The 29th season of Universal Studios Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights kicked off Sept. 6.
After three decades, the event has a reputation as one of the top destinations in the country for Halloween scares, high production values and obtaining the rights to beloved intellectual properties. Fans are willing to brave the big crowds that show up to immerse themselves in real-life versions of new and classic films and the original houses cooked up by Universal’s veteran production team.
Even seven weeks before Halloween, the wait times for the most popular houses, such as Stranger Things, topped 90 minutes on opening night. Depending on which date you attend, the park stays open from 6:30 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m., probably not enough time to see it all, and a pass to skip the lines will run you at least $89.99 in addition to the regular ticket price.
With 10 separate haunted houses to hit this year, plus the Academy of Villains dance show and the new lagoon show — a stunning mix of giant visuals from properties like Ghostbusters and the classic Universal Monsters projected onto synchronized fountains of water — you’ll need a strategy.
Here’s a ranking and short review of every house at Halloween Horror Nights 29, starting with our favorite house and working down, to help you decide what’s worth your limited time.
Based on Jordan Peele’s ambitious horror film Us, about a family who encounters their murderous, tunnel-dwelling doubles known as “tethers," this house delivers all the way through, starting with the perfect use of that ultra-creepy “tethered mix” remix of the Luniz song I Got Five on It from the film’s trailer. It plays as guests navigate a long, dark and unsettlingly tall hallway that eventually opens to reveal a full-scale re-creation of the Vision Quest hall of mirrors attraction that plays a central role in the film. And that’s just where you enter the house to begin. From there it’s a descent through the film all the way down to the tunnels where the tethers live. Sometimes the houses at Halloween Horror Nights are either scary or just very beautiful looking re-creations. The Us house nails both. Fun fact: Peele gave the park a lot of creative control over the house but insisted that all blood splatters look a very particular way that’s accurate to the movie, according to a tour guide.
2. House of 1000 Corpses
Here’s the caveat with ranking some of these houses: They’re a lot more enjoyable if you’ve seen the movies or shows they’re based on, and in the case of this one, based on Rob Zombie’s feature directorial debut, way more disturbing. You might think familiarity with the characters from House of 1000 Corpses would make it less nerve-racking to see Capt. Spaulding welcoming you into his museum, but it’s a testament to the screwed up world that Rob Zombie built that the anticipation of knowing you’re about to meet the Firefly family is much worse, as is realizing that only means Dr. Satan must be next. Along with the dread-inducing sounds of Rob Zombie, and those drills, this house really channels the fear (and fun) of the movie.
There are not too many scares in this house, but it might have the best visual effects of anything at the event this year, from the spectral Slimers to the glow of the proton pack streams (not crossed) to the starkly lit rooftop vignette featuring Sigourney Weaver’s character Dana (although at that point, “There is no Dana, there is only Zuul.”). From the time you step into the front door of the firehouse into the reception area where Janine is answering the phones, this house is a total immersion in the world of the movie and hits you with a lot of the best quotes. Some of the effects are achieved through projections, but Universal used practical effects in the filming of those projections in order to achieve an ’80s-appropriate look. This house is a must-see for fans of the original film. If you’re not a fan, you can move this one further down the ranking.
4. Stranger Things
Netflix released the third season of its ′80s-set, sci-fi adventure just a few months ago, and the massive popularity of the series means this will likely be one of the longer wait times, if not the longest. If you went to Halloween Horror Nights in 2018, it’s possible you’ve already experienced a Stranger Things house, but remember that this covers Seasons 2 and 3, picking up where last year’s house left off. Sort of like Ghostbusters, this one is a beautiful, detailed immersion in a beloved franchise, right down to that floating dust stuff when you enter the Upside Down, but it doesn’t have a ton of scares. It does pay off by being one of the longer houses, with 14 different rooms (most houses have eight to 10). And it has a finale involving the most impressive puppet used in any house this year — a giant Mind Flayer that takes three people to operate.
5. Yeti Terror of the Yukon
The first of this year’s original houses on the list, this house gets big points for creating a really strong sense of place, from snow crunching underfoot to the feeling that you’re walking indoors and outside, when the whole thing is actually taking place on an indoor sound stage. The yetis are big and ferocious. It’s also very cold in there, which is nice because this is Florida where it’s hot and swampy even at night.
6. Graveyard Games
Another original house, this one is absolutely beautiful, with lots of cool spectral effects and floaty stuff. It’s also packed with scare after scare, and might be the most jump-inducing house of the night. This house takes you into Ascension Parish Cemetery, situated between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where some punk teenagers have been disrespecting the graves and apparently really angering some Louisiana spirits. There’s some sort of interactive social media element involving Facebook Messenger, but it wasn’t necessary to enjoy the house.
7. Universal Monsters
This house is based on the classic Universal Pictures monster movies that, starting in the 1920s, helped the studio and the film industry weather the Great Depression. We’re talking Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man and the Creature From the Black Lagoon, which is one of the best costumes in any house this year. It’s impressive how many different settings they managed to pack into one house and how much things change from room to room.
8. Nightingales Blood Pit
The Nightingales are birdlike, blood-lusting creatures created by the minds behind Halloween Horror Nights. They were originally introduced in a completely different house several years ago and were a hit. This time, the story goes that ancient Rome is suffering its worst drought in centuries, and the emperor has declared the gladiatorial games continue nonstop until the earth is so blood-soaked that the rain returns, inadvertently attracting the bloodthirsty Nightingales. This house is kind of quick, but it is densely packed with scares as it takes you into the hypogeum, the space beneath the Coliseum, where hacked-up gladiators now have another problem. This house goes by fast, but it has a good scare density.
9. Killer Klowns From Outer Space
The movie is a cult classic. You can tell, because there was a big cheer when the Chiodo brothers, who wrote, directed and produced the 1988 film, were brought on stage as a surprise during the press conference that preceded opening night. They say everyone has their favorite clown from the movie, and apparently they’re all represented in this house, all the way up to Clownzilla. But if you’re not familiar, it’s not an essential stop.
10. Depths of Fear
There are some cool design elements in this house, which takes you underwater to a mining vessel that has disturbed some angry creatures who are now shooting their poisonous eggs at the crew. The creatures aren’t really scary, although they do look sort of like a funny cross between Admiral Akbar from Star Wars and an evil piranha.