Last week I looked at all 10 of the new haunted houses at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights, ranking ‘em not just on how much they might scare you, but on how impressively designed they are. If you’ve ever been to Halloween Horror Nights, though, you know there’s more to the event than just haunted houses. Every year you’ll also find five scare zones located throughout Universal Studios Florida. These are open-air areas elaborately designed to look like frightening new themed spaces, with scare actors in professional quality costumes and makeup stalking throughout each zone. They aren’t as claustrophobic or overwhelming as a haunted house, but they still pack a horrific punch, and can scare anybody who lets their guard down.
This year’s Halloween Horror Nights once again finds five scare zones, this time all original ideas from the minds at Universal. As with the houses, you can tell which concepts excited the designers the most; the best of this year’s scare zones tells a wickedly fun story and seems destined to become a Horror Nights favorite. It would be shocking if they didn’t spin it off into its own house within the next few seasons. The rest of the five zones range from perfectly fine to fiendishly delightful (these are official scientific descriptions, of course), and if you find yourself at the Florida outpost of Halloween Horror Nights this year, you need to walk through all five.
If you absolutely have to prioritize, though, and want to know which ones to focus on, here’s my ranking of all five—from the last impressive to the most.
This will most likely be the first scare zone guests encounter this year, and it seems designed to ease them into the whole Halloween Horror Nights concept. If the night was a meal, I wouldn’t even call this an appetizer; it’s like an amuse-bouche, a quick little single bite to prep your palate for the feast ahead. It does have one very striking figure in the form of the Pumpkin Lord, who can often be seen sitting on a pumpkin throne at the start of the zone, taunting those who pass by. As a kind of preview of the night, it more than does its job well. It’s not necessarily something you’ll remember by the time that night is done, though.
Conjure the Dark has a killer central setpiece: an evil sorceress on a craggy stage will periodically call all the wandering scare actors to her, delivering a speech about collecting human blood for her cauldron. When she gives the signal they start to fan out throughout the crowd, and the blaring heavy metal music that scores the zone kicks up again. It’s a cool moment, and some of the decor (with corpses in varying stages of mutilation tied to rocks) is spectacularly gory, but the (very loud) music doesn’t really fit the vibe given off by the set and character design. The sorceress and her minions look like somebody Conan the Barbarian would fight, and yet the music is some kind of industrial grindcore stuff played at punishing volume. It just seems a little thematically scattered. Still, hang around long enough to hear the sorceress’s speech.
Have you ever had a human-sized corn cob jump out from an outhouse and growl at you? Well, I have, and I absolutely loved it. I don’t think Scarecrow: Cursed Soil is trying to be funny, but like so much of Halloween Horror Nights, it’s truly hilarious all the same. Universal loves plowing the fields of the heartland for horrific inspiration, and this scare zone effectively turns the farmland tropes of rural America into a blackly comic romp.
Here’s a little something for all the goths in the theme park. Haunts definitely materialize in this scare zone, but I don’t know how happy they are. If you’ve ever wanted to be accosted by corpses (some mid-decomposition, some looking funeral fresh in their best prom gear) like cell phone salesmen in the mall, here’s your chance. This is a classically creepy space, a collection of dusty old headstones and mausoleums with twisted approximations of humanity shambling about. The element that really pushes Graveyard: Deadly Unrest to the second slot, though, is twofold. At the center of the zone you’ll find two elaborately costumed reapers, the brothers Sleep and Death, about to set off on their nightly reaping of souls. The speech they periodically deliver is perfectly florid, befitting the Victorian atmosphere of the cemetery. It’s the way they look that seals the deal, though. These are two of the most ornate and impressive costumes you’ll see at Halloween Horror Nights this year, with both deathly bros standing tall in otherworldly majesty. Make sure to take a picture or two while they preen with their leathery wings outstretched.
This year’s best scare zone excels on every level. It has the most imaginative concept, the best set and costume design, and the most fleshed out and memorable story. Universal often adapts scare zones into haunted houses (and vice versa) during subsequent Halloween Horror Nights, and Sweet Revenge feels like it’s already about 90% ready to become its own house. Here’s the backstory: it’s Halloween in a small town in the ‘50s, and the mayor is presiding over a Halloween parade. They’re running for reelection, and one person really doesn’t want them to get reelected: Major Sweets, the owner of a local candy company who’s supplied the parade with free candy. To further his own anti-mayor agenda, Sweets has laced that candy with a chemical that turns kids—and kids only—into homicidal killing machines, knifing and axing their unsuspecting parents into oblivion. So a bunch of child-sized killers run about the area in old-fashioned Halloween costumes, covered with blood and candy while trying to scare the hell out of every visitor. The tyke-sized scare actors really set this one apart from the other scare zones, and their child-like costumes are adorable and unsettling at the same time. Meanwhile a grotesque Major Sweets can be seen laughing at the murderous chaos he’s unleashed—a notable addition to Universal’s roster of original Halloween Horror Nights characters. Throughout the night actors playing the mayor and a radio announcer put on a little show that explains the whole story, and it’s worth sticking around to watch. Sweet Revenge hits the sweet spot between the macabre and the hilarious that I love about Halloween, and is one of the highlights of this year’s event.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin, and has a travel-themed Instagram account at @garrett_martin_does_stuff.