While most Halloween events tend to wait for October, a few of the bigger haunts (and some odds and ends smaller ones) begin quite a bit earlier, in mid-September. Which, for us, is great, because if it were up to us we'd do Halloween year-round. Probably the first to open is also a strong contender for our favorite every year: Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights.
While this year's event features some stranger choices for maze themes and will be difficult to top last years amazing An American Werewolf in London maze, we're excited as ever to see what they've got in store for us.
BUT FIRST! Some general notes and tips to enhance The Long Halloween experience!
NOTE: For the sake of this series of articles, the term "maze" will actually very likely never mean maze. The terms "maze" and "haunted house" are pretty interchangeable from everything I've seen, though from what I can tell "maze" is usually used by larger events and theme parks when they are running a number of haunts. They are usually straightforward and offer little in the way of getting lost, but hey, you never know, they might surprise you.
Long Halloween Tip # 1: When it comes to Halloween events, always consider comfort a top priority. Wear practical clothing that you can move around freely in and shoes you wouldn't mind standing around all night in. While most haunts won't touch you (though some will), quarters are often dark and tight, you don't want anything that can get snagged or tripped on. For this reason, my wife always ties her hair back, wears small earrings (to avoid snagging) and leaves her purse at home when we're at a haunt. As a corollary, a lot of bigger Halloween events will have pretty impressive security, often just a shade below an average airport. My advice is to take everything out of your pockets but the essentials, and leave everything they could consider a weapon (even ballpoint pens) at home.
LH Tip # 2: Arrive early! Lines at Halloween events, especially the bigger theme parks, tend to get absolutely insane, sometimes hours long. If you're at an event where you have a timed ticket, this isn't usually a problem, but if you're at a free for all like at most theme parks, the earlier you're in, the better. The line may still be pretty bad, but compared to the 3 hour waits you'll get later in the evening, getting there at opening can really free up your night.
LH Tip # 3: Weigh front of the line options. Most theme parks and a lot of smaller haunts have options to skip these lines for an upcharge to your standard ticket price, and while these are usually timesavers, they aren't always necessary. At a lot of smaller events, if you've a timed ticket, or get there first thing, front of the line upcharges will just leave you out a few bucks. At theme parks and other larger events (like Queen Mary's Dark Harbor), they're often worth it, though do the math to find out what's most convenient for your budget, as some places have an upcharge that's like a 20-30% add-on, while others go close to doubling the ticket price (I'm looking at you, Knott's).
For the record, Universal Studios is consistently one of the best values when it comes to their front of the line tickets for Halloween Horror Nights, and fairly necessary given how obscene the lines can get.
LH Tip # 4: Hydrate! This may just be a Southern California thing, but most haunts get pretty damn hot due to the number of people and special effects crammed into small areas. You're going to sweat like crazy, so be sure you've got water on hand at any time, or at least know where to get some.
LH Tip # 5: Have fun! If you're not, why are you even doing this in the first place?
Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home
But it won't get close to that spot.
Because the iconic Halloween theme was mostly absent for the maze. When most mazes keep full soundtracks from their films to really suck you in, this absence was distracting.
Major, major foul.
Maze Ranking: # 4 (if just for the lack of theme)
The Terror Tram: Survive the Purge
Every Halloween season, the Terror Tram takes us to the familiar backlot sets like Bates Motel and the plane crash set from the recent War of the Worlds film. Then instead of driving around, as usual, they let us out to follow a path through these sets and get attacked by monsters hiding within. It's a fun experience, but lacking in a lot of repeat value as, well, there's only so much they can do from year to year to make this experience different, aside from a new paint job and characters. While the last three years have been themed to The Walking Dead, this year they themed it to The Purge, a theme that works well for the Terror Tram, as it can fit in the crazy randomness and violence of the purge quite well. While the actors were very enthusiastic this year, I don't have a whole lot to add here other than saying we had fun, so I'll continue.
This is the End 3D
So I was pleasantly surprised to find this actually a pretty fun maze. I don't remember the movie much, but the scenes from it they had were recognizable and fun. The 3D effects were actually pulled off quite well and fun, with their giant demon heads and day-glo Satans popping in their environment and actually proving a lot of fun. The only thing about this maze that struck me as weird was how the f-word was bleeped out in every quote from the movie they used, which was weird not just for how many times this happened, but for the fact that it wasn't ok to say this while you could cut a person in half and have people eating their guts in the same maze.
Maze Ranking: # 5 (a lot of fun, but the rest of the mazes were better)
Alien vs. Predator
When I went through it again, I was kinda underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, the maze itself was every bit as amazing as it was last year (you can't go wrong ending a maze with a 16-foot-tall Alien Queen puppet), it's just that the lack of freshness just didn't do it for me. I would still highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't gone through it before, but if you attended last year's event, you can easily skip this one and wouldn't miss anything.
Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness
When we saw there would be a maze for it at Halloween Horror Nights, we were intrigued, if a bit wary.
The maze itself is an awesome experience, full of bizarre monsters, well pulled off jump scares, and some really cool gothic sets. The only problem with it is that this movie hasn't come out yet, so we really can't judge how good a job it does at interpreting the work. Still, it gives a lot to look forward to, and was a trippy, weird maze.
Maze Ranking: # 3
The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far
However, my personal favorite scene from the maze is a fairly cliched one you'll see in a lot of mazes that this one managed to make feel fresh. Oftentimes in mazes you'll find a hallway with hanging rubber corpses you'll have to push through, and once you've seen one you've seen 'em all, generally. However, one of the final scenes this year took place in the back of a truck full of hanging half corpses (the Wolves of the latter half of the season), and there was just something about the setup they did this year, with so many hanging half corpses, all swinging wildly from the people pushing through, with occasional jump scare walkers bursting from the walls, that made this scene fresh and exciting instead of cliched.
Is there a possible way of saying it was the best done hallway of hanging half corpses I've ever seen without sounding like a serial killer? Because if so, this is it.
Maze Ranking: # 2
Insidious: Return to The Further
Have you seen the Insidious movies? If no, I would enthusiastically recommend them. They're not the freshest or the most innovative ghost movies of all time, but they're a lot of fun and exquisitely handled haunted house stories, which line them up excellently into becoming haunts. Universal did an Insidious maze a couple years back, and it was a lot of fun, but we weren't expecting a lot new to be added in this year's maze but for some upgrades from the most recent movie.
We were wrong. So very wrong in so many ways.
I could go into detail here about everything they did and did differently, but that'd be doing a disservice to what is an utterly fantastic maze. As with the others of this night, the scenes in this maze felt straight out of the movies, which is nothing new, but this had possibly the most enthusiastic and utterly insane actors I've seen in a Universal maze, especially for the character of the red-faced demon (if you've seen the movies, you know who I'm talking about). There were times he'd appear literally from nowhere, getting in my face and screaming, hissing and leaping for me, getting me to nearly fall to the floor screaming at the top of my lungs (I'm a screamer at Halloween, so sue me).
One moment with him will likely make one of the great moments of our Long Halloween history, as we were mesmerized by a special effect in the maze where an ordinary hallway melted away into an alternate dimension hellhole, and while we were distracted he leaped straight in front of me and scared the hell out of me.
This is a top notch maze from a top notch event, and one of the best I think we've ever seen.
Maze Ranking: A well-deserved # 1 for the night
Thank you for joining me this Halloween season, and as always, please drop me a line on Facebook or Twitter! I'm big into liking/following back!
-- Matt Carter
(We know there's a lot of Matt Carter's online you could spend your time with, so thanks for hanging around this one!)