By day, Universal Studios theme park in Orlando pulsates to the screams from its 60-mile-an-hour roller coasters, high-tech thrill rides and epic film and stunt shows. But when the sun goes down during October, the screams become the bloodcurdling kind as this family-friendly holiday destination transforms into a twilight zone of terror.
Americans love Halloween so much it’s scary. To satisfy their desire to paint the town pumpkin orange, the Florida fun park hosts an annual month-long celebration called Halloween Horror Nights. During the course of its 16-year history, it’s become something of an occult event.
Don’t be fooled by the cosy family setting. This is terror on a titanic scale. More Resident Evil than Rent-a-ghost, a shadowy army of 1,500 ‘scare-actors’ is employed each night to shiver the timbers of guests at every treacherous turn across the park’s 400-acre site.
Bloodthirsty zombies, killer clowns, stilt-walking mutants, chainsaw-wielding maniacs on motorbikes – there’s even an old lady entombed in a rat-infested coffin – prowl the park after dark, stalking visitors as they tip-toe between three spooky scare zones and seven haunted houses.
This year’s freak show, which runs until October 31, is a ‘sweet 16’ culmination of the most popular scares of previous years. As Universal’s entertainment director TJ Mannarino says: ‘We’ve robbed the graves of Horror Nights past to create a new, more terrifying monster. This year is more intense and frightening than ever before.’
And it was guaranteed its most gruesome opening night yet after TJ invited me to get transformed into a ‘scare-actor’. ‘I can just tell you’re going to make a great zombie,’ he said. I was so flattered I almost bit his neck off.
Normally I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing blood-soaked trousers and my major internal organs on the outside. It’s not an alluring look for a single guy in his thirties. But I discovered some surprising benefits to being a flesh-eating zombie. For starters you can scare precocious American children out of their wits while their parents actually stand by yelling encouragement.
After half-an-hour as the muse of makeup marvel Dr Skull, I was dispatched to work the graveyard shift in the Deadtropolis scare zone. Five minutes into my role and I’d happily put two children on the verge of tears and caused a grown man to scream like a teenage girl at a Take That reunion. Or should that be Take Splat?
Most of my victims were admittedly already in a state of severe shock, having staggered out of the nearby All Night Die In, a dark and smoky haunted house where each room pays homage to classic horror scenes from a dozen movies from The Shining to Scream.
Other haunted houses include Psychoscareapy, an asylum of padded cells where guests watch a raving psychopath ramming a human torso into a mincer, and The Return of Norman Bates, with its bleeding walls and a dozen knife-wielding ‘mothers’ hiding behind hanging body bags. Halloween in Orlando is not for the faint hearted.
But return the next morning and you’ll find little evidence of the evil that lurked around every twist and turn only hours before. When the sun comes up the site’s two theme parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are more concerned with adrenalin rushes than scare tactics.
All six roller coasters are based on pop culture icons or blockbuster films. The towering Incredible Hulk Coaster goes from zero to 45mph in two pulse-pounding seconds – the speed of an F-16 fighter jet – turning riders upside down 110-feet in the air before plunging to skim the lake far below.
Duelling Dragons (which forced me to cancel lunch), is the world’s first dual roller coaster with two carriages speeding towards each other on separate tracks and missing each other by inches.
Riders barrel towards each other at 60mph three times in two minutes, avoiding impact at the last second. A computer calculates the weight of each coaster and decides which one should leave first and at what speed to ensure the nearest of misses.
The park also has film and stunt rides, viewed in 3-D and 4-D glasses: The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, Shrek 4-D, Terminator 2 (which at $25million for 12 minutes is the most expensive movie per-minute ever made) and the enduring Back To The Future. Doc Brown’s DeLorean is set fly away at 88mph for the very last time in November when the ride is finally retired.
Universal markets itself as an edgier, more adult alternative to syrupy Disney down the road (Shrek jauntily passes wind in his 4-D show, an act of indulgence quite beyond modest Mickey).
So while Universal’s Halloween aims to truly terrify, Disney has called its light fright night ‘Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party’, which essentially boils down to the mouse cheesily mincing about under a white sheet.
A idyllic stroll or free water-taxi ride from the theme parks lie three on-site five-star hotels – the Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel and the Royal Pacific Resort, aimed at the luxury, family and affordable markets respectively.
Steven Spielberg picked the Italian fishing village theme of the Portofino Bay Hotel – his preferred Mediterranean holiday destination. Its cobblestone streets, sandy beach swimming pool, outdoor cafes, live daily opera and old-world architecture offer a calming oasis to the fun fair down the road.
The Hard Rock Hotel displays rare rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia (including fat Elvis’s glitter jumpsuit from 1976) and Orlando’s largest swimming pool, wired up with an underwater speaker system.
The Royal Pacific Hotel is a more exotic getaway with an orchid forecourt, palm tree-lined lagoon-style pool and hand carvings from Bali. Reception greeters hand out beaded necklaces to new arrivals.
Two more hotels (their themes are yet to be decided but prepare to book into Extra Terrestrial Towers if Spielberg’s consulted again), are to open by 2010, pushing the resort’s total room capacity up to 4,800 – a number still dwarfed by Disney’s 48,000 (mostly cheap and cheerful) rooms. But that’s hardly the point.
Because as any visitor to Universal Studios during Halloween will tell you, what the resort lacks in size it more than makes up for in screams.
First published in the Daily Mail.