By Charly SHELTON
For the last several months, we’ve brought you coverage of The Walking Dead year-round attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. From the initial announcement to the auditions, to the training, to the progress updates, and now it’s finally time to open the attraction. So was it worth the wait? Yes, with an asterisk.
After interviewing the creators of the maze and learning what it takes to put a walk-through attraction like this together, to make it feel as authentic as the TV show, I was honestly expecting something a little different. Not necessarily something more, just different. The walk-through hits on some of the highlights from the last six seasons of The Walking Dead, starting with the hospital where Rick wakes up in season one, episode one, and leading all the way up to Negan and the end of season six. Guests see a burning cabin with flaming zombies, a perimeter breach at the prison, trailer trucks full of branded zombies and the now iconic zombie torso crawling on its hands in the pilot episode, among many other moments from the show. And if this were the first foray into this kind of an attraction for Universal Studios Hollywood, I would be blown away. But after several years of The Walking Dead being one of the best mazes at the annual Halloween Horror Nights, it just feels like a rehash of what they’ve done in those mazes.
Granted, the production values are much better – the animatronics are better and look more realistic, the sets are more built-out and look more convincing, and the scope of the project overall is really big. Being a year-round attraction, it was built knowing it would have to withstand the daily foot traffic and was made to be permanent, and therefore more realistic. This is a much better production than they have done at any of the Halloween Horror Nights because they now have the resources, both in space and time, to make the best possible version of The Walking Dead haunted attraction. That being said, I thought it would be a little more unique on the creative side. Many of the gags and set pieces have been used in previous iterations of the HHN mazes, and this seems like they are just being trotted out again. And, because they’re covering six seasons of highlights, the entire attraction feels disjointed as you move from room to room with very little connection between them. It really is just the best moments, and then you move on to another moment, and another.
By comparison, one of the Halloween Horror Nights mazes done for The Walking Dead a few years ago was really well done because guests moved through a building and saw different areas of the Terminus complex and the moments that played out there. I think that was easier to do because that season in the show was about getting to Terminus, then being attacked, then fleeing into the woods. There was a natural progression in the maze – going into the building, seeing some rooms, then exiting into a forest and hiding in another house. It tells the story not only of what happened that season but also gives the maze a coherent flow for anyone who doesn’t watch the show.
Executive producer, director and lead makeup effects artist for the TV show, Greg Nicotero worked very closely with USH Creative Director John Murdy to design the maze and ensure that what goes in now will not be there forever. There are things, Murdy said at a previous event, that they as creators know will be there forever and things that can change as the show progresses. I think that’s good, and it will keep the attraction fresh but one of my big concerns going in was feeling that lack of permanence as a guest. I can honestly say that there isn’t even a shred of a pulled punch or lack of permanence in any of the effects or scaractor positions, and I really can’t tell the difference between what might stay and what might leave. It all does feel very realistic and well-done, if a bit disjointed.
The attraction officially opened July 4, and lines are going to be crazy. The Walking Dead maze at Halloween Horror Nights usually tops out at around two hours wait, but then there are several other mazes it’s competing with. The wait on this one, at least for the opening summer, will probably be pretty long but the majority of the queue is set inside, winding through the derelict hospital waiting room and admissions building, so at least guests are not waiting outside in the heat. For super fans of the show, I would say it’s worth a 90-minute wait; for those who are not as hard-core, it’s worth maybe about a 30-to-45-minute wait. And with everything new cropping up at Universal Studios in the last few years – Universal Plaza, Transformers, Springfield, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, upgrades to the studio tour and now The Walking Dead – if you haven’t been recently now is the time to go.
I give The Walking Dead’s new year-round, daytime attraction 3½ out of five stars.