Have you ever wished that your favorite ride from years past could be returned to its former glory? I know I have. Now, what if it came back in a new form: a Halloween Horror Nights haunted house? That’s the thinking behind “Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate.”
For the uninitiated, the Dueling Dragons ride was a pair of intertwined roller coasters at Universal Islands of Adventure, open from 1999 to 2010. The queue took you through a ruined castle destroyed by two rival dragons: the icy Blizzrock and fiery Pyrock. After passing by Merlin who warned you not to proceed, you got to pick from two different coaster tracks: fire or ice. Cool, right? (Or hot, I guess, depending on which you picked.)
Spoiler Alert: You get “Choose Thy Fate” and your ending path between fire and ice in the haunted house, too, something we’ve never done before at Halloween Horror Nights. Even better, there are two possible outcomes for each path, which means FOUR DIFFERENT ENDINGS! You can win on either side and see Merlin congratulating you or lose and see either Blizzrock (ice side) or Pyrock (fire side) with… Well, I guess you’ll have to check it out for yourself! Though as far as I’m concerned, losing is winning ‘cause I always root for the villains (sorry, Merlin).
I spoke with Charles Gray, senior show director, and Dylan Kollath, senior scenic designer, about how they brought this house to life. Whether you’ve been dreaming of Dueling Dragons since it closed or you never got to experience it, you’re going to love “Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate.”
LOUISE COOPER: What inspired this haunted house?
DYLAN KOLLATH: We haven’t done anything in a long time that dealt with wizards, warlocks and medieval folklore. It was an opportunity for pure fantasy. Everybody latched on to that idea of: What if we brought back an old Universal attraction from the dead as a house? And what if it’s Dueling Dragons?
CHARLES GRAY: I’m huge into fantasy! For the last decade I’ve been trying to insert that idea. When Dylan came in and said Dueling Dragons, I was most definitely championing that idea.
DYLAN KOLLATH: I was such a huge fan of the Dueling Dragons ride queue. It is my favorite queue of all time! By the time you got to the ride, you’d already experienced an attraction in and of itself.
LOUISE COOPER: Horror fantasy is such a rich genre. And there’s also a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in the Dueling Dragons ride. What made you decide to have this homage now?
CHARLES GRAY: Our goal was that no one can pick their favorite haunted house this year. We only can accomplish that with a hugely diverse slate, from the Mississippi Delta, to a Dust Bowl Circus, to Paris and into fantasy. I think it was important this was the year because it added such a new choice.
LOUISE COOPER: What’s the story of the haunted house?
CHARLES GRAY: I feel honored that we got to further this already rich story with iconic characters from the Dueling Dragons ride. There are three realms on this continent. One is ruled by Pyrock. One is ruled by Blizzrock. One is cared for by Merlin, who has this protective, magical bubble around his kingdom. An agent of Blizzrock, The Lady of the Lake, draws Merlin in and zaps all his magic. To defend the realm, he sacrifices himself and sets a trap on the spell book. Blizzrock begins his attack, thinking that Pyrock is sleeping in his mountainside. But little does he know that Pyrock is always scheming. Both their armies march at the same time onto the undefended kingdom. They go through the fairy forest, to the castle where Merlin’s spell book is. That’s when Merlin’s trap is sprung and curses them to be transformed into dragons. I think there’s a miscalculation there because dragons can cause a lot of damage. But as they fight each other for control, that enables Merlin to gather his strength.
LOUISE COOPER: The ride this haunted house is based on has such beloved lore behind it. What did you recreate from the ride? Any Easter eggs?
DYLAN KOLLATH: We wanted to show the castle façade going over the drawbridge as well as the Enchanted Oak, which was in front of the ride. The Frozen Hallway had a big, vaulted ceiling with frozen knights and horses that told this whole story about the victims of Blizzrock above your head in line. We have two chandeliers directly from that scene. The catacombs in the queue had this skull-and-bone motif wall, where Merlin warned “if you continue along this path, you will face the dragons’ wrath.” Then you turned the corner and there the dragons were. And we have that in the house. The animated stained glass windows that told the story of the ride, we have that represented. There’s also a throwback to the Flying Unicorn roller coaster that was once near Dueling Dragons.
CHARLES GRAY: A big Easter egg in “Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate” that plays into the lore of Dr. Oddfellow is that his symbol is in Merlin’s spell book. You could say that the magic dates all the way back to Merlin.
LOUISE COOPER: I thought that’s what that symbol was, so thanks for confirming! I love the way Dr. Oddfellow’s symbol has been interwoven into the scare zones and our original haunted houses. In addition to the symbol, can you talk about what else is new in “Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate?”
CHARLES GRAY: All the characters we never got to explore: trolls, fairies, the warlocks. One of my favorite characters is the transforming of Blizzrock. With all the magic swirling around, it really feels like a battle in there. That didn’t happen in the ride, so that’s a whole new trip leading up to the castle.
DYLAN KOLLATH: The forest scene is one of the most technically complex scenes ever done so as far as the lighting, programming and coordination with all the effects in there. That scene took was a huge effort by our technical designers and they did an amazing job. It was beyond my wildest dreams when I first walked in there and I saw everything.
LOUISE COOPER: This is the first time guests get to choose a path in a haunted house. What was it like to create that?
CHARLES GRAY: When we did multiple endings in past years, guests really loved that. In “HHN Icons: Captured,” we had people going through trying to get each Icon on the throne.
DYLAN KOLLATH: When you got to the end of the Dueling Dragons ride queue, you got to choose whether you did fire or ice, and that was one of the most iconic parts of that ride. We set it up just like the ride: ice on the right and fire on the left.
LOUISE COOPER: You know fans will pick up on that, so that’s awesome. With two different paths, I imagine that that created some challenges. Can you tell me more about that?
DYLAN KOLLATH: The most challenging part was we really wanted the reason you choose your path to have some sort of stakes, other than we’re gonna choose blue and ice or red and fire. We wanted a pay-off at the end. “I really wanted to get to the spell book and win and see Merlin, but I didn’t choose correctly and I got Blizzrock.” Or the exact opposite “I really wanted to see Blizzrock, but I end up winning.”
CHARLES GRAY: It’s funny that people are saying “So you’re telling me that if you get to the end and Merlin wins, that was the right choice. I wanna lose!”
LOUISE COOPER: Can you walk me through the four different outcomes?
CHARLES GRAY: On one set, Blizzrock wins on the ice side and Merlin wins on the fire side. When the set changes, Pyrock wins on the fire side and Merlin wins on the ice side. No matter when you go, one side has Merlin triumphing, and the other has one of the warlocks triumphing.
DYLAN KOLLATH: I love getting to see the dragon warlocks win. I also like seeing Merlin win and how the spell book glows with his magic.
CHARLES GRAY: And Merlin says something different on both sides, too, as you exit, so you want to get Merlin on both sides. You never really lose, basically. That’s so rare for Halloween Horror Nights, ‘cause that’s not our gig.
LOUISE COOPER: What was it like to experience this haunted house for the first time?
CHARLES GRAY: A lot of times when you walk through with the executive teams, you gotta be very professional. But it was hard walking through this house because I just wanted to skip through, I was so excited! Giddy is a perfect word.
DYLAN KOLLATH: I was the same way! The first time we got to see it with all the effects running. It was like being transported back to another time. I was so happy to hear Merlin’s voice and see all of that. It was almost like a I-can’t-believe-this-is-real moment.
What’s your favorite ending to this house? What Easter eggs did you spot from the original ride? Share on social media or in the comments below. And check out this deep dive into “Dr. Oddfellow’s Twisted Origins,” another original content house from this year’s Halloween Horror Nights.