Universal Studios uses special effects and other eerie techniques to transport guests to nontraditional spooky places during Halloween Horror Nights, which returns to the theme park Friday, Sept. 20 and runs for 27 select nights through Nov. 2.
This year's scare fest features eight maze-based haunted houses set in locales such as the afterlife of a serial killer, inside a video game, a monster-heavy underground government facility and wolf-riddled London.
"It's always difficult when you're trying to create exterior environments in an interior space," says creative director Michael Aiello, who helps design and manufacture the mazes in large soundstages and other backstage structures at Universal.
For the house based on the television series "The Walking Dead," Universal made scenes from the third season of the AMC zombie-driven drama, including a pivotal prison. It's the second year for "Walking Dead" to be represented at Horror Nights, and it's been moved to a large, backstage building that normally houses the park's parade floats. It needed space, Aiello says.
"We knew we wanted to do the chain-link maze that has the tower as its focus point," Aiello says. "That could not have been done anywhere but in a soundstage or B79 [float building]."
Recognizable walkers — the "Walking Dead" term for zombies — have been added to the lineup.
"We didn't have any specific characters last year, but this year we're able to use Milton and Merle and Penny," Aiello says.
Universal worked with AMC to include exclusive content about Penny's home.
"We're actually showing a little bit more than the show shows," Aiello says. "We never actually see where she lives" on TV.
Universal teamed with director John Landis on a house based on his 1981 film "An American Werewolf in London."
"John really challenged us to get it as close to the film as we possibly can," Aiello says.
What guests will see in the Horror Nights version of England: a double-decker bus, Picadilly Circus, the interior and exterior of the theater seen near the film's climax and the Tube, London's subway.
The wolf is actually a pack of elaborate puppets, but this is not Muppet territory.
"Everything having to do with the wolf has turned out exactly the way we wanted it to," Aiello says.
For the house called Havoc2: Derailed, Universal's creative team pulled off a longtime goal by achieving a train wreck, Aiello says.
Although the train cars are not moving, the house features a before-and-after motif. The crash point is accompanied by blinding light and very loud sound effects, Aiello says.
"The back half was an easier build than the front half for us because building confined train cars is something we've never done before," he says. "Building chaotic destruction — we're really good at."
The plan is for folks to feel like they've been jostled about in the melee. Universal will use "air bladders" to bounce guests in the right direction. Aiello calls it an experiment.
"We're either (a) going to be really good at it or (b) we're going to learn from it," he says. "We do stuff like that every single year because it's the only way this event moves forward with the type of effects we do."The houses
•Afterlife: Death's Vengeance: This year's 3-D maze is darker, thematically, than in previous years. It's about a serial killer, post-electric chair, meeting his victims in the great beyond.
•An American Werewolf in London: Scenes from the film are enhanced with elaborate puppetry representing the wolf, but first you'll relax at the Slaughtered Lamb pub.
•The Cabin in the Woods: It starts in the film's remote cabin and works its way down to the famed elevator scene and the accompanying monsters. "You may or may not see some characters from our past in the maze," says creative director Michael Aiello.
•Evil Dead: Maze is based on the 2013 remake of the "Evil Dead" film and features water, goo, prosthetics, blood rain and "a room that deals with vomit," Aiello says.
•Havoc2: Derailed: The "Dogs of War" supersoldiers are on the loose after a train wreck.
•Resident Evil: Escape from Raccoon City: This maze incorporates characters from video games, including a scene that's been "paused."
•The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven: Scenes from the third season of "The Walking Dead" TV show include the prison and the town of Woodbury.
•Urban Legends: La Llorona: A woman drowns her children to impress a man? Well, there's a flaw in the plan, which leads to even more tragedy and more watery imagery. "This maze is gorgeous and terrifying," Aiello says.
On the stage
Halloween Horror Nights includes two stage shows:
•Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure: The long-running production dates to the early days of Horror Nights and pokes fun at the year's pop-culture foibles.
•Rocky Horror Picture Show — A Tribute: Presentation includes film clips, live performers and crowd participation. It's just a jump to the left.
If you go: Halloween Horror Nights
Where: Universal Studios, intersection of Kirkman Road and Interstate 4, Orlando
When: Friday, Saturday, Thursday, Sept. 27-29, Oct. 3-6, 10-13, 16-20, 23-27, 31, Nov. 1-2. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. nightly. (Closing time varies with date.)
Cost: HHN is a separate-ticket, after-hours event. A single-night ticket is $91.99. Florida residents can purchase online tickets that range between $42.99 and $69.99, depending on date. Various multinight passes and front-of-line options are available. See website for details.
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