“Enjoy it while YOU last!” Howl-O-Scream (HOS) opened at Busch Gardens Tampa this past weekend! With two new houses, new scare zones, and the Fiends show’s new venue, it’s definitely an exciting event to attend this Halloween season, and one you don’t want to miss. More apparent than in years’ past, HOS is definitely growing in production value as it continues to draw upon the same visitors and locals in central Florida as HHN does. I’m often asked which event is better. And there is no one answer or even a simple answer, at that, with which to respond. The truth is, both events are equally enjoyable; but, it’s important to note that they are really two different experiences. What I appreciate year after year at HOS is the scare-factor. I’m consistently more scared at HOS than at HHN. Since Busch Gardens knows that they cannot compete with Universal on familiar TV and movie IPs that Universal can license, they choose to focus on the element of the jump scare–and it’s successful. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself jumping more at HOS than you will at HHN. On the topic of IPs and by extension, production value, HOS has delivered some excellent houses that are on the verge of being on par with the HHN original IPs. Once Busch Gardens is able to license a familiar horror/suspense/thriller television show or motion picture, it will be quite the rival for HHN. Another area that HOS has capitalized on moreso than HHN is the availability of full bars. HHN does not offer full bars at the event (instead they have specialty drinks and beer). HOS offers several full liquor bars during the event, so you can get basic cocktails and such to enjoy while you scream your lungs off. With the addition of Reoccurring Nightmare tickets, HOS now offers the equivalent to the Rush of and Frequent Fear passes at HHN.
Like with HHN, there is no better night to experience HOS than opening night! The scare-actors are at full energy, the houses are at full nightmare status, and you get to experience the horrors with others who comprise the fan base of theme park Halloween events. Since Busch Gardens does not replace all the houses each year, I usually like to start with the new ones. This year, Busch Gardens Howl-O-Sceam debuted Demented Dimensions and Undead Arena LIVE. Both are excellent! The first house my friends and I visited was Demented Dimensions. Since Demented Dimensions is located in the Pantopia area of the park, we had to brave the streets of a deadly old folks home and a sinister circus. We got the biggest kick out of seeing actual senior members of our community put on bloody garbs and scary masks and haunt our steps through their scare zone. Good for them! This is a sign that BG HOS seeks to involve anyone who wants to spend the evening scaring park guests. Following a daring escape from the dentureless jaws of the hoard of old folks, we proceeded to brave the insidiously fun Carnie Camp. Quite the freak show, this circus will have you narrowly escaping the sinister carnies as you make your way through the three rings. Lastly, we had to pass through Wasteland (a scare zone reprise from last year) that looks like something out of a nightmarish Mad Max world). Following our emergence from Wasteland, we crossed over into another dimension–a demented dimension. Demented Dimensions, taking the place of Zombie Mortuary, is filled with a sensory overload of twists, turns, and physics-defying spectacles as you walk though this homage to that which only exists in your nightmares. Having arrived before the majority of the crowd, my friends and I had the house to ourselves. The best part about that is being the target of every scare-actor in the house. The theme of the house was quite fluid and continually immersed me within the multi-dimensional experience.
From Demented Dimensions to the treacherous high seas, the next house on our agenda was Black Spot, the pirate themed house from last year. Largely unchanged, this house is still a top notch one and has a near-Universal quality about it. Feels like what you would experience if Magic Kingdom’s Pirates of the Caribbean ever became haunted. Such an enjoyable thrill! I enjoyed it as much this year as I did last year. Like with Demented Dimensions, we had this one to ourselves too, so the scare-actors were out in full force to frighten us as we navigated the dark seas. After making it safely back to shore, we decided to take in the first showing of Fiends now located in the Stanleyville Theatre in the round stage. Even before the show started, I was nearly convinced that this experience was going to be even better than last year because of having a more traditional house layout as opposed to the dining hall feel of Dragon Fire Grill. Prior to the show and between the trivia on screen, the audience is reminded that if you are easily offended by anything that you may want to sit out of Fiends. And that is quite valid. I’ve often thought that Fiends would benefit from taking the adult humor up a notch and taking that envelope and pushing it even further. That is exactly what you get with this year’s show. Having been a part of HOS for all 19 years, each year is a riff on pup culture much in the same vein as the Bill and Ted show at HHN. Fiends returns from the dead funnier than ever! With excellent writing, a hilarious cast, and strategic riffs on pop culture, you have got to make time to see this show when you go to HOS.
After laughing to death at Fiends, we had to face the haunted circus once again. On our way to Death Water Bayou we spotted a motel off the main drag on a side street. Looked quite lonely, sitting on the side of the road with its exterior that seemed frozen in the 1950s. The Motel Shellburn is home to Motel Hell, a house that debuted last year at HOS, and still my favorite house this year. What sets this house apart from the rest of the lineup is the attention to detail and storytelling. From the entrance to the exit, this house IS definitely of an HHN quality. Unless I am mistaken, the exit for this year is different from last year. When you exit the motel, you’ll find yourself in a memorial garden of sorts. And watch out, because you’ll encounter terrifying scare-actors in the cemetery too. Located not far from Motel Hell is the merky depths of Death Water Bayou. If you read my review of this year’s HHN, you’ll remember that I commented on how Universal essentially copied this house for their Dead Waters. Getting to compare the houses back to back, I am convinced that the HOS version of this concept is definitely scarier and just more enjoyable. However, Dead Waters is a little longer than Death Water Bayou. Like with some of the other houses, this one stands out to me because of, like with Motel Hell, the theming outside of the house. I like how it looks like we are walking though a bayou and into a shanty in the back waters of Louisiana. The story of the house begins to immerse you even before entering in through the shadowy front door.
One great aspect to Busch Gardens’ Halloween event is coasters in the dark! All the coasters are open this year at HOS–even newly refurbished Kumba. While a lot of the park guests are there for just the haunted houses, that leaves many of the queues sparsely populated, which means walking right onto the coasters! After leaving Louisiana, we flew to Egypt for Cobra’s Curse and my personal favorite Montu! Nothing beats riding a coast at night! At HHN, for traditional roller coasters, other then Revenge of the Mummy, you have to go from Universal Studios Florida over to Islands of Adventure. Fortunately, Busch Gardens has your coaster need taken care of with all six thrill rides open! That includes Montu, Cobra’s Curse, Kumba, Shiekra, Cheetah Hunt, and Falcon’s Fury. If you arrive early enough to HOS, you will definitely have time for the houses AND the rides! We certainly did. Well, we went to all the houses except Zombie Containment Unit. Wasn’t a big fan of it last year nor the year before, so didn’t want to wait for it this year. The Playground scare zone returns for another disturbingly frightening year, and you’ll have to pass through it’s haunts when you walk from the Moroccan area back towards Pantopia.
From coasters alive with excitement, to one that is a ghost of its former self, we returned to unearth something evil. Unearthed is now in its third year but still just as thrilling as it was when it debuted in 2015. The animatronic tree you pass before entering into the excavation chambers is still so incredibly impressive! Unearthed is another house that encroaches upon HHN quality. Although the house is not new this year, I am pretty sure that there were some extra scares in it this year as opposed to years past. The last house on our agenda was another new one. Just like with the Ringling Bros. circus, Circus of Superstition also closed after last year. But, Gwazi field is still bustling with live undead entertainment at Undead Arena LIVE. In the vein of the circus, this house takes a classic approach to haunts in that it really does feel like a traditional fun house, completely with dead ends, mirrors, and getting split up from your group. If you are more than a group of two, then the carnie barker will split you up into two separate groups as you make your way through the maze. There are scares round every corner as you desperately attempt to find your way out of the mind bending labyrinth of undead terrors.
Well, there you have it! A comprehensive review of Howl-O-Scream 2017. I hope you decide to face your fears at Busch Gardens’ annual event. HOS is going on now through October 29th (last Sunday of October). Tickets are reasonably priced but vary depending on when you choose to go. Consider upgrading to the Reoccurring Nightmare ticket to enjoy all nights of the event.