Universal Studios Florida: the Hollywood that Once Was

It’s no secret that Universal Orlando Resort’s history is rich with television and film production. But where has it all gone? The short answer is that republicans took over the state government in 1998 and began chopping away at the incentives for filming in the state. If you look at the former (mainly TV) productions that used to film at Universal Studios Florida, you’ll notice that the late 90s and early 2000s are when the numbers began to drop to nearly nothing of consequence, save a TV episode here and there. Correlation may not equal causation, but this evidence to support the republicans killing off Florida’s film business may be anecdotal, but no less significant. All kinds of shows and TV movies were filmed in the sound stages and in and around the “working studio” theme park. Recently, Jennifer Beals was announced to be the sheriff in the new Swamp Thing TV show, and that prompted the idea to explore the history of productions in the park since the original 90s Swamp Thing TV show was filmed where the Men in Black attraction is located. Call it nostalgia; but knowing what used to flourish may prompt voters to think about who’s moving into the governor’s mansion this November. More than the politics of showbusiness and state legislature, delving into the variety of shows that once called Universal Studio Florida home proves to be an interesting and fun journey.

Headlining the most high profile productions to use the theatrical and television production facilities at Universal Florida is Nickelodeon Studios. Not only was it the most recognizable name using the production facilities, it was also incorporated into the park’s operations in order to further immerse the Universal Studios guests into the magic of TV and movies. In November 1988, Nickelodeon moved to the sunshine state and built its colorful office building with the big orange Nickelodeon sign on the front and eventual slime geyser in the forecourt. Although the production facilities were in use prior to the theme park officially opening, the official opening of the studio coincided with the theme park on June 7, 1990. The official opening allowed park guests to take a tour of the studio and guests could even audition for or join the studio audience during tapings of shows. Double DareFigure It Out, Legends of the Hidden Temple, GUTS, All That, and others are among those that regularly filmed. Shows like What Would You Do? often brought the cameras into the park in order to interact with guests. Sound stages 18 and 19 along with seasonally leased Stage 21 were home to some of your favorite Nickelodeon shows from the 90s. When the studios were in operation (many regard this as Nickelodeon’s golden age), more than a dozen kid/teen sitcoms, twenty game shows, and five children’s shows were shot at the main studios. Operating throughout the day were tours of of the facility for Universal Studios Florida guests; but during tapings, interested parties could signup to be in the studio audiences and kids/teens could even audition for the game shows when taping.

Well, what happened? After the republican legislation took over Florida in 1998, and the film incentives were greatly reduced, Nickelodeon along with Universal and Disney-MGM Studios began to book fewer and fewer shows. Furthermore, with the transition Nickelodeon was going through from live action game shows to more traditional sitcoms not intended for live studio audiences in the way Clarissa Explains it All, All That, and others in the early-mid 90s were, the studio shifted its focus back west. Eventually, Nickelodeon built new studios in California. So, it was a combination of lack of state film incentives and changing the direction of the content that were responsible for the eventual closure of the studio operations in 2004; and eventually, the administrative offices were moved to Santa Monica in 2005. From hundreds of employees to double digits, and eventually none at all, Nickelodeon employed many showbusiness professionals in Florida. And since the closure of the studio, the opportunities have greatly dwindled. Returning the state film incentives could recreate film and television opportunities. The story of Nickelodeon from 1988 to 2004 represents a kind of Hollywood that existed that was responsible for careers and unique theme park experiences.

Not only was Nickelodeon responsible for the “Hollywood of the east,” as Universal Studios Florida was considered from the time it opened for about 8-10yrs, there were a number of other shows that were also filmed there. Where many Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) houses are now located, used to be the stages where television and film was made. While Nickelodeon and Universal were the only “permanent” residents of the studio property, other shows and movies taped there throughout the early to mid 1990s.

Although the filming of this next movie for Universal Television (released on Showtime) was supposed to wrap before the park opened, early park guests had the rare opportunity to watch Anthony Perkins reprise his iconic role as Norman Bates in Psycho IV. That’s right, the last installment in the Psycho franchise was taped right there at Universal Florida! Until 1998, the Bates House and Motel were located where Barney is now. Park guests could get up close and personal with the standing sets much in the same way they can at the world famous studio tour in Hollywood. In an effort to have a working studio theme park concept, high profile productions were needed to cement the idea of Hollywood made here. Showing a production on a famous set in the park was a brilliant way of taking park guests behind the magic of the movies. The park’s slogan at the time was “ride the movies,” so this took that concept further, and allowed park guests to “experience” the movies. Not only was a Hollywood movie getting made at the brand new Universal Studios Florida, it became an attraction and popular photo opportunity for the next eight years. For those who missed the filming, park guests could still get up close and personal with Hitchcock’s most famous movie at Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies.

A couple of multi-season different shows called Universal Studios Florida home for the duration of their respective run. SeaQuest DSV (starting season 2) and Swamp ThingSeaQuest moved from Los Angeles to Orlando in 1995 for the filming of the second season. Other than some scenes that were shot in and around Orlando Tampa, most of the show was filmed in Sound Stages 20, 24, and 28. When the park offered a backlot tram tour, park guests could occasionally see into the sound stages when not not closed for filming. In nearby Sound Stage 21, the Universal picture Parenthood was filmed. Office building 22 housed the permanent and rental office space for the various productions on property. On the other side of the park where Men in Black is now located, was the Swamp Thing set. Although not part of the studio tram tour, guests could book additional tours of some of the active sets on property. Over the years, there were many other television shows and movies filmed at Universal Studios Florida. Knowing that movie and television magic was being made right there in Orlando added an intrinsic value to the experience of the theme park in its early years. It truly felt like Hollywood was right here in Orlando.

Those who love movies and theme parks were in awe of all the attractions and movie magic on display at Universal Studios Florida. And if you are a kid of the 90s, you remember all too well the closing of Nickelodeon shows “recorded in front of a live studios audience in Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios Florida.” And your parents likely remember the neon logo at the end of Swamp Thing and SeaQuest. What could be better than a movie-themed theme park that was also a bustling studio for a movie and TV fan? Not a whole lot. Unfortunately, when Florida switched from a Dem to a GOP governor in 1998, slowly the number of productions began to dry up as the state ended its desirable incentives. Sound stages were empty or primarily used for Halloween Horror Nights, Nickelodeon turned into Blue Man Group, sound stages destroyed for Rip Ride Rockit and more from the early 2000s to today. Very little is left of the Hollywood that once was. Still there are buildings in the park that sand testament to the role the theme park played in the many productions that took place, by in large, from 1990-2000. So much history–right here in Orlando! Hard to believe all the movie magic that was made part of the experience of visiting Universal Studios Florida.

If you live in Florida, and would like to see movie magic return to the Sunshine State, think about who will push for those state-level tax and other financial incentives to generate a renaissance of opportunities for those who love movies so much that they want to be part of making them.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Howl-O-Scream 2018 Full Review

Howl-O-Scream is here, and there is #NowhereToHide from the hoards of zombies, killer toys, sociopathic butchers, and more! Opening this past weekend, Busch Gardens’ annual Halloween event kicked off with thunderous applause from all  the fiends that dared face the horrors of the six houses and scare zones. With some new additions to the HOS lineup, this year was screamtastic! From coasters with zombies to great food and drinks, Busch Gardens provides the best value for a large scale haunted event. Enter if you dare, but be warned that there are terrors around every corner and where you least expect them to be, including on Busch Gardens’ heart-heart-pounding coasters! Might just find yourself riding next to a vomit-inducing zombie. In her encore year, HOS also bids the queen of Death Water Bayou a ghoulish farewell. Select night from now until October 27th, you don’t want to miss a single epic moment of Howl-O-Scream 2018 at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

The frights begin even before you enter the from gate. Wandering hoards of a variety of all that goes bump in the night will be your personal poltergeist. In order to make sure you make the most of your time at HOS, I highly recommend the front-of-the-line pass. Fortunately, my friend and I had them on opening night, and it allowed us to move about casually about the event. Even if you do not elect to get the front-of-the-line pass, you will most likely make it to all the houses if you begin right at start time. But, the best way to experience HOS is every night of the event with the season pass. With general admission prices well below Halloween Horror Nights, Howl-O-Scream provides park guests with the most band for your buck. I am often asked by my followers on Twitter which event is more fun or to compare the two, and I often reply with the cliche analogy of apples and oranges because both are fruit, yet unique. Whereas HHN has a much higher production quality, HOS has the better scares. At least, that rings true for my friends and me who attend both these events every year. We go to HHN for the familiar IPs and to HOS to get scared. After all these years, it is getting more and more difficult to startle or scare me. So scare factor is important when I attend a theme park or local haunt.

Entering the park from the Nairobi Gate (for the media event), I found myself in the Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) scare zone. The costumes were brilliant! Between the Mexican themed food, music, and the projections on the Moroccan Palace, it was truly an immersive scare zone to kick the opening night festivities off in a superb fashion. After celebrating the Day of the Dead with the inhabitants of that scare zone, my friend Dani and fellow Tweep Off of the Go were on our way to checkin to one of this year’s new houses Insomnia. Insomnia is in the location where Zombie Containment Unit used to be, and it’s a HUGE upgrade. In fact, Insomnia is in the running to be the most popular this year. In the Insomnia house, you are walking through a disturbing psychiatric hospital of the most bizarre nature. While touring this sinister place, you will encounter unimaginable terror around every corner. You’ll not only want to watch out for deadly patients but what lurks in the walls and ceilings. If you can make it out alive, you’ll have more to worry about than Freddy Krueger next time you go to sleep. Maybe it’s best if you never sleep again.

One of my favorite parts of Howl-O-Scream every year is the annual Fiends show!! Consistently irreverent and hilariously funny, this show is the highlight of my experience each year. I was especially excited for it this year because Universal canceled the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure show. As much as I enjoy the macabre nature of the houses and scare zones, Fiends provides park guests an opportunity to laugh! This laughter is both immensely entertaining and it cleanses the pallet for continued enjoyment of the horrifying attractions. Join Dr. Freakenstein, Igor, their sexy pink nurses and all the rest of the fiends as they celebrate Dr. Freakenstein’s birthday number 666. The jokes are funnier, lewder, racier than ever—it’s the honor comedy show not to be missed. Fiends consistently delivers an incredible show that will hold your attention and cause you to possibly engage in uncontrollable laughter the entire time. Whoever writes the show, must have an amazingly fun time doing so! Dr. Freakenstein and Igor are equal opportunity offenders. No one is safe from their riffs and banter. Especially a certain orange-skinned individual with a terrible combover. So much eye candy at the show. Whether you’re looking for sexy pink female nurses, mesmerizingly beautiful vampires, hot shirtless male dancers, or totally rad mummies that can breakdance like no one’s business, you will find them in Dr. Freakenstein’s Castle.

Next door to Fiends is The Black Spot pirate themed haunted maze. Likely in its final year, this is a house returning from the last few years  that invites park guests to enter into a treacherous land of pirates, sea creatures, treasure, and curses. One of my favorite things about this house is entering in through a pirate ship and encountering a massive rock skull. It may not be one of my favorite houses this year, but I do enjoy the themed design. The scares could use a little work, but the production design is solid. Personally, I prefer Dead Fall, which was in this location prior to Black Spot. Once we disembarked the pirate ship, we needed to head for our hotel—motel, rather. The journey would not be as simple as hailing a taxi or requesting an Uber. We had to make the journey on foot through the Deadly Toys scare zone. There is little more terrifying and creepy than that which is otherwise innocent, being twisted into something truly sinister. Chainsaw wielding teddy bears, possessed dolls, killer clowns, and more. Even the toy boxes are enough to strike fear in your mind. Once we escaped the clutches of the dolls, bears, and clowns, we arrived at our destination

Motel Hell is still my favorite house at HOS. Of all the houses, it is the most detailed and elaborate. If there was any one house at HOS that was of an HHN original house quality, it is Motel Hell. I feel that it is the strongest house for effective and consistent theming that works to transport you from a theme park to a rundown motel from the 1950s. Every room in this motel has something terrifying to offer the residents. And yes, it’s complete with that 1940s scratchy high pitched record music too. Something straight out of Insidious. Even though each room is unique, there is still a great deal of coherency in the design. You never feel that you have been taken out of the story. Underneath beds, in bath tubs, in dark corners, and behind the walls, it will feel that there is no way out of this hell. Just when you think it’s over, that’s when the scar actors will get you. In addition to being the best in design, it’s also the most fun house. Lots of horror tropes here!

Located across from Motel Hell is Busch Gardens’ first area to be recommended for 17 years of age and up. With no one checking IDs, I am not sure how this is monitored but I imagine that if someone under the age of 17 wonders in, they have been warned that this is a disturbing area. After all, you are in a meat market. Animals and humans too. There are elements of this scare zone that are not for the faint of heart. If you’re looking to get a great HOS photo, then the photo opportunities in Meat Market are for you. With several to choose from, there is a setting for every fiend. Simon’s Slaughterhouse is a new house for HOS this year that is recommended for those who are 17 years of age and older because of the disturbing and intense material. In this house, you may be separated from your group at the front entrance, which alone can increase the terror level. As you navigate this claustrophobic maze through a sinister slaughterhouse, you will encounter the sounds of meat being harvested, and I am not just talking animals.

If you emerge mostly unscathed from Simon’s Slaughterhouse, you’ll want to make your way to visit the excavation at Unearthed. Returning this year, Unearthed’s maze is modified and additional props are used. Instead of entering the house from the Gwazi platform and walking past that amazing animatronic tree that I’ve always found impressive, you enter in from the basement, so to speak. In order to find your way through the maze, you are given a flashlight. A nice touch! My friend Dani carried the flashlight for us so I could take pictures. Speaking of which, unless you have a lens with a wide-open aperture, photos in side the houses are actually difficult to take. Other than the entrance, the house is largely unchanged. Like Motel Hell, I find that this one has a solid production design, full of details. One of the things that I feel is missing from this house, that cold improve it, is a coherent story. When it was first revealed a few years ago, it has more of a story than it does now. Bringing that back, can assist in the over all experience of this house.

Standing between you and the park’s exit is the Hell on Wheels scare zone. I hope you’re not hungry or thirsty when approaching this scare zone. You see, a notorious gang has staked claim to the food and water supplies after an apocalyptic event. You cannot outrun these bad ass motorcycle gang members, and with #NowhereToHide, you are going to be on the run of your life. Lots of sliders in this area, and those sliders’ scares are always effective. Although we found ourselves in the front of the park, we still wanted to visit the Camp DOA scare zone in the back of the park. Dani and I also had a few scareactors that we wanted to find! We were also craving a pretzel dog from Pantopia. Dani has a friend who’s one of the scareactors in the Maniac Midway, and we missed her earlier when we rode Falcon’s Fury.

Since we arrived in Pantopia before her friend came out, we took a moment to grab our pretzel dogs from that dope quick service location near Falcon’s Fury. I greatly appreciate Busch Garden’s for doing their best to include so many local horror enthusiast and actors who just want to have fun scaring and creeping out HOS guests. No matter if someone may not have the range of physical abilities as others. If you show an enthusiasm for a desire to scare the HOS guests, then Busch Gardens will do their best to accommodate and include you. After spending a moment getting scared by Dani’s friend who was hiding in the shadows in order to startle those who venture into the midway overrun by maniac clowns. Next we made our way over to Sheikra to catch one of my new friends I’ve met on Twitter (MisfitsUnmanaged) who is playing a cider smoking chain-saw wielding clown. But before we can get to Sheikra, we must pass through the Camp DOA scare zone. Located where the Wasteland scare zone used to be, this scare zone is a great interpretation of summer camp slasher horror movies. I love this quick story because it just goes to show how social media can provide an opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals! Fortunately, the timing worked so that MisfitsUnmanaged was going to be coming out as Dani and I were in the Sheikra area. Lastly, I needed to see another friend of mine that I figure skate with who was playing a ghost-like zombie in the front of the park. Timing was perfect, we got to get our picture together!

Well, there you have it! A comprehensive review of Howl-O-Scream 2018 at Busch Gardens!  Although opening weekend has come and gone, you still have many more weekends to enjoy this event! With tickets starting at $39, it’s a fantastic value that gives you the most bank for your buck. I need to return to ride Cheetah Hunt and Skeikra with scareactors, but that just gives me even more reason to get the season pass so I can go back time and time again.

 

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Halloween Horror Nights XXVIII Full Review

What an opening weekend! This past weekend saw the grand opening of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 28, and it has got to be the busiest weekend that I can remember in the last several years. Headlining this year’s HHN is Stranger Things and Poltergeist followed by eight other licensed and original IP houses. Boasting more houses than ever, HHN28 has got to be one of the best years yet. Although there is some disagreement on whether Stranger Things or Poltergeist is the best IP house or Slaughter Sinema or Scary Tales is the best original house this year, there is little (if any) disagreement on the level of attendance reaching epic proportions! Wait times for Stranger Things reached 150mins, and many other houses also had extreme wait times. Often, opening weekend tends to be less busy than the following weekends, but HHN fans were turning out in droves to attend Friday and/or Saturday nights. The energy level was incredible! Fans from all different age groups were all excited to enter the gates as the theme music from Stranger Things, Halloween, and Poltergeist filled the air. Armed with my Express Pass for Friday night and Rush of Fear HHN ticket, I was excited to meet up with my annual HHN crew for a night of frights and fun set to the beat of 1980s music and horror. One might even go so far as to say that this year’s HHN is an entertaining love letter to everything we loved about the 80s.

Prior to arriving at the archway, I just had get to the park. A lot easier said than done. There were so many horror fiends heading to HHN that the exit ramp from the 4 to the park was backed up to the driving lane. Not to mention the 40mph traffic all along I-4EB for miles and miles that I drove through. Once I finally got to the auto toll plaza for parking, I thought everything would move a little more smoothly. Nope. Although each of the toll booth holds two team members, from what I could tell, each booth had ONE–yes one–team member. After I finally parked, I looked at my watch and realized that nearly 45mins past from the exit ramp to the parking spot. Tip to Universal: please fully staff the booths to move cars through the plaza more efficiently. Once I made it to the archway, I had to pickup my tickets from the will-call kiosk. And just like usual, at the kiosk, neither liked my QR code nor my confirmation number. I encounter this problem every year. Any tips from those of you who do not have problems with the kiosk would be appreciated!

Finally, I was at HHN! Phew, what a process. But it was all worth it! One of my favorite things to observe is the variety of horror graphic T’s. So many different horror movies and fandoms represented. There is truly a sense of community at HHN. Maybe you don’t think about that at first because of the long standby (and even Express) wait times this year; but for those of us who love horror, this is the time of year (and the event) that we feel that we are not weird as characterized by popular culture at large. Even before I arrived, I had many fellow #FilmTwitter #Tweeps who hoped to see me, and I them, at the event. Unfortunately, I didn’t run into any of my Twitter followers at HHN this year, but I had a lot of fun following them, and reading what they thought about the different houses. Even though I did not end up meeting up with any of those I follow (or follow me) on Twitter, I felt connected to them through exchanging comments as we were all experiencing HHN at the same time. What I would like to see emerge from the Twitter and blogging communities as well as the #PodernFamily (podcasters) is to make an effort to connect in person as much as digitally. Perhaps many of us are covering HHN for our various media outlets; but at the end of the day, we are all there to have fun and should exhibit that same sense of community in person as we do through social media. Be social in real life!

(Twisted Tater has sense been added to the event)

Before I get into my brief review of each house, there is one other item of mention that I greatly missed at this year’s HHN. Twisted Tater. Yes. That spirally, starchy, fried goodness that has been a staple of HHN for what seems like forever. It was nowhere to be found. At least, I never found it nor did I see anyone post about it. Thankfully, my friend Dani and I had Twited Tater back during Mardi Gras, but we were both saddened that it was not part of HHN this year. Speaking of food, I do not feel that the selection of HHN food was as strong this year as it has been in the past. Yes, that Stranger Things cookie-like treat was popular on social media, but most of the HHN food seemed to skew towards sweets moreso than savory or starchy. In the future, aside from Twisted Tater returning, a nice balance of foods for any fix that an HHN guest may have, should be added. Oh yeah, Pizza-dogs need to return too! The fries just don’t do it. Speaking of fries, fresh cut fries would be a great addition to the food lineup!

Although it’s the houses that typically get the most attention running up to and during the event, after last year’s success of the elaborately immersive Trick ‘r Treat scare zone, the scare zones have begun to get an increased level of attention. Like with last year’s Trick ‘r Treat, it stands to reason that scare zones can definitely be used as a testing ground for future houses. The concept of testing an IP or concept for a house in a scare zone the previous year is not new, but it seems to be becoming more of the case over the last couple years. Scare zones this year are: The Harvest, Vamp ’85, Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Twisted Traditions, Revenge of Chucky, and I also count the annual chainsaw wielding clowns in Springfield.

The Harvest: Here you’ll encounter all the horrors you have ever feared were in your grandparents’ barn. I feel that this scare zone was a little weak compared to what is typically in this same area, but still a fun scare zone to get you in the mood for your night of horror. One of the best parts of the scare zone are the variety and amount of jack-o-lanterns! They are everywhere. It feels very much like Halloween!

Vamp ’85: Ring in the new year with 1980s vampires and music! Loved the small stage show! With many of the houses having roots in the 80s, this zone worked extremely well to continue that immersive love letter to the 1980s. Make sure to stay for the countdown but watch out for big haired vampires in flashy clothes!

Killer Clowns from Outer Space: My pick for favorite scare zone! Absolutely loved this scare zone, and I know you will to. Based on the cult classic, this scare zone has the best costumes and atmosphere. It successfully strikes that balance between horror and comedy, and works as a fun way to cleanse the pallet from the much darker areas of the rest of the park.

Twisted Traditions: Best part of this scare zone is the creepy church building! I walked though this scare zone a couple times, but unfortunately, I never felt that it actually accomplished what it set out to do. Only the church building is memorable. Couldn’t name one unique costume.

Revenge of Chucky: I was pretty hyped for this scare zone because I like the movies so much, but it was a bit disappointing. However, the interactive Good Guys display with Chucky was great! And that man baby you’ve probably seen on Twitter of IG was truly disturbing. I think it could have used a little more scare factor. Maybe even a Chucky jumping out at guests or something. It was okay, just not quite what I expected.

Now for what you really want to know about–the houses!

GET THE EXPRESS PASS even if just for one night, which is what I did. It is definitely worth the cost.

Poltergeist: MY FAVORITE HOUSE at HHN28! Such a successful translation from screen to live experience. All the moments from the movie that you want to see and experience are there! I wonder if real skeletons were used in the HHN house like in the movie, hence the curse and lore that follows Hooper and Spielberg’s movie to this day. You start in the back of the house in the pool then make your way through the infamous suburban home. The scares are perfectly effective and the production design is right out of the movie.

Stranger Things: This is likely the house that you may be looking forward to experiencing the most, as it is the other headliner house this year. The demogorgon will chase you throughout the house. All the scenes and locations from the show that you want to see are in the HHN28 house. And the lighting and special effects are spot on. From the living room with the Christmas lights to the Upside Dows, you will feel completely immersed in the world of Hawkins! The only negative criticism I have is the lack of live cast members. Yes, much has to do with an inability to cast kids in a house, but the absence was noticeable.

Halloween 4: With the highly anticipated Halloween (2018) releasing next month, Michael Myers once again returns to HHN! This is the third Michael house in the last few years with Halloween 1 and 2 with 3 being skipped since Michael is not actually in it. It’s a fun house for sure! And you get lots and lots of Michael. It’s been a while since I’ve seen H4; but from what I remember, this house does capture many scenes and elements of the movie. However, ultimately I feel that this house feels like more of a Michael Myers tribute than a “Halloween 4” house. This may be the case because HHN will be going on a Michael break for a while.

Trick ‘r Treat: In short, it works better as a scare zone than a house. That being said, it’s still a solid house with many of the scenes you want to see recreated. You’ll encounter Sam several times and you’ll get to see some of your favorite kills from the movie.

The Horrors of Blumhouse: If you need to skip a house for the sake of time, skip this one. Better than last year, but still (and according to most polls and reviews I’ve seen on Twitter) the least liked house at HHN28. At this house, you walk through Happy Death Day and First Purge. HDD was repetitive. Yes, I realize that is the point because the movie is a twisted Groundhog Day, but as a house it gets old quickly. And then The Purge movies just don’t translate well to a house, with the exception of the first one, which was more of a home invasion.

Scary Tales: My pick for best original house! From the moment you enter the Wicked Witch’s castle as she flies overhead, you will be completely immersed in the absolutely impressive production design that works perfectly around every corner. Each and every fairy tale was twisted beautifully. The effects were fantastic and the attention to detail was unlike anything I’ve seen in an original house before. What I find most interesting about the experience is that this house actually gets back to the original idea behind these tales in that most fairy tales were darkly cautionary stories told to influence a child’s behavior. Many are quite scary! So, this feels like an exaggerated version of how these tales were received back when originally written.

Slaughter Sinema: Close runner up to Scary Tales. Ever wanted to visit the world of those schlocky horror films of the 1980s??? Now is your opportunity to get inside the screen. Such a great house! While waiting in queue, you’ll get to watch trailers of some terrible, great horror movies. My personal favorite is Attack of the Swamp Yeti. The movies are so bad that I want to see each of them. Too bad that they are completely made up for this event. You’ll enter this house through an old drive in movie theatre then walk through each of the movies. There are some excellent kills and the production design is impressive!

Seeds of Extinction: Life after people! Visit an Arizona that is overrun by predatory plants and see you as their next dinner. A post-apocalyptic house is not entirely new, but this is a new twist on a past concept. We are used to being chased by zombies or creatures, but now you must fear plants. Some will eat you whole and others will shoot you with poisonous darts like the plants in Jumanji.

Carnival Graveyard: What is more terrifying than an abandoned carnival inhabited by hillbillies and killer clowns? Not much, haha. This house successfully combines the best of circus and hillbilly horror for one nightmarish house. Of all the original houses, this one is probably the most detailed. Even more than Scary Tales. The scares are so good! I like how the characters are extensions of the setting itself instead of feeling like their are just stuck in there to frighten us.

Dead Exposure: Ehh. This is a concept that has been done before, and like before, it fails to ever be truly scary. The idea is that you have been given an inoculation to prevent you from turning into a zombie after an outbreak at a facility. This shot is said to have nasty side effects such as disorientation. And on that, the house delivers in spades. The lighting design and special effects were so disorienting that I legitimately had trouble walking around to the point that is was annoying and not playful.

I did not experience Academy of Villains. And that is by choice. I felt like Harry Potter talking to Snape when he exclaims “how dare you stand where he stood…” That is how I felt because it’s now located in the stadium where Bill & Ted used to be. A horror comedy show that is built upon satire and parody is missing from the HHN28 lineup. If for no other reason, this show served as a means to take a break from the macabre and cleanse the pallet for more frights! I hope to see a show along these lines return one day.

Well, there you have it folks! A comprehensive review of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights XXVIII. You definitely need to get out to HHN while it is going on. Fortunately for you, it just opened so you have several more weeks of HHN on select nights. With a variety of tickets and passes to choose from, there is a ticket for nearly every budget. If you can only go one night, I highly recommend getting the Express Pass. Otherwise, you may only make it to 2-3 or at the most 4 houses during your night.

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Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies (1990-2003)

Since we are gearing up for the highly anticipated Halloween events at theme parks around the country and with Halloween Horror Nights Orlando and Howl-O-Scream Tampa beginning soon, I thought it would be fun to take a look at one of my all-time favorite attractions at Universal Studios Florida that was built around the magic of movies and the macabre.

Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies was an opening day attraction at Universal Studios Florida, and stood as tribute to the Master of Suspense and father of the modern horror film from 1990 to 2003. In addition to the attraction/show in Production Central near the front entrance of the park, the Bates Motel and house were located near E.T.. This set was used for the filming of Psycho IV: the Beginning, and welcomed guests from 1990 to 1998. The very heart of Universal Studios Florida was immersing the park guests into the magic of filmmaking and creating an experiential journey, placing you on the set of your favorite movies. Shifting away from the magic of movie making to completely immersing park guests into the movie worlds themselves, Universal Orlando replaced the Hitchcock attraction with Shrek 4D. Fortunately, the Horror Makeup Show and the seasonal Halloween Horror Nights event still keep the heritage of horror and suspense alive, as Universal essentially invented the American horror film. As I love exploring the past, present, and future of the parks, I thought it would be fun to hop in the wayback machine to analyze just why this attraction was popular then, and why there’s been a resurgence of interest and popularity. Perhaps we will see Hitchcock return to Universal Studios Florida in a move permanent way in the future with horror and suspense films being some of the biggest box office and critical success of recent years.

Prior to analyzing the former Florida attraction, it is important to head to the other side of the country to briefly visit the word famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood! Believe it or not, the Universal Studios tour dates back to 1915. That’s right. It predates Walt Disney’s Disneyland. So, one could hypothesize that Disney appropriated the idea of turning a movie studio into a theme park from Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios. Starting as a walking tour that included a stunt show until “talkies” forced the studio to shutter the tour, until it reopened as the tram tour in the 1960s, one of the crowd favorite parts of the tour is driving past the infamous Bates Motel and Bates House. As the tram passes the iconic motel and house that set the bar against which all other horror films would be judged, an actor portraying Norman Bates charges toward the tram wielding the famous butcher’s knife (Murdy, 2002). Even though the audience knows this is a tour behind the scenes of the most utilized backlot and studio in the world (Milman, 2001), there is something uniquely special about this chance encounter on the tour. And, that something is what the designers of the guest experience on the studio tour use to bring about the successful convergence combining both the original movie and the live experience. In order to successfully complete the transposition from the movie to the live experience, the attraction designers tapped into the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud, 1919) of Psycho and utilized the elements of terror and shock to facilitate the aura of horror that exists just by looking upon the timeless motel and house. Uncanny, referring to that which is revealed that should remain hidden–the return of the repressed. For more on how Freud’s uncanny influences horror films, please see my article The Psychology of Horror. 

Central to Psycho and the single most famous moment in cinema history (Cosgrove, 2013) is the brilliantly perfect shower scene. And, it served as the main event at the former Universal Studios Florida Hitchcock attraction. Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. took park guests into the world of suspense and horror as meticulously crafted and defined by Alfred Hitchcock. For those who have seen Psycho, the very sight of the motel and house is enough to strike fear into the mind and bloodstream. It is representative of the very best that horror cinema is able to offer society. In no attraction, based off a work of horror, is there a better example of the very essence of the magic of creating horror films than in the synergistic experience of beholding the four-fold elemental process of Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. 

The aforementioned attraction was divided up into four distinct parts, with the famous shower scene being the central focus (ThePsychoMovies.com, 2014). According to an interview with one of the producers of the attraction, Susan Lustig describes the process of creating a horrific live experience from the horror of the iconic movie itself. Just like a horror movie is divided up into parts, or has a cinematic structure, so too did the Hitchcock attraction. There are many parallels between the famous shower scene and the live attraction. In the movie, the sequence leading up to the shower scene is very much a preshow in the same way the attraction contains a preshow area. The preshow in the movie is when Norman is gazing through the peephole into the room of Marion as she undresses. Just like Norman is visually gathering information about Marion, the park guests in the preshow area gather information about Hitchcock’s career and a glimpse into his masterful techniques. Thanks to “idrion,” you can watch the old preshow video below!

Next, the park guests sit through clips of 3D versions of Dial M for Murder and The Birds. Before 3D movies became commonplace in your local cinema, Hitchcock experimented with it back in the mid 20th century. Much like he was a pioneer of more traditional visual storytelling, he also experimented with color 3D films. On the note of his groundbreaking decisions as a film director, Hitch was also a pioneer in the early days of television with his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While sitting in the Hitchcock 3D theatre, park guests watched an entire scene from Dial M for Murder and select scene from The Birds. In a manner of speaking, this part of the attraction worked to assault the eye with suspense and terror; moreover, this presentation prepped the mind for experiencing the horror in the next room. Paralleling this element of the attraction to the film, is Norman’s actions after he spies on Marion and before “mother” takes over. Between the time Norman looked upon Marion through the peephole and puts on the wig and dress, he sits in the kitchen and presumably debates with mother on what to do. In a similar way, you were also faced with what to do with the information you gathered from the presentation. You could go onto the next room or exit the attraction. As we all know, following that scene, “mother” returns to the bathroom to save her son from Marion. And you, much like Normal/Mother, will soon head to the infamous Bates Motel bathroom. The old Hitchcock 3D theatre is the one currently used by Shrek 4D, an attraction that pales in comparison.

After the 3D movie, the park guests enter the Hitchcock Stage and look upon recreations of the motel, shower, and house. The main show at the attraction is the Hitchcock Stage where the infamous shower scene is reenacted before a live audience. A side note: if you experienced the Krampus HHN26 house, then you were in the old Hitchcock stage! In addition to the Bates House and Motel, there is a recreation of the tub/shower used by Hitchcock to film the scene. At this point in the movie, Marion is thoroughly enjoying her shower, cleansing herself from her transgression of stealing the money. Hitch constructs the scene in such a way that the audience gets both objective and subjective camera shots from inside and outside the shower. All of a sudden a shadowy figure approaches the opaque shower curtain and throws it open, wielding a knife. The sinister figure stabs Marion repeatedly; and through more than fifty cuts (editing cuts), the scene is played before the people in the dark. Likewise, this same scene is brought to life for the studio audience at Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. Through mechanical engineering and film production techniques, the cast of the show reveals how the master of suspense filmed this iconic scene. Whereas you may think that this reveal of the “man behind the curtain,” so to speak, may impact the brilliance of this scene, it actually gives audiences a greater appreciation of it. It’s attractions like this that I miss from the Universal Studios parks and resorts lineup. In order to experience the show for yourself, checkout the following video from SandhillDigger.

Following the show on the Hitchcock Stage, the park guests walk into a museum-like room revealing many of Hitchcock’s secrets and techniques in some of his most notable films. It parallels the end of Psycho when the psychiatrist is analyzing Norman and explaining how and why he did what he did. You could even peer through binoculars to the apartment building across the street just like in Vertigo. For the cinephile or film buff, this museum opened eyes and minds to the magic that was the films of Hitchcock. If there was any doubt that he was a pioneer ahead of his time, which may explain why he never won an Oscar but was nominated several times, then this exhibition puts those doubts to bed. Just like Norman was the forerunner to the classic slasher and father of cinematic psychopaths, Hitchcock is still the master of the art of suspense and horror cinema.

Horror has always been popular and bankable; however, in the last several years with arthouse horror making it big, classic franchises getting new installments, and horror television taking off with the debut of American Horror Story, there has been a resurgence in popularity among general audiences and younger millennials. Since horror is the best genre for creatively and viscerally exploring what it means to be human, social and institutional constructs, gender roles, religion, and more, the general public is drawn to it in order to provide a different perspective on social commentary. With this newfound interest in the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock is once again in the forefront of minds. When movies such as the recent Searching and others such as Get Out, A Cure for Wellness, and A Quiet Place being compared to Hitchcock–or at least elements of the respective films–those whom are developing their taste for cinema look to see why and how Hitch was influential. Interest in the Master of Suspense is once again growing. With such an interest and growing fanbase, perhaps Universal will once again look for a way to integrate Hitchcock into the park, even if just for HHN.

 

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Checkout my book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks

 

Bibliography

Cosgrove, Ben, The Shower Scene in Psycho, Time Magazine, November 16, 2012

Davis, Susan, The Theme Park as a Global Industry, Media Culture and Society, Sage Publications, July 1996

Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press, London, 1919

King, Geoff, Ride-Films and Films as Rides in the Contemporary Hollywood Cinema of Attractions. Cineaction, 2000

Milman, Andy, Future of Themed Entertainment, Journal of Travel Research, Sage Publications, 2001

Murdy, John, The World Famous Universal Studio Tour, The Park Insider Magazine, Summer 2002

Movie Massacre.com, Dismantling of Universal Studios: Bates Motel and House, June 21, 2010, Accessed from http://www.moviemassacre.com/blog/the-evolution-of-universal-studios-florida-part-1

Oliver, M., & Bartsch, A. (2010). Appreciation as Audience Response: Exploring Entertainment Gratifications Beyond Hedonism. Human Communication Research

Psycho, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Universal Studios, 1960

Singer, Matt, Jaws and the Changing Face of Movie Theme Parks, Independent Film Channel website, 2011

Universal Studios Florida Attraction, The Psycho Movies.com, Accessed from http://www.thepsychomovies.com/archive/floridaattraction.html

 

Full Theme Park Review of Bier Fest at Busch Gardens

The thrills are on tap at Busch Gardens Bier Fest! If you’re looking for delicious tavern fare and refreshing craft beer, then come on out to Busch Gardens first annual Bier Fest taking place on weekends now through September 16th, including Labor Day! The combinations and pairings are nearly endless. The best way to experience the delectable event is with a sampler lanyard. Unlike some food and wine/beer festivals that seem to never have enough hightop tables and shade, Busch Gardens has made sure that there are plenty of places to gather around with your friends and family to enjoy the bountiful bier and food.

With so many taverns to choose from, the most difficult part about the experience is just knowing where to begin. Late august early September tends to be a slow time in the parks, so the event was developed as a way to bridge the gap between Summer Nights and Howl-O-Scream. And the decision has been a hit! Nestled in the area of the park that is largely seen as a pass through to the Australia and Sesame areas, the layout of the taverns provides a quaint feel that gives it that quintessential festival ambiance that creates an incredibly inviting atmosphere. Complete with Instagram Walls, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to take memorable photos as well. I encourage you to head out to Busch Gardens to experience it yourself!

The festival grounds begin just before you arrive at the old Gwazi courtyard and continues to Australia and up to the back entrance to Gwazi field. Greeted by some fun Instagram walls, a giant menu of all the beer, and friendly welcome center, you have all the tools necessary to plan your time at Bier Fest. Between the handy festival guide and large print menus at the taverns, you’ll never find yourself wondering where something is or feel overwhelmed because the guides make the info easy to digest, if you will. In addition to the tavern fare and craft beer, you’ll also be able to enjoy bourbon and wine tasting! I recommend the Angel’s Envy!

In order to take a break from the Florida sun and humidity, I highly recommend cooling off at the “hottest show on ice” Turn It Up! With several showtimes during the event, you’ll certainly have time to make your way over to the Moroccan Palace Theatre for this award-winning show.

Here are my recommendations for tasty pairings:

Cheese Curds with Truffles & Pilsner lager

Pretzel Bratwurst & Oktoberfest beer

Chicken Kabob & Pineapple Coconut hard water

All Beef Slider & Vibin’ lager

Grilled Lamb Kefta & Rose Cider

Fish ‘n Chips & Cucumber weisse

For all the event has going for it and has brilliantly executed, there are a few items of mention that I think would be great modifications and additions for next year. One thing I noticed is that the food taverns only offered commercial beer (Bud, Miller, Coors, ec). So, I found myself going from a food tavern across the festival grounds to a craft beer tavern. Although I understand the importance and strategy behind consolidating the craft beers to their respective taverns, I think that at least one craft beer option should be at each food tavern. Even though you don’t typically think of sweets at an event that is all about the savory, I would like to see a few dessert options available for purchase. The frozen drinks do hit the sweet spot, but even a couple sweet items amongst the variety of savory would be great.

You’ll definitely enjoy the live entertainment and atmospheric music from the speakers. Busch Gardens offers a variety of live music guests and house music of chill covers of some of your favorite songs. Even Cyndi Lauper’s timeless classic Time After Time  gets a male vocal cover that pairs nicely with your food and drink. The live entertainers take the stage towards the back of the festival and each one I heard did a great job of interacting with the park guests.

I had so much fun, and I know that you will too! For the best way to experience the festival, you’ll want to purchase a sampler lanyard. There are two affordable options, and a special offering for Annual Pass Holders. Aside from the financial savings, the sampler lanyard also allows you to save time and increase the convenience of ordering your food and beer. I’ve used the sampler lanyard at other Busch Gardens festivals, and have always enjoyed it!

Cheers!

For festival details, please visit the Busch Gardens website

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