My TV highlight of this year has to be the majestic horror series The Last Of Us. For my money it is the finest post-apocalyptic zombie show ever. It is all the more remarkable as the characters, design, plot and even dialogue are entirely lifted from the best selling action-adventure video game of the same name.
I was at the Universal Orlando Resort’s Halloween Horror Nights, now in its 32nd year, and was in a state of full-on nerdish excitement to be entering the new The Last Of Us haunted house experience.
Resident zombies found inside are known as ‘the infected’, are hideously deformed and come in many versions. Runners, Stalkers, Bloaters, Shamblers and the creepy Clickers – so called because of the chilling noise they make as they sneak up on you – all the stunning elements that made the game such a runaway hit have clearly been sourced in minute detail.
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We entered abandoned Pittsburgh to follow the progress of main characters, Joel and Ellie, and navigate our way through the devastated city. The key is to stay silent to avoid the attention of the bloodthirsty fiends as they suddenly appear out of doorways and windows of broken down buildings.
The sound of the Clickers echoes through the streets. The house exactly follows the story arc of the game, starting with the car crash at the beginning to the hair-raising journey through the tunnels under the city to try to reach safety. Built on a giant soundstage, the designers have been able to go all out with the recreation of the ruined Steel City. My friend, who has played The Last Of Us, said it’s freakishly akin to being in the game.
Being a big fan of the Duffer brothers’ multi-award winning Netflix series Stranger Things, now in its fourth season, I was thrilled to see a new Stranger Things haunted house for 2023. Vecna is the new villain in town. Originally he was child number 001 taken to the Hawkins National Laboratory to be studied for his psychic powers. He was banished into the Upside Down world by Eleven (the good psychic) after taking part in a gory massacre.
Seeking revenge, Vecna has used his powers to create a huge spider-like monster called the Mind Flayer. He also recruited an army of grisly Demogorgons to help Vecna in his grand plan to destroy humanity.
The Stranger Things house focuses on Vecna’s curse as the forces of good and evil battle it out – which involves a lot of this hideous character suddenly looming out of the walls in front of you. There is a great rendering of the Upside Down and we see a tortured Eleven in the Hawkins Lab reaching out to us.
Making a return this year is the serial killer doll, Chucky, with his own haunted house Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count. Chucky first appeared in the 1988 horror movie Child’s Play and has carried on his murderous rampage through eight films and a TV series. He has become a Halloween Horror Nights favourite. The premise is that Universal has created a house with 250 Chucky dolls, but the real life Chucky has seen this and decided there wasn’t enough gore and mayhem so he turns up to put this right. Cue lots of evil-faced Chuckys all slashing away at you.
Another nice surprise was an Exorcist haunted house taking the themes from the upcoming movie The Exorcist: Believer. Quite a coup for Universal to have secured the rights to showcase a film not yet released, it’s described as a living trailer for the movie. I am old enough to have seen the original Exorcist on its release in 1973. To this day it remains one the most original and accomplished horror films ever made, so I was keen to witness the modern take on the story. If this experience is anything to go by, the new movie is going to live up to the original.
This was my favourite of all the houses – super creepy and very unsettling. We follow the story of two young girls, Angela and Katherine, who are possessed by demons. The pair, in their bloodstained nightdresses, leap out in various states of distress as you progress through the rooms. The house is gloomy and oppressive, and when the horned demon appeared from nowhere in front of me I jumped out my skin.
In all there are 10 haunted houses to scream your way through – Universal Monsters Unmasked, Dr Oddfellows Twisted Origins, Duelling Dragons Choose Thy Fate, Yeti Campground Kills, The Darkest Deal and Bloodmoon Dark Offerings. The bonkers Yeti Campground Kills was my favourite of these. A special shout out goes to Universal’s make-up artists who create the characters and creatures so brilliantly.
One thing I noticed particularly this year is that each house seemed to have its own distinctive smell of death and decay. If that’s not enough gore and terror then there are also five scare zones where scareactors made up as various freaks, ghouls and zombies prowl around the resort to suddenly lurch out of the fog and scream in your face.
There is also a fabulous live show, Nightmare Fuel Revenge Dream. By day the undead and monsters are safely tucked up back in their graveyards and Universal turns back into the ghoul-free theme park we all know and love, with mind-blowing roller coasters and world-class hi-tech VR rides.
One of the star attractions is The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter which spreads across Islands Of Adventure and Universal Studios. Muggles can visit the perfectly recreated Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, both spellbindingly good. There is a full-sized Hogwarts Express which links the two sites and I caught the train at King’s Cross by running through the brick wall at Platform 93/4. No idea how they do the wall thing but it is great fun.
The newest Harry Potter experience at Universal is Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, at the Islands Of Adventure. It’s a terrific addition to the existing four Harry Potter rides, The Forbidden Journey, Flight Of The Hippogriff, Escape From Gringotts and Hogwarts Express.
We joined Hagrid on his trusty motorbike and sidecar to whizz deep into the hidden depths of the Forbidden Forest and cross paths with a host of magical creatures from the Wizarding World. I was expecting a soft and cuddly roller coaster but I’m telling you it is fast. I was particularly impressed when we started going backwards and then dropped through the floor onto another track.
Weary after such a brilliant time, I shuffled my way zombie-style back to my on-site hotel, the Polynesian-themed Loews Royal Pacific Resort, with tropical landscaping and lagoon pool, which offers guests skip-the-queues benefits, for a well-earned lie down… hang on, where’s that clicking noise coming from?
Book the holiday
Virgin Atlantic Holidays offers seven nights on room-only at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando from £1,655pp, including Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow on September 26, 2024 and Universal 3 Park Explorer Ticket (not including Halloween Horror Nights ticket (dates to be announced early 2024). Find out more at virginholidays.co.uk.
You can also get more information at visitorlando.com.
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