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The Howl versus the Horror

Head west on Interstate 4 and you’ll end up at Florida’s original theme park festival of fright. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando has been scaring visitors since 1991.

This year, the park features eight houses and five scare zones. While it doesn’t completely blow Howl-O-Scream out of the water, it does show why Universal’s event is the industry standard for this unique brand of entertainment.

The Houses

The biggest difference between Howl-O-Scream and Horror Nights is Universal’s facilities. The regular theme park is built around street corners with mostly indoor rides. The large, warehouse-like buildings throughout the park maximize haunted house potential.

Inside “Winter’s Night,” fake snow and a low thermostat help create the environment of a frigid walk through a cemetery. This one isn’t the scariest, but does send a literal chill up your spine.

Multiple houses also employ fake firearms to induce fear. “Nightingales” navigates through bunkers during a haunted war scene. Explosions, lights and spraying blood accompany piercing gunshots to show what World War II would have been like if the Allies battled legions of ghosts and ghouls.

One of the best houses, “The Thing,” also shows off heavy gunplay. Based on the recently premiered sci-fi thriller, the house depicts action scenes with researchers fighting off a deadly, shape-shifting creature. Special effects make some human deformities hard to stomach – in a good way, if that’s possible.

A common thread between Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream is the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired “Nevermore.” Horror Nights’ version of the house is more organized, with each room representing tales such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pendulum.” One of the best rooms has visitors circling a ballroom dance riddled with mirrors, masking the location of scare actors ready to lunge forth.

But when it comes to deceiving the eyes, “The In Between” takes the cake. Special, light-intensifying glasses are handed out for this house. Pitch-black hallways are lit only by an array of neon laser lights, both on the walls and on scare actors. This house exists between dimensions and takes on a futuristic feel, as opposed to the gothic nature of most others, offering some spectacular visuals at the risk of a slight headache when you exit.

“Saws and Steam” take gore to a new level with a house mimicking a factory for grotesque human enhancement. Weird organs and body parts float in glowing tanks of water. In one room the walls, donned with jagged devices, suddenly close in on unsuspecting visitors.

Some not-so-impressive houses include “The Forsaken,” full of spooky pirates, and “Holidays of Horror,” a goofy tour featuring a killer Easter Bunny and Santa’s elves sporting assault rifles.

The Atmosphere

Horror Nights differs from its Tampa competition in several ways – both good and bad. Universal’s city setting beats out African Safari for this kind of event, and Orlando’s park clearly has more money and resources. The makeup lookes like what you would expect from a Hollywood-inspired theme park. There are more elaborate props, and the blaring sound effects around the park sound like crystal-clear Dolby Digital.

In most cases, Universal was also much more organized in terms of individual themes. Each room of any haunted house has a clear design that maximizes efficiency for a very professional scare. At Busch Gardens, though it sometimes worked to an advantage, rooms were often too chaotic and disorienting. People were definitely scared, but may not have known why.

Universal also benefits from better lighting. Streetlights and spotlights aren’t too overwhelming, but do provide for an eerie glow about the park. Scare zones are about the same, but a bit more diverse in terms of what kind of monster is chasing or shouting at visitors.

On the flip side, the lines at Universal probably doubled or tripled those at Busch Gardens. Without an Express Pass, visitors might wait more than an hour to walk through a five-minute haunted house. Horror Nights also sprays visitors with liquid way too much. Getting shot in the face with water isn’t scary – it’s just annoying.

Additionally, a lack of good rides has most people diverging toward houses all at once. Remember, this isn’t Islands of Adventure. Instead of The Incredible Hulk Coaster, Dragon Challenge and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it’s Jaws, Revenge of the Mummy and Men in Black Alien Attack. The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is the only outdoor roller coaster in the park.

General admission is $81.99, but Florida residents can save between $15 and $40 with promotional codes. A variety of other packages, including express passes and multi-night tickets, fluctuate in price depending on the day of the week.

As painful as it is to rank an Orlando-based event higher than one in Tampa, Halloween Horror Nights gets an A-. The setting, organization and special effects are just too hard to beat. It is evident that Horror Nights has been scaring for about a decade longer than Howl-O-Scream.