Throughout its 30 years of offering groundbreaking attractions and entertainment, Universal Orlando Resort has had one annual event that has developed a cult-like following: Halloween Horror Nights (HHN).
For the past five years, Rob Cametti and his team have been transforming the horror into an interactive shopping experience that has come to be known as the Halloween Horror Nights Tribute Store.
As a director of Universal Orlando’s Visual Merchandising team, Rob and his colleagues supports the visual presentations for our revenue operations, food, and merchandise teams. All those window displays, signage, decor, or props you see throughout the park? His team is behind it all, including the festive holiday trim, carnival decor of Mardi Gras and of course, HHN.
“The Tribute Store was born during our 25th anniversary when we were asked to create a retail experience that housed the full assortment of HHN products in one location,” says Rob. “So, we put together a retrospective prop museum celebrating 25 years of HHN and brought back many iconic props and set pieces that fans could use as photo opps during their shopping experience.”
I met with Rob in what is now this year’s Tribute Store to discuss how him and his team bring this experience to life each year. Upon walking past what was the beginning stages of creating demolished castle rubble, I was struck with the same excitement I get when I first enter the haunted houses. The intricate details of the theming, set design, and effects are the same you experience in the event. The difference? It houses merchandise instead of scareactors! In a world where shopping is becoming more convenience-driven, you don’t find many highly themed retail experiences. But for Rob and his team, it’s different.
“You’re at a theme park and we’re going to give guests something they don’t expect,” says Rob. “They come through this [Tribute Store] door and they’re like ‘oh my gosh!’ No exaggeration here, we’ve had people come in and get teary-eyed.”
Being one of those teary-eyed individuals, I could relate on so many levels. One of the things I found really interesting, though, are the slew of factors the team has to take into consideration when designing and building the store. It’s just a glorified gift shop, right? WRONG. In a nutshell, it all comes down to collaboration.
“Our role is as a support team,” Rob explains. “As we are designing, we need to make sure we support the products that we are offering. We need to have a cohesive vision that is in-step with all of our merchandise and operations teams.”
So, where do they even begin? It can be a tricky business trying to balance the operational needs with the creative design elements. Not to mention the amount of event content they can pull from for inspiration. Rob explains that they start almost a whole year in advance, with brainstorming concepts and general design work beginning in December.
“Our inspiration for the design comes from everywhere. It could be movies, TV, artwork, music, artists. I’ll scroll through Instagram and see what independent artists are doing and think, ‘That’s amazing. That’s brilliant! Why aren’t we doing that!?’ From there, we shop those designs around to a variety of departments to make sure we’re aligned with the total vision for the event. Our goal is to put something out there that is different and unexpected. This is a tribute to our Halloween past.”
“This is a tribute to our Halloween past.”
Luckily, with more than 25 years of Halloween Horror Nights to pay tribute to, there is no shortage of themes, storylines, or characters to pull upon. But, there are still challenges that pop up along the way.
“I would say the most challenging element is topping each previous store,” says Rob. “We tend to fall in love with every version and trying to figure out ways to enhance the experience while giving our guests something new to look forward to is always a challenge.”
And with one of the most passionate fan communities, there can be a lot of pressure to up your game every year. The team has met this challenge head-on with building the largest Tribute Store to date and incorporating new elements, like the first introduction of projection mapping inside a Universal retail store. There will even be an artist signing series this year to showcase the amazing work the various design teams create. At the heart of it, it all boils down to the fact that they themselves are Halloween Horror Nights fans.
“We’re all HHN fans and if we get excited about it, we think fans will get excited about it, too,” says Rob. “One of the cool things about how all this comes together is it’s all built by this group. Nearly everything you see is either handmade or repurposed by this team. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by one of the most creative group of individuals in the business. HHN is huge for us. We love doing it and we’ll keep it [Tribute Store] going until someone tells us to stop.”
“We love doing it and we’ll keep it [Tribute Store] going until someone tells us to stop.”
The team designs with fans in mind, too. In every version of the Tribute Store, you can find intricately placed “Easter Eggs” that only hardcore fans of the event would recognize. Keep an eye out for props that were used in past haunted houses and scare zones. Even Rob admits that he doesn’t know all of the hidden details in the store.
“We try to make it natural and hidden. I leave a lot of it to the crew that builds it in here. Some of the stuff I don’t even know about!”
The same can be said about the scenic walls that not only are designed around the theme of the room, but also make for the perfect spooky photo opp.
“I’ll go through the haunted houses multiple times to look at the fantastic set design and selfishly, I want to slow down to take it all in,” Rob says. “We are creating a retail atmosphere where you can experience high quality sets and characters at your own pace and share your experience by snapping a photo.”
Nestled amongst these set pieces and store props are dark cubbies of Halloween Horror Nights merchandise. The merch and displays blend so well and naturally with their surroundings, it’s almost like they’re another piece of decor. At its core, the Tribute Store gives you a piece of HHN to take home with you.
The Tribute Store serves as the hub for all of the HHN merch, including limited edition and collectible items that can only be found in the store. I’m a personal fan of the hand-painted skulls, and I proudly sport a collection of HHN T-shirts that go all the way back to 2006. I also had the chance to speak with a couple of the creative minds behind the merchandise and how it’s incorporated into the store.
“Our guests love HHN,” says Don Davis, merchandise brand manager. “They’ve been coming for years and it’s great that we are able to offer them products that highlight the history of the event. Last year we tried a lot of new and different things like collectible glasses, candy, and collectible figures, so you’ll be seeing some of those things returning. And there’s going to be some special, limited edition items for fans, too.”
A lot of the merch inspires the design elements of the store, as well. Look no further than this year’s HHN icon design, which is represented as banner artwork in the All Hallows Carnival room (seriously though, how do I get one of those banners!?).
“From a creative perspective for the merchandise, it’s a whole new look every year,” says Brian Beauregard, executive creative director of global merchandising and licensing. “It’s something we’ve never done before. There are so many different opportunities we are able to tap into, along with our icons and the background storytelling.”
As Halloween Horror Nights continues to get bigger every year and its fan base grows, the Tribute Store and the merchandise it holds continue to evolve with it. It’s become an attraction that can’t be missed, and the reward the teams feel most is the connection they’re able to make with the guests.
“One of the most rewarding things is being able to deliver something unexpected. Seeing their [guests] excitement when they come through the door lets us know that we’ve made that connection,” says Rob.
“I’ve personally been excited to see the fans’ reactions to the product and all of the great social media posts. It makes me feel connected to the fans,” says Don.
“It’s been amazing to be able to keep the HHN spirit alive for our fans and guests. This [Tribute Store] has become more than just an extension of HHN… it IS this year’s experience,” says Brian.
I always wrap up my interviews with what I like to call ‘Final Thoughts’. A chance for the individual I’m interviewing a free space to say what they want to get across, a personalized message to the fans, or how they’re feeling. Remember when I said I was one of those teary eyed individuals earlier? Rob finished our interview by summing up how we’re all feeling right now so perfectly. It’s the sentiment that not only holds how him and his team feels for HHN, but what all of us at Universal Orlando are echoing.
“The fall season is about much more than just our annual HHN event. For fans of Halloween, it’s a time to celebrate all of the things we love… like food, costumes, decorations, and the sounds and smells of this special time of year. We knew that — despite HHN being cancelled — we still needed to move forward with Halloween in some way… not only for our guests, but also for the passionate crews that work so hard this time of year. We are very happy to be able to open the Tribute Store so that fans can experience a little bit of HHN. We hope you enjoy this small Tribute to the event and the season that we all love.”
“We hope you enjoy this small Tribute to the event and the season that we all love.”