Scare Yourself Silly in Orlando This Halloween

You've heard of theme parks—but how about scream parks?

By Bill Wiatrak October 18, 2016

I won't tell you how she died. I mean, technically she wasn't really murdered, but the purple slippers and the missing banana made everyone suspicious nevertheless. I was sitting at a table at a Sleuths Mystery Dinner and we had been given ample time to digest the facts of the case (as well as our prime rib). The show was one of the best murder mystery dinners I've attended and a great ending for a quick two-day trip of terror, and Orlando is still one of the best places in the country to have a fright-cation. Sleuths wrapped up my whole experience with a tasty whodunit dinner.

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort was the main purpose of my visit. This is the 26th year of HHN and my curiosity was reaching critical mass. For select dates in September and October, the park closes early and reopens an hour later, transformed from theme park to "scream park." A few rides stay open that fit the holiday season, including Men in Black, The Mummy, and the always popular Harry Potter attraction. You won't see many long lines for rides, though. Everyone here is headed to the haunted houses.

Some of the queues to get into the attractions can be more terrifying than the actual haunts, with an up to two-hour wait for a five-minute experience. If I were to do it again and had only one night, I would probably opt for the express pass. It's a pricey add-on but it's an impossible task to visit all the houses otherwise. As it was, I managed to squeeze in the ones I wanted to see but it pretty much took all night. If you're staying a few days at Universal, you can probably knock at least four off your list each go-round each night. It's an odd business though: People paying to be terrified.

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios Orlando stays open for Halloween festivities.

I'm not scared easily but I do admire good costuming, quality props and special effects. And I'll admit I was startled repeatedly by chainsaw-wielding maniacs and creepy characters jumping out of nowhere—though you can rest assured the freaky monsters lurking in the shadows aren't psychos visiting the park to kill you, since Universal doesn't allow visitors to dress in costume. In other words, the only psycho killers you'll run into are trained, professional psycho killers. Feel better?

I soon lost count of the number of chainsaws buzzing past me. Chainsaws are scary. Especially when the monsters turn them off, creep up behind you, and flip them on again. In addition to the rides and houses, there are haunted sets in the walkways including a full-sized ship with meandering, dead, bloated sailors; a high school parade gone terribly wrong; and a ghostly alleyway with witches and goblins. One of the best sets in the park features a type of 3D-projection on the outside of the buildings that makes them appear to crumble in the midst of an apocalyptic street not unlike The Walking Dead with a touch of Mad Max. There are so many characters waiting for you to let down your guard for a moment, it's unlikely you'll get very far without being chased or frightened.

The Walking Dead is one of the park's most popular haunted house, featuring scenes you might recognize from the AMC zombie show in addition to "real" flesh-eating monsters at every turn. The haunted house even gives out 3D glasses to further confuse you as some of the graphics appear to leap off the walls and floor. The piece d'resistance, however, is the American Horror Story house, with characters are straight out of the TV show including with Twisty the creepy clown as well as the two-headed woman from the "Freak Show" season and a very disturbing creature crawling out of a mattress a la "Hotel" season. Even Lady Gaga's vampire-but-not-really-a-vampire character shows up at several turns.

If waiting in line isn't your thing, there are several themed shows throughout the park such as a zombie multimedia variety show with lots of fire and dancing. My favorite: Bill and Ted's Halloween Adventure. If you aren't familiar with the movie, not to worry: Most of the jokes are based on current events and executed so quickly, it's difficult to catch them all. Prince and David Bowie, who both passed away this year, even had small tributes in the show. Hilary and "The Donald" were satirized too. The show is very adult-oriented and, as Ted or Bill might say, "totally bogus" for younger dudes; "Wyld Stallyns rule!"

The lines shut down at 1 a.m., but the park doesn't completely empty out until sometime past 2. If you haven't had your fill of frights, spend the night at the Hyatt Regency Orlando. This giant hotel was formerly The Peabody until its rebranding in 2013. The property is purported to be one of the most haunted areas in Florida. Some guests claim sinks and lights have been turned off and on in their rooms by unexplained forces while others claim sightings of ghostly figures. The management appears to be totally unaware of such "hauntings." Yeah. Right.

The area has lots of other attractions to terrify and amuse guests until the Halloween Season is over. Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Walt Disney Resort is made for the little ones and allows them to dress up and trick-or-treat. Busch Gardens in nearby Tampa has Howl-O-Scream. Seaworld's Halloween Spooktacular takes place every weekend in October. Even LEGOLAND joins in the Halloween spirit with the best holiday-themed name yet: Brick or Treat.

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