnerving experience. It ranks among the most intimidating houses the HHN team has ever created. A scene aboard a train is especially unsettling.
Because nature abhors a vacuum (or so I recall from high school biology class), bizarre plant-animal beasts have taken over in Seeds of Extinction’s post-apocalyptic world. Apparently, the creatures’ food of choice is human flesh. This house gets the award for the freakiest, most unusual premise and aesthetic. Other original houses feature ornery, disgruntled carnies in Carnival Graveyard, a roundup of schlocky, drive-in B movies from the 80s in Slaughter Cinema, and a demented take on classic fairy tales in Scary Tales (subtitled “Deadly Ever After”).
The outdoor scare zones at the 2018 Halloween Horror Nights are especially strong and include odes to 80s slasher doll, Chucky, and the cult flick, Killer Klowns from Outer Space. The best zone is Vamp 85, which presents a Times Square New Year’s Eve party starring the era’s superstars, such as Micheal Jackson and Madonna, re-imagined as blood-thirsty vampires.
The time-traveling duo, Bill and Ted, who had been holding court at Halloween Horror Nights for years, bid farewell in 2017. For 2018, Universal is staging one show, Academy of Villains Cyberpunk. The hyperactive dance troupe, which gained fame on America’s Got Talent, interweaves acrobatics with strange video content and sets it to a near-deafening soundtrack. It’s Cirque du Soleil as interpreted by punky Millennials.
How Come Halloween Horror Nights Is Not for Little Kids?
If the preceding descriptions of the event haven’t made it self-evident, let’s explore why kids should probably skip Halloween Horror Nights. It’s not that Universal enforces age restrictions. Anybody with a ticket could attend the event. But the resort strongly recommends that children under the age of 13 not attend. That advice sounds about right.
The event offers a wide spectrum of scariness, ranging from mildly spooky fun to sheer slasher terror. As night falls at Universal Studios Florida, eerie music is piped in, fog machines are turned on, and artfully placed spotlights create lots of shadowy areas. As visitors walk around the park, they encounter scare zones filled with costumed actors playing all sorts of horror characters, from classic monsters to chainsaw-wielding, mean-spirited clowns.
The “scareactors” can (and do) creep up next to you or try to jump-scare you—but they won’t touch you, and all the weapons are fake. (By the way, those chainsaws are real and make a bloody racket, but the chains have been removed.)
The haunted houses can be significantly more frightening. Set up like mazes, they have lots of twists, turns, and places for actors to hide. They are often extremely dark (but sometimes startle guests with bright strobes or other blinding lights). They use clever distractions to draw attention in one direction and then terrorize guests from another. Many of the scares are accompanied by loud sounds that the actors trigger.
About half of the zones and houses are based on established horror movies and TV shows, the majority of which are R-rated. As with the movies, most of the themes, language, graphic images, and other content depicted at Halloween Horror Nights is flat-out inappropriate for young children. The event could even be nightmare-inducing for impressionable teens and adults.
Tips to Manage Wait Times and Save Money
- Consider visiting Sunday through Thursday. The crowds are bigger and lines are considerably longer on weekends. Ticket prices are lower as well during the week.
- Go in September or early October. Ticket prices are set according to demand, and rise during the last few weeks of the event in the run-up to Halloween. Correspondingly, the crowds and wait times are lower in September and early October
- Add a Universal Express pass. This strategy won't save you money, but it could help you add value to your visit. It costs more (okay, significantly more), but this add-on pass let's you skip the regular lines at the houses (which can get reeaaaallly long) so you'll spend less time waiting and more time having fun.
- Spring for an R.I.P. Tour. For the ultimate in Halloween Horror Nights pampering, tour participants join small groups, led by guides, and get immediate access to the houses, reserved seating for the shows, a pre-tour reception, and valet parking.
Tips for Scaredy-Cats
- Choose houses wisely. The houses range from very scary to plain terrifying. We all have something that scares the daylights out of us such as slashers, ghosts, snakes, clowns, or zombies. Steer clear of houses with those themes. A good rule of thumb: If you love the film or show depicted in the house and are familiar with the characters, you could probably handle the house.
- Go on a ride. Some of the rides and attractions, including Rip Ride Rockit, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Transformers: The Ride 3D, The Simpsons Ride, and Revenge of the Mummy, are open during the event. When you need a break from the scary stuff, go check them out. Because the focus of the event is on the houses, the lines for the rides tend to be minimal.
- Take a daytime tour. Love the idea of haunted houses but scared of the dark? The daytime Behind-the-Screams: Unmasking the Horror Tour offers a lights-on look at some of the houses. Because the pace is much more leisurely than the nighttime event and the lights are brighter, you could better appreciate the incredible detail lavished on the houses. The events are scareactor-free, so you wouldn't have to worry about anyone jumping out at you. And, unlike in the dark houses, you would be allowed to take photos in the daytime tour.