30 Years of Fear – A History of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights: 2004 (HHN Takes Over Both Parks, Universal Grows a Corn Field, and More)
Welcome back to 30 Years of Fear – A History of Halloween Horror Nights. Tomorrow’s the big day! While we await our imminent return to the fog, let’s take a look back at the only year where Halloween Horror Nights took place at both theme parks.
2004 – Halloween Horror Nights XIV
In 2004, Halloween Horror Nights asked guests, “What’s your breaking point?” But perhaps they should have been asking themselves. Universal stretched the event between both parks, hoping this would open up more options, such as using the backlot areas and bringing back the parade.
Instead, it fell flat. A seventh house was added, but there were only two shows and four scare zones. Guests reported fewer scares than ever, with an estimated 600 scareactors spread across the two parks.
There was no Icon, no story, no overarching theme. Well, other than the controversial “mental asylum” theme pushed in the marketing and manifesting minutely at the event itself. That’s not to say the event was a total dud; it just didn’t quite live up to its own reputation. It did contain some gems, though.
The event ran for only 18 nights, down from the 21 of the two prior years. Tickets made a $3 leap to around $55 per person.
Castle Vampyr was, appropriately, teeming with vampires. It was a two-story house, with the second story accessible only by staircases within the maze. It was located in Soundstage 23, with the entrance in Universal Studios Florida.
One particular highlight of 2004’s event was the website. Universal used to craft elaborate, often interactive, websites for Halloween Horror Nights that revealed backstory and created hype. Pictured above is an invitation to attend a sorority pledge event at what would turn out to be Castle Vampyr.
Castle Vampyr quickly became a guest favorite, fondly remembered to this day. A scene from the house was even featured in Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters & Mayhem, a house-cum-love letter to Halloween Horror Nights’ past.
Guests entering Deadtropolis through the queue for Earthquake: The Big One at Universal Studios Florida quickly found themselves in an abandoned city full of the living dead, cursed by the botched experiments of genetic engineers. That’s right; it’s a zombie apocalypse!
Guests had to escape the former city of San Francisco, now Deadtropolis, without becoming a zombie themselves.
Disorientorium brought guests into a funhouse-style attraction designed to, well, disorient. Surprisingly lacking 3D effects, the house featured the famous rotating tunnel, strobe lights, mirrors, and more. It was housed in the Carnage Warehouse and entered through Marvel Super Hero Island at Islands of Adventure.
The above photo is from the website’s backstory for the house, detailing the mental decline of a man named Jon, who couldn’t stop visiting Disorientorium. Note the mention of Mannarino Corp., a reference to the Vice President of Art & Design (the team behind Halloween Horror Nights), T.J. Mannarino.
Camouflaged actors lurked, waiting to startle disoriented guests.
Ghost Town was another hit that would later spawn a sequel. Guests entered the town of Lightning Gulch. Pictured below is a “newspaper clipping” from the 2004 website setting up the backstory for the house.
Lightning Gulch was washed away in a violent storm, and all the residents were killed. Their ghosts were trapped there, along with those of all the people who entered the ghost town after the tragedy.
Pictured above is the concept art for the saloon façade, and below is the final product.
Pictured above was a room for the carpenter of LIghtning Gulch, who was crafting coffins for unfortunate guests.
Those unfortunate enough to enter Hellgate Prison found themselves in the center of a riot. The house shared Soundstage 20 with Horror in Wax. Hellgate Prison was run by a sadistic warden who was proud to boast of his extremely painful electric chair, Old Smokey.
Guests entered the prison on a “tour,” which was then interrupted by the riot. They had to escape the guards and the prisoners alike to make it to safety. The experience was reportedly intense.
Horror in Wax
Horror in Wax took guests into the warped workshop where living humans were turned into wax statues. The house also featured wax statues of the Classic Monsters.
Another piece of backstory from the website revealed disturbing notes from the design of the vat.
Pictured above is one of the victims after being encased.
Horror Nights Nightmares
2004 may not have had its own Icon, but Horror Nights Nightmares brought back Jack, Eddie, the Caretaker, and the Director.
The house had four sections, themed to each Icon. Guests would come face to face with the Icons in their natural environments as they terrorized their victims.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure
2004 was an election year and heavily featured President George W. Bush and John Kerry, who had been kidnapped by Dr. Evil in his own bid for the presidency.
Other returning villains included Mr. Burns and Darth Vader. The Wyld Stallyns are joined by Superman, Hellboy, and Harry Potter to defeat the evildoers.
Also, Garfield was there, earning the creepiest costume award from yours truly.
Festival of the Dead Parade
The Festival of the Dead Parade returned for its final year. The narrow paths of Islands of Adventure aren’t ideal for a parade route, so it had been absent since the move. With the event stretched between both parks, Universal was able to bring the parade back.
The parade kicked off with pyrotechnics. Pictured below are three of the floats, which could also be seen parked in the Midway of the Bizarre before and after the parade.
The Scare Zones
Field of Screams
Field of Screams was a new concept for Halloween Horror Nights, bringing the classic corn maze to the backlot between the parks. Scarecrows and ghosts lurked within the stalks to terrorize, some armed with chainsaws.
Pictured above is The Rhyme of the Corn, offering a haunting warning to those who traversed within.
Concept art shows a sign reading, “Welcome to Hillside,” graffitied to say “Hellside.”
Floridians surely remember that 2004 had an awful, destructive hurricane season. The Field of Screams was infamously destroyed just days before the season kicked off, but Universal had a backup supply of corn to reinvigorate the zone.
Universal would not attempt to grow corn again… until 2017 for Scarecrow: The Reaping, when Hurricane Irma would damage the stalks. As The Orlando Sentinel said above, “it’s Florida, after all.”
Fright Yard was a junkyard occupied by creepy “gang members” who lurked behind the rusty trailers. It was home to the Chainsaw Drill team for Halloween Horror Nights XIV.
Point of Evil
The Port of Entry at Islands of Adventure became the Point of Evil. The concept art below shows the centerpiece for the zone, a large tesla coil that would come to life with electricity.
This zone was heavily populated with stilt walkers and aliens.
Midway of the Bizarre
The Midway of the Bizarre returned in name only as guests were offered a chance to get up close and personal with the Festival of the Dead Parade Floats. Parked in the Boneyard (now the Universal Music Plaza, home to seemingly endless switchback queues) before and after the parade, this was less of a scare zone and more of a display.
Honorable Mention: The Protest
It would be remiss of me not to clarify that when I called the “mental asylum” theme controversial, I was not entirely speaking of modern-day sensitivities. The National Mental Health Associations of Florida were vocal in their disapproval during the event.
The association spoke out publically and privately against the perpetuation of negative stigma from the marketing campaign, and a protest was held outside the resort on Halloween.
These types of portrayals are still common in media today, and Universal has used the asylum motif as recently as 2016.
We’ll see you next time when we take a look back at Halloween Horror Nights XV.
For more Halloween Horror Nights history, check out the rest of the series below.