Halloween Horror Nights is a hard-ticket event held at Universal Studios Florida in the fall. This post offers tips for maximizing your time, whether it’s worth the money, and photos from our experience attending HHN. (Updated July 25, 2020.)
Unfortunately, Universal Orlando has cancelled Halloween Horror Nights for 2020. HHN was scheduled to run on select nights from September 10, 2020 to November 1, 2020. It would have been Halloween Horror Night’s 30th Anniversary, and was highly anticipated among fans with rumors of some big-name IP and nostalgia-inspired houses.
In a statement, the Halloween Horror Nights team indicated that “Universal Orlando Resort will be focusing exclusively on operating its theme parks for daytime guests, using the enhanced health and safety procedures already in place…We know this decision will disappoint our fans and guests. We are disappointed, too. But we look forward to creating an amazing event in 2021.”
This is both surprising and unsurprising. Walt Disney World cancelled its Halloween event, Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, a little over one month ago. Even prior to the official announcement by Disney, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that MNSSHP would be cancelled.
The event causes congestion and leans heavily on entertainment, which Disney indicated would be cancelled for the foreseeable future. Our expectation is that many or all of Walt Disney World’s Christmas entertainment and events will be cut from the November and December calendars for the same reasons.
Halloween Horror Nights likewise has congestion, with long lines to get into some of the more popular houses (Ghostbusters, Stranger Things, and Us at HHN29 all routinely had hour-plus waits) plus confined spaces, up-close interactions, screaming, and alcohol-relaxed inhibitions. All of this would’ve made physical distancing a real challenge.
However, the Halloween Horror Nights team had pressed on. Universal Orlando continued selling tickets for the event, a new merchandise shop went up, auditions were posted, and rumors of house construction popped up online. By outward appearances, it appeared that Universal planned on holding the event. The assumption from most fans, us included, was that Universal had figured out a way to make it work.
This is a huge blow for Universal Orlando. In a normal year, Halloween Horror Nights is incredibly lucrative, with a passionate fanbase that spends heavily on high-margin merchandise and alcohol. This would be the theme park equivalent of a retailer cancelling its holiday shopping season, which is the time of year that puts many stores into the black.
No reason was given for the cancellation. While the assumption is that it’s about rising case numbers in Florida or an inability to implement physical distancing, that’s not totally clear. Certainly Universal would’ve given the latter consideration, and the parks will remain open during this time.
Other possibilities that we wouldn’t discount is that Universal’s ticket sales for the event had been slow, the PR and blowback from Disney’s reopening gave them pause, and/or there are concerns about Central Florida theme parks all competing with one another for locals while tourists are disproportionately cancelling trips rather than booking new ones. Suffice to say, don’t be surprised if there are more announcements from Universal in the near future about further operational cutbacks.
In any case, Halloween Horror Nights undoubtedly will return–hopefully in 2021. What follows is general information for the event, and what it would entail in a normal year…
The Halloween Horror Nights events begin in mid-September, and continue through the end of October. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida is held most Thursdays through Sundays, and also bleeds out into Wednesday closer to Halloween. Only Mondays and Tuesdays are safe from the carnage! Most nights, it starts officially at 6:30 p.m. and runs until 1 or 2 a.m.
Halloween Horror Nights is not included in normal daytime park admission, meaning if you only buy a regular ticket to Universal Studios Florida, you will have to leave once HHN starts (so plan accordingly if you don’t want to do HHN and visit on a day it is not happening).
Price prices for Halloween Horror Nights vary dramatically. If you’re a Florida resident and bring a Coke product UPC (seriously, is this Holiday World?), you can purchase a ticket for $56. Guests who purchase a day-ticket to either Universal Orlando parks can add-on HHN for $73 (doesn’t have to be the same night). Finally, if you’re just doing Halloween Horror Nights, it’s a whopping $105.
There are also a range of Halloween Horror Nights “Frequent Fear” Annual Passes that are actually quite reasonably priced relative to single-night tickets. These are what we purchase and are a good option for anyone wanting to attend 2+ nights per year. There are also hotel packages that include general admission tickets and Halloween Horror Nights. Beyond that, there are a bunch of add-on options, from dining packages to R.I.P. (get it?) tours.
Intrigued by Halloween Horror Nights? Let’s cover some basic info…
Halloween Horror Nights Info
First, let’s start with what it is. Basically, Halloween Horror Nights is Universal’s answer to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party over in Magic Kingdom. Except, instead of family-friendly fun trick-or-treating wearing costumes with Mickey and his pals, a parade, and fireworks, it has none of those things. (In fact, costumes are not even allowed.) Instead, there’s a much more gory and frightening vibe. It really is so scary.
In other words, once you get past the “Halloween” theme that the two events that the two events share, they have literally nothing in common. Halloween Horror Nights is aimed squarely at adults who want the bejesus scared out of them, with an edgy, almost explicit vibe that caters to the young ‘bro’ set (more on this later). To reiterate: it is definitely not for kids. (The good news, if you have kids, is that there are virtually no signs of the event in the park during the day, so it’s “safe” to visit then.)
Universal Orlando does not offer any kid-friendly Halloween events. Halloween Horror Nights takes place in Universal Studios Florida, not in Islands of Adventure. If you don’t want your fall visit to Universal Orlando Resort to be impacted by Halloween Horror Nights, it’s as simple as visiting Universal Studios Florida on a Monday or Tuesday (or Wednesday if the event is not happening then), and visiting Islands of Adventure any night of the week.
The primary draw of Halloween Horror Nights is the walk-through haunted house “mazes.” There are typically around 9 mazes, half of which are based on horror franchises. The other 3 are usually original creations, unique to HHN.
Each haunted house is an elaborately-designed indoors walk-through (they’re referred to as mazes, but this is a misnomer since there’s only one way to go, and you cannot possibly get lost), lasting about 3-5 minutes. A constant trickle of guests is sent through, so you’re never alone in the dark. The houses are usually set up beyond the normal bounds of the theme park (slightly backstage) in sound stages or in unused queue area. Photography is not allowed in the houses.
Beyond the intricate design–which really is quite impressive for temporary structures–the haunted houses rely heavily on actors seemingly come out of nowhere to startle guests. Additionally, there are sound & lighting effects, music, narrow passages & tight corners, air bursts, mirror effects, and gruesome details to achieve an eerie and suspenseful experience. Basically, these are traditional haunted houses, but with lavish budgets and locations drawn from popular horror franchises.
In addition to these houses/mazes, there’s other entertainment including stage shows that change from year to year. We found that both of these show can be hit or miss, but there are enough ‘hits’ that they’re worth watching. There’s also the excellent lagoon show Halloween: Marathon of Mayhem, which features water fountains, film projections, lighting, and projection-mapping.
There are also 5 scare zones filled with hordes of ‘scare-actors. Some of these scare zones are narrowly-themed with a very specific horror motif, while others are more open-ended with a range of mutants. These are great places to just wander around (I love them for photos) and see the monsters/scare-actors interact with guests. Great for people-watching.
As far as entertainment goes, this is actually quite a huge slate. About a half-dozen attractions are also open (all with minimal waits); we do not recommend doing them. You cannot possibly see and do all of the Halloween entertainment without a good plan of attack for Halloween Horror Nights…
Halloween Horror Nights Tips
On the downside, our experience with Halloween Horror Nights is admittedly limited. On the plus side, last year we visited with someone in Operations at Universal Orlando who was basically an HHN-ninja, and we gleaned quite a bit from that experience. Additionally, many of the same principles that apply in terms of crowds, etc., to MNSSHP also apply to Halloween Horror Nights.
First, if at all possible, you want to attend on the least busy night you can. This means as early in the season as possible, and avoiding Fridays and Saturdays. Going on a weeknight in September will be the best option because locals have work the next morning and Halloween isn’t yet on peoples’ minds.
Arrive with a full stomach before Halloween Horror Nights starts. You don’t want to waste time eating once the event starts, as lines are shortest at the outset of the night, and time is valuable. You’ll also want something to soak up the booze, if you plan on drinking.
Speaking of booze, it’s expensive, so you might want to responsibly pregame if you’re going to go that route. We cannot emphasize the “responsibly” part of that enough, as we’ve been told that Universal security regularly turns away guests who show up to the event too drunk.
Speaking of security, they’re everywhere. Plain clothes and uniformed, and Orlando police have a significant presence. Halloween Horror Nights has a reputation as a raucous event, and that’s definitely deserved. That does not mean you have carte blanche to act like a drunken buffoon. I’m not sure this qualifies as a “tip” but one important thing to remember is that just because you’re in a theme park doesn’t mean you can’t be arrested or kicked out. Even in fantasy land, drunk & disorderly conduct can still get you thrown in the drunk tank.
In terms of touring plans and strategy, we highly recommend doing Halloween Horror Nights on the same night as you attend Universal Studios Florida. This is because you’ll have a 15-minute head start on the houses before HHN-only guests. It might not seem like much, but that first 15 minutes is critical to avoiding lines.
To take advantage of this, you head to HHN check-in areas in Universal Studios Florida around 5 p.m. Then, you head to one of the holding areas, getting in line by around 5:15 p.m. (We recommend grabbing beer and the glorious Brain Freezin’ D’oh-Nut Sundaes above in Springfield and then headed to that holding area.) At around 5:45 p.m., you’re released. If you’re at the front of one of these holding areas, you’ll exit your first house before 6 p.m.
By contrast, guests at the very front of the line outside the turnstiles will enter the park at around 6 p.m. (official start time of HHN is 6:30 p.m.) and those front of line guests have probably waited a good 90 minutes for that position. They won’t arrive at their first house until 6:10 p.m. Guests who arrive at 6 p.m. are farther back in line to get in won’t hit a house until maybe 6:30 p.m. By 6:30 p.m., you’ll be on house #3 or #4.
You can start in Springfield or the front of the park, which is better all depends upon where the popular IP houses are located. Although houses at the front of the park lure guests as they enter, these popular IPs located deeper in the park are bigger draws, so we opted to knock them out first. We completed 3 houses in short order, and were onto house #4 before 6:30–still ahead of the crowds.
Following this, we had a dilemma: head deeper into the park and knock out a couple of less-popular houses with no waits, or head forward and experience houses at the front with moderate waits. We opted for the former strategy, with the idea in mind that we would hit those houses, and then do other entertainment for a while.
We would then do the front of park houses after midnight, towards the end of the event when the hordes started stumbling home. This strategy worked flawlessly, and we recommend it. Our longest wait of the night ended up being 45 minutes. Otherwise, I don’t think we waited more than 10-15 minutes for anything.
Alternatively, if you’re going a busy night or just don’t want to hassle with strategy, the HHN Express Pass is available for purchase (it is not included with hotel stays) for $100+ per person. That’s a lot of money, but it might be worth it if you only have one night for HHN and you’re going on a night when waits might peak at 120 minutes for a single house.
Aside from the houses, we spent the middle of the evening walking the scare zones and watching the two stage shows. If you’re into photography, the scare zones are a great option, and I’d recommend trying for photos at dusk while there’s still a bit of light. The scare-actors will ham it up for photos to some degree, but they are still moving, making nighttime photos of them a challenge. (I wish I focused more on photography, as the event has great potential for that–if you have the patience.)
That’s really it in the way of strategy. With the plan described above, we were able to walk-through each of the houses one time, see both stage shows, and spend around an hour (collectively) in the scare zones by staying until the bitter end. We did not eat during the event and restroom usage was minimal.
With that said, I still felt like we had insufficient time at Halloween Horror Nights. I wanted to spend more time in the scare zones to people watch, and also hit a couple of the houses a second time to explore all of the details. Although the houses are the main draw in terms of wait times, I found the eerie vibe of the event to be a bigger draw, and would not have minded a second night to slow down and take in the ambiance.
Halloween Horror Nights Review
Let’s pick up on that note about ambiance and get the bad out of the way. You might recall my ‘bro’ comment above. That’s because there is an undeniable frat-bro vibe to Halloween Horror Nights. (Some might take that a step further and contend the event is misogynistic and sexist.)
From my perspective, it’s more a case of the former than the latter, but I’m also a man who has never experienced the negative side of sexism firsthand. There were a couple instances of one-dimensional ‘sex object’ female characters in Halloween Horror Nights, but other than that, I didn’t notice anything overt.
To me, guests are the bigger issue than the event itself. This has been something of an elephant in the room, but it boiled over last year as reports of scare-actors being groped were made public. It remains to be seen what measures Universal will take to address the atmosphere of HHN, or if there’s really anything that can be done. Certainly, the free flow of alcohol doesn’t help, but it’s also true that alcohol alone isn’t a kiss that turns princes into douchey frogs.
Nor is this to say that everyone who attends or enjoys Halloween Horror Nights is a douchey frat bro. I’ve seen several Halloween Horror Night fans ardently defend the event against criticism, probably for fear of having to concede that they, themselves, are douchey. The thing is, by and large the event is not douchey nor are its attendees.
I enjoy Halloween Horror Nights and enjoy most elements of the event enough to make it an annual draw. Just as I don’t have issue conceding (what I view as) Disney’s flaws, I don’t have a problem confronting the same with Halloween Horror Nights. I don’t think there is any way of skirting the issue: HHN draws an audience that skews towards the raucous side. I mean, it’s no Insane Clown Posse concert, but it’s an adult-oriented Halloween event…what do you expect?
I mention this so you know what you’re getting yourself into. This isn’t in the same ballpark–or league…or sport–as Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Each are good on their own respective merits, but there’s little to no Venn overlap.
There is a lot to enjoy about Halloween Horror Nights, and its problems (I think) are relatively minor as compared to its strengths. The big strength, I think, is the design of the mazes/houses. These can be hit or miss, but the best of them do an amazing job re-creating environments from films, or just creating environments from the ground up.
The biggest misses for me in terms of the houses were those based on modern IP–including those I recognize. In recent years, the Walking Dead and Stranger Things houses have been among the worst in this regard, resting on their laurels with recognizable visuals from the film. The problem was that beyond the “oh, I recognize that from my favorite [not for me, but maybe for someone] TV series!” moments, the whole thing was dull and monotonous.
I’d hazard a guess that opinions on the houses will vary based largely on personal preference, but as a whole, the designs are really well done. Hard to believe some of these are temporary.
The scare zones were also very well done, particularly the icons one that featured stages with brief shows throughout the night. My personal preference is more towards the narrowly focused scare zones with a single concept than the ‘vague collection’ ones, but both work. These were a lot of fun to visit and revisit.
Criticism aside, I had an absolute blast at Halloween Horror Nights last year, and plan to attend this year. If you enjoy horror films or the adult side of Halloween and don’t have kids in tow, I highly recommend dedicating an evening to Halloween Horror Nights. If I were a local, I’d probably opt for a lower level Annual Pass and attend 2-3 nights. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it to Orlando’s version this year, but if not, I’ll hit the event at Universal Studios Hollywood (I really don’t want to miss that Exorcist house!).
Have you attended a Halloween Horror Nights event? What did you think of it? Any tips of your own to add? Does HHN interest you, or are you more a MNSSHP kind of person? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of Halloween Horror Nights? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!