Well, here we are, about to dig into one of my all-time favorite places in the theme park world, Universal Studios Orlando Resort! Three epic theme parks(and another being built), seven onsite hotels, and special events like Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights!
Photo Courtesy of Universal Studios
In this article, we’re going to focus on how to properly enjoy an annual event that has steadily become the most popular offering in the entire resort! The Universal Halloween Horror nights 2023 event nights run from select nights September 1st – November 4th 2023.
We’re talking about ten unique and top-tier haunted houses, five Scare Zones, numerous rides and attractions that remain open during the event, themed shows, and thousands of guests who embrace the vibe by wearing their own costumes to the park!
It’s the top of the heap when considering the Halloween events offered by amusement parks around the country. I will tell you exactly why that is and some tips and tricks to maximize the fun.
Let’s start right at the beginning…while the sun is still up!
Table of Contents
What To Expect
There are a few ways we can go about a Halloween Horror Nights excursion. The simplest way is to purchase a ticket for the event, arrive before the 6:30 pm est opening time, and have some fun!
But is that the best way? In my opinion, absolutely not.
To give you some perspective on how I developed my points of view, Universal Orlando was my home park (along with Disney World) for about 16 years. I was what you’d call a local. Even though we lived about 3 hours away in the Ft Lauderdale area, that is more than close enough to visit these parks numerous times each year.
Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) is such a big deal for Universal that thousands of people will travel from far and wide to experience the event. It’s also so good that millions of Florida residents also view this as an absolute must-do each year.
It doesn’t hurt that Florida residents get some extra special deals just for being from the state! I know this from experience. If you are a Florida resident, don’t forget to look at the specific offers made just for you!
With so many people prioritizing this particular event, planning is key! Failure to plan is planning to fail. That’s my motto. Well, it’s actually Albert Einstein, but we can certainly use it here, especially when trying to make sense of the potential madhouse that can be Universal Orlando during Halloween Horror Nights!
So let’s get you all acclimated with what this really looks like before we devise our plan of attack.
Where Is Halloween Horror Nights Exactly?
First off, it’s good to know that the Halloween Horror Nights event is held in one of the three theme parks you will find here. It takes place at the park called Universal Studios Florida.
But I thought that was the name of the whole place. Well, it is but one of the three parks also carries that name. The other two parks are named Islands of Adventure and the water park, Volcano Bay.
This isn’t as confusing as it might sound initially, but we need to know this one from the start.
Universal Horror Nights are held specifically at the Universal Studios Florida section of the resort.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is to assume a ticket to the theme park includes admission to Halloween Horror Nights. IT DOES NOT!
Right around 5:30 pm every night of the Halloween season, Universal staff will begin to usher people out of the park who do not also carry admission passes for the nighttime event. So, it’s of paramount importance that you buy your admission to the Halloween Horror Nights event ahead of time.
We will get into the pricing and options you can choose from a bit later, but showing up to Halloween Horror Nights without a specific event admission ticket can end up adding a lot of time waiting in long lines or even worse. Refusal of Admittance!
It’s rare, but I have known people to be turned away due to capacity being met. What could be worse than excitedly making the trek to Universal for the Halloween event, only to be told you can’t come in?
They make it really easy to purchase tickets online. Go ahead and do that to remove all of the potential issues right from the start.
If you’re traveling from anywhere farther away to experience this amazing event, it might behoove you to consider making a full day, or weekend, of it.
My favorite way to go about this whole scary party is to commit to the fun. There are numerous benefits to thinking about this as a little bigger of a trip than just a single select night of spooky fun.
Here’s my recommendation.
This is even better if you’ve never been to Universal Orlando before, but works just as well if you have. If we’re making the trip, we’re gonna make it worth it!
Where to Stay-Staying On-Site
The first thing I do is get my mind around how I will absorb as much of this place as possible. With Halloween Horror Nights taking place in Universal Studios park, I want to spend the daytime hours in Islands of Adventure if I can.
This is the park where the two newest world-class roller coasters, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Coaster and The Velocicoaster, are located! The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spiderman, and Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey are all on that side of the property!
Many of the best rides at the Studios park are still open during the Halloween event. So, while we can spend the day over there just as easily, we will have plenty of opportunities to enjoy rides like The Mummy, Rip Ride Rock It, and Transformers while we’re over there at night.
Playing at both theme parks all day and night is best served by staying on location at one of their hotels. As I mentioned earlier, there are seven onsite hotels to choose from.
Sure there are tons of rooms in the Orlando area, and you might be able to find a better deal out there, but there are serious benefits to staying right where we are.
The onsite hotels offer different price points to match a wide variety of budgets, but I’m going to go right to the top end to help explain the benefits and how they actually save you money if you commit to the good stuff.
There are three “Premium” Hotels on the property that seem slightly out of range at times, but let’s deconstruct them a bit so we can see the truth.
Universal Loews Royal Pacific, Portofino Bay & Hard Rock Hotel
Those premium hotels happen to be the three original hotels that Universal built for us. They are the Universal Loews Royal Pacific, Portofino Bay, and the Hard Rock Hotel. All three offer the same benefits, but they are not created equally. Of course, you may prefer one theme over another but let’s dig into the specifics.
Universal uses a pricing method to encourage you to believe one is better than the other. It is not. They would have you believe the Loews Portofino Bay is the best you can get and that the Royal Pacific and Hard Rock could be better.
For one, the Portofino Bay Hotel is the furthest away of the premium hotels, but they just don’t offer anything that warrants paying extra per night over the other two.
The rooms, the restaurants, and the staff are fine but no better than the other two hotels.
So let’s just commit to the Royal Pacific Hotel When comparing that to the less expensive Cabana Bay, you might think it’s an easy decision to choose the latter.
Well, what if I told you that the Royal Pacific came with their Unlimited Express Pass for all of the guests in the room?
It would cost over $100 a person for the pass so right there you are saving money! Plus you get to stay in a better and more comfortable hotel.
Couple that with beautiful river transportation almost right to the front of the theme parks, and it makes a ton of sense to begin this way. The Cabana Bay uses a bus system, which will get you there, but loses the really nice aspect of the river trip.
Now we can spend the daylight hours enjoying Islands of Adventure before freshening up for the big Halloween festivities over at the other theme park!
This idea will pay off big time on the back end of the night as well. Walking or taking the river boat right over to the hotel at 2 am is fantastic compared to the idea of getting in the car to drive all the way home! (I’ve done that too. It stinks)
Arriving At Halloween Horror Nights
Ok, so we have our Halloween Horror night tickets and our room, we’ve had a great day skipping the lines at Islands Of Adventure, and we’re all ready to head over to the Universal Studios park for a night of ghouls and goblins. (Tips on dinner later)
The first thing we want to remember is the festivities run from 6:30 pm – 2 am every night of its operation. There are two waves of people who take advantage of this time frame, in my experience.
There’s the early crowd who show up at 6:30 pm, which is most of the folks trying to jump on all the haunted houses and rides. This is also where most of the families can be found.
Then there is the creepy crawly late crowd. Many teenagers and people dressed up in costumes start to show up in force around 8-9 pm and stay till closing.
I’ve been a part of both groups (I never wore the costumes, though), so I’ve had experience with what both ends of the spectrum can offer.
Many people show up early and stay late too, but you will notice the crowd flip if you stay long enough. It can add to the eeriness if you make it past the midnight hour, Creeeeepy time.
Walking through the gate with your tickets will be where you first notice how great of an idea it was to grab our tickets beforehand. As you walk by, there will still be droves of people waiting to purchase their tickets.
It happens every year.
**If you’ve taken my advice and are staying at a Universal onsite hotel, there’s another neat little benefit for you as well. When you’re walking up to the ticketing gate, take a look all the way to the left.
This is where you will see the designated entrance for onsite hotel guests. This can sometimes save quite a bit of time, avoiding the masses trying to get into the park. Don’t forget about this one!
Tips- Plan Of Attack-Part 1
Let’s assume we’re a part of the early crowd, and we’re going to try and get ahead of the pack right away.
Getting through the ticket gate will be the last time you are not exposed to spookiness, so suck it all up now. Brace yourself for walking through one of the first two ScareZones right off the bat.
There is no way to avoid them. The good news is that these tend to be a bit on the mellower side, but I have met those two little girls from the shining right in the first ScareZone. They just so happen to be one of my all-time bugaboos, so it might get scary right away for you too!
Walking in, you have three choices. Walk straight and head toward the New York City skyline, make a right and head down Hollywood Blvd or hit your first haunted house right near the entrance.
Most people want to jump right on the first available haunted house, but that’s not always the best idea. It keeps you with the main part of the crowd and you could get bound up while the rest of the park fills up, and it fills up fast.
My suggestion, especially because we’re early, is to walk right by the first house and walk back to some of the priority houses.
Priority Houses are the ones themed after popular IPs (Intellectual Properties) like Stranger Things, Friday the 13th, Rob Zombie, and such.
It’s not that these houses are always better than the original creations by Universal each year, but they are definitely going to get the longest lines throughout the night.
Here is a list of all of the Haunted Houses here in 2023:
Bloodmoon: Dark OfferingsB. The Exorcist: Believer
Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate
YETI: Campground Kills
Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count
Dr. Oddfellow’s Twisted Origins
The Darkest Deal
The Last of UsTM
Universal Monsters: Unmasked
If we walk right by that first house near the entrance, you can make your way to the back where there is less lines.
Walking the outside path of the park will take you past most of the fun stuff you want to see and do, but it’s really up to you to decide the priorities from here. Cut across the park to head to the two IP-themed houses near the Kid Zone section, or continue the loop around the back of the park.
There is plenty to do and see around the back end of the park. So the logic to continue the loop is strong.
But you might want to do it otherwise. And for those who do, let’s take a look at another plan of attack that can work even better than the first one I offered!
Tips- Plan Of Attack – Part 2
Ok, so let’s rewind and back it all the way up to the gate again.
When we walk in, we will follow the same straight-ahead path for a bit, but when we get to the Universal Store on the left-hand side, we’ll hang a hard right now.
There will be some folks heading this way too, but most of the crowd, especially the inexperienced ones, will get sucked forward by all of the ghouls, houses, demons, and excitement standing straight ahead of them.
We’re going to fight that urge and head to what will be, in most cases, a much less congested area early on. Of course, the entire park will fill up pretty rapidly as the evening ticks along, but for now, we’re trying to give ourselves the best opportunity to experience as much as we can.
When we make that right-hand turn, we will head down Hollywood Blvd and into what is traditionally one of the darker ScareZones.
Enjoy the ScareZones but try not to linger too long before we hit the houses. They will be there all night. We want to get to the priority houses as quickly as we can.
Here is a list of the ScareZones that will be at the park in 2023:
- Dr. Oddfellow’s Collection of Horrors
- Vamp ’69: Summer of Blood
- Shipyard 32: Horrors Unhinged
- Jungle of Doom: Expedition Horror
- Dark Zodiac
It’s crucial to remember Halloween Horror Nights is Universal’s most popular event, and it gets jam-packed. You are not going to get out of there without crashing into and dealing with the very large crowds.
It’s just not real, so don’t expect it. The whole idea is to use whatever tools are available so we can beat as much of the crowd as we can. We want to experience the maximum possible offerings from Halloween at Universal.
It takes thought, consideration, commitment, and, most of all, planning.
Now let’s get into a sometimes controversial subject that can change the dynamic of the entire night. The Express pass!!!
To Express Or Not To Express
Ok, I told you all about the Unlimited Express Pass that comes with staying at one of the three premier Universal Hotels. And that’s fantastic, but it’s important to know it does not transfer to the Halloween Horror Nights side of things. I found this out the hard way about 5-6 years ago.
Do you want to hear what the Halloween Horror Night’s Express Pass costs? Hold on to your hat.
After paying the $85.00 entry fee per person, you will need to pony up $150.00 additional dollars per person for the HHN Express Pass.
This has created anger and pushback online over the years, but Universal is unwavering. They know what they have, and they know people are going to want to pay it once they see just how long the lines can get.
I remember the first time I saw that Express Pass price. “Wait… it’s MORE than the admission price?” is what I said. Then after a few choice words, I stubbornly refused to purchase one on principle, of course.
It’s not that I didn’t have a great time without it. I did. But I would be lying if I told you I didn’t think about that Express Pass the entire night. Every time I stood in an hour-long line and watched the Express Pass folks just strolling on by and laughing as they did (or at least that’s how I saw it).
I can tell you that even though I hated the idea of paying that much for the Express Pass, I’ve never gone to HHN without having one again. Grumble as I might, I was grateful to have it when I was there.
I still remember laughing with my friends as I walked by the long lines. Not really, of course. I am incredibly empathetic to those waiting in lines. I’ve been them. Many times actually.
So, this will be one of the larger choices you will have to make when planning your Halloween Horror Nights trip.
Spending an additional $600 for a group of 4 after paying for admission and hotel can be a tall order. I get it, believe me. But I like to think about such things because of the experiential value.
What I can afford, and what level of commitment I have to make this a special event.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve done and what we get for it. This is for a group of 4 people.
Should I bring The Children?
I live in Virginia, and my home parks are Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, and Kings Dominion. Both parks have a Halloween event, offering something to protect the younger kids from the frights. They have a light-up necklace of sorts that tells the ghouls in the ScareZones not to mess with the child wearing it.
The crazy guy running around with the bloody chainsaw will stop in his tracks and pass the little one by if they have that necklace on.
Universal Halloween Horror Nights do no such thing.
They embrace the full fright factor with blood & guts, screams of terror, and legitimately scary monsters creeping around all over the place. There’s even an added adult element with half-naked women and tribal headhunter-themed men who are wearing next-to-nothing loin cloth codpieces.
Very risque shows in the middle of the walkways can be scary and titillating.
Universal does not recommend HHN for children under 13 and makes no apologies should the 5-year-old you decide to bring with you gets traumatized. This is the real thing.
Experience the full creativity, skill, and potency of one of the most powerful movie companies in the world trying to scare you. They know what they’re doing, and we’ve been warned.
Tips: Plan Of Attack- 2.1
I want to elaborate on why I recommended going to Islands of Adventure during the day and give you a serious benefit if you disregard that advice and head to the Studios during the day.
First off, I’m all about maximizing the fun. I’ve been an intense amusement park nerd since I was eight years old. Now they call me a Coaster or Theme Park Enthusiast. I’ve been there and done that in many, many sought-after spots where rides and attractions are king.
As I see it, we will spend approximately 7 ½ hours in the Universal Studios park during HHN. Many of the best rides are still open during the Halloween event, so we can hit them if we’d like during the night.
From the maximizing perspective, it could be a bit of overkill to spend all day and night in the same park. As fun as a theme park can be, fatigue sets in at even the best of places.
Especially when Universal Studios is set up for the Halloween event all day, much of the props are already in place even before the event starts. Crashed cars, bloody signs saying “HELP US,” and the like are everywhere.
Spending all day immersed in the scene, even without the ghouls, can take away some of the impacts later in the evening. I’ve done this. It’s real.
Walking into the Studios after they’ve set up the whole scene for us and when they are ready for you to experience the spooky side is a fantastic experience. Again, they are among the best at this in the entire world.
Experiencing the uniqueness of Islands of Adventure during the day can set up an amazingly different vibe for your nighttime visit to the Studios. Fog machines, eerie lighting, the actors, and the props are just the best when they are ready for you!
There is one super duper benefit should you want to forgo my advice and stick with the Studios park all day and night.
There is a loophole to beat the lines in a big way. But it’s only applicable to a specific group who chooses to handle the day in a specific way.
If you have admission to Universal Studios Park AND Halloween Horror Nights. AND are already inside the park when they start ushering people out before the HHN event, you can stay inside.
That’s right. You will be among the select few who have the run of the place without having to wait in what can be massive lines at the gates later that night. Even with our exclusive onsite hotel entrance, it can still be a long wait to get in.
This will enable you to literally go to the haunted house you want to experience most and wait there for it to open. You could be first in line.
This will not only allow you to get into a popular house without waiting. But you will also be able to get the jump on the next house or two before the lines get long.
And many of them are going to get log jammed at the first house they see near the front gate. It’s what most people do and why I don’t recommend stopping at that house first in any of my recommendations.
We call it the tourist trap house. We also hold to this philosophy when visiting any amusement park. Most folks run to the first coaster or ride they see. Leave them behind and run further into the park. You can get that whole section done before the mob even gets there.
Then we can go where they just left!
It’s the best!
So, staying inside the park does afford you a serious benefit once you make it to that part of the day. It’s a rather large sacrifice to pull it off though. That will be another idea you will have to ponder on your own.
It’s good when you do it. Make no mistake. But it’s at the risk of missing out on a ton of great experiences throughout the day. Plus you risk that theme park fatigue we spoke about earlier.
The Last Spooky Tips
Ok, I know this is going to be a lot. And I also know this is at the risk of confusing you a bit, but I’m going to give you one more tip before we get into where we’re going to eat throughout this magical day of chills and thrills.
I told you all sorts of ways to beat the crowds and save some money. I’ve also told you how to maximize the experience by spending a little more than you might have planned.
Well, let’s squish this whole waiting in line thing or having to stay inside the wrong park all day.
There is something called The Scream Early Ticket that can get you past all of this stuff. For a mere $40.00 per person, you can get permission to enter the Universal Studios park, with an HHN ticket, of course, around 3 pm (must be in the park before 5pm), and are then allowed to stay until the festivities begin at 6:30.
Why wouldn’t I want to do this one, you might ask? Well, that’s another $160.00 for our group of four, and it could definitely start to feel like we’re paying extra money around every corner.
The truth is, Universal has figured it all out. They offer a fantastic event, and all we really have to do is pay the admission fee of $85.00 to enjoy it.
But there are tiers of enjoyment that Universal has placed a value on. These tiers can literally change the experience for you. As I said before, they know what they have, and they also know exactly how to maximize profits.
That said, what you get for your dollar far exceeds most, if not all, other Halloween events out there.
Do you want to hear another one?
I’m not going to spend long on this tip; truth be told, I’ve never done it. I do know people who have, and they swear by it.
It’s a “once you know” type of experience. The type of experience that could very well ruin any other options for you.
The RIP Tour
This one is called The RIP tour! (a spooky little play on a VIP tour)
Let’s imagine having a designated guide to tour us around the park. Give us backstage access and historical factoids. And being escorted to the front of the line on every single haunted house, theme park attraction, and reserved seating at all of the shows.
That’s the RIP tour.
In addition to all of that. There is private access to the exclusive food and drink of the pre-tour reception at Cafe LaBamba and other spots as well. It’s quite the package, actually.
The RIP tour does add a significant cost, though. That’s the downside. You have to call to get pricing but I am guessing it will be over $400 per person and does not include your ticket to HHN.
If we do the math and start removing the Scream Early pass and the unlimited Express Pass, it does chip away at that cost, but let’s be real here. It’s a whole different level of expense to join the RIP tour.
The good news? I’ve never heard, even one time, that it wasn’t worth it. If it’s within your budget, I recommend giving it a go. I think I just might when I make it to my next Universal HHN.
Where to Eat
Islands Of Adventure
We are going to need to eat all throughout this excursion of ours. That’s obvious. But we have to ask ourselves a few questions before we do.
- How much do we want to spend?
- Decide how much time do we want to allot to eat in a theme park?
- How good do we need the food to be?
- Do we value experience over value?
Since we chose to spend the day at Islands of Adventure. I will give you a couple of really solid recommendations.
The first is for the experience and the quality. The number one restaurant in the whole park has got to be Mythos in the Lost Continent section of the park. The theming is exceptional and the experience and food are great.
This restaurant has won best theme park restaurant 8 or 9 times over the years. It’s got the goods.
While this is a little on the more expensive side, it’s not going to blow your doors off. I have found the prices to be reasonable for the sit-down atmosphere I was receiving.
Secondly, we’re going to jump on the secret gem of the entire park. That’s the Fire Eaters Grill. People walk right by this unassuming spot right in the same general Lost Continent area as Mythos.
It has a limited menu, but it’s always good. It’s always fast, and it’s just about as inexpensive as you’re going to find in the park. It has a menu of hummus w/ pita and kabobs all the way to chili cheese fries. It’s an interesting place that I strongly recommend.
Between the Parks- City Walk
Between our day at Islands of Adventure and our night at Halloween Horror Nights, we have a choice to make. Head over to Moe’s Southwest or Burger King’s Whopper Bar to stuff something quick down our gullets. Or take some time to enjoy a dining experience that can only be found at Universal’s City Walk.
There is no shortage of options in the City Walk area of Universal Studios Orlando. Nestled right between the two massive theme parks. City Walk has everything from Bubba Gump Shrimp to Menchies frozen yogurt. To unique restaurants like the CowFish Sushi-Burger Bar or, my recommendation, The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, and Savory Feast Emporium.
Boy, that’s a mouthful right there. (pun intended)
This restaurant is arguably the most unique of all at Universal and is fun and delicious. With the large candy store up front, there is a theme of chocolate throughout. They even weave that ingredient into many of their savory dishes.
Warm chocolate almond bread appetizers and cocoa pork tenderloin sweeten up a robust menu packed with stellar options.
It’s not a good idea to leave without getting one of their incredible shakes, either. Those things are seriously unbelievable! I can honestly tell you this is where I’ve gotten the best shake of my life. And that’s saying something.
Universal Studios During The Event
While I recommend getting the food piece taken care of before you enter the Halloween event. Getting hungry while you’re there is possible. It happens.
My thought is to try and fill up so I don’t have to waste any time away from what I paid for. The haunted houses, rides, and ScareZones!
If we get hungry while we’re among the goblins and demons, there are a couple of solid staples I will let you know about.
First is Mel’s Drive-In er… um Mel’s DIE In. Excuse me. The burgers and fries here are always the same every time we go, and they’re good. Relatively quick and inexpensive, this is one we’ve chosen numerous times.
Another is kind of outside the fray a little bit. But if you’re planning to spend any time in Diagon Alley. The Leaky Cauldron is a really unique treat that can surely add some pizzazz to the whole experience.
There will be plenty of quick service spots open throughout the park. Stopping at Bone Chillin for a quick pretzel might be more of what you’re looking for. If that’s the case, you will have a very few issues while you’re there.
So there ya have it. A whole bunch of possibilities to ponder at one of the world’s truly epic Halloween events. I can’t tell you whether or not any one specific plan will work for you and your needs. But it’s good to have options.
The one thing I will never go to an event like Halloween Horror Nights without is a plan. It’s the most important thing. Randomly poking around is not likely to produce the results you’re hoping for when you pony up the kind of money Universal requires.
Once you have a plan, try to stick to it as best you can. Trust your research and commit. My family likes to playfully call me the tyrant at theme parks. And I do understand. There’s a difference between stressfully dragging everyone along with your plan and having the plan as a foundation to lean on. If you are in Orlando visiting Walt Disney World around October 31st (or between September 1 – November 4th) be sure to check out HHN31.
Either way, you’re going to be blown away by the spectacle that is HHN31. I can almost guarantee it.
As long as you get out alive!!!!
More Family Fun Activities in Orlando to Check Out!
Visit the Kennedy Space Center Visit the home to space travel in Florida with this interactive museum
Medieval Times Dinner and Show Step back to the times of knights with this 4-course meal and jousting tournament
Go City Explorer Pass Save on Orlando’s top attractions
Sea Life Orlando Aquarium Get up close to marine life at this amazing museum
Let the fun continue by visiting Disney’s Halloween fun!