By Sarah Sekula
For 25 years, Halloween in Orlando has been taken to a whole new, horrifying level at Universal Orlando Resort. From carefully crafted, haunted mazes to meticulously fashioned costumes and props, Universal's show producers have frightfully brought Halloween Horror Nights to life for millions of fear fans.
Meet Charles Gray. He's slightly obsessed with horror flicks, haunted houses and fake blood. All for good reason. As the show director for this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios (Sept. 18 - Nov. 1), he scares the beejeebers out of people for a living.
This year, for the event's 25th anniversary, Gray and a massive team of set builders, makeup artists and costume designers have whipped up more scares than ever before. Guests will have nine haunted houses to choose from, five scare zones filled with a motley crew of creepsters and a new premium experience where annual pass holders dine among scareactors.
Gray says there's nothing better than brainstorming new ways to spook the guests.
"We try to attack all the different senses," he says. "And smell is a big one."
For example, inside the Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters & Mayhem haunted house there's a cozy cottage that smells of cinnamon snickerdoodle cookies.
"Coming into the cottage, it's very inviting," Gray says. "We do that with nice lighting, we have the fire place going. You come in you are happy, you are hungry."
Then you realize mama bear is eating Goldilocks and the 7-foot-tall papa bear is around the corner ready to attack. In a nearby room, guests will run into fan favorite Jack the Clown and other icon characters like The Caretaker, The Storyteller, The Director and The Usher. Another house is a recreation of the Insidious films while another features eery scenes from AMC'S The Walking Dead.
It's clear that Universal has gone above and beyond for the milestone event. From 1991, when the event first began as "Fright Nights" to what it is now is frightfully impressive.
"What makes Halloween Horror Nights so special after 25 years is that every single year we are rebuilding this event from the ground up," according to Michael Aiello, creative director of Halloween Horror Nights. "It's very rare that we're going to do an event the exact way we did it before," he says.
It has become so popular, in fact, it often sells out. That said, it's smart to buy your tickets early. People from all walks of life attend from horror fan fanatics to HHN newbies.
Speaking of newbies, Aiello has some advice: "If you are a wimp, you want to stick to the sidewalks on either side of the streets," he says. "Or the bathrooms and restaurants. The scareactors tend to stay away from those areas."
As for the other crowd, those who thoroughly enjoy being freaked out, they will have plenty of opportunities to revel in super scary scenarios.
"People like to be in situations that the normally wouldn't find themselves in, and that's what this event is all about," Aiello says. "We surround you in these horrific environments and these nightmarish characters, and you accept that."
"I've seen people laugh in the faces of the characters, and I've seen some break down in tears," says Cami Banach, a senior at Boone High School in Orlando. "Personally, it's enough to keep me on my toes on the walk back to my car but not give me nightmares."
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Sarah Sekula is a national travel correspondent who lives in Orlando and regularly contributes to USA TODAY, CNN.com, NBCnews.com, FOXnews.com, ISLANDS and Destination Weddings & Honeymoons. Follow her journeys at SarahSekula.com or @wordzilla on Twitter.