You can't spell "scare" without "care."
And the fiendish folks behind Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights clearly understand this. That's why they put a full year of careful thought and planning into the 24th edition of this seasonal scare-fest. Which officially opens to the public tonight at Universal Studios Florida.
But given the sheer size and scale of this annual entertainment experience (we're talking eight haunted houses, four scare zones and two live shows, not to mention hundreds of performers in elaborate costumes and make-ups)... well, you can't just throw up open the doors and let all the people in. Universal Orlando always wants to make sure that every special effect and show element is working properly before they then unveil this park-wide production.
Which is why -- a day or so before each Halloween Horror Night officially opens to the public -- Universal Orlando holds an Advance Screaming. In layman's terms, this is a tech rehearsal that only team members who actually work at the resort and their guests can attend.
Mind you, I was lucky enough to score an invite to this past Wednesday night's advance screening. Not only that, but my guide for Halloween Horror Nights 24 was none other than Mike Aiello. Who's the director of Entertainment - Creative Development for NBC/Universal theme parks.
To be clear here, Halloween Horror Nights is not a one-man show. And as we trooped from house to house that night, Mike was quick to talk up all of the other Universal Orlando team members that he works with to make this annual nightmare a reality.
"We have a great team here at Universal Orlando. Designers who work year 'round to create the very best haunted houses in the business," Aiello enthused. "No detail is too small to overlook. No prop or set piece is too large to build. We're willing to do whatever we have to really immerse our Guests in the world of the story that we're trying to tell in each of our haunted houses or scare zones."
And the folks behind Halloween Horror Nights 24, they want to engage all of your senses as you make your way through these elaborately theme environments. Which is why, as you creep past those over-sized cribs in Dollhouse of the Damned, the air is suddenly filled with the scent of baby powder. Or as you grope your way through Universal's nightmarish take on 16th-century North Carolina in Roanoke - Cannibal Colony, you smell pipe tobacco.
In some cases, Universal Orlando actually tries to set the scene before you enter a particular haunted house. Take, for example, Halloween. As guests wait outside in the queue, they're treated to this elaborate light show that is projected onto the exterior of Michael Myers' boyhood home that then provides the backstory of this maze.
We first see the silhouettes of Michael and his sister Judith in each of their respective bedroom windows. Then this 6-year-old maniac hacks that poor teenaged girl to death with a kitchen knife while he's wearing a clown costume.
As time races forward, we now watch the Myers' home rapidly age. Mold starts to grow on the siding as the gutters begin to rust. Then suddenly the bedroom windows explode outward. And we hear broken glass raining down from above, a gaping hole appears in the house's second story. And who should come looming up out of that dark hole but Michael Myers himself... just before the official Halloween film logo appears and this nine-minute-long light show then cycles back to its starting point.
"And it's not just the exterior of the Halloween haunted house where we've gone all out on. Wait 'til you see what we've done with the interior," Aiello continued. "Our set decoration team really went all out to replicate the look of the house that this classic John Carpenter horror film is set in. We've got the right window curtains for that period. The art and the pictures on the walls are from the 1970s. As are the furnishings. Everything you see tells you that you're back in 1978. Which is when the first Halloween movie was originally released in theaters."
The Halloween Horror Nights team took a similarly thorough approach to AVP: Alien VS. Predator. As you make your way into this haunted house (which is supposed to represent a remote research facility where -- surprise, surprise -- something has just gone horribly wrong), be sure and check out the vehicle that's parked right outside the entrance to this facility. Does the logo on the passenger side door look familiar? It should to all you Alien fans out there. It's the logo for Weyland-Yutani aka that intergalactic mega-corporation from the Alien film series that keeps thinking that it would be a really good idea to capture and then study these vicious creatures who have acid for blood.
These are the sorts of blink-and-you'll-miss-them details that Mike delighted in pointing out to me as we made our way through all eight haunted houses on Wednesday night. In the end, it was hard not to be impressed by how far Universal Orlando was willing to go for a scare (example: building a full-sized swamp in the middle of their The Walking Dead: End of the Line haunted house and then filling that space with performers who were wearing elaborate Walker make-ups and costumes) or a laugh. (Example: In Giggles and Gore, Inc., the factory where evil clowns are made and not born, there's one particularly grisly gag which starts off some poor buffoon falling face-first into a giant meat grinder. All that's left of him at this point is his big red shoes and clown pants. So how does the HHN 24 team then pay off this gag? Directly across from this meat grinder is a sign that reads: "It has been 0 days since there was an accident or injury at this facility.")
By the way, if you'd like to have a similar sort of experience at Halloween Horror Nights 24, really get down into the minutia of each maze... well, Universal Orlando is actually offering two behind-the-scenes tours at this year's event.
The first is Unmasking the Horrors. This two- to two-and-a-half-hour daytime experience is a
guided, informational walking tour that provides an overview of this year's event as well as a lights-on walk-through of three haunted houses. Best of all, you'll able to take pictures inside of each of these mazes of the hyper-detailed sets and props.
Or if you'd prefer a more intimate nighttime experience, you should maybe consider signing up for the Arcane Insights Tour. That's the one where an actual member of Universal Orlando's art and design team leads your group through the event. And not only will you then get to experience all of Halloween Horror Nights 24's haunted houses, but you'll also get to visit one of the house's makeup and/or wardrobe areas.
And if you do opt for the Arcane Insights Tour, when it's finally time to take part in that seated Q&A with the member of the art and design team, don't waste your question on asking what that stuff is that Universal dangles down in front of your face in every maze. Because that's honestly what that stuff is called. SIF. Stuff in face.
On the other hand, if you want to see a particular mean in-joke, ask where in Halloween Horror Nights 24 (which runs select nights now through November 1) you can find Universal's corporate symbol, Woody Woodpecker, torturing some poor soul.