RESEARCH QUESTION: Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando in Florida has been scaring the Mickey out of parkgoers for 14 years -- and this season it's expanded, encompassing both the Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida parks. We wondered: Will fright fans spend more time shrieking from sheer terror -- or from frustration over long lines? And, at almost $55 a pop, do you get enough boos for your bucks?
METHODOLOGY: We visited on opening weekend, touring (or at least trying to) its seven haunted houses -- Horror Nights Nightmares, Deadtropolis and so on -- and four scare zones (open areas with terror themes) and taking in its two spectacles, Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure and the Festival of the Dead Parade. After battling monster traffic in the parking lot, we spent six hours doing our best Janet Leigh impression.
RESULTS: Okay, we admit it. We screamed like a little girl when a psycho farmer with a chainsaw chased after us in the Field of Screams, a scare zone where terror lurks behind every cornstalk. Was it disturbing? Yes. Spooky? Well, sort of.
The park's fright fest has gained a rep as being the scariest and screamiest in the country, and Universal doesn't skimp on the details, with more than 600 "scareactors" terrorizing you and hundreds of gory body parts sprinkled throughout. Mingling with the masses were Dracula, Frankenstein and devilwomen on stilts (some selling cocktails in test tubes). Thick gray fog and eerie music added an ominous edge, though the beer and turkey-leg sellers broke the spell.
For the haunted houses, akin more to Hollywood stage sets, the designers went a bit nutso -- rooms were filled with hanging carcasses and open caskets (Ghost Town); an electric chair that emitted a burning smell (Hellgate Prison); and Victorian portraits whose powder-faced subjects jumped out of their frames (Castle Vampyr). Only the bathroom was a fright-free zone.
Our hearts really kicked up a beat at the Horror in Wax, inhabited by classic monsters who want to make candles out of you. A sign showing the wait time read "60 minutes." Eeeek! We went in search of a shorter line, finding one at Castle Vampyr: 45 minutes. During the wait, black-and-white clips of iconic horror flicks flashed on small screens, though our oversexed teenybopper queuemates were more frightening. We were in and out of the house in less than 10 minutes, then . . . back in line again, this time for Ghost Town.
By closing time, we had explored only two more houses -- Hellgate Prison and Disorientorium. In the penitentiary, we were surprised when one of the "inmates" made some perverted gestures at us and another was so in our face we could smell his makeup. Disorientorium blew our mind -- and our balance -- with its strobe lights, drunken-walk of mirrors and characters who blended into the patterned backdrops.
We knew that Horror Nights had gotten to us when we went to retrieve our car after 2 a.m. in the almost-vacant garage. Was someone hiding behind the lamppost? What was that shadow under the car?
Only when we realized that there was no line to exit the lot did we truly feel safe.
CONCLUSION: If we tallied the number of terror-filled minutes during our six-hour visit, we'd have to say . . . 120. That left a lot of time in line, sitting through hokey shows or getting oriented. Though the Freddy-like goons shocked us when we let our guard down, an even scarier thought is that we visited on what we were told was a light night. Closer to Halloween, waits are worse. A few tips:
* For an additional $20 or $35, depending on the night, an Express Pass lets you bypass the long lines -- though even the fast lane can get a little congested.
* The Frequent Fear Pass offers unlimited, multi-night admission Sundays through Thursdays. In addition, weekends tend to sell out (you can make reservations online or by phone), so if you have only one night, pick a weekday.
* See the outdoor attractions earlier in the evening; lines lessen as the night wears on. Also, for a respite between scares, the non-Horror attractions and rides (many are open) have shorter waits.
-- Andrea Sachs
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando is $54.75, plus tax, for a single-night ticket or multi-night weekday pass. The event runs on select nights until Oct. 31 and is open 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekends and until midnight weeknights. No age minimum, but it's considered a PG-13 event. Parking is $8, or free after 8 p.m. Info: 888- 467-7677, www.universalorlando.com.