A frightfully fun experience where all areas of the park are fair game for a scare. It’s that time of year again. Time to place yourself in terrifying situations, and ‘live’ to be scared to ‘death.’ Instead of running away from that which would ordinarily repulse ourselves, we pay money for the experience of nightmare-generating haunted houses and scare zones. In Central Florida, we are definitely not short on Halloween events. All the theme parks, also zoos, aquariums, and even museums hold special Halloween parties or events. The four most popular events are arguably Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights (HHN), Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream (HOS), Disney’s Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, and SeaWorld’s Spook-tacular. Of those, HHN and HOS are the most popular for a conventional “scary” Halloween experience. Although I have not been to HHN yet, I did attend HOS over the weekend, and would like to share my thoughts with you. The aim of this analysis is not to determine which is better: HOS or HHN, because they are totally difference experiences; but the idea is to reflect upon the event and provide you with a look into “Evil Encore.”
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The best part about HOS is the simple fact that every park guest, provided they arrive at or close to the opening time, has sufficient time to experience the 8 houses and Fiends show, plus the scare zones and photo-ops. You might even get a chance to ride some of the best roller coasters that Central Florida has to offer at night, including Busch Gardens newest coaster Cobras Curse. For most of the guests (who are generally locals from Tampa Bay, Sarasota, Gainesville, or Orlando), the main focus of the event and time is on the haunted houses. Although my friends and I got caught in the rain at the start of HOS, we were able to experience nearly everything! Unfortunately, I did not get to experience Zombie Containment Unit because the house was down for technical difficulties (but I did experience it last year). After reports of low crowds on Friday night, I was anticipating the event being slow and not crowded–I was wrong. Comparing Saturday night to past years, there definitely seemed to be more people than in the past. Still, the longest queue (wait/line) was for Zombie Containment Unit at 60mins; most of the other houses were 45mins or less. All of the rides also had low wait times under 30mins (except Cobra at 60mins).
Before breaking down the houses for you, I would like to provide further analysis of the event experience itself. There is no argument that HHN boasts a far higher production value than HOS. However, does that mean that HOS is less fun or less scary? Definitely not. In fact, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that HOS is scarier than HHN. Why is that? Supporting evidence of this anecdotal observation and opinion can be seen in the actual scare factor. I mentioned in my opening paragraph that the whole park is fair game. What I mean by that is the park is crawling with solitary roaming scare-actors and hoards of the undead. My favorite atmospheric jump scares is–what I call the–bush people. You never know when one of this camouflaged creatures of the night will jump up from the darkness and scare the s#!t right out of you! My friend Dani is practically never scared, but the bush people get her every time. I cannot take complete credit for the observation about the whole park being fair game; my friend Derek made that remark when we were reflecting upon our experience in the short car ride back home. It’s never a dull moment at HOS with my friend Brittany (who provided the tickets for our admission). She is so much fun o go with because of how intensely she gets scared and screams! Take my advice, find yourself a Brittany and attend a halloween event near you.
Although HOS does not have HHN’s production design quality, it does transform the whole park. The theming of the houses extends beyond the queue. Most of the queues themselves help to set the mood of the house. This idea is reinforced by themed scare-actors roaming the queue to keep everyone moving forward. Simply stated, since HOS cannot complete with HHN on IP and production design, it CAN compete with the scare factor; and time and time again, I am always more scared at HOS versus HHN. I am puzzled by one thing, and I cannot think of an explanation. If you’ve seen the Hulu ad or even billboard around Orlando and Tampa, there is a puppet master in a creepy circus or freakshow tent or workshop. Puppets are incredibly creepy and always make for an excellent horror plot device. I was really hoping to see a Puppet Master house or even puppets making a prominent showing at HOS. Unfortunately, there is not one puppet to be found and you’ll not find that puppet master from the Hulu ad either. Not entirely sure why Busch Gardens advertised puppets but failed to deliver any. Feels a little like a bait and switch. Other than being disappointed from the lack of evil puppets (I know it wasn’t supposed to be connected directly to the movie Puppet Master, but that movie terrified me as a kid and I was looking forward to reliving that frightening experience), I was delightfully impressed at the number of scares and increase in the production design and quality of the houses. This event is definitely showing signs of growth in terms of guest attendance and creative design.
The house closest to the entrance is Death Water Bayou. Upon entering this house, you are instantly transported from Tampa to the bayous of southern Louisiana. Setting the mood of the house and creeping you out from the very beginning is a voodoo priestess. Throughout the house, you will encounter much of what you expect, and even some unexpected deathly surprises. The quality of the design of the house is fantastic! I love the feeling of going in and outside of buildings. I have never traversed a swamp before, but I imagine that walking through a really creepy swamp in southern Louisiana would feel very similarly. Following a mostly safe return to Tampa, my friends and I headed for Zombie Containment Unit. Finding the wait to be more than an hour, we decided to head for one of this year’s new houses Black Spot. On the way to Black Spot we walked through a disturbing playground featuring some of the props from the former Dead Fall house. I recognized the merry-go-round and tea party and more. While we were walking though the scare zone, one of the scare-actors followed Brittany and Dani very closely. It was all Brittany could do to ignore his ominous presence. Black Spot was incredibly well done. It is located where Dead Fall used to be (former Tidal Wave). From the pirates to the sirens, the scare-actors truly brought the world of curses, pirates, and adventure to life–or death rather. The queue leading up to the main entrance was filled with props, scare-actors, and structures to effectively transport you to some remote deserted island somewhere in the caribbean.
The next stop on our terrifying journey was to visit some dearly departed loved ones at the Zombie Mortuary. This house has been around for a few years, and has pretty well remained the same. You make your way slowly through the scariest mortuary you’re ever been in. From the dead rising out of coffins to those trying to escape the flames of being cremated alive, this house is sure to please the zombie fans out there. Making a ‘return’ this year, is last year’s new house Unearthed. Largely unchanged, this house increased the production design and added more effects. Most notably is the incredibly amazing even tree animatronic in the queue just before entering the house. Derek, who is typically all about HHN, was extremely impressed. Moreover, we were all mesmerized by the sinister tree and the twisted, mangled branches that have destruction emanating from the few leaves left on the ancient bark. I was glad to see that the horned women was nowhere to be found. She did not really fit the theming last year either. Although Unearthed did not impress me last year, I very much enjoyed the experience this season. No Halloween event would be complete without a trip through the “greatest show on earth.” What is creepier than a sinister clown or circus? Not very much, especially if you are already terrified of friendly clowns. Circus of Superstition returns with the most macabre sights and sounds of the big top. With available “3D” glasses (more like augmented-ish reality), the colors and lights of the circus will be intensified. From breaking mirrors to walking under ladders, you are certainly going to test your luck in this house.
One of my person favorite parts of HHN and HOS are the live shows! These shows are always a fun way to break up the frights. Some of the best horror films have a splash of comedy in them, and the Halloween events are no different. HHN has Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure and HOS has Fiends. Fiends is a Halloween themed show featuring hot shirtless guys, sexy female nurses, and the headlining antics of Dr. Freakenstein and his trusty sidekick Igor. Like with other parodies and satire out there, this one was quite political. The best part of any presidential election is the amount of material available to comedy writers and comedians. Between the sketches, there are dance numbers usually featuring whatever the most popular songs from vocal artists or bands are that year. Like clockwork, Fiends always ends with the cult classic Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show. If you are one of those parents who brings their kid to HOS, I highly advise not to bring them to the show. The material int eh show is definitely PG13, if not for mature audiences. This year’s Fiends was completely irreverent and pandered to college students, just as it should! If you do not laugh during this show, then I feel sorry for you, haha. Since this is a presidential election year, I would have liked to have seen more parody and satire directly related to Clinton and Trump, but perhaps Busch Gardens didn’t want to push the envelop too far.
Last but not least, we checked into Motel Hell. Not to be confused by the 1980s movie by the same name, Busch Gardens’ Motel Hell is probably the best designed HOS house to date. It was arguably an HHN quality house and boasted so many scares! The best part: creepy old time 1940s scratchy music from a record player. I really felt like I was visiting an old rundown motel in some jerkwater town that fell to the wayside when the interstate or expressway can through. It was a motel frozen in time. Even the entrance to the motel looked like something right out of a movie. From the lobby to guest rooms to the pool, this is one motel that you will not find anywhere on TripAdvisor. For most of the houses, when you look above you, you see rafters or even the roof of the sound stage or tent; no so with Motel Hell. Although there are places where you look up and the illusion is broken, there were rooms in the motel that had a ceiling. This ceiling creates an instant claustrophobic feeling that does nothing but intensifies the scares.
Running on select nights from now until the end of October, Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream is not to be missed if you are looking for a fun time of scares and laughs.