Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
Editor's Note: Today's post is more of a commentary as opposed to the usual photo blog. That means lots of words; not so much photos.
We've spent the past three days talking about Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights event--one of the premiere haunted attractions in Southern California--covering some of the mazes, the Terror Tram, and scare zones of this extravagant production. This honestly is a spectacular event put together by a hard working team of designers, artists, sculptors, craftsmen, builders, and countless other behind-the-scenes personel. And the result is a powerful product that draws massive crowds year after year by recreating horror movies and franchises for fans to step into.
But if you've been paying attention to the updates this week, you'll undoubtedly notice that those crowds comprise the one significant recurring complaint throughout the week. Every year, the event seems to get busier and busier, and this year, it seemed to finally break through the barrier of unmanageability--at least for me. As I mentioned Monday, the extraordinary waits did significantly dampen the overall guest experience for Dan and myself, turning what should have been a strong lineup of mazes into a disappointing and grueling queue-fest whose payoff could not have possibly compensated for the sour mood that the endless waits cultivated.
Now, I should mention that I come from a unique position here. Westcoaster has covered Halloween Horror Nights for many years now, and we have done so as both members of the media (as recently as 2014) and as regular guests.
In the past, when we visited as press, we enjoyed the advantage of a complimentary Front of the Line pass that allowed multiple chances to experience mazes. This made it easy for me utilize my ideal way of experiencing new themed attractions: the first time from the perspective of a pure guest, with no photos taken and no opinions formed prior to entering; then a second trip through to do photo documentation. This method allowed me to form an initial clean opinion based on being "in the moment" and then temper it with a second more objective and observational trip, so as to form thorough and informed opinions.
It was was significantly more challenging going through this process as a guest forced to wait in the standby queues, and these trips typically became hybrid experiences. I might be able to explore the first or second haunted mazes of the night "pure" and without pausing to observe others or document (and then immediately get back in line for the second run-through), but inevitably, as lines swelled, the rest of the mazes would have to be done with photography in mind (after all, we at Westcoaster strive to bring the best theme park photography to your computer screens), and I would have to rush to get everything done.
While often stressful, this has always been doable in past years thanks to strategic ordering of which mazes to hit when. Even as I've had to drop some offerings that didn't interest me or had deteriorated in quality (mainly the shows), I've always been able to "experience everything" (I want) and get the photos I felt I needed to properly document this impressive event.
Until this year.
This year, for the first time, not only was I unable to go through any of the mazes twice, I was unable to go through all of the mazes period. Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Walking Dead Attraction were the ones left out, and even if they might have been the weakest of the mazes (at least according to hearsay), it was frustrating to miss these haunted offerings. Sure, I wasn't provided with a press pass, and I had no obligation to do any coverage and voluntarily promote the park and the event, but I wanted to--both for my own love-of-photography satisfaction and for the sake of providing informative and good content for you, the Westcoaster readers. I love the Halloween season, and I want to experience the most out of each year's events. And I want to share that enjoyment with others who either may be considering attending the same events or who can't attend and live vicariously through these sorts of updates.
Initially, I thought that Friday's madness could be attributed to a combination of opening day fanatics packing the park in greater than ever numbers, plus an ever-increasing influx of press and V.I.P.'s increasing the Front of Line crowd--thus increasing the regular standby waits. Although Horror Nights has always had long lines, waits on several mazes during last Friday's opening night exceeded two hours. Saturday, however, proved even worse, with at least one or two mazes breaking the three hour mark, and most attractions well over an hour throughout the night (according to friends' posts and photos from social media and Universal Studios' own wait time web site).
On both nights, not only were lines long, but they were stagnant. Several minutes of standing still, followed by ten or fifteen seconds shuffling forward, followed by a few more minutes of inaction, and repeat... that was brutal and mentally exhausting. In addition, a major problem soon emerged from the opening weekend experiences: the posted wait times could sometimes be wholly inaccurate, underestimating the wait by a significant factor. The Halloween maze was advertised as a 50 or 60 minute wait (depending on which marquee you looked at) at 12:30 Friday night. We ended up waiting closer to 100 and exited the maze after the park had officially closed. This story was repeated by several of my friends on both nights, and apparently, the cause was the use of a new wait time measuring system that clearly had some kinks to work out.
After my visit and over the weekend, as I perused the posts and comments of friends (and friends of friends) who attended Halloween Horror Nights, one trend became clear: those who had a great time and came out thoroughly impressed usually had Front of Line passes of some sort. Those who had to wait as regular guests? They did not enjoy themselves. Did each side have a couple of exceptions? Yes. But by and large, the correlation was there.
Now, I've heard some people say that you cannot judge and event based on its crowds, because that completely ignores the content. This is true--to an extent. It is silly to expect short lines and spacious thoroughfares when going to a popular haunted attraction like Halloween Horror Nights--even if it is on the first or second night of operation--because Horror Nights has broken through the market saturation point and has become a self-sustaining popularity machine, kind of like Disneyland is normally. Horror Nights equals packed attendance, and that's just how it is. But at the same time, no one should ever have to wait two to three hours for a single attraction. If you're willing to do so, bless you, but that doesn't mean everyone else should be equally content with that.
Given the hefty cost of admission (full price regular admission is $89 for a seven hour event--with online discounts of up to $25), waiting 1 to 2+ hours per maze means one might get through four attractions within a single night at most--less than half of the Halloween-specific offerings of the event. If a customer does not get his or her money's worth, that patron has every right to be upset and feel taken advantage of. And that is the problem with the crowds at Universal.
To soothe the impatient like me, Universal Studios naturally offers guests the option to purchase Front of Line passes, which are sold in limited quantities so as to respect the wait that normal standby guests must endure. But this comes at an exorbitant cost. Depending on the night, the Front of Line ticket is $90 to $120 additional to the full price cost of admission. And unlike other big name haunts like Knott's Scary Farm and Queen Mary's Dark Harbor, whose Front of Line tickets are unlimited use, Universal's is good for only one trip for each maze and for the Terror Tram. And on Friday night, at least, there sporadic reports that even the Front of Line queue on some mazes was nearly forty minutes long! With all of that in mind, I just can't justify splurging the extra and not-insignificant cash.
When it all comes down to it, compared to every other haunt out there, the price for a quality experience at Horror Nights can really start to feel like price gouging. Call me old school, Asian, or even just plain cheap, but I don't believe that you should have to pay $200 to [relatively] guarantee a positive experience unaffected by lines. People complain about Disneyland's $150+ price of admission for a park hopper ticket--but that's for a full day that--at its busiest--might be 16 hours of entertainment, plus free use of FastPass, plus the content of two whole theme parks. In comparison, even that extravagant price is a great deal compared to Halloween Horror Nights.
The bottom line is that the combination of long waits plus expensive admission equals a lot of frustration. And in my opinion, it is justified. This is not good business, and even beyond the customer's opinion, Universal can't be necessarily enjoying this either, because of all the overtime extended lines will require them to pay employees and talent to stay one or even two hours past an already late 2AM park closing, in order to complete operations and get guests out of the park and resort property safely.
Now, if all I did in this article was complain, then I'd be like any other internet entity out there. Or Twitter. But I thought about what steps the park might be able to take to increase guest satisfaction at Halloween Horror Nights (there was obviously plenty of time to contemplate this while waiting over two and a half hours at The Excorcist and nearly two hours at Halloween), and I came up with the following:
- Add More Shows
I've said this for years, but one big issue with Universal is that at Halloween Horror Nights, there are limited alternatives to those who are not in or waiting in line for mazes. The park's actual attractions line-up is relatively meager, which means the majority of the bodies in the park go to the mazes. The only unique non-scares attraction this year is the Jabbawockeez stage show (and in previous years, the Bill and Ted show). Why not provide additional shows to hold more people (and also give them opportunities to be off their feet)? It's simple economics theory: when faced with tremendous demand, you either respond with measures to drive down demand, or you increase the supply. I think most people would prefer increased supply (more things to see or do) vs decreased demand (e.g. via increased prices).
Horror Nights used to have Slaughterworld (which was terrible, yes, but so bad that it became good). There was the Chucky insult comedy show in the Parisian Courtyard. Sure, both examples closed for their own justifiable reasons, but that doesn't mean alternative offerings, like a magic show or dark improv show (this is Hollywood) could be considered. The Animal Actors stage sits unused each year at Horror Nights and could have staggered showtimes against the A-show at the Special Effects Stage. Smaller, more intimate performances could be staged elsewhere in the park. Even the backlot could be used--guests go there for mazes anyway. Why not provide entertainment?
- Increase the Number of Operating Nights
This seems like a no-brainer, but if the event has gotten this popular, then offer more nights. The event doesn't hit four-night operation until its third weekend. It may be time to consider having that in place sooner.
I do commend Universal for adding dates after Halloween, though, for the devoted fans. And this year, every night is open until 2AM instead of Fridays and Saturdays only. So clearly, they are trying.
- Separate Media Night from Normal Operating Nights
I'll admit: had I been able to attend this event this year as media, I probably wouldn't be taking the time to write all of this. Last Friday's experience was really eye-opening to what the average Horror Nights experience is like for the majority of guests, and it's pretty clear that said experience is pretty sub-par--unless you are exceptionally patient.
That said, this suggestion would really only impact opening night. But it was clear from the lines that the media and celebrity presence really impacted operations. Our wait at The Exorcist was exacerbated by a 40 minute period where the line did not move at all--because some celebrities or television personalities (I'm terrible at recognizing stars or "stars," so I don't know who they were) went through the maze under escort, and were filmed, and then stood outside the exit for post-experience interviews. Some of our friends who did attend as media remarked the same happening to even then in other mazes. It's totally a Hollywood thing to do, and it shouldn't be surprising. But these "unnecessary" delays were still quite frustrating to experience, especially for those who had already waited a significant amount of time and were now basically committed.
A simple solution would be to schedule Media Night on Thursday instead of Friday (or, if they must do it on a Friday, have public open on Saturday and Sunday). This allows the extra influx of Front of Line people to avoid interfering with a public wait. Horror Nights already schedules an employee preview earlier in the week. This could be a combination of an additional employee preview and media/VIP night. And since celebrities stop by the event throughout its run anyway, it's not like this actually deprives the public of the chance of running into a movie or television star during a normal operating night of HHN.
- Provide Entertainment/Distractions in Queues
After our nearly three hour experience waiting for and going through The Exorcist, we stopped to check out the Purge scare zone upstairs, then went over to the backlot for the Terror Tram. The wait for this was significantly more bearable for three reasons: 1) it was only 35 minutes, 2) the line moved relatively continuously and quickly, 3) there were showings of short horror films as promotion for Crypt TV on the television monitors installed above the switchbacks. The Metro Lot mazes similarly had a giant projected screen at American Horror Story playing clips of the series. I'm not sure if Krampus or Freddy vs Jason's lines had the same, but these areas have in past years.
This was helpful, because even if we had been standing still, at least there was some entertainment to keep us occupied. Universal has so much content to offer, from original content to sizzle reels of classic horror highlights to even trailer promotion for the event or B-roll of past event footage. It shouldn't take too much effort to roll that into one or two hour loops to give guests something to do while waiting. Heck, maybe even show the movies that the mazes are based off. Goodness knows guests are paying enough for that. But ultimately, it would be helpful to have televisions or projection screens installed around all lines, so that guests can be entertained while waiting. (Yes, Universal has had the "Scare Patrol" in the past, but they were never really entertaining, and even if they were, they can't entertain the entire line at once.)
And sure, this could open the door for guests just staring and not moving forward. But in my experience, this sort of problem polices itself. When the gap in front gets too large, inevitably, someone will signal to the transfixed guest, and at peak waits, there will never be an instance where someone is so distracted by the screen that he holds up the line and prevents people from entering when there is room to do so.
- Open Potterworld, Damnit!
I was surprised and not surprised that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was closed for Halloween Horror Nights. Given its popularity normally, it would have served a great purpose in eating bodies and alleviating the number of people in line for rides. After all, given a maximum occupancy in a sold out event, one person in line for a ride is one less person in line for a maze, and even though it makes no sense to us haunt enthusiasts, there are guests who go to theme parks during Halloween and want to ride rides instead of only experiencing the haunted houses! Yeah, go figure.
But I know that the decision isn't solely up to Universal. J.K. Rowling has final say on operations procedures like this as part of her contractual agreement with Universal on their use of her intellectual property, and she has made it known in the past that she does not prefer to have Harry Potter associated with a more adult event like Horror Nights. In addition, one could argue that the clientele at Horror Nights may not be the same target demographic that would flock to Potterworld or treat it with respect.
All I know, thought, is that Universal Studios Japan has their Wizarding World of Harry Potter open during their Halloween Horror Nights, and it has Death Eaters. So if they can wrangle a deal together, I'm sure the U.S. parks could put together something amenable also. Plus, wouldn't it be awesome to have a scare zone littered with Dementors?
- Less Heavy Hitters
This might seem counter-intuitive, but it's clear that the overwhelming hype over this year's lineup has made Horror Nights a bigger victim of its own hype than ever before. Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, The Exorcist, American Horror Story... any one of those would be anchors for their own Horror Nights season, but this year, they're all stars. It's like having a festival with double the number of usual headliners all in the same act. It's going to naturally make people descend upon the event in even greater droves than usual.
This suggestion doesn't mean decrease the quality, though. It's telling that my favorite maze and the "best maze" of many of my friends was Krampus, a film that not commercially popular. And yet, this was the maze that ended up having the shortest waits overall, especially at the end of the night. It used to be that Universal could always count on one or two bad mazes (at least from a production values standpoint), but that is no longer the case. This is great, because it means that even mazes for less known IP's can stand out and be dark horse hits while not contributing to an exaggerated attraction of extra guests. It can even be a chance to develop more original content mazes, rather than rely on so many intellectual properties as Horror Nights Hollywood has for the past eleven years.
- Longer Mazes
It's either that or more mazes, though that creates more logistical issues and also adds one more thing to get to for "do-it-all's" like myself. Mazes with longer layouts, though, can process more people. Plus, it always psychologically feels better to have a longer experience to compensate for a longer wait.
In addition, the flow of mazes can impact the line by creating bottlenecks that nullify any attempts at line control and pacing. Part of Krampus' efficiency was its flow, which seemed more conducive to getting people through more smoothly.
So that's my long expository on the state of Halloween Horror Nights. I'm not involved in the circle of planning for events like this, so it's certainly possible that all of the above ideas have fatal flaws. But from an outsider's point of view, they seem like they could improve the event.
It's a shame, because make the waits on par with even previous years, and you have an exceptionally strong and enjoyable event. Indeed, the crowds have already been that bad this year.
And yes, this is only based on an opening weekend's worth of experience, and the park will most definitely work out issues and operate more smoothly as the season progresses. On the other hand, this was opening weekend. October is sure to bring even greater crowds, so that will contribute greater strain to operations.
Here's hoping that the event can adjust and make some tangible improvements, both this year and in the future. I can always choose to not spend my money there, but I'd really prefer that conditions not be so unbearable as to come down to that. At the end of the day, the event itself is still solid--despite my gripes. And if they can relieve the wait issue, it will be one that I will enthusiastically recommend to all my Halloween-interested friends.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.