Busch Gardens Tampa Presents Christmas Town 2017

Join Busch Gardens in the merriment of the holiday season by visiting Christmas Town going on now through New Years Eve on select nights! Now in its sixth season, Christmas Town is your theme park event for a good ol’ fashioned celebration, complete with multiple live shows, a singalong train, Santa Claus, Rudolph & Friends, and coasters in the dark! From the traditional to the contemporary, there is a way for everyone to celebrate the joyous holiday season at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. One of the elements that sets Busch Gardens apart from its Central Florida counterparts is the number of shows, live entertainment, and special character meet-and-greets during the event. Christmas Town is bursting with holly, jolly, holiday cheer around ever corner and under every present. Even if you find yourself attending as a solo guest (as I did), you will thoroughly enjoy your time and find plenty to do all over the park. Christmas Town is my pick for most “Christmassy” theme park event this holiday season.

With so much to do, you definitely want to download the Busch Gardens app for showtimes and attraction locations. If you don’t want to download the app, grab a map for sure. With all there is going on, you may be wondering if there is a way to get it all in? And with many of the offerings starting early in the afternoon, there is sufficient time to experience all the shows and meet the characters during Christmas Town. If your goal is to ride the coasters AND attend all the seasonal offerings, then you may want to plan on spending two nights at Busch Gardens. The park truly transforms itself in to a veritable winter wonderland (minus the snow). Nicely appointed decorations are adorning nearly every corner of the park. Familiar Christmas carols and holiday hits continually accompany your stroll down the lighted pathways.

My first stop on my merry way through Christmas Town was the show Christmas from the Heart. This show, featuring live vocals and band, is a heartwarming experience that includes many traditional Christmas hymns to provide audiences with an uplifting, inspirational show. From melodic ballads to upbeat gospel tunes, this show will likely have you clapping your hands and singing along. The show is largely unchanged from last year, but there are new costumes and lighting design. The theatre in the round design of the Stanleyville Theatre enables all guests to have an excellent view of the stage during the performance.

After rejoicing with classic Christmas carols, I had about an hour until the next show I wanted to attend, so that gave me sufficient time to book my trip to the North Pole to meet Mr. and Mrs. Claus! I absolutely adore visiting the Santa House at Christmas Town because it is warm and cozy on the inside, and Coca-Cola (the sponsor) gives it the most magical decor that practically looks like it leaped right out of a classic Coca-Cola ad from when it essentially invented the Santa that we know today. While you may think that visiting Santa when you’re in the park by yourself would be–let’s face it–kind of weird, I can tell you that the attraction hosts, Mrs. Claus, and elves still provided me with a magical experience. I mean, how often as an adult do you get a private audience with Santa??? Instead of feeling like the odd one out, Santa’s house made me feel right at home and I got to talk with them a little more than a typical guest because I had good ol’ Saint Nick all to myself. It’s no surprise that Santa wished me a merry Christmas, but I can tell that this Santa was extremely genuine in his wishes to me.

Now, as much fun as us adults and theme park fans have with Christmas Town, I imagine that the kids who get to visit the shows, lighting displays, and characters have an even more phenomenal time because to them everything is truly filled with Christmas magic. And to give you the inside scoop on experiencing Santa, Rudolph, and Elmo’s Christmas Wish is a good friend of mine who is the mother of two young children, one of whom is visiting Christmas Town for her very first time. Here is Britt Campbell (Tampa, FL):

“Busch Gardens Christmas Town once again created an incredible holiday experience this year. As a mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old and an eleven-month-old, I got to experience this year’s attractions with a fresh sense of wonder. Early in the evening, Elmo’s Christmas Wish brought joy to my entire family as we sang and clapped along to the fifteen-minute show full of holiday cheer for all ages. At Santa’s House, a pager (like you’d receive at a restaurant) allowed us to wander around and enjoy Santa’s Village until we were called to a very short line. Santa’s House was magnificent, filled with glowing decor and happy elves. Mrs. Claus entertained us as we waited our turn. Then the most picturesque and perfect Santa Claus I’ve ever met patiently listened to my son’s wishes and took pictures with all of us, but not without sending us on our merry way with cookies in hand. The second annual Rudolph experience also includes pagers this year, making the wait much more pleasant. It allowed my kids to go on rides in Pantopia until we were asked to join the line. Sam the Snowman replaced Yukon this year and was joined by Bumble, Rudolph and Clarice. My family and I enjoyed meeting and taking pictures with each character, and we even got to see Rudolph and Clarice dancing together and bringing the Christmas spirit to life. Although we didn’t see everything there was to see on opening night, we will absolutely be back to experience the rest of the magic of Christmas Town [later on this season]!” Thanks for the contribution Britt, Merry Christmas!

After my visit with Santa, I made my way over to Pantopia to the Dragon Fire Grill to watch Christmas Celebration. This is an incredibly fun show filled with comical characters, heartwarming duets, and the jazzy Christmas songs that you can’t help but dance to. Santa makes several appearances and even makes special time with the kids in the audience. I especially enjoyed the Santa Baby number, and the singers costume was killer! Gracing the stage is a beautiful set design that creates the most festive atmosphere. I always have so much fun at this show! And I am sure you will too, so make time to watch Christmas Celebration!

Following Christmas Celebration, I had to dash across the North Pole and back to the front of the park for my absolute favorite show at Christmas Town. You do not want to miss Christmas On Ice playing at the Moroccan Palace Theatre (home to the former Turn It Up ice show). Nothing says Christmas like a beautifully choreographed mesmerizing figure skating show. Having met the cast during the run of Turn It Up, I can say for a fact that they absolutely love putting on a magical show for audiences at Busch Gardens and the full complement of cast and technical crew look forward to every single show, especially the limited time holiday spectacular! Although the song numbers are largely the same as last year, the set is greatly enhanced by the LED video wall that was installed for Turn It Up. It provides the perfect backdrop for every number that the cast performs during the show. Experience Christmas magic, memories, and more at Christmas On Ice “the COOLEST show on ice.”

An attraction that I love to experience at every Christmas Town is the Singalong Train! It’s so much fun to board the decked out holiday train with hundreds of other park guests and sing familiar Christmas carols while riding through the Serengeti Safari. I grew up Christmas caroling with my family, so this is the perfect opportunity to wax nostalgic and allow the holiday cheer to completely fill me as I spread holiday goodness around the park with the other guests. Not having been to every theme park holiday celebration in the U.S., I cannot say whether or not this is unique to Busch Gardens or not, but if it isn’t the only one, it certainly is one of few parks that offers a railway caroling experience! From Jingle Bells to Walking in a Winter Wonderland, you’ll get to sing many of your favorites.

In addition to the live shows, there are two choreographed lights shows that you will want to see. One is a giant Christmas tree in Jungala and the other is the Crown Colony House, home to the Serengeti Overlook restaurant. Both attractions dance throughout the evening so you can easily catch the brief shows. You’ll find clips from these and the other shows in our video!

If you are planing a trip to the theme parks of Central Florida, you definitely want to make time to spend a day at Busch Gardens for Christmas Town. Of all the parks in the area, it certainly has the most events and limited time engagements going on. Nearly every area of the park is busting with lights Whether you’re young or simply young at heart, there is something for everyone.

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Support Local! Exploring Central Florida’s Community Haunts

Written by Ryan L. Terry & Derek Rosenberg

While Universal parks have Halloween Horror Nights, Busch Gardens parks host Howl-O-Scream, Knott’s Berry Farm celebrates Halloween with Knott’s Scary Farm as well as many other theme parks’ Halloween events, don’t forget that your area may also offer some great local haunts to terrify you during this festive season made up of what haunts you in your nightmares. Whether you are searching for a local haunt that has that quintessential small town Halloween feel or you seek a haunt that takes you where no theme park can without getting sued, there is likely a haunted house or trail located within driving distance of your house that beckons for you to brave the horrors that lie within.

I must confess, I have not supported my local Central Florida area haunts in the past–and that’s always bothered me. Always spent my time at the Universal, Disney, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld events. So this year, I made it a point to make it to at least one, if not more, in order to support local Halloween enthusiasts who enjoy crafting something enjoyably terrifying for the community to enjoy during the Halloween season. And you know what I found? Local haunts are great! They can do things that theme parks aren’t able to do for reasons of liability. They can also do little things that enhance the experience by giving the haunt a more intimate feel. I am certainly not disappointed with my experience; and friends of mine that have supported local haunts this year as well, have commented that the haunted trails and houses offered uniquely fun experiences.

Our first stop is Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail! Located between Tampa and Orlando in Plant City, famous for the annual Strawberry Festival, Sir Henry’s offers two trails and a house. The house was an addition to the annual trails because it was located in Bartow, FL where it suffered major damage from Hurricane Irma. The folks at Sir Henry offered to include the house in order for the owners to recuperate the money it takes to build and support a haunted house AND for additional exposure from people who wouldn’t ordinarily drive the hour from Orlando or Tampa for a local house. Talk about an excellent example of a community uniting after a disaster! I gathered from that story that the owners, designers, and builders of local haunted attractions must be a close-knit community that steps in to help one another out, all while maintaining friendly competition amongst each other.

Parking was free! That was a great start to Sir Henry. You can purchase admission individually for the trails and house (three total attractions), or you can buy a combo ticket. My two friends and I purchased the combo ticket for $30 (saved $6). Individually, the attractions sell for $12/ea. From the moment we walked in, we knew that it would be fun. There were fire pits roaring, people roasting marshmallows, local vendors selling souvenirs and Halloween decorations, and kids whose parents obviously dropped them off for a night of nightmarish experiences. It felt like I stepped into a Halloween event held in one of those towns found in shows on The CW–you know the ones I’m talking about. I was thoroughly impressed by the craftsmanship and simple but effective technologies used in bringing these houses to life. A big difference between the theme park events and these local haunts is the group size. At Sir Henry, groups are broken up into smaller groups of three or four. Furthermore, guests are sent through the trails and house in intervals. This is instrumental in a desire for each guest to experience a scare without seeing it up ahead with other group. The trails and house were definitely maze-like in the design, because we took a few wrong turns and had to backtrack–only to find our pathway blocked by scareactors.

One of my favorite effects that I saw at Sir Henry’s was the fog and green laser that made it look like a swamp. Come to find out, that effect is achieved by cooling the fog to a temperature that causes it to remain condensed and about 3-4 feet above the ground. The addition of the green laser effect actually made it feel like I was wading through a swamp as my friends and I were navigating the maze. Being out in a field was a lot of fun and much different than being in a theme park setting. I really had no idea where scares were going to be; and therefore, I was always processing from turn to turn with heightened senses. It was a great feeling! Demented colonists, abandoned subdivisions, deadly butchers, chainsaw wielding sociopaths, you’ll find them all at Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail in Plant City, Florida.

Let’s head over to Winter Haven, located between Orlando and Lakeland.

The Shallow Grave has been a staple haunted attraction in Winter Haven, Florida for the last 5 years. I have always heard great things about this haunt and had never taken the time to experience it, but couldn’t pass it up this year, after hearing it will be their last year due to low attendance numbers. Built in a 13,000 square foot warehouse, Shallow Grave offers two haunted mazes giving you two very different experiences. Parking is $5 in the field across the street and as soon as we arrived the atmosphere was electric. They have several different ticket options including General Admission for $25 (includes both houses, one admission per house), Quick Death for $40 (allows you to skip the lines, one admission per house), Feargasm Pass for $35 (unlimited access to both houses), Season Pass for $150 (admission to each house for all 14 nights they are open), and the Combo Pass with Chamber of Terror for $55. They also sell Shallow Grave t-shirts to really support your local haunt. There are a few animatronic figures or statues outside the houses that add to the creepy atmosphere and allow for some great photo ops. Standing in line was where we got our first taste of how this is different than your typical theme park haunt. Scareactors are milling about outside the houses, pushing through the lines and popping up to scare guests before they even make it inside. They then tend to be happy to pose for a photo to show off their costumes and makeup.

Now we get into the houses. Updated for 2017 we first have Betrayal. You find yourselves on the haunted property of Thaddeus Van Buren during a rise of the undead. Shambling zombies and chainsaw wielding hillbillies stalk this maze which includes a rundown house and graveyard. This felt like a pairing of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a zombie flick, which are two of my favorite genres. The returning house this year is Pavor Nocturnus (latin for night terror) which delves into the realm of phobias and those subconscious fears you might not realize you have. This house covers spiders, caves, snakes, swamps, voodoo, prison, hospitals, and asylums in all the best and worst ways possible. With sets and props that match Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream quality, scareactors grisly costumes and makeup, and not your average animatronics and puppets, you haven’t been through a maze quite like these before. These are the scariest houses I’ve ever been through, which comes from several reasons. They only let groups of 6 through the house at a time and there isn’t always a clear indication of which way you are supposed to go, so it does truly feel like you’re having to find your way through this maze of horrors. The scareactors are also able to touch you and although it’s typically only a light squeeze of your arm, it’s a whole different experience once that barrier of “safety” is shattered. Having been going to haunted events at theme parks for the last 12 years, I can say that this is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a real shame that this is their last year and I’ve only gone once. I’m hoping they find a new home or financial backer so we can see The Shallow Grave return in the future.

Now, we head to Downtown Tampa for quite the unique experience!

When buying tickets we went with the Combo Pass so that we could also check out the Chamber of Terror in Tampa, Florida. This haunt is built on the SS American Victory, a WWII-era cargo shipped docked behind the Florida Aquarium in Channelside. Parking is available at the Channelside Parking Garage across the street from the aquarium. Ticket options include General Admission for $25, Immediate Demise for $40 (skip the line pass), and the Combo Pass with The Shallow Grave for $55 (skip the lines pass for both locations). From the moment you walk up to this haunt it feels different than any other because you’re walking up to an actual ship. Walking down the darkened alley to the water for the reveal of a huge ship is pretty spectacular. Scareactors amble around outside ready to scare you in line as a taste of what’s to come. Soon you will find yourself deep in the hold of this haunted ship, inhabited by Captain Berwick and his undead crew, lashing out to terrorize you and hoping to add some new bodies to their hoard.

Our combo pass allowed us to skip the line so we almost immediately were sent up the gangplank onto the deck of the ship. The steel door swings open and a group of 6 are beckoned through by an undead shipmate who leads you to the elevator. Here you are shut into a box where the only light is being shown in your face by a scareactor holding a flashlight and shouting while lowering us down into the depths of the ship. What follows is a twisting, turning maze of narrow corridors and staircases that take you through many different sections of the ship including the main deck, which gives you a nice view of the water. This haunt is interesting because each section of the ship plays out like an interactive scene that plays for your group before being reset for the group following well behind you. The costuming and props are great and the scareactors have no problem invading your personal space, especially in the crew quarters. The different levels of the ship disorient you into not knowing where the next scare is coming from and where the terror will take you next. While I didn’t find this haunt as scary as Shallow Grave, it was still a lot of fun and a different experience than I’ve had before. I definitely plan to check out the Chamber of Terror in the years to come to see what changes are made and for more nautical haunt fun.

The final stop on our tour of Central Florida’s local haunts was Scream-A-Geddon in Dade City. Having only been around for a few years, it’s the newest local haunt in greater Orlampa (Orlando/Tampa). We had such a great time! A fantastic variety of haunts including three houses, one trail, and a hayride! That’s right. A Hayride in Florida! From the moment we entered, we could tell that we were in for a spooktacular time. The theme of the event revolves around a classic carnival setup. The ticket windows, entrances, and midway resemble a classic carnival or traveling circus. The scareactors are not confined to the houses, but there are roaming sociopaths and ghastly hillbillies throughout the midway. In addition to the official haunts, Scream-A-Geddon also offers a gift shop, carnival food, and even games. If you’re feeling a big cold, there are two giant fire pits as well. With the night being unseasonably cold for Florida, the climate added to the experience because it felt like how Halloween is supposed to feel in the air.

Blackpool Prison is where the worst of the worst criminals are sent and during a blackout the inmates take control. This was our first house of the night and it was probably the best place to start. Here we were introduced to an element that makes Scream-A-Geddon different than most other haunts, the interactive glow stick necklace. Before you go inside the house, those who are 18 or older are given the option to either go in as a spectator or to where a glow stick necklace to become part of the horror, which allows the scareactors to interact with you. We’re sent into the prison in a group of 6, with 2 in our party wearing necklaces, and I took point. I was almost immediately grabbed by an inmate, taken into a cell, and shoved up against a wall where the inmate screamed in my face that I was going to die in this prison. I was then sent back out of the cell and, having been separated from my group, had to walk alone through the house for a while. Our friend Dani was also grabbed several times and between us we were yelled at, shoved against walls, locked into jail cells, threatened with bodily harm, and in Dani’s case with having her teeth pulled out. The house was very dark and smoky to simulate a rioting prison during a blackout, with threatening inmates and the few prison guards still left alive begging for our help. The set pieces weren’t as spectacular as other haunts, but the atmosphere coupled with walking through sections of this house alone makes that forgivable. This was a great introduction of the best parts of Scream-A-Geddon and got us ready for what was to come in our second house.

We then headed over to check out Infected: Ground Zero, the new house for 2017. Following a meteorite crashing near a rural campsite, a viral infection rapidly spreads, leading to a military quarantine of the area. Before heading out into the chaos we are again asked if we wanted to spectate or take part, Dani and I opted in again and were sent in as a group of 6. Dani was almost immediately grabbed and pulled away from our group and we didn’t see her again until we made it out of the house. This haunt is a maze through quarantine tents, dilapidated cars, and a house of cannibalistic horror. I was eventually grabbed and stuck in an X-ray room where I was hit with a bright light and blast of air and toward the end of the haunt I was pulled into a tent off the main path where the scareactor began shaving my hair to help stave off the infection. The end section was a squared off maze of lit tents, a central tower that spewed fire out the top every 60 seconds or so, and a chainsaw wielding madman chasing you through to the exit. After we made it out we were reunited with Dani where she told us of her experiences inside, which included: being zipped in a body bag and left alone for a few minutes, being forced onto a table where a buzz saw was ran across her forehead, and nearly being grabbed by another scareactor to be given a shot with the antidote. The frantic nature of this haunt was incredible and never knowing what the next section might hold made it the best experience Scream-A-Geddon has to offer and an experience that should not be missed.

The next two haunts on our tour placed us in the middle of the woods–Dead Woods to be precise. At this offering, you are sent on a deathly journey through the woods surrounding a nearly abandoned settlement with only a few cabins remaining. Lurking within the walls of these cabins in the woods, are deadly settlers who refused to leave when the rest of the village took to the city. While the haunts of this attraction were spread a little too thin for my taste–lots of “dead” space–the design of the cabins was great! Derek, Dani, and I really enjoyed the concept and layout. In the future, Scream-A-Geddon may want to consider making each cabin a different theme or including a greater variety of scares. This was also the longest wait, and over all woods did not justify the wait time. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun. But I think this attraction could use a little more “haunt” to compensate for the longer than average wait. Having to use a light stick to find our way was a lot of fun and added to the experience of being lost in the woods. Although using a faceod of a cabin would have sufficed for some haunts, this offering boasted five full cabins that we walked through and encountered the locals who were not happy that we were uninvited house guests. Probably because we witnessed all the sinister things they were up to. Walking through the haunted woods on our self-guided tour, was a great experience!

From walking through haunted woods to riding on a tractor-drawn hay wagon, we headed over to Cursed Hayride. This was my favorite experience at the carnival of terrors because it offers a unique experience. Unique for this part of Florida because hay isn’t something that you see in numerous quantities around the area, especially if you live in an urban core. I hadn’t been on a hayride in more than a decade. Although the ride load, unload and guest circulation could be improved a little, the wait wasn’t terrible. And certainly worth the experience. The theme was two part haunted farm and one part Old Western ghost town. The ride was filled with several pyro effects and scareactors to terrify you on your journey. A small group of girls on our hay wagon were particularly terrified and were all over the wagon. Along your ride, you will encounter farm equipment the has a mind of its own and will try to bail you will the hay. Watch out for a giant man-eating gator too. My favorite part was going through the ghost town. Reminded me a lot of the Western scene in the late Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In fact, I remarked “what is this, Joisey???” An homage to the gangster on GMR. The tour through the ghost town was complete with a bank robbery, shoot out between the law and outlaws, and a terrifying priest. Such a unique experience that ranks highly for me this season.

Our last experience of the night was Bedlam 3D, which is a trip through a carnival madhouse gone mad. No interactive glow stick necklaces here, everyone gets the same experience. Taking some cues from Circus of Superstition 3D that ran at Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream for many years, we are sent through a glow in the dark, neon colored, clown invested, insane asylum. The 3D used here is similar to what you’ll see at other haunted theme park attractions, but is different than what you see in the theater. ChromaDepth 3D relies on the color spectrum where red appears to pop out at you, and blue appears to recede, with differing levels of depth effect for colors that fall in between. This was not the scariest house, but it was incredibly fun. The 3D effects, paint, and laser lights made the house very disorienting. The whole house is lit by black lights, so everything glowed, and it gave a really unsettling effect on the clowns’ makeup and costumes. Some good uses of drop doors, moving props, and a bungie scare really gave this house a zany feel and the scareactors were having a great time confusing guests on which way they needed to go through the maze. This was honestly one of the best 3D haunts I’ve ever been through and a really fun way to end our night.

Well, there you have folks! We’ve explored some excellent haunts outside the world of the theme parks, and hope we have encouraged you to support your local haunts (those that are open on Halloween and the remainder of the week). It really is so important to support your local haunted attractions because they have some great ideas and love to scare you! Whether the local haunt is someone’s sole livelihood or a glorified hobby, they should be encouraged to keep going and developing ideas because this is a way to support your local artistic community. As much fun as you have being scared, those who direct, act in, or build these community offerings love to see you having fun. And in order for these haunts remain around for you to enjoy, it’s important to spend the time and money at them so they can keep growing! This Halloween, remember to support local!

Full Review of Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa

“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.

 

Review of “Turn it Up: the Hottest Show on Ice” at Busch Gardens Tampa

Stunning. Absolutely incredible. That pretty much sums up the experience at the new ice show in the Moroccan Palace Theatre at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Since the late 1980s, the Moroccan Palace has been home to some great daily and seasonal shows. From Hollywood to ecology to Christmas, it’s covered it all. Although the shows have been great, one of the most noticeable elements that dates the venue is the set design. Not anymore. The stage has been completely remodeled and LED walls, map projection, and intelligent lighting are now included. In addition to the vast improvements in the production design, the costumes have turned the sexy factor way up! That music, though. The selection of songs is both strategic and emotional. Even the arrangement of the songs is on point. There is a little of everything for the audience. Whether you appreciate a 50s rock style or the music of Lady Gaga, you will find songs to dance to in your seat. Personally, I was moving to the beat of every single song during the show. When you see the show, be sure to arrive early because the house was completely packed!

Busch Gardens is unique in that it is among very few theme parks around the world that offers a daily operating ice-skating show in a theme park setting. In fact, it is the only major theme park in the United States to offer an ice show as part of its daily operations. And with good reason, running an ice show is an incredibly expensive endeavor, especially on a daily basis. Like with any show, the ice shows in the Moroccan Palace Theatre get reworked every 4-5yrs. When it was announced that Iceploration was ending, I was saddened because I typically caught that show every time I visited the park. But as much as I enjoyed Iceploration, Turn it Up blew my mind and instantly left me with wanting to see it again. At the end of the show, the entire house erupted in applause and even received a standing ovation from myself and others. I couldn’t be more pleased with the new show. Each set piece was brilliantly designed to complement the music, costumes, and respective performers.

Typically, I can be a little harsh on shows that rely upon map projections as a chief component to the show. The long and short of that point of view is that I feel that far too often, the map projection becomes the focus of the show instead of the projections complementing or enhancing the experience. Turn it Up struck the perfect balance between the mapped projections, LED walls, and the ice stage performance. The focus of the show IS the excellently choreographed ice-skating performance by the talented skaters; but, the respective performances are accompanied by popular music and advanced show systems technologies. The talent on stage is the focus. Not that the engineers, editors, and technicians that created the video projection content aren’t important. Both are important parts and contribute to the success of the show. Instead of showing off what technology can do to, this show incorporates the advanced show technology with incredible live performances, creating an immersive experience for the eyes, ears, and mind.

Although it is not entirely fair to compare this show to other more conventional theme park shows, because this one is on ice whereas most others are not, the experience of Turn it Up was unparalleled to any other daily operating show that I have had the opportunity to watch. Honestly, it’s the opinion of this critic that this is the BEST theme park show, bar none. I cannot wait to see how the Christmas shows are going to change in the future as a result of the remodel and re-imagination of the ice show and venue. If you have plans to visit central Florida for the theme parks this summer, you do not want to miss Turn it Up: the Hottest Show on Ice at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay “Howl-O-Scream Evil Encore” Review

img_6708A 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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img_6724The 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.

puppetmasterAlthough 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.

img_6722The 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.

img_6801The 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 img_6729creepier 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.

img_6752One 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 FiendsFiends 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.

img_6759Last 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.

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