I first became aware of Halloween Horror Nights as a fledgling Universal Orlando employee in 1996, when I was assigned to hang lights for a haunted maze and instantly fell in love with the event. Since then I've been present for every milestone from Jack the Clown's birth to Bill & Ted's death, and attended nearly every annual edition — usually on the rain-soaked opening weekend — as a team member, media rep or paying guest. So I probably wouldn't have believed it if you'd told me a quarter-century ago that I'd attend the 30th edition ... and exit long before midnight because I was bored.
Don't get me wrong: The scenic designs of this year's 10 haunted houses (three of which premiered during last year's abbreviated Halloween Horror Lite daytime event) remain second to none, headlined by a faithful recreation of The Haunting of Hill House sure to thrill fans of the Netflix series. As befits the big anniversary year, the original houses delve into HHN's Byzantine lore and highlight past icons; there are plenty of fan-service Easter eggs, but flashlight-wielding attendants hustle crowds through too quickly to absorb them. While the best of this year's crop, the horrifically herbaceous "Wicked Growth," ranks with Universal's all-time greats, others (like the toothless Texas Chainsaw Massacre rehash) simply seem worn out.
The only new element at HHN 30 that truly recaptures the electric energy of the event's earlier years is "Halloween Nightmare Fuel." Created by writer-director Jason Horne with inspiration from magician Magus Utopia, this explosive fusion of illusions, acrobatics and fiery choreography is the Fear Factor Live stadium's first must-see show in years. To cope with the coronavirus, Universal has concealed their actors behind unthemed face masks and smudgy barriers (although patrons are permitted to be unmasked) or positioned them on elevated platforms, further blunting the fright factor in an event whose operations have increasingly emphasized selfies over actual scares. Fortunately, by taking advantage of the Stay & Scream holding area in Central Park, I was able to experience half of the haunted houses before the event had officially been open for an hour, and I saw everything new on offer by 11 p.m. without buying an Express Pass.
In the old days, I would have invested in a Frequent Fear season pass (which has skyrocketed in price) and revisited HHN again and again, but in 2021, Orlando haunt fans simply have too many other options. For that fact, fans have to thank Patrick Braillard, who has certainly earned his title this year as "the hardest working man in Halloween." Not only are the mazes he created last year as a Universal show director before being furloughed prominently featured at this year's Halloween Horror Nights, he's also creative director of the inaugural Howl-O-Scream event that SeaWorld has launched as a direct challenge to HHN's dominance. In addition, he's an adjunct professor in the themed experience degree program at UCF, and the co-creator of a crowd-funded horror-themed card game (ohthehorrorgame.com) that will be released as soon as it arrives on a slow boat from China.
I caught up with Braillard at the media preview for yet another of his Halloween projects, the Scream n' Stream drive-through experience (screamnstream.com), which relocated for its sophomore edition from the Boggy Creek swamp to the far-more-convenient Oviedo Mall parking lot. Braillard has crafted a witty, self-aware sci-fi script for this self-driven interactive dark ride, which lets passengers pew-pew with laser-tag guns against legions of zombies, clowns, zombie-clowns and big effing monsters. (Pro tip: Roll up your windows, but open the sunroof.)
Scream n' Stream's aggressive actors and special effects are shockingly effective, and with moderate per-carload pricing and virtual queues to reduce waiting, this 25-minute-plus experience provides considerable bang for your buck. According to Braillard, the attraction is intended not only to appeal to hard-core haunt hunters, but also to serve as "a great gateway drug for children to get into the horror genre." He added, "My 9-year-old son will hate this event, but my 7-year-old daughter's gonna love it."
If anyone should be over Halloween by now, it's Braillard, who has been bouncing nonstop between his various projects. But despite operating on five hours of sleep as Scream n' Stream's media preview got underway, his enthusiasm proved infectious. "It's been such an interesting year, because it's reinvigorated me, in the idea that I'm back to basics. I think that everybody [in themed entertainment] had that reset," says Braillard, "and I think everybody is going back to those basics of storytelling."
Although 2020's disruption to Orlando's massive monster-making industry was painful, Braillard now sees a silver lining in the shadows. "We're getting back to the jobs that we're supposed to be doing and finding different places and niches to do that, which is absolutely wonderful," he says. "I'm looking forward to what the future holds."