Events, Guest Stories

My First Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida — Expectations vs. Reality

October 13, 2022
HHN31 Veterans First Timer

If you’re reading this, that means I…

… made it out of my first Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) alive!

Although I had no idea what to expect going into HHN, I had a pretty “I’ve got this!” attitude when I walked through the gates. You see, I’ve always thought of myself as brave and I owe that self-confidence to my childhood Friday nights with my mom and sister, watching what we used to call a “Big Movie.” This was our family code name for any horror film — usually a bloody, keep-you-up-at-night terrifying horror film (thanks, mom??). Regardless of the countless sleepless nights, the albeit weird quality time with the fam did increase my threshold on horror. And I never thought I would say this, but the high-tolerance to monsters, witches, and ghosts did come in handy on September 7th 2022, the night I braved my first Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida. And as for any first-time scary experience, you want to have by your side (at a hand-grabbing distance too) people who know what they’re doing and where they’re going. So, I invited two Universal Orlando Resort Team Members and HHN veterans — who happen to be sisters with a thing for jumpscares too! — to accompany me into the fog. Never go alone, right?

My partners in crime have gone to Halloween Horror Nights every year for the past two decades. And they are good at it. Amber Smith, who’s a Marketing Manager for the Content and Creative Strategy team, and Cindy Skawinski, a Technical Documentation Manager, proudly consider HHN their favorite family tradition. Before the night of the 7th, they had already gone through each haunted house a bunch of times — for fun, yes, but to also see the lay of this year’s land before bringing me, who had up to this point in life never ever walked into a haunted house.

But I was confident I’d be in good hands cause these two HHN aficionados know what they’re doing — and they can prove it. Amber keeps track of how many times she goes through each haunted house every year while Cindy makes sure to keep tabs on the number of times she attends the event each season. They know off the top of their heads which icons and haunted houses were present any given year, you name it. They can identify new scare tactics and effects on sight and see links between the haunted houses and scare zones stories over multiple events. They can even tell you how long a queue will take without looking at the wait time sign. Have my veterans got credentials or what?! Honestly, I can’t picture bringing anyone else. Sorry ladies, seems like I’m gonna be crashing your two-decade-family party from now on!

As you can probably imagine, as any HHN first-timer, I went into this night with a bunch of newbie expectations, which were either debunked or confirmed by 1 am that evening. So, without further boo ado, here’s my crash course on Halloween Horror Nights — and how to not get an eye roll from the Pumpkin Lord.

First-timer’s Expectation: “HHN can’t be THAT scary…right?”
Veterans’ Reality: Yes, yes it can

Jumpscare HHN31

Let’s address the big elephant in the room: yes, HHN is pretty darn scary. I don’t know if it’s the overall vibes, the fog, or the too-good-at-their-jobs scareactors running after you… But it all just feels very real. Of course, you know you are in no immediate danger, but the tension in the air and the anticipation before a jumpscare you know is coming makes your brain respond otherwise. And although I do have an alleged high tolerance to horror, I was literally running out of some of the haunted houses (my veterans won’t let me lie!) But then something crazy happened: just as I was screaming from the top of my lungs, pumped with adrenaline from all that fear and drama, I started… laughing. Yup, laughing. When I finally realized that I had in fact survived, dopamine just flooded my brain, leaving me with a sense of catharsis and excitement… And just like that, I was ready to keep going. I guess that’s the magic of horror and HHN: you’re instantly ready for the next scream.

First-timer’s Expectation: “I’ll get through all haunted houses and scare zones in one single night”

Veterans’ Reality: You can… But you won’t want to

Veteran First Timer Bugs Eaten Alive HHN31

We had everything going for us — we were there on a weeknight (usually less busy!), we had Express Passes (more on this later!), we were well-rested (so important!). I was ready to hit the ground running and make it through all the houses and scare zones, eat all the foods and watch all the shows in under 7 and a half hours. That was the plan… until I made it to my first haunted house. Past the first-time excitement, there’s so much to see, hear and even smell (!!) that going through each house only once isn’t enough. I was so busy being terrified and trying to get the hell outta there on my first run that I didn’t take the time to appreciate the details and the true artistry of it all — it was jaw-dropping.

Having Amber and Cindy with me certainly brought the experience to a whole other level, because now that I had a better sense of what a haunted house was and had adjusted my expectations, I was able to observe the story, the characters, and the details. Everytime we walked through a house, they would point out new scares and effects I might have missed the first time around and make me notice cool details like how the lighting of the house is perfectly synced with the music (it’s the little things, right?) With their help and expertise, I was able to see that what makes HHN so terrifying is the insane attention to detail and impeccable work and talent that goes into putting a house — and an event, for that matter — together. At one point I was like, “Can you please stop scaring me?! I just wanna look at all the cool stuff!”

Scare Haunted House HHN31

So, yes, your first time through a house or scare zone will be exciting and intense and you won’t know what hit you. So, if you have time or are able to come back for a second (third, fourth) night, try to see your favorite houses and scare zones more than once.

First-timer’s Expectation: “I need an Express Pass to see everything”

Veterans’ Reality: It certainly helps, but it’s OK if you aren’t able to splurge

It all depends on what you’re planning to see, how much time you’ve got and your budget. From my experience, having at least a couple nights to explore the event is ideal: you’re not in a rush, you can go through the haunted houses and scare zones more than once, you can stop for snacks, watch the shows and even ride the rides that are open during the event. But if you only have one night to do it all, then the rule of the game is to prioritize. What are your must-see houses? Is there a specific photo op you wanna make sure you get on your Instagram? Is seeing Universal Studios Florida drowned in fog from the top of Hollywood Rip Ride RockIt on your bucket list? Are shows a must (oh, and they should be!)? Making sure you know what you’re doing and where you’re going will certainly help you make the most of your time. And for that an Express Pass goes a long way. You might also want to arrive at Universal Studios Florida earlier and do Stay and Scream —you’ll already be inside the park and able to jumpstart the event before everyone else! And you want that.

First-timer’s Expectation: “Let’s rip the band-aid and start with the scariest house”

Veterans’ Reality: Let’s ease in

Haunted House Scares HHN31

I’ll be honest: there’s no easing in at HHN. Once you’re there, bam! you’re a target. But if it makes you feel better, you do get acclimated and, eventually, even feel more confident about opening your eyes. Heck, you even begin to enjoy the unpredictability of it all! So, despite my veterans’ rec on starting on a milder note, I just wanted to “get it over with” and face this year’s most terrifying house once and for all.

In hindsight, I guess both ways work. Starting with a less “traumatic” house would have certainly given me the feeling of “that was awesome! How can it possibly get better than this?!” And because it does get better and better, you keep getting swept off your feet. And I kinda like that. At the same time, the “show me what you’ve got” mindset does give you the adrenaline boost you need to jumpstart the event and walk around with more confidence. So, I guess it really depends on how you deal with anticipation anxiety: do you dread it or crave it? Also, you can choose to go completely rogue on us and just work the event as you would a normal Universal Studios Florida park day: around the lagoon. And face each house as you get to it, regardless of how scary it is.

First-timer’s Expectation: “If I get too scared, I’ll just stay out of the haunted houses”

Veterans’ Reality: But there’s no escaping the scare zones

Scare Zone Jumpscare Scareactors HHN31

HHN is such an immersive experience that there’s really no escaping the horror. Even if you’re not doing any of the houses, in order to get around the park you’ll ultimately have to go through a scare zone (and yes, they can be equally scary). But there are “safer” ways to enjoy the event even if you’re not a horror fan. Check out our Guide to HHN Non-Horror Fans here.

First-timer’s Expectation: “I’ll just wing HHN”

Veterans’ Reality: Better if you don’t

Sure, you can show up at the gates just looking to have fun, oblivious to the icons, backstories, and history of the event, scream a bunch and still have a great time. I, of all people, get it — if it weren’t for my fellow veterans, I would’ve been “hey, look at that guy inside a pumpkin!” (and trust me, you don’t wanna be that person.) Now that I’ve done HHN I cannot imagine experiencing the event without all the previous knowledge. Learning about the HHN Lore, the who’s-who and the what’s-what, is a game changer. It helps you understand the event much better and see links between the stories behind the recurring characters, haunted houses and scare zones. Spotting an icon becomes like spotting a celebrity — you get excited, try to snap a picture with them in the background and wave like a hormonal teenager (again, you don’t wanna be that person unless you’re looking to get a very condescending and judgmental eye roll from the Pumpkin Lord in front of hundreds of people).

Pumpkin Lord HHN31

With that being said, I highly recommend you do your homework and come prepared. Besides diving deep into lore, I’m now officially addicted to the Discover Universal Podcast, which released a bunch of HHN episodes to help fans get the most out of the event — I was walking into the houses knowing the characters by name! Getting extra information here and there made the experience so much more immersive and familiar that I was almost walking around feeling very empowered in that creepy scenario — I said almost.

First-timer’s Expectation: “The food is going to be awesome”

Veterans’ Reality: The food is awesome

Pizza Fries HHN31

As an already huge fan of Universal Orlando Resort food and beverage items, I knew this year’s menu would be crazy good — the Killer Stove Top Popcorn Custard, the Fried Zombie Brains, the vegan Lil’ Boo’s Spicy Pumpkin Bun, and the “Major Sweets” Ice Cream Sandwich are some of my favorites! But as a first-timer, all I could think about was the Pizza Fries and the Twisted Taters. Even if you’ve never been to HHN, you’ve probably seen fans rave about ‘em online — yes, they’re as good as you think they are and they smell even better than you think they do. And to be honest, what helped me power through such a gory night was the idea of getting a warm plate of crunchy Pizza Fries dipped in marinara sauce as a much-deserved reward. Sitting on the curb with my new friends and sharing this classic HHN dish felt like a huge win for the three of us, and a perfect way to wrap up the experience… until we got jumped by another scareactor. I mean, did we really think we were safe?

VETERANS’ TIP: Don’t let the long lines scare you away! If you download the Official Universal Orlando Resort App, you can order your food from select locations ahead of time using the mobile order.

First-timer’s Expectation: “I don’t need to book a room at one of Universal Orlando Resort hotels”

Veterans’ Reality: You’ll wish you did

You’d think that by this point I would already be trusting my fellow veterans blindly. And although I had been trusting them with my life up until that point, I still thought it would be better for me to drive home after a night of screams. Welp, it didn’t take long for me to realize that — surprise, surprise — my veterans were right. Before I even got to my car, I was already regretting not being on a water taxi or shuttle 5 minutes away from what I know are very comfortable beds. Plus, assuming you’ll end your night as an official HHN fan (oh, I know you’ll be getting an HHN t-shirt before you leave) you can keep the vibes going at Cabana Bay Beach Resort, where there’s usually some pretty dope HHN decor going on — and yummy drinks at the Spooky Swizzle Lounge. Getting a cool HHN photo at Universal Monsters Gallery of Legends is also totally worth it even if you’re not staying at the hotel. AND (as if all of this wasn’t making me regret not listening to my veterans enough), the hotel also offers “Late Night Bites,” for those who are still hungry even after all that Pizza Fries.

VETERANS’ TIP: Aside from the very cool Halloween-themed decoration (Universal’s Endless Summer Resort — Dockside Inn and Suites has a spooky ambience too!) staying at one of the resorts gets you priority entrance to HHN. Guests get to skip the main entrance lines and go in right by Rip Ride Rockit, near Hellblock Horror House.

A First-Timer Verdict


Now that my soul is finally back in my body (is it though?) and my expectations have been managed, it’s time for a reality check. I believe this goes without saying, but… I’m forever hooked on horror. Welp, one thing’s for sure: I came a long way from my “Big Movie” nights, huh? Thanks to my partners in crime Amber Smith and Cindy Skawinski, my first HHN night was an unforgettable experience  — terrifying and way too real for sure, but nonetheless unforgettable. Oh, and sorry-not-sorry for letting me grab your hands far too many times. See you in the fog!

I’m dying to know about your first Halloween Horror Nights experience! If you have any other tips please share them on our Twitter and Instagram accounts or in the comments below!

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1 Comment

  • Reply Eliana M. October 13, 2022 at 10:16 pm

    You made me wanna go to a Halloween Horror Night! Your face in the pictures 😱😱😱 and your detailed description of the houses… It must be incredible!

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