Syfy wants us to “Imagine Greater,” but for my most recent trip to Orlando for their digital press tour, I was at the mercy of other people’s twisted imaginations.
Lured by the promise of visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I should have brushed up on my Defense of the Dark Arts because the night before hitting Hogwarts, I was “treated” to an RIP Tour of the Halloween Horror Nights XX at Universal Orlando.
Let’s just be clear here. I’m a huge chicken, like a “guy in a Mr. Cluck’s suit”-sized chicken. But we all must grow, so I decided to stick it out as well as I could for the eight haunted houses and numerous “inescapable scare zones” full of “scare-acters.”
After taking the boat (which was infested by Zombie Gras walkers) to Universal, we were greeted by the giant XXs that indicated that Halloween Horror Nights was celebrating its 20th anniversary of trying to tap into visitors’ nightmares.
The RIP tour glowstick was very faint and didn’t give me much courage. My group’s two awesome guides — Beth and Brian — telling us to tuck the glowsticks into our shirts so we wouldn’t become “targets” in the haunted houses didn’t make me feel any better.
The two Bs fast-tracked us to each haunted house, bypassing the very long lines. That was cool. Not so cool was having the super-concentrated scarefest experience back to back. Three houses in, and I was still holding onto my bravado. Six houses in, and I had a strategy down. By the end, I was pretty proud of myself. The creepiest one by far was the “Orfanage.” Little kids, animal masks. Ugh, no!
The scare zones were neither inescapable nor scary. It lacks that element of surprise. Even the chainsaw-wielding maniacs were more amusing than anything. And sorry to say, but the civvies like the janitors and such were a little more ominous.
Afterward, we attended the Bill & Ted’s Halloween Adventure in which the iconic time travelers skewer figures from music and pop culture such as Lady Gaga, Snooki, The Situation and Doctor Who. My favorite impersonator had to be the girl who did an uncanny Justin Bieber. Scary in a totally different way!
And finally, here’s evidence of our intrepid group of HHNXX journeyers. Hmm, I could have sworn we started out with more at the beginning of the night.
The next night, we had an even more elite experience (if you can believe that). The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was shut early to the public for the Syfy Digital Press Tour just so we reporters could run amok pretending we were wizards.
I’m not going to lie. I think we all got a little verklempt upon seeing the Hogwarts Express and entering the cobbled streets of Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley. We were in the movie. We were wizards in training. We were going to go hog(smeade) wild in the shops.
After breezing through Zonko’s joke shop, we had a logjam in Honeydukes. We were like the proverbial kids in a … well, you get the idea.
Pumpkin juice! Everyflavor beans! House elf games! Chocolate frogs! Our night of Potter excess had barely begun.
Awaiting us outside of the candy shop were two theme park workers in suspenders ready to serve us butterbeer. There’s a regular and frozen kind, and most everyone opted for frozen.
Like me! Sweet … almost too sweet, but I just figured I’d brush my teeth extra that night and not sleep for 48 hours.
And just in case we weren’t hopped up enough on Honeydukes purchases and butterbeer, Syfy had laid out sweets for us.
I should have smuggled my came
ra into the rides but sadly I left it in the locker like a dumb, dutiful Muggle. So sorry, no pictures of the Dragon Challenge roller coasters, which are possibly my favorite ever. The walkway leading up to the ride was set up like the TriWizard tournament, but luckily we didn’t have to wait in line.
The workers there called us “champions” (cuz of the Triwizard thing) and bet their galleons on us to win, red dragon (ride) vs. blue dragon. After riding it so many times in a row, they started laughing at us, especially since we couldn’t really walk a straight line for a while after that. Luckily, there were no Filch checkpoints.
The Hippogriff ride was a tamer kiddie coaster that was fun and breezy. It was no Dragon Challenge.
Possibly the coolest spectacle, however, was Hogwarts itself, this huge castle rising up against the sky. Walking through it was just like the movie, with the paintings talking to each other on the staircase and glimpses of Harry, Ron and Hermione throwing off their cloak of invisibility.
Inside Hogwarts is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a ride that swoops and dips while we follow Harry on his Quidditch broom and then leads us to confront scary Dementors and giant spiders. Although much of this was simulated, I got a tad motion sick (as I do when I watch action films), so I couldn’t go for the second round. What I did do, however, was go back to the Dragon Challenge coasters for a few more passes.
Outside Ollivanders you can see where they do the Owl post. I didn’t need anything sent at the moment, but I saw several Hedwigs find homes in shopping bags.
Lastly, I capped off my night with a few flicks of my birthday wand, which I was told was good for protection. Since I survived the Halloween Horror Nights, braved the Dragon Challenge several times over and fought off nausea from sweets overload, I think its magical properties were well proven.
Thanks, Syfy and Universal. I am thoroughly spoiled for theme parks after this.
Photo credits: Zap2it, Getty Images