On the Go Extra: Halloween Horror Nights

Universal Orlando Resort Logo LRWant the inside scoop of Halloween Horror Nights® and its devious creation? Here’s our full interview with T.J. Mannarino, the director of art and design for Universal Orlando® Resort!

Halloween Horror Nights® is now in its 24th year. What elements entice people to return—and sometimes travel hundreds of miles—for this event year after year?

The entire show from characters to environment to sound effects and lighting changes completely from year to year, so the show that you saw last year is a completely different show than [the one] you’ll see this year.

And I jokingly say that [Halloween Horror Nights®] really becomes a collectible experience that you only get to see within the month of October that we’re open, and then the only time you can really relive it is in your dreams and nightmares.

In previous years, there was a mix of IPs and original content, including fan favorite haunted houses. Will we be seeing that mix again, and if so, can you talk about any of this year’s content?

From what I can say at this point is yes, we’ll do a very similar mix of original content, which we know our audience who has been with us for a period of time, our fans or/and repeat customers, really love—the stories we create and generate from our own creative minds—or crazy minds. [laughs]

DraculaIn the world of horror, Universal is known for its monsters they’ve created—from Frankenstein to Dracula to the Werewolf—and we feel as designers to carry the honor forward by creating our own characters and our own stories that our audience tends to fall in love with and want to see. At the same time, we have a great group of interested customers who love the horror that is now in the movies and on TV, and we can partner with those brands and bring them to life in a realistic environment that you now place yourself in. You can’t do that anywhere else, and it’s another strong reason why people travel to see this show.

The balance of both gives everyone an opportunity to see something that they love and something they’ve never seen before.

How do you choose which films and original concepts to use?

It’s a mix. Lots of times, the team that designs and creates the event are huge horror fans themselves. We look at the stuff we would love to bring to life, but we also make sure our thought process is in tune with our audience.  We’ll do a lot of surveys through our marketing division, and they’ll ask all sort of questions about characters people would love to see come to life in Halloween areas or themes within movies, TV, comic books, even stuff from merchandise, memorabilia, action figures, because sometimes action figures have a huge fan following. Fans would love to see those characters and stories brought to life.

Last year, we did eight haunted houses, and that’s been the tradition for the last few years. We want to come up with unique, different, contrasting stories, so everyone who comes as a guest will find something in the event that they’ll love and enjoy.

You’ve had haunted houses in rides, haunted houses with 3D elements and live actors who seemingly fly. What new and exciting elements will you be implementing this year? 

You won’t get into the details until late August/September when we tell you how we’ll bring those characters to life and what we’re going to do.

What I can say is, we’re known for not only bringing unique characters that nobody has ever seen before and environments that are film quality like, but [also] the way that we do it is on cutting edge. We’re always exploring ways that people haven’t done before.

An example we can talk about is, last year a huge success for us was An American Werewolf in London, which was an over twenty-year-old property that a lot of our younger audience had probably never even seen or were familiar with those characters.

The biggest challenge for us, is that [the movie] is all about the werewolf, and doing a werewolf character is difficult and could easily fall into something people see as not so scary, maybe dog-like instead of fierce wolf. We engaged on doing a whole new type of puppet, backed with special effects, sound effects, and lightning techniques that were all controlled through show control and computers, and all that technology was brought together with theatrical methods to bring this puppet to life. I saw grown men, big-250 pound guys jumping, screaming, basically scared of a furry dog puppet. It was so great. [The wolf] captured the emotion and what we wanted to do, and to get the best compliment, working with John Landis, the director of the original film—for him to say, “You got it right,” was a great success for us.

Halloween Horror Nights 1 LRThat’s the stuff we really strive for, and our hope is to have different kinds of characters and technology, and wrap them together so that people when they come this year, it will be different from last year, and exciting for them to think about what we’ll going to do next year.

Nicole, our team leader, jumped when she saw the wolf during the daylight tour.

One of our designers, who is our lead creator, Mike Aiello—you’ll probably see him a lot when of the media starts coming out. He’s our main spokesperson, and he’s been doing horror for years. When we did the first initial demo mock-up with the wolves, when the puppeteer did a first lunge, he jumped a little bit.

We all asked him, “Did you just jump?”

“No, not really, not really.” He wouldn’t tell us that he did, but he did.

Do you have any special touches that you add on Halloween, October 31st?

The last few years, we have, a little bit. In some previous years, we’ve had these underground, interactive experiences for people who come to the event multiple nights. We provided a story play where you can interact with other guests who are engaged in this experience, this kind of storytelling, and then usually on Halloween night, we’ll do some big type of show element that really isn’t something part of the mainstream guests, but if you’re involved, it becomes a nice little, if you want to call it, cherry-on-top of your experience that you can say, “This was something fun, and I was a part of it.”

Way, way back in 2005, was when we started these things. We had a character called the Terra Queen, and that night, if you’d been playing with our story for a while, we chose 11 people to meet the design team for the event. They got to learn some of the inside stories of what it took to design the event, and they were then part of a closing experience we did with the character called the Terra Queen where we actually had them part of this ritual where we sent her away to the nether world. They were all dressed up in robes and hoods. Fun things.

If you come into the event and get involved in the event, we appreciate that not only as audience members, but [also] we know it really becomes a different experience the more you attend the event. We, as designers, try to figure ways to grow that, enhance that, while you come multiple nights within a year.

When is the best time to experience Halloween Horror Nights®?

Hogsmeade LRIt’s good throughout the experience, but we see a bunch of different styles. People who are local and who are fans or repeat guests of the event, want to be here that very first night. They want to be in that first initial sense of magic and electricity in the air, to be here when we open and see everything fresh and new. At the same time, the event has a maturity to it. For us as designers and even the people who are performers and the technicians, we design new stuff. We’ll repeat certain things that we know work really well for us, but since we try to strive to do something new every year, we’re really testing it out for the first time within our rehearsal process. So those first few weeks, we’re actually learning and actually making the experience better because we see how it reacts to the audience and how they respond to what we’ve designed.

Then we continually enhance the product. So as designers, most people would think, you open it and you walk away. That’s not for us. Every weekend, we’re out there trying to see how can we make it better, how can we get better scares from what’s going on.

Traditionally, we tell people that second or third weekend are usually good weekends because the event is operating at its best level, and it’s before you hit the major crowds. The major crowds traditionally will start to come closer to Halloween, so your third, fourth, and fifth weekends, you’ll start seeing a little bit busier crowds, which in turn makes it harder to see the full event in one night. So if you come earlier, you’ll get to see more.

Which haunted house would you call your masterwork and why?

We get asked this question a lot, and every designer usually has the same answer, which is, “It’s tough to say.” Since we evolve and change every year, houses that we did even as soon as three or four years ago, are hard to compare to the houses were doing this year or did last year.

Four years ago, the computer that you had was top of the line, and something you’ve never experienced. You thought it was the best thing, and compared to your computers and your iPads now, you think that thing looks ancient and old.

Universal Orlando Resorts UORIt’s hard to look back. I enjoy haunted houses on a bunch of different levels, too. Since we do eight different ones, some of them are great scare houses. Some are great theatrical houses that have good scenery and great characters. I think the best accomplishment is, the way we present our haunted houses is different and unique. It really has a story. It’s got characters that are unbelievably unique, and most people have never imaged they could see characters and monsters and creatures like this live in front of them.

The level of detail of the house that you go to, the scenic design, the architecture—these things are mini-sets that are high quality film sets, and we’ve actually had—after 2008, we had a film company after we closed the event that went ahead and shot a movie in one of our haunted houses because it was perfect for their theme. It already had the level of a film quality set, and they went ahead and actually shot a full motion picture in it.

We do eight of those things. There are 10 scenes or 10 rooms in each haunted house. That’s close to 80 film sets that we create that have all the set dressings and props and stuff like that.

I think all those things make what we do here in a haunted house unique and probably something that you’ll never see anywhere else.

And then we change it next year. [laughs]

Which do you like working on better, the IPs or the original content?

It’s a balance. By nature, we enjoy a lot of our original content, and the characters that we’ve developed and created and figuring out those things people fall in love with like the IPs and like the other brands that we work with.

The interesting thing on the IP side, is some of these characters have never had this type of environment built for them. Like An American Werewolf in London, working with John Landis and bringing his vision that he brought to the film and all his vision about how he was going to stage the camera and where the lighting had to be specifically at this moment. Then we translate that to a whole different medium, this interactive, walk-through experience, where the audience can look anywhere they want to, at any time. They move at their own pace and their own method. How you control your storytelling that way, is different than how John Landis did it in the film. Doing that collaboration with the filmmakers and other people who own those characters and those brands and having them understand how we orchestrate this medium, is exciting and fun and we’ve had a blast working with unbelievable people from the likes of John Landis to Penn and Teller to creative people from films like The Cabin in the Woods and Evil Dead and some of our own properties like Wolfman and The Thing.

Again, working with those filmmakers and those scriptwriters and those storytellers and having them understand how it works in a walk-through attraction is fun and exciting, and we’ve been enjoying that for a few years.

Read more about Universal Orlando® Resort in July’s issue of On the Go!