Want your Halloween horror-filled or Not-So-Scary? Pick your poison at Disney or Universal

The two most popular theme-park operators take distinctly different approaches to celebrating Halloween. For starters, just compare the names: Universal Studios calls its event Halloween Horror Nights while Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party sounds decidedly milder.

Unlike most theme park Halloween events, Universal incorporates popular movies and TV shows. The thrills offered at the separately-ticketed Halloween Horror Night events hosted by its Orlando and Hollywood parks are PG-13 in nature, featuring houses are filled with blood, gore, jump scares, and plenty of other things that are the stuff of nightmares – especially if you have clown issues.

As you might expect, things are more G-rated over at Disney, the home of Mickey Mouse, princesses, and talking toys. Granted, things do get a bit weird when characters from offbeat auteur Tim Burton get involved. But on the whole, the Halloween offerings at California’s Disneyland and California Adventure and Florida’s Disney World are generally as innocuous as those chirpy “it’s a small world” dolls.

Universal Studios

This year marks the 29th season of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando, where the festivities are a bigger and are offered on more nights (through Nov. 2) than at its sister park, Universal Studios Hollywood, (through Nov. 3). But both events have a lot in common, including many of its haunted houses.

This year, the “Stranger Things” attraction returns to both the Florida and California parks. The 2019 mazes take their inspiration from Seasons 2 and 3, taking visitors back to the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, site of more than its fair share of paranormal drama. 

"Stranger Things" Halloween Horror NIght House at both Universal parks. (Photo: Universal Studios)

But instead of passively watching “Stranger Things” from the comfort of their sofas, guests walk through the iconic sets and come face-to-face with Eleven and visit the Upside Down. And as is the case with many of its Halloween Horror Night houses, Universal’s designers have outdone themselves, making it look like the sets were lifted straight from the show rather than just recreated.

The ’80s homage continues with houses devoted to 1984’s “Ghostbusters” and 1988’s “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.” As with the movies, both of the houses mix in humor, although the “Killer Klowns” comedy is decidedly off-kilter. But don’t let your guard down while you’re laughing; grotesque clowns and slimy ghosts are lurking around just around the corner.

You'd be wise to face your fear of clowns before hitting up the "Killer Klowns From Outer Space" house at Universal Studios. (Photo: Willie Allen Jr./Universal Studios)

There’s nothing funny about the houses dedicated to Jordan Peele’s hit 2019 horror movie, “Us,” however. Guests are repeatedly confronted by The Tethered, the evil, red-suited facsimiles of the Wilson family depicted in the movie, and mirrors embedded throughout the mazes bring them face to face with their own doppelgangers. Nor is there anything particularly amusing about “House of 1000 Corpses,” the houses based on Rob Zombie’s R-rated, 2003 ode to sadistic violence.

Universal’s own pantheon of monsters also gets some love. A maze from the Hollywood event spotlights Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, while Orlando features virtually all of the monsters, including Dracula and The Mummy.

Orlando’s event, which features 10 mazes in total, also offers some based on original themes such as “Yeti: Terror of the Yukon” and  “Graveyard Games.” Hollywood rounds out its nine houses with its own original themes, including “Holidayz in Hell.”

Yeti Terror of the Yukon Halloween Horror Night house at Universal Orlando. (Photo: Universal Studios)

With scare zones scattered throughout each of the parks, guests aren’t safe as they make their way between the houses.  Among the areas along the California park’s midways are the holiday mashup, “Christmas in Hell.”

Scare zones in Orlando include the cleverly named “Anarchade,” which features oversized, vintage video games from the ’80s. Both parks also present themed shows, including Florida’s “Halloween Marathon of Mayhem,” a spectacle incorporating massive fountains, water screens, and projections.

Disney World 

Like Universal, Disney’s parks offer separately-ticketed events. But to help avoid any confusion about the level of intensity, Florida’s Disney World blatantly calls its event “Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.”

Held at the Magic Kingdom on select evenings through Nov. 1, the event features Disney’s Not So Spooky Spectacular, a new multimedia show. The presentation is hosted by Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town from Tim Burton’s 1993 movie, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Disney’s Not So Spooky Spectacular is a new addition to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. (Photo: David Roar/)

Returning elements at the Disney World party include the “Boo-to-You Halloween Parade,” the stage show “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” (based on the cult classic 1993 Bette Midler movie), and copious candy treats dished out to guests (who are invited to come in costume.)

During event nights, select Magic Kingdom attractions are open with minimal lines, including spooky, lights-out rides on Space Mountain, a Halloween-themed “Monsters Inc.” Laugh Floor, and live pirates singing along with the animatronic ones in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Disneyland and California Adventure

The Frightfully Fun Parade is part of Oogie Boogie Bash at Disney California Adventure. (Photo: Disney)

Across the country in Anaheim, California, festivities include the new “Oogie Boogie Bash. Named for the character from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the separately-ticketed party is offered on select nights through Oct. 31 at Disney California Adventure.  It features “Villainous,” a new “World of Color” fountain and water screen projection show, the “Frightfully Fun Parade,” the show, “Mickey’s Trick and Treat,” and a relatively gentle outdoor maze, Villains Grove.  As in Florida, guests are encouraged to come in costume, and treats are distributed.

Both of Disney’s California parks also offer Halloween fun for guests of all ages. Disneyland presents “Halloween Screams,” a nighttime spectacular featuring Jack Skellington that includes projections, special effects, and fireworks at select performances. 

Disneyland's Haunted Mansion gets a "Nightmare Before Christmas" makeover for Halloween. (Photo: Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort)

And in keeping with tradition, the classic Haunted Mansion attraction is getting its annual Halloween makeover. It too, will feature characters and scenes from  “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” And of course, Main Street U.S.A. is decked out with festive pumpkins.

Over at Disney California Adventure, Cars Land gets a pun-filled, holiday makeover with the temporary title “Haul-O-Ween.” Pixar characters such as Lightning McQueen and Mater don “car-stumes” to go “trunk-or-treating.” Meanwhile, The “Guardians of the Galaxy” drop tower ride has been remade with a “Monsters After Dark” theme. The park also offers “A Musical Celebration of Coco” show based on the 2017 Pixar movie about Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday. 

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