Facing Halloween Horror Nights with no early access and no line-skipping is the scariest challenge of all

Facing Halloween Horror Nights with no early access and no line-skipping is the scariest challenge of all

Orlando's haunted amusements are again awash in virtual victims of violence: psycho-stabbing victims, chainsaw-massacre victims, zombie-virus victims, etc. etc. But truly, the most tragic victims are the type that popular Halloween events risk turning into – victims of their own success.

I began attending Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights in 1996, and until 2015 I hadn't missed an opening weekend in almost a decade; to say I was a hard-core HHN fan would be an understatement. Over recent years, I've been spoiled by VIP media tours and Frequent Fear Plus with Express seasonal passes, which allowed me to admire the artistry behind the anarchy while insulating me from the insane overcrowding that ordinary guests experience. But for the 25th edition of Halloween Horror Nights, I confronted the scariest challenge of all: experiencing as much of HHN as I could in a single night, sans early access or line-skipping privileges, as the majority of ticket-buyers must.

Once upon a time, you could count on certain HHN event nights – say, the first Sunday in October – to be slow enough to have some elbow room. I knew those days were gone for good when I entered the park shortly after the gates opened, even before the official start time, and saw the queue for the closest maze was already nearly an hour long. The second clue was a quickly announced 2 a.m. extension, hours once reserved for busy weekends – so much for "off-peak" evenings.

By hustling ahead of the rapidly surging crowd, I squeezed in three mazes within the first two hours; once wait times for the popular haunts hit 100 minutes, I retreated to Diagon Alley (Blishen's Fire Whisky and short waits for Gringotts are a dangerous combination), the scarezones (I loved the vignettes re-creating past Icons' advertisements) and the shows. This year's Bill & Ted satire has some of the sharpest barbs yet from writer-director Jason Horne, aimed not only at Mickey but Universal itself. It's outdone by The Carnage Returns, a cirque du sangre of gory illusions and gyrating aerial acrobatics; star turns from James Keaton as killer clown Jack Schmidt and Erin Nicole Cline as harlequin henchgal Chance elevate this assault on good taste to among Universal's best-ever entertainments.

I explored more mazes as exhausted guests began exiting after midnight, eventually stepping into that first queue I saw just as the event ended, almost eight hours after I arrived. After a quarter-century of anticipation, the mazes themselves were a mixed bag, offering either exquisite theming or intense scares, but rarely an ideal balance of both. The bloody Body Collectors/Psychoscareapy mashup is one of my new all-time favorite mazes; the 25th anniversary house delivers fantastic fan service (though, sadly, no S.S. Frightanic tribute); and The Purge uses audience plants with audacious effectiveness, despite lackluster sets. But Freddy vs. Jason was a letdown, with cheesy corpse props and ill-conceived alternating endings, and The Walking Dead is by far the worst haunt yet under that franchise; the hyped "flooded" scene is simply a couple of kiddie wading pools.

In the end, I experienced only seven of the nine houses, walking 20,000 steps and standing in line a total of four hours for under 30 minutes of frights. Even with resident discounts of up to 50 percent, that's an untenable price-to-pain ratio. I know HHN is still a passion project for creative director Mike Aiello and his team, but it's high time the entertainment department that started HHN (saving USF from financial disaster in its first decade) retook the event's reins from Universal's marketing department, which has been the tail wagging this hellhound for far too long. Then force Uni's top execs to use the standby lines on a Saturday night, and I'd bet we'd finally see some genuine innovation in queue management and ticket structures before next Halloween rolls around.

If you want to see what personal passion freed from bureaucratic bungling can build, The Shallow Grave in Winter Haven equals or improves on HHN's houses in every area except expensive intellectual property. When Shallow Grave started in 2013, I ballyhooed it as Central Florida's best-kept secret; word must be out, because they now need a paid parking lot across the street to handle the crowds. Even so, wait times for their two haunts barely hit a half-hour, and each is more than double the length of Universal's usual maze; at a quarter of HHN's gate price, it's a better value in time and money even taking into account the hourlong drive each way.

Both the original Haunted Hills house and ADHD (which debuted last year) have been tweaked with new terrifying twists, like an asylum scene and eerie oversized dolls. As before, these maniacs aren't shy about mauling you with an animatronic tentacle or grabbing your ankles as you flee. And effects Universal has deemed too tactile, like saturated shit scents and claustrophobic squeeze tunnels, are still ickily intact here. With plans to expand next season by 4,000 square feet, I only pray Shallow Grave doesn't fall prey to the success that has swallowed HHN.

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