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The most dangerous phrase for the production team crafting Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando is, “Wouldn’t it be cool if …”
Usually that ends with the theme park creating some of its most elaborate and exciting Halloween mazes. This year those words kicked off a conversation between Jim Timon, Universal Orlando’s senior vice president of entertainment, and beloved Las Vegas magicians Penn & Teller to see whether they could try something new for the Halloween Horror Nights event’s 22nd anniversary. What that conversation ended in was the fantastic new Halloween maze “Penn & Teller New(kd) Las Vegas.”
Penn & Teller are best known for their “bullet-catch” magic trick, which Timon said provided the idea for “New(kd) Las Vegas. Spinoff Online had a chance to walk through the maze with Timon and Penn & Teller before the Sept. 21 opening of Halloween Horror Nights and learned some of the behind-the-scenes details for one of this year’s most exciting new mazes.
“[Penn & Teller] said, ‘Well, what if we caught a nuclear weapon, we fired ICBM missiles at each other. It’s an absurd idea, can’t be done, but it all goes horribly wrong and we just destroy Las Vegas and we nuke it, and it becomes this post-apocalyptic wasteland,'” Timon recalled. “‘Everyone’s a mutant, everything’s been destroyed, but we reopen it as this tourist vacation playland and apply the Penn & Teller B.S. level to it, and you can come and you can visit with fatal levels of radiation.’ We just thought that was so cool, and such a fun twisted idea for Halloween Horror Nights.”
That meant the “scharacters” — or actors dressed up to scare guests as they walk through the maze — could be all the more terrifying because they’d be dressed as mutants. With “radiation” everywhere, Timon found it the perfect opportunity to introduce 3D effects as well. Guests are provided with 3D glasses when they start the maze, and are informed that it is their only protection from the aftermath of the nuclear explosion. That is part of the joke, Penn explained during the walkthrough.
“This is where all the protective radiation gear where people can have the gear they need to be safe,” he said as we walked through the equipment room of the maze. “Unfortunately we don’t have any of the actual gear for the people coming through, so there’s no actual safety gear as people enter a nuclear site.”
Once guests arrive in the new, mutated version of Las Vegas, they’ll be privy to twisted takes on some of the classic Sin City sights. There’s the card room with a mutated blackjack dealer, a terrifying version of Elvis in the Wedding Chapel and even a honeymoon suite that’s more than meets the eye. Doves with glowing red eyes will fly at visitors, a saw will try to cut them in half like the classic magic trick, and buffets and slot machines will be more dangerous than they appear.
“What I love about Vegas is that’s it’s just a big prom for adults who are bad at math,” Penn quipped. “It’s two third nightmare [already], we just gave it a little nudge.”
The Penn & Teller maze is just one of several new ideas Universal Orlando has tried this year, but it’s also one of the most farfetched. Because the two magicians are best known for their magic and their comedic side, it was a bit of a challenge for the Halloween Horror Nights team to transform that image into something scary.
“People think of Penn & Teller as a magic show, or they think of magicians and they think of comedy, and we actually turned them into a really, really scary house,” said Patrick Braillard, Universal Orlando show director. “It’s really fun that they came and they pitched that idea, and our challenge was to transform that into something, which was exciting for us as fans of horror to say, ‘Okay, we have Penn & Teller, who like to screw with guests. How do we make that scary on our own terms?'”
Timon said that mentality has opened up a lot more ideas for future Halloween Horror Night events. “It kind of gives a whole new avenue to Halloween Horror Nights creativity to reach out to people like Penn & Teller, who may not necessarily have a horror brand associated with them, but they’ve got brilliant, creative minds and really contribute to what we do,” he said.
It turns out it wasn’t that difficult for the two magicians to switch gears from creating their magic show’s sets to creating a haunted maze.
“What we’re trying do in magic is have the visceral collide with the intellect. So you want to have people’s guts be terribly frightened, and their intellect know that they’re safe,” Penn said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be scared while still safe.”
Halloween Horror Nights continues through Oct. 31 on select nights at Universal Orlando.