ORLANDO — Universal Orlando’s yearly “Halloween Horror Nights” extravaganza expands its line-up of haunted mazes, scare zones and live shows with a new attraction hoping to send a chill up the spine of visitors while exercising their noggins.
The Repository ushers in the next evolution of the theme-park experience by delivering a puzzle-solving ghost story with help from live theater and virtual reality elements.
“We were looking at new opportunities to engage differently with our guests,” says T.J. Mannarino, senior director of art and design at Universal Orlando. “And, we wanted to create a more interactive way to allow them to drive a story and become part of the show.”
Within the roughly 30-minute adventure, teams of up to four guests, now members of the paranormal investigating organization Legendary Truth, first walk into a crowded, musky warehouse representing a former Scottish armory built in 1775.
Tall rows of shelves are on either side of the large room and contain an unorganized group of possessed artifacts ranging from skulls to antique dolls and creepy tchotchkes.
A curmudgeonly and slightly insane Scottish curator welcomes the team and explains they are to help break the Grimslew Curse, an unintended consequence from the collection of objects emitting potent supernatural powers.
Team members may or may not get additional help from the curator, if they solve his riddle by finding four specific antiquities hidden in the room.
Groups then get hustled along to more detailed areas as they eventually greet a clearly insane keymaster that doles out a glowing, colored cube covered in symbols to each member and a frustrated scientist looking for answers to the curse.
Both frantic interactions allow the team members to further refine their sleuthing techniques with more riddles needing their participation.
The team then gets split up into pairs, and they enter a 18-foot square, stark, empty room where each person puts on a wireless headset composed of goggles and headphones that will plunge them into the Dark Portal.
The subsequent virtual reality event adds an expansive layer to the tale and offers a new, welcomed tool for Universal Creative’s storytellers.
“I can now do things not possible in the physical world to help tell the story,” Mr. Mannarino says. “In this case, I can transport you into a paranormal world where all bets are off, and you do not know what is going to happen.”
It’s worth noting the cutting-edge tech, designed by VRstudios in Bellevue Washington, delivers wireless audio and video streaming into the headsets with great care taken to isolate the signal sources to not interfere with other park guests cell phones and devices.
Despite the impressive technological advances to the experience, it’s still a bit rudimentary.
The roughly 10 minutes in goggles offers free roaming access to a Victorian library, a crumbling castle tower amid a snowy mountainside, and a cemetery. Each player reaches out with a wand to light up symbols hidden on objects while avoiding pesky bodiless ghosts and an attack by bats and crows.
All team members can actually see representations of one another during the interactions (as floating masks), and live actors are also in the room offering a bit of puppeteering skills to complete some of the three-dimensional illusions.
After surviving the virtual dimension, players remove the headgear and regroup at the base of the Temple of the Dead. There, they have 120 seconds to put their glowing cubes in the proper sequence using clues collected from the other areas to break the curse.
Surprisingly, Mr. Mannarino was quick to point out that only half of the members actually solve the puzzle.
“And that’s a good number. We are excited that people are making it through and get the chance to break the curse, but what we learned from previous puzzle game play within group scenarios is that it’s all in the balance,” he says.
“You can’t make it too easy because gamers will not be satisfied and not too hard for those new to the experience who would feel that they never understood what to do.”
Mr. Mannarino also reminds potential repeat players that the final puzzles sequence gets changed often, even nightly, to help usher in a new adventure during sessions.
Still, for those looking for the adrenaline rush associated with working closely together with their species and solving a fairly complex puzzle, this ultimate in team-building exercises is worth considering.
Unfortunately, the Repository is only available for the “Horror Nights” event running through the end of the month.
However, Mr. Mannarino sees promise for this type of attraction’s future.
“Guests now want deeper stories and to be involved with the characters, being the center part of the experience while working together. It’s a new style of entertainment that I hope continues.”
IF YOU DARE GO
Where: Universal Studios Florida, Kirkman Road and Interstate 4, Orlando, Fla.
Fear factor (out of 5): 3, for guests 13 years and older.
Hours: Open select nights between Oct. 15 to Monday, Oct. 31, including Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Price: $49.99 for the Repository plus a single-night general admission ticket to “Horror Nights” starting at $104.99. Look to the website to find other combo deals tied to park admissions and multiple-day access.