September 20 was the first night of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida, and I saw all eight of the haunted houses courtesy of a media night tour (for overall scenes from the media event, jump to this article).
Here's a little background on me so you know where my opinion is coming from. I've been a horror fan literally since I was a toddler, when my not-so-swift-in-the-parenting-department mother dragged me to see horror movies like the original "Night of the Living Dead" at the tender age of three.
I went to community haunted houses all through my childhood and teen years, and as an adult I traversed the city and suburbs to visit as many as possible every season. I hit the little church fund raisers and the big, professional haunts, and now that I'm in Florida, I go to Halloween Horror Nights nearly every night of the season and slip in several visits to HowlOScream at Busch Gardens Tampa as well.
Although my opinion almost always changes over the course of the event, here are my top three houses, in no particular order, based on my very first walk-throughs:
Cabin in the Woods: This house is just downright chaotic and full of familiar scenes from the movie. It hits the perfect blend of working in an intellectual property to please the movie fans and enough energetic jump scares and other opportunity to terrorize guests that will make it good even if you've never heard of Cabin in the Woods before. I mean, bloody elevators and clowns....that's always a winning combination, no matter what it's based on.
This one actually has something of a pre-show story line that reminded me of the sleep drug back story for the Freddy Krueger house many years ago. You're going in to fix the cameras, and you're warned not to interfere in any way or to help the sacrifices. You might not understand that if you haven't seen the movie, but trust me, you'll still enjoy this house.
An American Werewolf in London: This was one of the most highly anticipated houses of season 23, and it doesn't disappoint. I appreciate good set design, but I'm all about old-school scares so it takes a lot for me to call a set-heavy house a favorite. Gothic won that accolade this year, and An American Werewolf in London slams special effects out of the ball park, just as the movie itself did back in the day.
The wolf puppets are elaborate and life-like, and although this house relies a lot on good timing to see all the effects, the reset times are short enough to give you ample opportunity to be menaced by the hairy beast. John Landis himself had final say on whether they were good enough or not, and they definitely fulfill his vision.
The special effects focus doesn't mean this house is devoid of actual scareactor-based scares. Beware of the London cop and his whistle!
La Llorona: I had my best scare of the night in this house, which reminds me somewhat of my beloved Catacombs. It has parts with that creepy, tomb-like atmosphere, and overall the set design is superb for a sprung tent house, with the best tent facade I've ever seen. Mike Aiello has repeatedly stated that the team was going for design that would rival the Poe house, which was also a sprung tent house, and I think they've achieved it.
Well, at least I think they did, because as I was walking through and totally absorbed in admiring the details, I turned and there was a scareactor literally in my face. I'm sure the expression on my face as I did a combination jump/scream was priceless. I know this house doesn't have a big-name intellectual property behind it, but I think it just might be a sleeper hit like Catacombs.
Those are my three favorite houses as of the first event night. They're subject to change, and your mileage may vary. Our of the eight haunted houses, there were none I really disliked, so I can wait to see how things evolve over the next seven weeks.
For videos of Mike Aiello describing each haunted house, start with this article.