Halloween 2023: Things From Universal Orlando's Horror nights!

Written by Jonathan Wojcik

I lived in central Florida for almost ten years of my life, but only saw Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights two or three times during that period. To be honest, my spouse and I never found it quite as interesting as some of the more independent, lower budget Halloween attractions out there, but as of our Florida visit in 2023, it had been another ten years since we last saw a Universal Horror Night, the event had actually grown quite a bit, and we hadn't had a chance to visit any other Haunted Houses the whole season, so we wound up going to Horror Nights just a couple of days after Halloween itself, and it was honestly a lot of fun! This was probably helped by the fact that, by Halloween, Florida had reached comfortably cool temperatures for an event that begins at roughly sundown, and that they really seemed to up their creativity since we had last visited.

With ten different "haunts" and waits from thirty minutes to an hour in each line, we didn't have time to see everything, but I'll be talking about everything of interest we did encounter, in roughly chronological order:

Lil' Boo

So one thing we apparently missed in our time away from Horror Nights was the rise of Lil' Boo, originally a single small pumpkin at one of the 2021 haunts that went viral for its adorably pitiful expression. Two years later, he's been elevated to one of the event's lower-key mascots. Instances of him were hidden around the park for some sort of scavenger hunt, though the only one we happened to spot was Boo as a green alien lurking the official Men In Black store. You could also buy his head as a planter for a fake plastic succulent!

HAUNT: Yeti Campground

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I always leave my phone running as I go through haunted houses, but that's more for personal posterity than for shareable footage. Mine is just a whole lot of darkness and noise, so I'll just be linking you to the clearest versions anybody else put up on youtube.

Neither me nor Rev are especially yeti enthusiasts, but we got in line for the first house we ran into, which was yeti themed. Specifically, its premise is that an expedition to find a real yeti was massacred and eaten by yetis, so you get to see the bloody bones and guts of hapless explorers getting butchered and cooked, because the yetis are just smart enough to have kind of a civilization where they cook and prepare meals. It wasn't our bag, but it was a cute enough idea. A 10/10 Yeti Haunted House, if a Yeti Haunted House happened to be what you were in the market for.

HAUNT: Dueling Dragons

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Neither me nor Rev are really susceptible to the intended scariness of a haunted house, either, but we come to them to basically see some immersive artwork, and as far as that goes, this was a frankly incredible effort! The Dueling Dragons are one of Universal's roller coaster rides, and they themed this haunt around their supposed backstory. Ogres, trolls and orcs jump out at you through this fairy tale dungeon, as do illuminated wraiths and elemental wizards with LED "fire" and "ice" effects animating across their chests!

The full name of the haunt was "Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate," because at the end of the dungeon you can take either the Fire path or the Ice path. This doesn't actually mean anything other than the color motif of the final room, which contains a glowing spellbook and a wizard who gives some kind of monologue. It's kind of impossible to catch everything or even totally appreciate anything over the sound of other visitors screaming, because it turns out there ARE a lot of people really terrified of wizards I guess, or at least indiscriminately terrified of anything popping out of a hole where they explicitly paid to expect things to pop out of holes. I promise I'm making fun of them with pure affectionate, honest; I'm just probably more cut out to be the one popping out of the holes, or maybe designing and rigging what's going to pop out of the holes. It's just not a world I've had the time to break into, I guess.

FOOD: Cordyceps Corndogs

The Yetis and Wizards were right next to one another, so we saw those together and then headed in a random direction, where we came upon the one concession we absolutely had to try. Both of us are the kinds of people who knew about parasitic fungi years before the average person learned about it from any best-selling video games or television series, so it's been a lot of fun to see the rise of collective awareness. The fact that people are increasingly aware of cordyceps as "medicinal" certainly helps, and that's also why one species is easily obtainable enough for culinary use as well.

The CORDYCEPS CORNDOG ties in with The Last Of Us, and $11.49 might sound steep for a corndog, but no photograph (especially not my own blurry swamp-colored snapshot) communicates how huge these things were, closer to the volume of a small sandwich. The hot dog is almost lost in its thick swaddle of warm, stretchy deep-fried mozzarella cheese, topped off with extremely crispy-crunchy potato fries, a drizzling of truffle sauce for a little extra fungal flavor, and yes, chewy pieces of toasted cordyceps. The commercially grown "medicinal" species forms within caterpillars, and it turns out the fruiting bodies fully retain the unique flavor of Arthropod, or at least the unique flavor of cooked chitin, which you can also experience from a bite of soft shelled crab or prawns fried in their shell.

The physical effect of eating this soft, gooey tube with such a crunchy coating had to be pretty damn close to actually eating a big giant caterpillar bloated with fungus, too, and by that I mean it was as delicious as I've always assumed it must be to the senses of a contented possum, shrew or meerkat as they crunch their way through a grasshopper or a centipede. This actually cost a little less than the average McDonald's meal does now in 2023, so I have to say it was more than worth it.

HAUNT: The Darkest Deal

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This next Haunt had the backstory of a blues musician, Pinestraw Spruce, selling his soul to a demon known as The Collector. A classic folk horror setup, and the execution of this as a haunted house was awesome. As visitors walk through the major events of the story, the Collector even "takes over" various people (at one point, Spruce's mother) and speaks through them, represented by a sudden intense lighting and demonic voice-over. The climax sees the demon finally claiming Spruce's soul in the midst of a stage performance, and of all the videos I checked out, it's one again "Attractions 360" I have to link you to, because they captured the clearest view of spruce's live actor flawlessly depicting what it probably looks like when a soul is sucked out.

As a final treat, the exit hall looks just like the claustrophobic bowels of hades with human souls, including Spruce, half-sunken into the walls.

The demon in the photo is the true form of the Collector himself, but there were also some fantastic lesser fiends with goat-skull heads, and ghoulish figures that may have been damned humans corrupted into demons themselves, like Lemures or Manes if you go by Dungeons and Dragons rules.

HAUNT: Chucky's Kill Count

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I used to be fairly impartial to Chucky as just another edgy slasher villain, but you can count me among the people finally sold on his franchise by his recent series, and especially by just how much campy fun is being had by every single person who gets involved in the franchise. We both really liked his Haunted House, which featured some impressive animatronic props and puppets recreating various murders by the little bastard. It's easy to make a "lifelike" prop of something that's already a supernaturally animated object, obviously, and the fully animated talking Chucky at the beginning of the haunt almost really feels like you're in the presence of a celebrity host.

Attractions 360 has the usual straightforward walkthrough of this haunt, but I linked to a different one because the guy filming it is funny as hell. OH, NOOOOO!

Soda Shop Window Stickers

Universal Orlando has this retro sci-fi style little soda stop for fountain drinks and alcohol, which isn't terribly exciting in itself, but its windows were decorated with its own unique decals for Halloween! Simple, stylish red silhouettes depicting pumpkins as "atoms" alongside both bats and cats with soda bottles for bodies. I like that the cat's heads are just hovering above the bottlenecks. Yeah, I think these soda window stickers are as noteworthy as the haunted houses. It's my website and you can't do anything about it.

HAUNT: The Last of Us

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Neither of us have seen much of The Last of Us series or played any of the games, but we know the thrust of it, obviously, and perhaps we owed it to our friend Cordyceps to see her first official Halloween Haunted House. The line to get into this one, however, was easily more than an hour, and probably wasn't worth that wait to anyone other than die-hard fans. The fact that there's only really one kind of monster in the franchise probably didn't help, but they did get some nice variety in the costumes. One thing we really liked were the sets completely encrusted with fake fungus, and what we liked most of all is unfortunately never really visible in any of the videos I've seen: a quieter moment when "spores" are drifting from above, represented by what I think were tiny soap suds. That was cleverly atmospheric enough that I feel the presence of fake "spores" should have just escalated for the rest of the house, but I realize that may have cost a lot of money in materials.

I'll just have to remember this trick if I ever were to put on some sort of fungus-themed horror show of my own. I would NEVER skimp on the spores. I would cut budget from ANYTHING before the spores.

HAUNT: Doctor Oddfellow's Twisted Origins

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This was the last haunt we had time for, but having seen the rest of them on youtube, we know we made the right choice. Doctor Oddfellow is an original Horror Nights character who runs a supernatural traveling sideshow, and his wacky circus haunt offered plenty more than your usual spooky clowns. Most of the other haunts this year had just one general type of monster, but as with the Scare Zones, this one featured diverse enough entities to single out for individual review:

THE HEADLESS CLOWN: a great effect you really don't see coming! One performer's head cackles just above the crate, but vanishes as another performer shuffles eerily out of the box in a headless clown costume. You could see the gag coming if you had a bit more time, but it comes as a delightful surprise when you're being rushed through a Haunt.

BISON BALLERINA: nobody's gotten clear photos or video of this character, but from the waist up, she's a taxidermied-looking buffalo, with human limbs and a pink tutu. She dances around to weird, quirky music that nicely emphasizes a "this ain't right at all!" kind of mood. She also plays around with a bullwhip, so maybe she's supposed to be a bull, specifically, like a minotaur, or maybe there's just a kind of ballet performance out there that gets a lot more violent and kinky than I realized.

ANIMATRONIC LION: this is apparently repurposed from an older Universal attraction, a lovable cheesy-looking lion with oversized fangs that lurches forward from a cage. It's just supposed to be a lion, I guess, but it's visibly fake enough to feel more like bad taxidermy that came to life, which is both more memorable and more thematic to the setting.

THE SCORPION LADY: this was my favorite character at this haunt, but virtually every video on youtube completely skips her over, and Rev didn't get to see her either! She was stationed almost exactly where multiple other things are more likely to distract visitors, and that's a shame, because her entire hairdo is shaped like a socrpion with glowing red eyes and her face is more ghoulish and monstrous exactly where it's under a black veil, a really cool and subtle original monster with a kickass style! I think this page might be the first time anyone will have really pointed her out with any photos at all, as low-quality as they unfortunately turned out.

This is now around where I was going to review the "Scare Zones," which are entirely distinct from the Haunts, and then review something we found even more memorable and aesthetically impressive than both of them, but it became increasingly clear I would have to split the three up, because the content of just the Scare Zones, remarkably enough, will make a much, much larger Halloween post in themselves...