I know it’s probably shocking to you, Haunt season is over. Despite this, you are getting Haunt-related content today. You’re welcome!
Last Fall (2016 for any time travellers out there), I had the opportunity to go to two major park Haunts; Fright Fest at Six Flags Over Georgia and Halloween Horror Nights 26 at Universal Orlando. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Halloween Horror Nights [HHN] so being able to attend twice this year was quite a treat. Fright Fest I had seen occasionally when I lived closer to Great Adventure, but I never had the opportunity to go.
The atmosphere of Fright Fest felt off the entire night. I could criticize many aspects of the event, but nothing stood out above the rest as a particular reason my excitement for the night was relatively low. I must comment, however, on the lighting in the park. Almost no show lighting was used in many areas which in and of itself was quite a disappointment. To further compound this problem, though, was the overuse of more traditional light sources, albeit some tinted orange and red, that made most of the park much too bright to be effectively ‘spooky’. Without a pervading veil of darkness, the fog and few show lights that were present, became completely wasted on the gathering crowds. I know lighting is difficult to do, and guest safety is extremely important, but just a few less lights and a bit more fog could have gone a very long way to making the night a big more enjoyable. Atmosphere and theming are key to Haunt events and, not terribly surprisingly, Six Flags missed the mark in this area for the most part.
The mazes at Fright Fest, of which I think there were four and a “haunted train” , ran the gamut from awful (Mummy’s Curse), to confusing (Dr. Frights Frightorium 3D), to surprisingly fantastic (ZX-1 and Bayou Bloodlust). Despite the range of quality from the actual mazes, the talent was consistently top-notch. Every Scareactor committed to their roles with enthusiasm that I rarely see at other Haunts. The military guards and zombies in ZX-1 really helped things feel urgent and tense as they shouted and tried to hold off the zombie hordes for your escape, while the voodoo priestess in Bayou Bloodlust would actually throw herself on the floor as she was ‘possessed’. No matter the quality of their material, these actors were giving it their all and I was extremely impressed.
I also feel the need to give a special shout out to the wonderful actor who went out of her way to fully sign the complex backstory of Bayou Bloodlust for a hearing impaired family to ensure they could be as immersed in the story as possible. She was an absolute delight to watch and really went out of her way to make sure they were accommodated for while never forgetting the rest of the guests she was working with.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, though, we have Six Flag’s Free Scares attractions. These small zones and ‘experiences’ (I use that word lightly here) were scattered around the park for everyone to enjoy. Most were 20 second walk throughs with curtains, strobe lights, fog, or a combination of those effects. No actors were present.
Almost every one of the Free Scares were overrun with children and offered almost nothing in the way of fun, scares, or value. I understand Six Flags is essentially putting these up for free for people who don’t buy a pass for the houses, but they were of incredibly poor quality. I think the idea is admirable, but the execution was abysmal.
Overall, Fright Fest is a thoroughly Six Flags experience; lots of hype with little substance when you get down to brass tacks. The park may have been lacking in Halloween-exclusive things to do, but there were a few gemstones in the rough; just none of real diamond quality. I guess in the Atlanta area this is basically the premiere Haunt attraction so I can understand why it was so voraciously hyped in the weeks leading up to opening night. I’d be willing to say it’s a fun and decently priced event; I think we paid $20 for VIP/Front of the line access for the entire night. Another house or two wouldn’t be amiss in future years, and I really would rather they just charge one price and not have Free Scares attractions. I will certainly be curious to see how Fright Fest evolves in the upcoming years.
As an anthesis of Fright Fest being a wholly Six Flags event, we have HHN26 which was an overwhelmingly Universal kind of experience; fully showcasing the good and bad which comes with that designation.
Let’s take a step back for a minute and talk about expectation and hype. Hype can sure be a bitch when you are finally met with the reality of whatever thing you’re excited for. I’ve had well over two decades to build hype for Halloween Horror Nights, there was nothing in the world that could have lived up to what I was expecting. Too much hype can completely destroy something because no matter how good it really is, it was never good enough for what you had envisioned (for further reading see all of Disney Twitter).
Through a concerted mental effort and lots of trip report reading/watching, I managed to temper my expectations enough prior to my first trip that I understood what I was about to endure: very large crowds, top-tier production values, and endless conga lines through the houses. Honestly, knowing that going in helped keep (most of) my disappointment at bay.
Halloween Horror Nights, in short, was astounding. Visually, everything surpassed any Haunt I had ever been to. Sets and lighting were painstakingly designed and created to evoke imaginative environments wherever you looked. Costumes fully transformed the actors inside them into horrific creatures of the night. Most importantly, crowds, at least the first night I attended, were like nothing I had ever seen. This is certainly not an event to be taken lightly when it comes to crowds and wait times; I saw 100+ minute waits within 15 minutes of opening the gates for some of the more coveted houses.
I loved the overall atmosphere in the park and the houses, but I hated the complete lack of immersion in most of them. So many guests were funneled through each house, you are constantly stuck in a conga-line as you progress. Each house also has numerous black shirted employees standing in each room meaning I couldn’t let myself get carried away by the story and setting in most of the houses. I never felt overly threatened or even stressed while exploring a house because all the tension was drained by the sheer number of people around me. In fact, I can count on one hand how many times I was genuinely startled during both of my trips; each scare was just too clearly telegraphed for any genuine surprise. Understandably, this style of walk-through is basically a necessity for the overwhelming crowds that come to HHN every night so I understand why it exists, but it is still detrimental to the carefully crafted scares.
That being said, once I stopped trying to ‘get scared’ and began to enjoy the company of my friends and the overall quality of the houses, I really began enjoying myself.
Some of the IP based mazes were complete misses with me, The Walking Dead stands out as a glaringly poor, if well produced, maze; but a majority were done quite well. I enjoyed Texas Chainsaw Massacre when we had a well-timed run through, as well as the marquee house for the year, American Horror Story. As someone who’s watched the show from the beginning, it was fun to experience various AHS scenes in the flesh. Being one of the longer houses of the night also helped AHS stand out. My only complaint is, like other houses, it was very easy to hit a bad pattern while walking through and miss most, or even all, scenes and scares.
Easily my favorite house of the event was Ghost Town: Curse of Lightning Gulch. A completely original house (one of the few remaining this year sadly), I never got tired of taking a trip through this damned Old West town. The set design was fantastic (two story environments!) and the story was more unique than the other IP-based houses. Additionally, walking through an actual rainstorm was just damn cool. More of this in future years, please, Universal.
While Horror Nights didn’t, and honestly couldn’t, live up to my full expectations, I was still more than satisfied with the money I spent to go. Pro-tip if you’ve never been; get Express, especially if you can only attend one night. If Express is too much, try and go to a day in November if they’re offered. When we went on the first night in November, there were maybe 2,500 people in the whole park on a Friday night.
I managed to attend a few other Haunts over the Halloween season, but Fright Fest and HHN were my big park-related stops. I won’t be giving out scores or any kind of “review” to either event beyond my thoughts as summarized above which I’m assuming you just read most of. The big question I’ve been asked by some friends is if I would go again. Since I’m already planning an HHN 27 trip for this Fall, that should be a pretty good indication of my thoughts. Fright Fest, however, is still up in the air; I kind of want to do Howl-o-Scream this year instead since it’s quite a bit closer to where I live, and, again, is something I’ve never been to.
So there’s your (late) Haunt update in March. As far as I’m concerned, it should be Haunt season all year long; but until that glorious day, you’ll keep getting mistimed Halloween themed posts and liking it.
Now, go have a day!