Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Universal Orlando for a sneak peek of The Walking Dead: Dead Inside attraction, one of the seven haunted houses featured in this year's Halloween Horror Nights. And thanks to the nice folks at Universal, I recently was able to see the finished product and get my first full Halloween Horror Nights experience.  

The first thing I noticed upon entering the park was how dark it was. Like, I truly had a moment of "Oh my God, zombies aren't even going to get the chance to try to eat me because I'm going to trip over my own feet and smash my skull in." However, I survived unscathed and didn't see anyone else taking a tumble, so I guess the HHN people know exactly how much darkness the public can handle.

Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, they were treated to stunning visuals, from the fog that rolled in from seemingly everywhere to the intricately designed costumes and makeup on the "scareactors" roaming throughout the park. Occasionally, there were hordes of characters who would make their way through the crowds—including bands of warriors and a gaggle of chainsaw girls—a gimmick I didn't find as effective as the lone freaks who wandered around doing their thing. One guy who wanders out of the fog and up into your grill is a lot scarier than a mob you can hear coming a mile away. Although, you could see the Iniquitous (a group of impossibly tall reaper characters—think Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in "Scrooged" but creepier) from a mile away, but they were far and away the most frightening (and impressive) creatures of all.

While many of the "daytime" rides and attractions were shut down for the evening, there were a few running, including Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster. I've never seen "Despicable Me" but the 3-D simulator, in which all guests are trained to be "minions," was super cute. As for the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, sends you up a vertical lift, then shoots you down and through some crazy, twisted loop, brakes and drops, brakes and drops, looks like it's going to go careening into a building or maybe the people waiting in line below, then goes through more twists, more turns, more brakes, more drops...basically it's AWESOME. And one of the coolest features on the coaster is the ability to choose your own music from a five-genre selection. Let me tell ya, there are few things cooler than being chain-lifted straight up to the moon to the opening riff of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage."

Halloween Horror Nights also features two live shows, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure" and "20 Penny Circus: Fully Exposed," neither of which I managed to see. I heard a bit of Bill and Ted from outside and it didn't really sound like I was missing anything. (Then again, I'm a bit of a Bill and Ted purist who hates anything that messes with that first perfect movie, including the stupid sequel.) I don't really know anything about the 20 Penny Circus, but if there were clowns involved, then I'm glad I skipped it.

Of course, the haunted houses are the main attraction at Halloween Horror Nights, and I was astounded by the amount of work that obviously went into all of them. Read on for my house rankings, which can be used as a point of reference for first-time visitors, or as a basis for arguing with me for regulars and die-hards. And since there were two houses that I didn't have time to get to, I'd love to hear some first-hand accounts!    

1. Gothic - This was the first house I walked through, and it was easily my favorite. It's a stunning recreation of an old gothic cathedral, which is guarded by stone gargoyles. Stone gargoyles that can come to life and have a problem with strangers invading their house, that is. So much of what's going on inside is so beautiful that I really wanted to just stop and take it all in...but then something menacing flew over my head and I decided that the sightseeing trip could wait.

2. Dead End - Speaking of sightseeing, I just wanted to stand and stare at the outside of this house forever. It was so perfectly creepy. It was like walking into a movie and coming face to face with that one abandoned house in town that everyone crosses the street to avoid. The inside was just as cool, and it was full of many of the traditional "spooky" elements that you'd expect to see in many classic horror films. (I'm a real sucker the book that floats between shelves.) There were also a lot of "hey, look over here moments" designed to distract from the real scare that was coming just around the corner. 

3. The Walking Dead: Dead Inside - It was certainly interesting to see the final product with all of the effects working, about five times as many "walkers" and a line of scared people pushing through. And even though I already knew much of what to expect, there were still some surprises and even a few genuine scares, thanks mostly to the actors, who were a little more aggressive (in a good/scary way) than any of the others I encountered. Fans of The Walking Dead will no doubt get more out of this than non-viewers, but zombies are zombies. They're scary. No one should walk out of this disappointed.

4. Silent Hill - I was never a fan of the movie (or movies...apparently there have been sequels) and I've never played the video game, so I didn't really get much out of the theme. Yes, the makeup and set designs were good, but it just looked like a bunch of weird, semi-faceless people wandering around and I wasn't really sure what it was all supposed to mean. That said, this house is probably where I had my biggest scares. I'm not even sure exactly what prompted them, but I do remember jumping, like, a mile in the air...TWICE. Again, this was thanks to some really terrific actors. (God, being a scareactor must be the best job ever, right?)  

5. Penn & Teller New(kd) Vegas - This just felt like a weird, 3-D funhouse that skimped on the fun. There were a few cool moments, but it just wasn't my bag.

I can't comment on Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare or Universal's House of Horrors, as I didn't experience either one. According to the map, they're right next to each other near The Simpsons Ride. I'm not sure how I missed those houses, unless it was because I was distracted by the nearby Lagoon Show, which at the time was featuring an Alfred Hitchcock presentation.

The Lagoon Show is another visual delight that runs through four different multi-media sequences -- Hitchcock, Alice Cooper, "Child's Play" and classic monsters--each of which feature film clips, mist screens, lights, music and lasers. The most effective part of the Hitchcock sequence was when everything turned red (like, CRAZY RED) during the "Psycho" shower scene. 

Halloween Horror Nights continues at Universal Orlando on select dates through October 31. For tickets and more information, visit