The Halloween season is currently in full swing at theme parks across the country, and no name is more synonymous with haunted houses than Universal Studios. While Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando is widely acclaimed as the best bacchanalia in the boo business, its sister event on the West Coast shouldn’t be overlooked. And although the two parties share several intellectual properties, each has its own identity.
We recently attended Halloween Horror Nights 2019 at Universal Studios Hollywood and dragged back this unofficial survival guide in hopes of helping you live to tell the tale. Begin by watching these video highlights from the event, and then read on to dig into all the gory details:
Halloween Horror Nights 2019 Admission and Early Entry
As with any theme park visit, our first and most important tips are to purchase your tickets in advance and arrive as early as possible. General admission tickets to Halloween Horror Nights 2019 are available online for $72-$97; you’ll save $5 to $30 off the gate price by buying ahead of time and avoid the chance of them selling out.
Universal Studios Hollywood’s haunted event officially opens at 7 p.m., but Halloween Horror Nights 2019 ticket-holders are allowed into the park beginning at 5:15 p.m., with select haunted houses on the lower lot opening at 5:30 p.m. Unlike at Universal Studios Florida, this Early Entry period is not restricted to annual passholders and “stay and scream” guests. However, due to the long distance between the front turnstiles and the lower lot, guests entering at 5:15 p.m. will already find a lengthy queue for the first mazes to open when they arrive.
To really get a jump on the crowds, you’ll want a Day/Night ticket that includes admission at 2 p.m. for about $30-$50 more than a standard ticket. Using this ticket, we were able to enjoy several of the park’s daytime attractions—including the legendary Studio Tram Tour—and still be among the first in line for the popular Stranger Things maze, which allowed us to complete the next two houses with minimal waits.
HHN 2019 Express Passes
As has become standard practice in the haunt industry, Universal Studios Hollywood offers Express Passes to help cut your wait times for the oft-mobbed mazes. Unlike in Florida, Express Passes are sold bundled with admission, rather than as an add-on. Expect to pay an extra $100 to $150 for a pass with privileges to cut the standard queue once per attraction; for unlimited usage, tack on another $40.
We attended on a Friday night early in the season, and although we got through our first few mazes quickly thanks to early entry, I don’t think we could have completed all 10 before the evening’s end without the assistance of Express. The good news is that our trips through the Express queues seemed much swifter in Hollywood than in Orlando, where they tend to be 25%-50% of the posted standby wait.
With or without Express, it’s imperative that you visit the mazes on the lower lot and backlot as quickly as possible, followed by those at the Studio Tram load station. Save the houses on the upper lot for last.
HHN 2019 Haunted House
If you’re a long-time veteran of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida, brace yourself for things to be a bit different when you attend the California event. To be blunt, the haunted houses are not anywhere near as elaborate, immersive, or aesthetically ambitious as the ones in Orlando.
In place of impressive indoor facades and devilishly detailed environments, expect to see long stretches of undecorated black hallways separating set-pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in an amateur neighborhood haunt. And although the studio is home to countless soundstages, nearly all of Hollywood’s mazes are built inside makeshift tents with little light control, so the scares are often spoiled before sunset.
The difference in quality between Orlando and Hollywood is most apparent in the headliner houses that they share. Stranger Things in Orlando isn’t one of this year’s best mazes, but it’s an all-time classic compared to the California version, which disappointingly skips the iconic Starcourt Mall. And while Ghostbusters fares a bit better, Hollywood’s half-hearted version lacks the advanced Pepper’s Ghost effects and full-scale sets seen in Florida.
The situation gets even more dire when you look at the mazes based on original themes, which are always a highlight of Orlando’s event. Hollywood has only two this year: Holidayz in Hell, a gory hodgepodge that lacks the humor of similar mazes seen in Orlando; and The Curse of Pandora’s Box, an embarrassing blunder that’s easily the cheapest looking maze I’ve ever experienced at a major haunted event.
All that being said, there are still some ways in which Orlando’s Horror Nights could learn from Hollywood. First and foremost, Hollywood still pulses guests through their mazes in small groups, rather than a continuous conga line, and they monitor crowd flow using hidden cameras, reducing the reliance on distracting flashlight-waving attendants. Though the scenery isn’t spectacular, makeup is often quite good, and the actors definitely give it their all. And in a few cases, Hollywood does manage to meet or beat their Orlando comrades.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space is just as colorful and kooky on both coasts, and it boasts a beautiful big top entrance in California, while their take on Universal’s Classic Monsters benefits by focusing on Frankenstein and the Wolfman, instead of trying to shoehorn in the Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Best of all, Hollywood has an exclusive Creepshow maze, which does a wonderful job capturing the four-color fear of the original EC comic books, as well as the classic George Romero/Stephen King anthology film.
HHN 2019 Scarezones and Live Shows
Over the years, Orlando’s scarezones have evolved from open-air haunted mazes to elaborate photo-ops filled with interactive eye candy. Hollywood still does things the old-fashioned way, with a few odd twists.
Of the five scarezones, only two—Fallen Angelz at the front of the park, and Spirits & Demons of the East in the center of the upper lot—are free-flowing areas that you can explore at leisure. Toxxic Tunnel, on the other hand, is strictly a long, straight path bridging two separate sections of the lower lot. Christmas in Hell is really just the exit pathway out of Holidayz in Hell and simply feels like an al fresco extension of the maze. And you must queue to enter the one-way-only All Hallow’s Evil, which functions just like a haunted house with wider hallways and no roof.
We really liked some of the fiends infesting Hollywood’s streets, especially the Asian-inspired character designs in the Spirits & Demons scarezone. But overall they lack the elbow room and immersive mini-performances that make Orlando’s so memorable.
As for live shows, there’s only one at Halloween Horror Nights 2019. Jabbawockeez is a California-based hip-hop dance crew that you might have seen on television or the Las Vegas Strip. Their high-energy production features ear-splitting music and some impressive footwork, but compared to the similar Academy of Villains show in Orlando, it’s sorely lacking in variety, production values, and storyline.
HHN 2019 Attractions and Food
Universal Studios Florida keeps most of its top rides, including the Harry Potter headliner, open during event evenings in order to help absorb the crowd, providing an entertainment option when the mazes all have hour-long waits. Hollywood, on the other hand, only has four rides operating during Halloween Horror Nights, and bizarrely bars entry into the entire Wizarding World.
One exception is Jurassic World: The Ride, which debuted last summer after a major reimagining of the original Jurassic Park attraction. Though it retains the basic ride path and structure of the original, Jurassic World boasts impressive new digital and animatronic effects, including an aquarium illusion that adjusts to match the time of day. As long as it’s a warm night out, be sure to brave the splashdown on this superb update of an all-time favorite.
While you’re around Jurassic World, you’re also in the best spot to refuel in the park. Multiple locations around the park offer Halloween-themed eats overloaded with sugar and fat, which could make you feel like upchucking even if you weren’t being confronted with buckets of grizzly blood and guts.
You’re far better off eating at the Jurassic Cafe, which serves a selection of tasty Costa Rican dishes like mojo pork and citrus chicken. This restaurant, which also opened over the summer, has swiftly topped our list of favorite fast-food spots inside Universal Studios Hollywood.
Likewise, the specialty alcoholic drinks sold during Halloween Horror Nights are invariably over-sweetened, over-priced, and under-powered.
Instead, order a libation at Isla Nu-Bar, the new Jurassic-themed tiki bar. You can get a creative hand-crafted cocktail for about the same price as a pre-mixed drink from Oga’s Cantina and take the souvenir mug home at no extra charge.
HHN 2019 Exit Strategy
As the night comes to a close, be prepared to fight through infamously awful traffic when you try to drive out of parking garages and onto the freeway. To avoid the worst of the congestion, either exit early, or stay to the bitter end and linger afterwards at CityWalk.
Better yet, avoid the exorbitant parking fees altogether and get a ride-share service (or a really good friend) to ferry you home. Just be aware that the normal driveway near the park’s entrance is inaccessible during the event. You’ll need to cross the bridge towards the Hilton hotel, and look for the designated guest pick-up/drop-off location.
For all there is to see and do at Universal Orlando, check out The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando.