Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
Well folks, we may *almost* officially upon autumn, but our Halloween season coverage is in full swing, and after yesterday's look at the mazes of Halloween Horror Nights, today, we look at the scare zones and the Terror Tram. This year, the event featured three scare zones, a new low, plus the Terror Tram, which was taken over by Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, and Leatherface and the Sawyer Family--with a special guest hosting appearance by Chucky! Lets see what each of these brought.
The main entry scare zone took on the traditional stylistic Halloween aesthetic--then added gore and gruesome sights. As usual, "Scare Zone 1" provided the best energy and experience of the night. After a cute little opening ceremony preceding the initial crowd rush, the street monsters threw themselves all over the place right from the get-go, chainsaws in hand (of course, there were plenty of chainsaws), menacingly intruding upon personal spaces and preying on guests' phobias. At the front of the park, the usual go-go dancers provided eye candy and photo ops. And at the end of the night, Hell-O-Ween was chaos as all chainsaw-wielding scareactors made their way to the front for the traditional Chainsaw Chase Out.
One thing I have noticed more and more in the past years, however, is the lessening impact of the event. As more and more die hards come on opening night, the numbness to tactics such as these seem to generally increase. Still, when the monsters come upon the occasional "normal" guest who is absolutely terrified out of her mind (and may opt to hide behind a planter), it's a hilarious sight to see!
This scare zone is what it is--a connecting point between the main park and the Metro Lot. In the past, Horror Nights has sometimes provided a tram to transport guests back, instead of making them walk (and disabled guests can still take a shuttle back, so if walking is really an issue, there are alternatives). I've heard a lot of people favor this, but I've always preferred walking, because it is faster, and time is always a premium at Horror Nights. Admittedly, the result of the pedestrian path is a "scare zone" that's really just a hall with monsters and no real theming. Unless you count dubstep as theming. So it's inherently problematic.
This year featured a mutated tunnel worker theme, which at least tried to adopt the setting to the story. As has been the case with the past, it was the weakest scare zone of the bunch. Murdy even admitted the difficulties with creating a scare zone in this area, and while it may have been better just to abandon any attempts at thematic immersion and just keep it a walkway and sending monsters elsewhere, I suspect that Universal didn't want the scare zone count to drop from "four" last year all the way down to two this year.
The Urban Inferno entrance scare zone into the Metro Lot mazes provided a gauntlet for guests to navigate. The "hell in the city" theme was fine as a setting, though I didn't feel this scare zone offered anything spectacular. Compared to some pretty epic past scare zones in this place, such as the Walking Dead gauntlet from a few years ago, this seemed to be average. It was neither bad nor great; just a solid effort.
Titans of Terror Tram
Regular readers over the years will probably know of our apathy toward the Terror Tram these days. When Horror Nights first relaunched back in 2006, the concept of being able to walk through effectively a giant scare zone located on the Hollywood backlot was exciting and fun. But over the years, the Terror Tram has proven to be the exact same motions, with a different facade each year.
Last year brought some fun in the form of a unique storyline crafted by Eli Roth, centered around the murderous clown, "Hollywood Harry." This year, though, it was back to IP's, with Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, and Chucky supervising the killer festivities. As usual, guests were dropped off in front of the Whoville set, then shuttled around the Bates Motel, up the hill through a mini-maze, past the Psycho House, and through the War of the Worlds set. I appreciated turning the Bates Motel into something from Camp Crystal Lake this year, and the host of Freddies in different forms was quite fun. Leatherface seemed to offer the best bits of spontaneity, as the Sawyer family eagerly celebrated their cannibalistic tendancies. Grandpa Sawyer was quite a riot.
On the other hand, the Terror Tram suffered from very poor pacing, with back-ups building in multiple points and the lines coming to a standstill because of natural bottlenecks. It didn't help that security guards seemed to be constantly rushing guests through, and even though I realize that was meant to alleviate traffic, it also dampened the enjoyment and experience. For someone like myself, who has seen this multiple times, it wasn't a huge problem. But on the tram back, I heard several guests grumbling about what a poor experience all the hurrying created. Certainly not the way to earn customer loyalty.
Ultimately, as I say every year, the Terror Tram needs real change, whether that means taking guests through a different part of the backlot or creating a different experience altogether (maybe a spooky and truncated version of the regular backlot tour?). At this point, it offers no real value for repeat guests, other than for people like me who just want to snap photos of what's going on.
Overall, I would say that the scare zones and Terror Tram took a cumulative step backward this year, as the reduction in number and general recycling seem to be showing their wear. Certainly, there was energy from the scareactors, so the fault cannot be pinned on them. They did a fine job throughout the night. But aside from Hell-O-Ween, they weren't given much to play with.
Still, though I sound a little glum about this, overall, Halloween Horror Nights was a solid event. Most of my negativity stems from the formulaic redundancy each year seems to bring. The artistry and thematic details are fantastic, to be sure. Universal has always been the strongest at those areas, and they remain tough to beat. But with competitors like Knott's and Dark Harbor and even Magic Mountain stepping up their games with original content over the past few years--and even Orlando's event featuring some original haunted houses--it feels like Hollywood's Horror Nights could benefit from a shot in the arm. Otherwise, with so many options in Southern California available to haunt fans, the paying customer will eventually catch on.
As usual, I repeat my general description for Halloween Horror Nights: for the casual guest or first/second time attendee, this event will amaze and astound and terrify with its intensity and immersive qualities. But it offers much less enticement to those who have visited multiple times before. The event has made some great improvements in operations this year, so lets hope the creative side can be pushed to evolve further in the upcoming seasons!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.