The traditional throngs of summertime tourists who once drove Central Florida's economy failed to materialize this past summer, melting away with the record heat and torrential rains, but Halloween is now to Orlando what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, thanks in no small part to Universal Orlando's three-decade dominance of our area's crowded haunted house market. After watching countless challengers to Halloween Horror Nights' crown rise and fall, I openly cheered when SeaWorld Orlando entered the fray, and predicted last year that Howl-O-Scream's sophomore success might spur HHN to shake up their increasingly stale formula.
After attending both of 2023's big theme park haunt events on back-to-back nights, I'm happy to predict that I was at least half-right, because after a couple of half-hearted post-COVID installments, Universal's Horror Nights has returned to form with the most satisfying lineup in five years. I've still got issues with the black-clad ops employees awkwardly infesting the mazes, but the artistic designs and special effects are once again second to none, and I noted marked improvements in prosthetic makeup and masks. Most importantly, they've gone back to having an iconic host whose iconography ties the event together: Dr. Oddfellow, the Dust Bowl carnival barker behind the creation of Jack the Clown, Universal's most popular past icon.
As an old-school Islands of Adventure fan, it's easy to peg Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate as my favorite maze of the year, but the campy Yeti: Campground Kills comes in a close second — just beware the bear! Bloodmoon: Dark Offerings offers gorgeous gore within its towering colonial walls, and I also appreciated the bluesy atmosphere and illuminated costumes in the Robert Johnson-inspired Darkest Deal. Ironically, Dr. Oddfellow's Twisted Origins left me twisting in the wind, seducing me into the sideshow tent and then blowing me off without delivering on its implied promise to showcase Jack's genesis.
Beyond the original concepts, this year's intellectual property-inspired attractions were also an overall improvement. I've never played The Last of Us, but the scale and detail of its house made me want to buy a PS5, and Stranger Things 4 is an upgrade after the previous underwhelming version (although it needs 300% more Kate Bush). Universal Monsters: Unmasked is a dream mashup for horror-loving musical theater nerds, starring the Phantom and Hunchback (with killer black-light cameos by the Invisible Man), but The Exorcist: Believer is most memorable for its fantastic village facade and foul fecal aroma. Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count fell completely flat for me with its ill-articulated puppets.
Outside of the headliner houses, the highlight of my HHN 32 was the re-energized Nightmare Fuel pyrotechnic dance show, with this year's "Revenge Dream" version being the best yet by far. The vanishing bed illusion returns again for the opener, but that quickly gives way to an explosion of all-new high-energy acts that flow sinuously into each other. And although I'm sorry the lagoon fountain show hasn't returned, I'm happy that the scarezones have pulled back on being glorified selfie stations; I enjoyed some particularly groovy interactions with the fanged inhabitants of Vamp '69, a pitch-perfect Woodstock-style music festival.
Finally, complaining about crowds at HHN has practically become an Olympic sport, with lots of opening weekend griping online about slow Express queues. However, as an annual passholder attending last Thursday evening, I checked into the New York "stay & scream" holding pen around 4 p.m., waited in line a little over an hour for Stranger Things to open, and completed that house and four others before 7:15 p.m. (just 45 minutes after the official opening time) using only standby queues. Seeing all 10 houses and the show took me until midnight, and I never encountered the hyped M3GAN horde or SNL's David S. Pumpkins, but I also never waited more than 45 minutes in line, and repeated half the houses during the final hour with little to no waiting.
After heaping praise on Universal, I'd love to do the same for SeaWorld, but while I enjoyed my hosted media visit on Howl-O-Scream's opening night, it's clear they've ignored my encouragement to keep ambitiously challenging Halloween Horror Nights, instead settling for a distant second place. Rather than expand last year's roster of five houses, they've made minor modifications to some of last year's mazes, and the three "new" headliners share major elements with the houses they replaced. The best of the bunch is D3LER1UM666 Laboratories, which features a fake elevator preshow and a dizzying spinning tunnel finale, but like many HOS mazes, it felt unsatisfying, short and understaffed with actors. Beneath the Ice has been a favorite of mine since its debut in 2021, though its Meltdown makeover didn't add much beyond unconvincing fire effects, and Dead Vines: Nawlins Nightmare is mostly the same ghoul-filled greenhouse with a little gumbo seasoning, though it includes a great bungee stunt. Captain's Revenge made a welcome return with a reversed pathway, but Blood Beckoning didn't impress as much the second time around.
Scarezones still benefit from SeaWorld's confusing, underlit pathways, but feel more sparsely decorated and populated; and the thematic integration between houses, scarezones and snack stands seems less cohesive. As for operations, I applaud pulsing smaller groups of guests into mazes instead of sending through a continuous conga line, but I would have been driven mad by the unexplained multi-minute pauses we encountered entering nearly every house, if not for my complimentary Quick Queue pass.
In fact, the only headlining HOS element that I'd say returned as good or better than last year is Monster Stomp, the Jack the Ripper musical from Imagination House that weds VarieTease's Blue Star's choreography with E-Ticket production values. Since its tickets sell for significantly cheaper than Universal's, and pandemic-era upstarts like Haunted Road and Scream 'n' Stream haven't announced 2023 dates, there's definitely space for SeaWorld's mid-grade event to survive and thrive in the shadow of HHN's Goliath, even if Howl-O-Scream isn't slinging rocks at its rival quite as hard this season.
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