By ATD’s Florida experts Susan and Simon Veness
Zombies? Check. Chainsaws? Check. Creatures from the lagoon? Check. Roller-coasters in the dark? Double check. And we’re all set for the annual fright-fest that is the increasingly brilliant Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens.
Once the calendar rolls round to October, central Florida becomes home to all manner of ghosts, ghouls and apparitions, and the screams (and fun!) are practically non-stop.
With the obvious proviso that Howl-O-Scream is definitely not for kids (we would recommend it as distinctly for 16 and up only), this is definitely a great night out for everyone else as Busch Gardens offers a great mix of haunted houses, scare zones, live entertainment and the chance to try their awesome array of rides in a completely different environment.
Even if you have already sampled Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, we think this is a must-try event, as it has most of the elements that make Universal’s scream-athon so entertaining while adding new ones and providing a contrasting overall style.
Where HHN is intense, almost inescapable and positively frenzied (with major crowds most nights), H-O-S is more extensive, with the horror-tinged fun spread out over a much wider area, affording visitors the chance to draw breath before plunging back into the gore. It doesn’t draw quite the same level of manic crowds, and they use the darker corners of the park to add some clever surprises.
Plus, riding the likes of Cheetah Hunt, Falcon’s Fury, SheiKra and the new Cobra’s Curse without being able to see where you’re going is wonderfully thrilling! So if that’s the overall feel and style of Howl-O-Scream, what are the details?
Well, this year’s event features seven major haunted houses, seven outdoor scare zones, the regular Fiends show (complete with Naughty Nurses), and DJs at three separate points, including the new Club Karver at the Garden Gate Café, where the music is accentuated by dry ice and other special effects to make it a ghostly disco.
In addition, the Ubanga-Banga Bumper Cars are transformed at night into Crash Test Zombies, where hungry brain-eaters roam and just might chase you down.
Unlike HHN, H-O-S also starts outside the park’s entrance, where the atmospheric main theme greets visitors with suitably twisted signage, eerie music and the first of the roaming hordes of creatures, stilt-walkers and other fiendish circus dwellers that set the scene for what lies within. On our visit last Thursday, there was even the backdrop of a menacing, lightning-flecked sky, which made things even more moody and ominous, the ultimate in horror special effects!
Once through the main gates, you have to decide which way to go, and there are scare zones lurking in both directions. We recommend going clockwise (left, past Zagora Café) to start with as that way you’ll encounter four of the main houses in the shortest time, and ideally before the crowds build up (and, while this doesn’t pack them in quite as much as HHN, you’ll still find queues here at the weekend and from 9.30pm onwards).
This way, you’ll also encounter two of the very best experiences straight away. Unearthed made its debut in 2015 and is brilliantly housed underneath the old Gwazi ride, which is no longer in use but has a long queuing area that is used to maximum effect with flickering lights, fog and animatronics to set the scene for the lair of a vengeful demon that has been, you guessed it, unearthed. The sights, sounds and even smells are at their best here, and the sudden appearance of huge animatronic beasts is one of Howl-O-Scream’s biggest scare moments.
That is followed by Motel Hell, an ordinary motel that has been left deserted and taken over by a paranormal presence that lives for blood, preferably yours. The theming is at its best here as harmless-looking elements (the check-in desk, the laundry and even a room corridor) are all steeped in clever twists that amp up the fear factor to 11. The blood and gore is splattered on thickly here, along with a twisted mirror effect that will leave you wondering “How did they do THAT?”
The 3-D maze-house of Circus of Superstition is up next and is in its “last laugh” after several years of disorientating visitors with its mix of weird lighting and evil clowns and, while it remains fun, we’re not huge fans of the cardboard 3-D glasses that you need here, which tend to be something of a distraction.
Arguably the best scare zone awaits after the Circus, with massive werewolf statues providing the obvious cue for some seriously spooky scare-actors, some of whom lurk in the undergrowth to provide maximum scare effect (and scare us they certainly did!).
In the heart of the Stanleyville area is this year’s other new house, The Black Spot, a hellish tale of pirate menace, with murderous marauder Saw Tooth Silas lurking in wait in the depths of his lair that features stalactites dripping blood, a menacing treasure room (those chests full of jewels aren’t quite what they seem), scare-actors in the roof and animatronic skeletons that swoop out of nowhere when you least expect them.
Once you have those four Houses under your belt, you can afford to slow down and take things at a more leisurely pace as you swing through the Pantopia area and return to the front of the park via Nairobi, Egypt and zombies. Lots of zombies.
Zombie Mortuary is another favourite from recent years with excellent use of fog effects, more animatronics and maximum effect from their lurking chainsaw wielders, while Zombie Containment Unit 15 is something completely different, a chance to get equipped with a laser gun (called a Zombie Eradication device, or ZED for short) and fight back against the undead hordes that lie in wait. Hit the target on their chest and they are immobilised for five seconds so you can get past.
Finally, Death Water Bayou is easy to miss as it is tucked away in one corner of the Morocco entrance area, but is another standout for its zombie and superstition-infested tableau, including one of the best special effects on any of the Houses (we won’t say any more than that, but you’ll know it when it happens!).
The scare zones in Nairobi are also wonderfully impactful, including characters with metal knee pads who slide and skid past you with startling effect. Clever and inventive, it’s everything we enjoy about these annual Halloween terrors.
Oh, and don’t miss the Shop Of Horrors, just inside the main entrance on the left for the full array of Howl-O-Scream merchandise, in a suitably fiendish setting.
All in all, this is an event we enjoy a lot, and it should definitely be on your radar if you’re heading to Florida this month. Miss it at your peril!
If you have questions about Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens or anything else about Florida’s amazing theme parks, be sure to go online and ask Susan and Simon on the ATD forums, on this link.
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