Universal's Halloween Horror Nights is still likely to happen this year, but big changes are in the works

"Even if Halloween Horror Nights happens as planned this fall, the very real possibility of heavy modifications seems unavoidable."

Universal's Halloween Horror Nights is still likely to happen this year, but big changes are in the works
Photo via Universal Studios

Despite coronavirus wrecking the economy, Universal still looks to be moving forward with Halloween Horror Nights, though this year may be the most unique one yet.

The annual event that began at Universal Studios Florida thirty years ago is now a global phenomenon and has become one of the most highly attended Halloween events in the world. Blockbuster film franchises are brought to life in stunning detail inside some of the most imaginative haunted houses.

Early speculation has this year’s event at Universal Orlando looking not that different than previous years, with ten houses, five scare zones and one large stage show. The Academy of Villains dance company is rumored to be returning for a brand-new stage show in the Fear Factor Live theater and being joined by a second lagoon-based fountain show.

The rumored themes for the houses, or mazes as fans call them, for this year point to Universal leaning more on original concepts and less upon third-party franchises. With rival Disney now owning the Fox catalog and with Warner Brothers creating their own Halloween event not far from Universal Studios Hollywood, it comes as no surprise these third-party opportunities aren’t as prevalent anymore.

This year may see a maze based on Beetlejuice, and one themed to Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is also rumored. Universal saw massive success with Netflix’s Stranger Things. That success has likely cemented a relationship between the two companies for the foreseeable future with rumors of a return of Stranger Things in the coming years alongside other Netflix franchises.With the limited amount of third-party intellectual properties, Universal looks to be going a different route. Rumors have persisted for months regarding pop superstar Billie Eilish being involved with the event. It’s still unclear exactly what will come from the collaboration, but as of now, the most substantial rumors point to her music being featured in a maze based on the classic Universal Monsters Bride of Frankenstein and Bride of Dracula.

Kenny Marcellis of the theme parks and pop culture-focused podcast Grim Grinning Hosts is a Halloween Horror Nights superfan who regularly discusses the latest rumors on multiple podcasts. He told Orlando Weekly why the addition of a pop music celebrity might be a smart one for Universal.

"Adding the soundtrack by Billie Eilish is an interesting move, and I would be excited to see the end result. Billie Eilish is very mainstream. Yes, they have gone mainstream in the past for sure. The difference is it was very mainstream in the Rock scene with performers like Slash, from Guns N Roses, or Alice Cooper," said  Marcellis. "This feels very much like an attempt to pull in a young demo as much as a mainstream demo."

He also noted that the focus on more original concepts could also pay off for Universal."Of course, no HHN celebration is complete without the amazing original houses they bring every year. The possibility of a heavy focus on past icons has the potential of some amazing concepts that could result in mazes that get talked about for years to come."

Some fans are worried that the event may be canceled due to coronavirus, but Universal has stated on Twitter that "at this time there are no changes to the announced schedule" for Halloween Horror Nights. Marcellis acknowledged that the current pandemic may not be enough to close the event, but it may still cause noticeable changes to it.

"Even if Halloween Horror Nights happens as planned this fall, the very real possibility of heavy modifications seems unavoidable. Social distancing is a priority for everyone these days," he says. "For an event that traditionally gathers extremely large crowds and thrives on close calls with actors and claustrophobic settings to create the high-intensity environments may have to be reconsidered and perhaps even planned differently this time around."

Mazes often include ropes, strings, sheets and other items that guests must walk through or touch while they navigate through the darkened scenes. Some houses have also included hallways with inflatable walls that sandwich guests between them, causing a claustrophobic sensation. It’s assumed all of these high contact style scares won’t be used at this year’s event.

Universal may also use virtual queues or other systems that could eliminate standby lines and limit the number of guests who are in a maze at a single time. Having small groups go inside the mazes, according to Marcellis, could both create a scarier, more personal experience while helping address safety concerns for scare actors who have been assaulted by guests in the past.

Universal is exploring dramatically lowering the capacity of its theme parks and potentially requiring all guests to partake in rapid COVID tests prior to entering them. If the daytime operations shift to these protocols, special events like Halloween Horror Nights would likely follow suit. This could mean Halloween Horror Nights may sell out faster than ever, and shows like Academy of Villains may end up taking the year off. With the event still roughly 20 weeks away, it's still too early to tell exactly what it will end up looking like, but as Marcellis says, "it will be a very interesting year of HHN, to say the least."

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando is scheduled to run on select nights between Sept. 10 and Nov. 1.

This article originally was published at our sister paper Orlando Weekly

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