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Universal theme park’s Halloween Horror Nights is a kill-a-minute thriller

Universal’s nightmare-inducing Halloween Horror Nights will leave you shaken, frazzled but dying to do it again, writes Daragh Keany

Universal’s spooktacular Halloween Horror Nights runs for 44 nights over September and October

Daragh enjoys a butterbeer near Gringotts Bank

Dessert with a difference needs to be eaten first at the Chocolate Emporium

The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium

Daragh braves the new award-winning Velocicoaster in Jurassic World

Daragh getting into the Halloween spirit

A view of Jurassic Park River Adventure

Mike Myers turns up to scare the life out of you in one of ten horror houses

Halloween horror at Universal Studios Florida

The heat is on at Universal Studios Florida

Daragh at Universal Studios Orlando

The Weeknd created this year's show piece horror house and it didn't disappoint

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida

Daragh KeanySunday World

When I stepped out of the lift on my way to breakfast, I was instantly greeted by an audible buzz of activity. The atmosphere in the hotel was far giddier than on the previous two mornings but then again, Friday, September 2 was definitely no ordinary day at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida.

It was only 10am, but with just nine hours until the opening night of the theme park’s highly-anticipated Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) extravaganza, the excitement was palpable.

I later discovered that all 9,000 bedrooms at Universal Studios’ six hotels were completely booked out.

Aside from the nervous-looking college volleyball team loitering in the Cabana Bay Beach Resort lobby, it was safe to say that every other guest was there for one thing — the annual scare-fest regularly referred to as the ultimate horror experience anywhere on the planet.

This year is the 31st edition of the event and over the course of September and October, the resort is transformed from a thrill-a-minute theme park into a kill-a-minute scream park.

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida

It’s a scare-a-thon like nothing you have ever experienced — with 10 themed haunted houses, including one creation from singer The Weeknd (more of this later); five scare zones with terrifyingly real characters; and tens of thousands of die-hard Halloween fans.

As soon as daylight fades and the ‘regular’ park closes, the team gets to work on giving the gigantic resort a ghoulish makeover in time for the 7pm opening.

For the 44 individual nights up until October 31, it is pure morbid mecca for anyone who is into the annual holiday, or simply for those who want to try something new, fun, exhilarating and truly memorable.

Full confession: I would certainly fall into the latter. I love Halloween more than most, when I get to kit out my house in elaborate and gaudy paraphernalia to entertain the kids, as well as offering some levity to the neighbours.

But I don’t sit and binge old horror movies, I don’t read books about witches and dark arts and I don’t idolise Jamie Lee Curtis. I don’t even have a single Chucky doll on my mantlepiece and have never seen The Exorcist.

The heat is on at Universal Studios Florida

But none of that matters at HHN because it is just pure adrenalin-fuelled fun for the lucky 20,000 punters who get inside each night. Of course, you would get more out of the experience if you were a complete scare fan, but it is absolutely not a necessity.

During the pandemic when devoid of overseas visitors, HHN relied solely on domestic horror enthusiasts — but now that we are past the worst of Covid-19, devotees from all over the world are once again descending on the Floridian fantasy land, and I felt privileged to be there with the excited hordes

But before we get to the official fright night, there is the small issue of spending time in the theme park during the day — no fears, just cheers.

Since my last visit to the resort in 2018, Universal has added two trip-worthy rollercoasters that are already winning awards, so I was just as excited to give them a try as I was about getting into HHN. And staying in one of the onsite hotels meant we got early access before the big crowds descended on the theme park.

The Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure ride may be a tongue-twister of a name, but the truly unique rollercoaster is unlike anything I have ever done before.

Perched up on a motorbike, you get seven individual launches, a handful of genuine surprises (no spoilers here), lots of amazing animatronic scenes from the movie and one ultimate rush that will see you trying to do it over and over again. It lasts 2 minutes and 55 seconds and stretches over 1.5km.

Daragh braves the new award-winning Velocicoaster in Jurassic World

The other newbie in town is the Velocicoaster, which sits in the Jurassic Park zone and features two high-speed launches, a signature 155ft-tall top hat, four inversions, and a maximum speed of 110 km per hour. Yes, you read that right. It runs for 1.4km in total and also includes a drop of 43 metres on one occasion.

Both rides are equally exhilarating, and are just two more reasons why Universal Studios is so popular with Irish tourists all year round.

The parks already boast iconic rides like the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (you actually choose music to blare into your eardrums as you are catapulted 51m into the sun-kissed sky before travelling at 105km/h with a g-force of 4.18) and the Incredible Hulk Coaster (you reach 64km/h in two seconds before being flung along seven separate inversions for 1.1km).

There are also indoor coaster experiences that add a 3D and sometimes 4D element. The pick of the bunch includes Transformers: The Ride, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, The Simpsons, the surprisingly nostalgic ET Adventure ride and a super competitive shoot-em-up fun ride called Men in Black Alien Attack (laser guns included).

There is the Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts (soak up every second of queue-room fun because it is almost as impressive as the ride itself), The Bourne Stuntacular, Revenge of the Mummy (which is even better than the Los Angeles one by the way, with some incredible new features) and the Jurassic Park River Adventure (don’t sit in the front row unless you want to get drenched).

In between all of these amazing rides are a plethora of themed areas, shops, stalls and life-sized characters all begging to be experienced and enjoyed.

Daragh enjoys a butterbeer near Gringotts Bank

You can get the Hogwarts Express one minute and have a pint in Moe’s Tavern the next. You can find yourself in a Fast & Furious gift shop before stumbling into a classic comic store.

One of the lesser talked-about positives about Universal is the fact that all onsite hotel guests can avail of free water taxis to take them to and from the parks. They leave every 15 minutes and I challenge anyone out there to not want to just stay on at least once during your vacation, just to vibe off the drivers or take in more vantage points of the jaw-dropping scenery from the water.

I stayed in the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort this time around, which is just a 20-minute drive from the airport (which I flew to direct from Dublin on Aer Lingus) and a short 15-minute walk to the various theme parks. While it doesn’t have that wow factor from the outside like its nearest neighbour Aventura, inside it is unbelievable — spacious and well-equipped rooms, delicious buffet-style breakfasts in the Amatista Cookhouse, and the Strong Water Tavern is way more than just a bar, with an impressive number of rums on offer.

The food at the theme park is refreshingly good too, with so many taste buds catered to. But the pick of the bunch for me was the utterly bonkers Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen situated just outside the park opposite City Walk.

While there are lots of ‘normal’ creations on the menu they also, as the name suggests, rely on chocolate a lot more than you would expect — but the results are surprisingly tasty.

Dessert with a difference needs to be eaten first at the Chocolate Emporium

The chicken wings that had a hint of chocolate jus on them shocked us, but not as much as the quickly-devoured chocolate loaf. And be warned — if you are planning to try one of their gut-busting desserts, leave lots of room. In fact, the in-character English host urges you to start with something sweet. I truly wish I had heeded her advice.

Other advice I wish I had heeded was to close my eyes during the Bugs: Eaten Alive haunted house. My completely irrational fear of spiders was flung in my face, and my ears, and my soul for that matter. It was only one of the 10 houses I got to scream and shout my way through on the third night of my trip.

Each one is themed differently and each one brings a new level of terror. If you think the scare experiences on this side of the Atlantic are impressive, you would want to spend a few moments inside any of the Universal houses.

The Weeknd created this year's show piece horror house and it didn't disappoint

This year’s showpiece house was The Weeknd, created by the hands-on singer himself, which takes a sordid look at how his After Hours album was created. Trust me, you’ll never listen to Blinding Lights or Scared to Live the same way ever again.

Other houses include Monsters: Legends Collide, The Horrors of Blumhouse, Spirits of the Coven, Hellblock Horror, Fiesta de Chupacabras and Descendants of Destruction.

The last two that have to get an honourable mention are the Halloween House and Dead Man’s Pier. The latter was actually my last haunted house of the night. We had already reached the early hours of Saturday morning and I was emotionally damaged and shattered. But the sheer scale of the house was mind-blowing.

And as for the Halloween house… well, I managed to get a sneak peek at this house earlier in the day, which gave me false hope that I would have no issues a few hours later with less light and more actors (they are known as scareactors in the business, FYI). But nothing prepared me for the scream-inducing shenanigans of the many, many, many Mike Myers strategically positioned around the house. The closing scene will haunt me for a long time. Yet I still want to try it again. By the time you hit the hay, you are a frazzled mess but you are craving more. Genuinely.

Mike Myers turns up to scare the life out of you in one of ten horror houses

I (eventually) slept like a log that night and woke up for a final day of souvenir shopping, beer drinking and oversized meal eating. I never even got to experience half of what Universal Studios has to offer — there’s a giant water park called Volcano Bay that I never even saw.

I am already planning a return visit in 2023 and next time I may well bring the kids. Although they won’t get anywhere near Halloween Horror Nights. That whole experience should come with a parental warning! The entire place is a feast for all the senses from the moment you step out of that lift in the lobby of your hotel.


UNIVERSAL STUDIOS See universalorlando.comAer Lingus has direct flights between Dublin and Orlando four times a week, with prices starting from €188.05 each way. See ■ Universal Orlando park tickets cost from €367 for a 3-Park Explorer. I recommend using for the best deals. ■ Hotel guests get early park access.


■ Halloween Horror Nights runs for specific nights in September and October and tickets cost €82pp on A Fast Pass will cost just $129.99pp and you will do more houses.

Daragh at Universal Studios Orlando

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