By: Jaimz Dillman
One of the benefits of being in the entertainment family of Central Florida is all of the cool people you become friends with who go on to do big things. During my theme park days, I was lucky enough to have met and worked with Mike Aiello. We had a catch-up session recently over some tacos, which gave me the chance to pick his brain about his lengthy career at Universal, his thoughts on the events, and more.
Attending a private Catholic school where mom was the secretary and dad was a police officer, Aiello says he was a nerd, and only had one friend growing up. Also,he loved magic: "David Copperfield was my Jesus." But along with magic, Aiello also had a passion for things that go bump in the night. "Every year my dad and I made a point to go to Halloween Horror Nights, starting with the original Fright Nights."
But let's go back to how this now-Senior Director of Creative Development came to appreciate movies, pop culture, and all things horror. First, he was in love with the Classic Monsters, seeing the old Aurora model kits his dad had built sitting on his shelves. "Anything Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula... I gravitated to those when I was really young." Aiello says. From there he got into horror books and comics, and watched any movie he could, especially when the local video store opened. "I probably watched some things I shouldn't have at that age, but I wanted to absorb everything I could get my hands on. I wanted to soak in horror," Aiello says.
While taking college classes toward a theater degree, he joined Universal in March of 1996. As a skipper for the boat tours of the Jaws attraction, he never looked back. Maybe a bit of foreshadowing for his over 25-year career with the park. He would return to this area of the studios for one of the biggest changes in the park's history. Leaving spieling, Aiello made the jump to Entertainment, doing tours and eventually hosting Game Lab at Nickelodeon. This is where he also met his wife of over 20 years, Summer, finding love amidst the slime. The two were lucky enough to work together again at the Horror Makeup Show, which split Aiello's week, also doing shows as Elwood Blues of the Blues Brothers. As actors do in theme parks, he jumped around into various roles from Ghostbusters to special events and seasonal roles, landing him spots promoting to media as the Grinch and Jack the clown.
"I got really into performing, thinking I was going to be an actor. I had agents on both coasts, I was doing commercials, but subconsciously loved how the whole process worked. And everything changed for me when I got a chance to write for Bill and Ted." Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure is a fan-favorite of Halloween Horror Nights, having run at the event for more than 20 years.
Says Aiello, "The Bill and Ted show was where I understood how it all works. Loving horror was an easy evolution moving into Horror Nights. It brought out some things I didn't even know I was passionate about. I was going to be an actor, but creating a show was nothing I'd done before. I was in the right place at the right time." We both talked about how the power of asking a simple question can lead you in the best direction in life. The worst that can happen is getting a "no." Aiello continued, "Being asked if I could do something and I said yes - not knowing if I could or not - things started falling into place."
Those things included partnerships with New Line Cinema to co-create maze content for Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "Before '07, we used many original icons, and then HHN shifted to brands the fans love. The event has evolved because of the fans. I try to put myself in their shoes and think, what do I want the reaction to be?" he says. "Then with the Stranger Things house, we were a part of the nostalgia pendulum - creators now were the consumers back then- it's a 30-year swing. The Ghostbusters house may not have happened if Stranger Things hadn't preceded it, bringing in the nostalgia."
Moving on to other special events gave him a chance to get into Universal's film archives in LA, like when he helped with the revamped lagoon show, pulling clips from iconic movies to be shown on water screens at night. "From mazes to Harry Potter to new content in Hogsmeade, it all went well and built trust with people above me - from special events to building the new lagoon show - all of these amazing opportunities came from being able to lead a team creatively."
Once he became Senior Director for Entertainment Creative, he said he would run with it till he couldn't anymore. But it seems his train kept rolling right into a station that brought London to Orlando. "Potter changed the dynamic of the park. How can we partner to give people what they love in an IP plus original content? And at that point, I wanted to help show directors to do what they do. I love working with individuals, helping their ideas become a reality. Something I didn't know I'd love to do. At no point in this career am I disillusioned to not know how lucky I am to be where I am; the opportunities I have, and my chance to achieve my goals and advance and forward others. I'm smart enough to know I don't know everything. I've had more failures than successes. All of that has to exist for what I think are diamonds to exist. I get that from Mom and Dad. Never be the smartest person in the room. Recognize the talent around you." Massive successful openings of two Potter areas happened, one right after the other, and even bigger things were on the horizon for Aiello.
This year Jack is back y'all... and dare I say... so are other beloved baddies to look out for. Celebrating 30 years of Horror Nights, Universal has already released loads of press touting the most beloved of their original icons sporting his orange hair and freakish grin. Leaving Entertainment for some time in Universal Creative for new projects, Aiello gets to see what the HHN team creates this year, without being a part of the planning. "Everyone is excited with putting it back up, the normalcy everyone is craving," Aiello says. "For the first time since working on the event, I don't know where the scares are. I'm excited to see what they've come up with. I'm walking into those experiences like guests - for the first time in decades."
Carrying on the tradition started with his father, he now attends the event with his own son, Caden, who composes music and is a budding writer himself. Daughter Paige is an accomplished dancer, and wife Summer continues to be an audience favorite at the Horror Makeup Show. Aiello says of his career, "Universal has been the best 25 years of existing, evolving, and adapting I could ever ask for."
As for his future with the company and what's coming next Aiello says, "My mantra has never changed. Whatever the opportunity is, I'm gonna go head first. What do I want? I want to create content I want to see. I never want to lose the perspective of being a guest seeing it for the first time. We all have our expectations, but what do the guests want [that] they don't know they want? That's the fun part of this - surprise and delight."
And he is just that folks - the same surprise I met so many years ago, and a delight to still be friends with. Sometimes truly good things happen to the best of people. And Mike Aiello is the tops.
For more information on Halloween Horror Nights and upcoming event information, visit universalorlando.com (or here for HHN Hollywood).