Sunday, October 19, 2008

Universal's Halloween Horror Nights: Reflections of Fear

This article does contain elements of the entire event, therefore it does contain some SPOILERS!
Each zone is rated ouf of a scale of one to five (X/5)

Reflections of Fear is the name of this year's event, the story behind it rather vague. In fact, unless you visit their encryptic website (, you won't know whats going in. Entering the park, you encounter walking mirrors, who slink up next to you only to reflect your own scared face, or in most cases, slightly annoyed frowns. Another thirty feet ahead takes you into:

The Path of the Wicked (Scare Zone) 2/5
Not as much a path as a stroll through a drive-way. Cashing in on Universal's WICKED franchise, the Wicked Witch has taken over OZ (or at least this hundred foot stretch of pavement) and her flying monkeys are trying to kill you. But they can't kill you, they can barely fly. The horribly costumed monkeys zip over your head on lines whilst screaming like children. The Wicked Witch stands atop a castle made of scaffolding and banners taunting the passers by. The only reason to walk through here is the Tin Man, a horrifying version of his former self. Pass the path lies the first haunted houses.

"Creatures!" - 3/5
The story is an alien monster has crashed outside this backwater town. It has taken over the old bar and hotel in the woods, and turned its regulars into brain-dried zombies. The scenery is actually pretty good, but the make-up definately looked cliche. Pale faces and bloody heads, not much is used besides the actual aliens near the end. They looked very similar to the monsters from the Half-Life video games. It's a legthy run, and provides some amusing satire of rednecks in the woods, other than that nothing.

"Interstellar Terror" - 2/5
Remember ALIEN? I do, and so did the creative forces at Universal! Remember the horrifying creature that lurked in the shadows, the ever-evolving Xenomorph? The deadliest creature to ever reign terror on the silver screen? Well, it seems Universal did not. As you enter the mammoth set of a crashed space-ship, you navigate through egg crates and vacuum hoses. It's entirely too well lit, thus crushing the scares. But I didn't notice many scares here. It all seemed to be about the scenery. Flashing lights, alarms and zombified space explorers that just look at you. I don't really know what happened storywise, and it doesn't matter. The house was just horrible.

Leave Interstellar Terror and enter the
Streets of Blood - 3/5
Re-creating the streets of London at the turn of the 19th Century, women with cut throats wander aimlessly as mutilated men watch your every turn. The period costumes are wonderful, and the gore is awesome. The only sad part is the scare zone is very small, and with no scenery besides a carriage used in the Van Helsing movie and some lights. If you listen closely to the music, it contains a ten second clip of some very royalty-free music often used in cartoons as recent as Ren & Stimpy. Navigate the streets to enter

Body Collectors: Collections of the Past - 3/5
A sequel to the popular house from HHN 15, the Body Collectors return, and show the truth behind the Jack the Ripper stories. Turns out, the Collectors were using plagues and serial-killers as covers to harvest humans in the streets of Merry Olde England. As you enter the streets, you encounter the Collectors harvesting bones and organs from hapless victims. The characters themselves are very bizarre, and are always looking at you. The house uses several optical illusions, and is an exhbit-style house, as you pass by scenes of people being dismembered. The only problem was the fact that it's too easy to miss something. Other than that, a definate must see.

Leave the house, re-enter the streets and head forward to the San Francisco, where the Chainsaw Drill Team chase women around street lights. There is no scare zone here, in fact there won't be one for quite a while. Just take a left and enter

Doomsday - 1/5
I didn't see this movie. I didn't want to see this movie. Therefore I didn't want to see this house, but we entered anyway. In case you missed it, clips from the movie are projected along the side of the Disaster building's big white wall. It doesn't explain much, so we entered oblivious to any story. It seems there was some sort of disease that wiped out normal people and good music. As you walk through the dark hallways, people are constantly busting your ear drums by hitting pots and pans. The lighting was horrible, so I didn't see much of what was going on until the end, where I guess the main antagonist from the movie is singing on a stage. After passing the horrible lip-synch concert, you're done.

Next to the Doomsday house is the Rocky Horror Picture Show Tribute. I didn't see this, as I have seen the movie in theaters for several years now, and didn't want Universal to ruin this experience for me. I plan to go back and see it after hearing positive reviews, so I'll write a seperate review if I do. Head past the show and walk aimlessly pass more bars and absolutely nothing scary to

Reflections of Fear - 1/5
This year's icon house. Bloody Mary apparently was a psychologist specializing in fears. Her method of curing people of their stereotypical phobias was to subject them to their fears until it didn't bother them anymore. Okay, seems weird enough. You enter the house and once again it's another exhibit style. You pass bizarre experiments and victims, and nothing really happens. It's not scary at all. No one really pops out, they all just sit there and die. The ending results in Bloody Mary lunging out for you from the darkness with a blast of air and some breaking glass sounds (I guess she's coming from the mirror). It's really bad, and unfortunately had the longest wait. Boo.

Leaving reflections, we head past the Men In Black ride, where it was littered with shot girls. No not girls that had been shot, just girls dressed like slutty nurses selling IV bags filled with sour vodka. For six dollars a pop, I passed. We then went into

Dead Exposure - 3/5
A reporter, armed only with a camera, is fighting for the story of his life as zombies attack his office building. The sets are entirely black, as well as the monsters. The only time you can see is within the flash of a strobe light, a black-light strobe light to be exact. The sets are remarkable, and are proof that black light houses are not all the same. As the creatures shift in the darkness, you're presented with the fact that at any point you could be surrounded. The soundtrack was a little odd, but a good Zombie house.

After leaving Dead Exposure, I got my drink on with a ten dollar glowing cup filled with shelf-booze and stumbled into another house. We entered the next scare zone

Fractured Tales - 3/5
Featuring more costumed evil, you wander through yet another prop-devoid area of smoke and strange music. Classic fairy tale characters wander through and use some awesome use of costumes and props. We would've scored an extra point, but taking public domain characters and making them slutty doesn't count in our book. I've already seen thirty slutty Red Riding Hoods downtown selling drinks, these were no better.

The Hallow - 3/5
The story, we didn't get at all. We walked through this labyrinth of stone walls and bizarre monsters, a lot like that movie with David Bowie...oh yeah, Labyrinth. The costumes were great, but the lack of story and some really horrible sound effects took away from the experience. We ran out and beelined for

Scary Tales: Once Upon A Nightmare - 5/5
This was it. This was the best house out of all of them. You enter through a two-dimensional facade of a fairy-tale house. No introduction needed, its childhood cautionary tales gone demented. The best use of lights, costumes and music over all. We even did this house twice. The best scene we tied with the Mad Tea Party complete with a demented Alice in a rave-like scene of tablecloths and teapots and Goldilocks and the Three Bears starring a big angry bear that lunges out of the dark.

We opted out of the Brian Brushwood show to instead backtrack and catch this year's Bill and Ted show.

Bill and Ted meet Hellboy - 2/5
Starting off with topical humor on this year's crucial election, Obama and McCain hold a town-hall forum that happens to contain the warning for the show: loud noises, bad language and scantily clad dancers. The set was mediocre, a bunch of boxes stacked on top of each other that housed the best and worse of 2008's Hollywood. This year Bill and Ted had to defeat the elf-prince from the Hellboy movie (sorry, I can't remember his name for the life of me, and I couldn't write his name down because they only said it twice during loud music). They battle the bad guys, smoke some weed, use the word "shit" four times and then dance for no reason. I kind of wished we saw the magician.

We headed back towards the front, needing to see the other scare zones. Quickly, we headed towards

The Skoolhouse - 2/5
Based on the HHN 15 haunted house the Skool, you can actually walk through a tiny one room schoolhouse, and be harassed by masked school-children in gothic-american clothing. The costumes were cute, each actor holding a trick-or-treat basket with a loud bike horn, a bell or bloody prop inside. Speaking of American-Gothic...

American Gothic - 3/5
Another scare zone, this time wedged in a crowded street. Odd music and gunshots in the fog, it was incredibly dark inside. I guessed these were the older people who inhabited the village next to the Skoolhouse, providing a sense of continuity. Equally as frightening, the actors really got a good hold of how to hide in the mist. More period costumes placed us in the post Civil-War era. We enjoyed this one so much, we U-Turned and did it again, but also because we had to see

Asylum in Wonderland - 3/5
The final point of our night, the Wonderland set was the largest scare-zone. Filled with lasers, lights and a giant mushroom with a foul-mouthed catepillar. After being mauled by the White Rabbit and chased by the Tweedles, we sat and watched the rather eccentric characters torment people as we had one more drink.

Overall, the experience was mixed. We had no idea what the story was, and how these scenes tied together. We visited the website to tie up loose ends, but I feel I did a better job than they did. For the price of admission, the night was overpriced and way too crowded. I highly suggest going on a Sunday or Thursday night to avoid the waits, or to buy a Halloween Express Pass. To be honest, we Press Pass'd our way into each house and still missed the magic show and Rocky Horror.

FINAL SCORE - Three out of Five
Scare Zones were lacking, and stories behind the events did not exist. Little to no continuity. WAY TOO EXPENSIVE AND WAY TOO CROWDED.

How To Beat a Dead Horse: Blue Man Group

For over twenty years, these enigmatic men have been doing the same things: catching marshmallows, drumming with paint and scaring little kids.

When the Blue Man Group was announced as a new venue at Universal Orlando, I was ecstatic. I hadn't seem them in over six years since my trip to New York City. Before the show opened, I attended the Media preview, and got my taste of what hopefully was going to change Orlando's appeal. Recently, I was invited back and I got to see another performance last week. It was not what I remembered.

I entered the theater, and already noticed something was askew. A giant curtain seperated the front and back half of the theater. I asked an usher what it was for, and he told me that the show only sold enough tickets this evening to fill less than half the theater. I guess to make the show more intimate, they lower this black monstrosity so the customers don't feel like they are attending an unpopular show. As the light went down, something else happened. The audience began to yell and whistle similar to a cheap rock concert, something that had not happened during my full-house media preview a little over a year ago. The show starts and as the Blue Men would drum, screams of "Get 'er done" and "We love you blue babies" rang in my ears. I then saw where I was, I was surrounded by cheap beer and hot dogs in a dark room filled with drunks. I thought "Halloween Horror Nights", and this must be a bad crowd. The show pressed on.

Sadly, the performance was horrible. The band seemed out of tune compared to the CD recordings I listened to before attending, and the Blue Men were rather off as well. Failing to catch most of the marshmallows, and producing a horribly ugly "spin art" (a long-running staple of the show) they kept going. Throughout the night, the Blue Man attempted to make us laugh but the long and drawn out Captain Crunch bit and Ear-Drumming segment only made me cringe. After nearly two hours of a mediocre performance, I stumbled out of the theater. I asked another usher for the theater if the crowds were usually this annoying, hoping to hear "no, it's only because of Horror Nights". Sadly, the girl told me that this audience was rather like all of them over the past six to eight months.

A well lit souvineer stand whored out the ugly spin-art from the show for fifty dollars, adjacent to the theme-park priced snack stand with plenty of blue-themed mixed drinks and cocktails. I ran for the exit and wished I had never come. My expectations being undermined, I hope to make it to New York City soon to see the original show  and hopefully rekinder my interest.

At over SIXTY-FIVE dollars per ticket, the show fails to impress. I should've spent the twenty dollars to see GWAR throw fake blood on stage, antics that Blue Man imitates nightly and with less laughs.

SkyVenture really blows...literally.

Despite the commercials showing average people flying and having the time of their lives, I'd much sooner just jump off a building than go back to SkyVenture.

Cough up the forty-five dollar boarding fee, and your adventure begins. Actually, you're educational video to flying safely begins. The bulk of your forty-five minute journey is inside a classroom where you are taught via video how to fly. After Captain Obvious discloses the secrets of the highly-complicated "Thumbs-Up versus Thumbs-Down" system, you suit up into an itchy polyester suit and foam-lined helmet.

You line up to the flight chamber, where you and your soon to be airborne comrades await. One at a time, you enter the chamber with the instructor  and for three minutes you get to experience laying down above a jet engine. It's loud, it's painful and it's rather intimidating to look up to see giant spinning fan blades of death. Once your time is up, you step out of the chamber, and after your friends finish, you spend the remainder of your time watching the instructor Superman his way around the tube, doing the things you were told you were going to do.

All in all, it's a forty five dollar ticket to a giant fan and a three minute nap. Don't fall for it, pun intended.

Let's Go To FUN SPOT

It's Friday night, you just got paid and you're friends are bored as all get-out. Let's go to Fun Spot.

Home to Go-Karts, Kiddie Rides and an arcade in awesome repair, Fun Spot is the best place in town to blow your paycheck. The places runs on the arm-band admission system. For $4.99 you can play all day in the arcade (minus the token-operated prize ticket/prize games), and for increasing increments you can jump onto carnival rides and go-kart tracks. The ultimate ticket, a staggering $35 plus tax, allows unlimited access for the day to the park. The fact that you didn't have to pay for parking, and the park gives you unlimited free soda ties into the price.

The gas powered go-karts charge across some rather impressive tracks, some a little startling. Try barreling down a ramp over fifteen miles per hour that happens to turn before plummeting agood thirty feet, or tokyo-drifting the slick track and crashing into the barricades. The karts are stocked, so they all go the same speed, allowing a good competition against friends. After riding, hop out and grab a cup of Mountain Dew and head towards the carnival rides, where you can challenge your girlfriend to a round of "Who Pukes Last". Once your clothes dry, head inside to the arcade to play some awesome 1980's and 90's coin-op games like Joust, Donkey Kong, Time Crisis and The Simpsons. Then rest your blistered hands at the snack bar, featuring actually decent prices on french fries and chicken fingers.

Despite the rather steep admission, the park offers a good place to play for the 16+ crowd. There's no booze, so no drunk driving on or off the tracks. Seeing that you could have easily spent over $15 person for a two-hour movie, Fun Spot gives the best bang for your buck.

P.S. Don't forget to print the $6 Off Coupons!

I wonder how they stay open? A visit to WonderWorks

Nothing, and I mean nothing, could be a bigger waste of money than the tourist-trap "WonderWorks". Billboards along I-75, I-4 and I-95 showcase a giant museum that seems to have been flipped upside-down. Coupon books and maps tell of it's genius, and low-budget commercials on the Tourist Channel (available in most non-Disney hotels) claim it's a mind-blowing and educational experience for the young and young at heart.

Despite it's awesome advertising campaign, the quirky museum showcases nothing but disappointment. The back story behind the building is that it was once a research-facility located in the Bermuda Triangle, until an experiment lifted it from it's island hide-away and it landed upside-down on top of an old Pepsi bottling plant. Now, the institute has opened its inverted doors to the public and, for a small fee, can see the magnificient exhibits it holds within. A charming story, but paying over fifteen dollars per person for a trip through a carnival side-show is never worth it.

You begin your journey walking through an "inversion tunnel", a classic fun-house trick that makes people sick to their stomachs. Now you're walking on the ceiling of the upside-down museum. The first floor resembles an old laboratory with Earthquake and Hurrican simulators. Basically, a restaraunt booth that bounces you around and a room with a fan in it. Head upstairs (or...down stairs?) to a floor of hands-on experiments like...sticking your hands in ice water! The floor is filled with quarter-operated stregth-testers and love-meters, like the ones outside of Wal-Mart, except these are all turned to "Free Play". The second floor also boasts a room where you sit in the dark and listen to Jeff and Cindy explore a haunted-house...made out of MIDI songs and cheesy sound-effects. It's things like this that make me glad I'm a fan of The Residents. Down past the bed of nails, a bubble play-area and some broken video games is one more staircase. Now comes the pinnacle of the building. Roller-Coaster Simulators that allow you to build your own coaster and ride them. After waiting thirty minutes in line, you get to create your own ride, with a whole selection of nine track pieces that are all startingly similar. Then, strap into the cockpit of former state-of-the-art technology and ride! If you like sitting in enclosed spaces, watching a dirty and worn out projector as you hang upside-down, this is heaven. After your three minute ride through "Space Canyon", stumble through the turnstyle to a large quarter-stealing arcade and Laser Tag.

Now, I LOVE laser tag, and I often come with my friends to this arena, that offers the best deal in town to shoot children outside of Men in Black Alien Attack. The roomy black-light arena features cool music from the worst of the 1980's, and tons of cheesy sound effects. It's only worth it because of the $4.99 fee to play a fiteen minute round, and a $2.99 play-again fee. You can easily spend a little over an hour hear for ten dollars. This is the only place in the building where I had fun.

Head down the stairs painted with MC Escher styles to the first floor and gift shop. Oddly enough, there aren't many products slapped with the WonderWorks logo besides the overpriced green-screen take home photo. The main floor is also home to a Magic Show and Pizza Buffet, but I've yet to cough up the twenty or so bucks to see it.

If you're looking a cheap way to blow an hour or two, head to the Lazer Tag on the top floor, you don't have to buy a ticket to the museum to go there. Otherwise, unless you're traveling with a day-care, avoid WonderWorks quirky charms and just go to Chuck E Cheese's.

I cut my foot at Wet n' Wild!

Nothing screams Florida humidity better than Orlando, thanks to our ever changing Gulf Stream vs Atlantic Stream combat zone. What better way to chill off than a visit to Wet n' Wild? I know, how about a tub full of sand and ice-water?

Wet n' Wild is a local water-based amusement park that offers two things: luke-warm water, and lines long enough to waste two days on an Orlando Flexi-Ticket. The park boasts technologically superior water-slides at a fraction of the cost to visit a Disney water-park. Unfortunately, unless you go in the super-awesome off-season, you might not see but half of what the park has to offer.

My favorite slide, "The Storm", is a pipeline slide that propels you into a large bowl where you get to experience sliding along a giant toilet, before plummeting through the hole in the center and dropping six feet into freezing cold water. The experience is themed with broken strobe lights, a "rain-storm" (water misters along the top of the bowl) and thunder/lightning sound-effects reminiscent of that crappy Halloween sound-effects CD you bought at the dollar store. However, the 30-45 second experience is undermined by the 30-45 minute wait on the most cramped and uncomfortable spiral staircase in existence.

If slides aren't your thing, the park also features the staple "lazy-river" tube ride, but navigating past hormone-crazed teenagers making-out around eveyr corner, and children who scream to their parents that their raft is too scary make the relaxing river ride more like a trip down the River Styx.

Visiting in the off season (anytime that's not between mid-April to mid-August) can provide a good day of fun rides and experiences that can be shared by the whole family, or with a group of friends. A kid-friendly play that appears rather clean can assure parents that the E-Coli scares from the 1990's are gone, and plenty of thrill rides prove excellent re-ride value to teens and young adults alike. The wave pool and river allow adults a chance to get away from the ridiculous rock-and-roll theme songs of the slides. But make sure you all gather back up for a ride on the Disco H2O (a 1970's themed raft-ride similar to The Storm) and the Brain Washer, an giant cone-shaped slide that provides an awesome trippy experience at high speeds.

So if you're visiting during a warm time of year and the parks aren't to crowded, it's worth a try, but anytime during summer it's a disastrous waste of money that could easily have gone towards a dinner show.

Walking In Cirlces: Festival Bay Mall

Shopping. Nothing livens up the day like going out to spend money, and Orlando has some awesome places to blow cash. Unfortunately, unless you're a local, you've probably never heard of the Festival Bay Mall. Wedged near low-income housing and fast food restaraunts, Festival Bay never got what it signed up for.

Several years ago, the only reason to visit the giant concrete cave was the massive Bass Pro Shop or the Vans Skatepark (where they happened to film portions of the first Jackass movie). Most of the stalls inside the store were empty, and only a little foot traffic was to be seen.  Sadly, over the past few years not much has changed. Most of the mall remains empty, with facades showcasing how wonderful it would look if someone opened a business there. Several name-brand eateries show up around every corner such as Cold Stone Creamery, A&W and Churro Mania, but besides the endless over-prices buffet there isn't much to offer. The mall resembles a five-star flea-market with urban-style clothing stores complete with signs rush-ordered at the local Kinkos.

I do find myself stopping by this place fairly often though, it's extremely quiet and boasts one of the few remaining coin-operated Arcades. Light traffic inside the mall allows visits to usually more crowded stores such as Hot Topic and Steve and Barry's to be more like a time-wasting trip to K-Mart. Add to the fact that there are at least twenty soda vending machines around the mall that only require a dollar versus most mass-market malls two-dollar machines, I can keep chugging Dr. Pepper while aiming laser guns at virtual targets in the Bass Pro Shop.

Overall, the visit is nice. You can run into the ironic Ron-Jon surf shop (forty miles in-land isn't too far, amirite?) to grab a screaming-loud Hawaiian shirt then bolt over to the large indoor fountain to grab a bite to eat from an adjacent food-stand. If you're a local and you haven't been, grab a buddy or two and head out. But if you're visiting town and want to only see the high-end of the retail experience, stick with Mall at Millenia.