by Tarah Chieffi
As summer turns to fall and the Florida temperatures shift to — well, nothing because it’s Florida — a quiet, unassuming corner of the New York area of Universal Studios Florida is transformed into a hub for all things haunted – the Halloween Horror Nights (or HHN) Tribute Store. The spooky store debuted five years ago for the event’s 25th anniversary and has grown more monstrous every year since. “Each year it keeps getting bigger, and this is the largest version we’ve done so far. It’s four immersive rooms and it’s become an attraction in itself,” Rob Cametti, Director of Visual Merchandise and Store Design for Universal Orlando Resort, told Edible Orlando.
Halloween Horror Nights was, unfortunately, canceled this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but Universal has vowed to keep the spirit of Halloween alive by going all out for this year’s Tribute Store. For the first time ever, Universal’s merchandising team invited their food partners to set up a shop full of terrifying treats inside the store to round out the experience. “Our food partners had also been planning an assortment [for HHN]and with the event being canceled, they had no outlet,” Cametti said.
Set inside a room designed to look like an attic so creepy most people would turn around at the top of the stairs and run back down, this year’s Tribute Store boasts a menu of nearly 20 themed treats. Most are sweet, including a perfectly-baked Vegan Brownie Skull and a donut covered with dark chocolate cookie crumb “dirt” and gummy worms. A few are savory, like the Bacon Cheddar and Scallion Waffle Stick with Jalapeno Maple Syrup.
The showstopper of this year’s menu (and one that’ll be hard to top next year) sits in its very own display case that you practically bump your nose on while trying to get a closer look as you ask yourself, “Are those heart-shaped gummies…beating?” The answer is yes, but these aren’t the cute Valentine hearts you might be imagining. Fashioned with all the valves and veins of the heart beating inside your own chest, these Beating Heart Sour Cherry Gummies are something you have to see to believe.
Chef Ron Cope, Executive Chef for Universal Studios Florida, let us get up close and personal with these ghoulish gummies and even divulged a few secrets about their creation. “Our beating heart gummies came to life as a collaboration between three or four departments,” Cope said. “Our pastry chefs and research and development chefs worked closely with the Advanced Technology Innovations department to create this special effect and bring these gummy hearts to life,” Cope said. “I think it’s a great sign of our times because times are tough, but we’re still able to really capture the essence of Halloween and everyone coming together is what made it so successful.”
Cope told us the beating heart effect is a bit of a guarded secret because, of course, they want everyone to come and see it for themselves, but we tried our hardest to learn how they made this magical snacking experience.
Turns out, the secret is in the gummy mold and the tray they are displayed on. When removed from the tray, you can see that the gummies are hollow inside, but while sitting on the tray they beat continuously. It appears there is a mechanism within the tray that gives the gummies the appearance of pumping in and out as if they are actually alive.
“If they are sitting on the display tray they will keep beating,” Cope said. “We have some that we make fresh every day so when the guests come it’s ready for them to walk away with. In these you do get two in an order, so if you and a friend want to share them and experience it together you can do that.”
After freeing our gaze from the hypnotic beating of the gummies, we finally gave them a try. You can pop the whole gummy in one bite, but if you are using your best manners, you can stretch it to two or three. They weren’t as pucker-powered as we’d been expecting, which was actually a nice surprise. The flavor was mostly sweet cherry with just a hint of tartness.
Chef Cope told us the gummies are also gluten-free. “It’s something that’s great for kids and adults – everybody likes them.” He also told us that you probably couldn’t make them at home even if you tried. “It’s possible to make a gelatin gummy at home, but to do the special effect, that’s something that I don’t know if I could do it at home.”
After walking through the store and sampling the gummies (along with too many other treats), enjoying them in this themed environment really makes it a full sensory experience. There’s just something about being surrounded by the cobwebs and forgotten antiques in the attic, hearing the creaky sounds being played all around you, and seeing the hearts beating before your eyes that puts you in the Halloween spirit. It’s a fully immersive experience and understanding the hard work that went into creating these ghastly gummies makes them all the more tasty.
If you want to taste them for yourself, the Halloween Horror Nights Tribute Store will be open through the fall. Through November 1, guests can also experience two daytime haunted houses, trick-or-treating for kids 12 and under, a scarecrow scavenger hunt, and more. For more sweet and scary Halloween treats at Universal Orlando, visit our Visitors Guide.