Universal Orlando is celebrating its 26th Halloween Horror Nights season with a collection of nine themed haunted house experiences, including The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and The Exorcist, as well as a half-dozen outdoor scare zones spread throughout the Universal Studios theme park. But this year marks the debut of a brand new fright, The Repository, which combines live actors, physical props, fully detailed sets, a 10-minute virtual reality experience built by VRStudios, and a final physical challenge.
The four-player experience is the culmination of eight years of experiential storytelling through building detailed haunted houses filled with “scaractors,” and two years of experimentation in virtual reality, according to Tom Geraghty, advanced technology director at Universal Creative.
The Repository experience backstory begins in a large, quiet waiting room, where a television broadcast intermittently alerts participants that they’ve been chosen to help in a supernatural experiment. It’s from this large holding area (one of many sound stages at Universal Studios used for Halloween Horror Nights) that three teams of four “volunteers” are escorted into the top secret Repository, despite all of the warning signs outside. This is where the 30-minute experience truly begins, inside the massive archive room that’s filled with a collection of haunted artifacts like creepy dolls, animal skulls and other relics.
It’s inside the archive room where the “keeper” will explain the history of The Repository, which was built in 1775 for the Scottish army and has amassed the largest collection of supernatural objects in the world. Having so many haunted items together under one roof for so long has given rise to the Grimslew Curse, which is where the teams of volunteers come in. The keeper tells you to find the key to unlock the spectral dark portal, which is the gateway between our world and the supernatural (and the way ghosts reach into our world for hauntings.)
The archive room also serves as a holding area for the three groups of players, so they can embark on their mission separately. Those who end up in the last group called will find themselves the luckiest, because the archive room is just a fun place to explore – and you’re encouraged to touch and play with the relics in the room by the keeper.
From the archive, your group is led deeper into the repository where you’ll meet a crazy keeper of the key and a rude scientist. Each stop along the way incorporates interactions with the actors, who play off each group in a unique fashion. TJ Mannarino, senior director of art and design at Universal Orlando, said this experience has been designed so that each play-through is unique – making for “water cooler” conversation at the end.
About 10 minutes into the experience, the group of four is divided in half. Two players are steered into an 18’ x 18’ room, where scientists in hazmat suits put VRStudios’ wireless headsets on them and they’re transported through the spectral dark portal. All four team members appear in the experience, each team member represented as a floating, glowing mask. Mannarino said a motion capture grid system allows Universal Creative to track the players and the props inside the VR experience.
The 10-minute VR experience, which was designed by VRStudios using the Unity 5 video game engine, spans a library, a narrow ledge high above the ocean and a cemetery. During this experience you’re free to walk around the room. There are live actors in the room with you to touch you at certain points and effects like wind also enhance the illusion of VR.
Those who have been paying close attention will have noted clues throughout the real world and virtual world experience. That knowledge, and teamwork, will need to be applied in the final challenge. All four team members gather together in the Temple of the Dead, which is a timed challenge that actually changes nightly (for those who want to replay the experience). Whether or not you break the curse is up to how good your team is with logic, math and paying attention. Win or lose, it’s still a fun experience that shows the potential that virtual reality opens up for theme park creatives.
The Repository costs an additional $50 for guests who have paid for entrance into Halloween Horror Nights (prices vary for admission). It’s not cheap, but it’s something that stands out from any of the other traditional haunted houses at the theme park. It’s also a much more intimate experience, and one that’s three times as long as a normal queue-based haunted house.
While guests must be 13 or older to enter The Repository, it’s not a scare-the-crap-out-of-you attraction as much as it’s a paranormal adventure with some scary characters and a few screams (both in the real world and the virtual). Mannarino said this experience is a different style of show that’s more about theater and mystery, rather than high intensity scares.
The Repository may have been around for centuries, but it’s only open through Halloween. And it’s exclusive to Universal Orlando.