By ATD’s Florida experts Susan & Simon Veness
Busch Gardens has recently unveiled its newest scream machine in the shape of Falcon’s Fury, a fabulous 335ft-tall drop-tower ride, so it’s only fitting that the big Halloween horror-fest, Howl-O-Scream should follow hard on its heels!
Seeing as we have just done a full review of Universal’s big Halloween Horror Nights programme (read our review here!), it made sense to scare ourselves totally silly by taking in Busch Gardens’ comparable offering down the road in Tampa.
Howl-O-Scream is a separately-ticketed evening event on select nights until November 1, featuring haunted houses, scare zones, shows and plenty of grisly goings on throughout the park and, like HHN, it is hugely popular (hence buying tickets in advance is strongly advisable).
The Busch Gardens Halloween advantage is that it is able to spread its monster-strewn clutches over a much bigger area, with darker corners for creatures to lurk in, plus the fun of its big roller-coasters in the dark.
All of the haunted houses are completely Busch Gardens’ own creation and there are a full range of zombies, vampires, ghosts, voodoo ghouls and other gruesome scare-actors to ‘enjoy’ in the course of the evening.
How it works
This year’s Howl-O-Scream theme is ‘Cursed,’ a clever take on a traditional horror theme whereby a particular song triggers a curse that visitors can only break by surviving a night among the park’s many roaming creatures and haunted houses.
The horror starts the moment you walk through the turnstiles as you are faced by the Cursed demons, who lie in wait as you pass into the entrance plaza. A tortured, writhing figure lurks in the eerily-lit ruins ahead of you, supernatural music plays – and suddenly a host of white-clad fiends are running at and around you, dragging off one unwitting suspect back to their lair (OK, so it’s another actor, but it’s a great effect!).
From there, you head out around the park (most of it dimly lit, with occasional scare-actors cunningly camouflaged among the foliage) and endure each of the seven houses, plus The Experiment, a special extra-fee encounter for up to four people at a time to undergo a 15-minute experience in psychological tests (which may include snakes and cockroaches in the dark!).
Simon was happy to give it a try, but even happier to learn the next opening wasn’t until midnight, which was JUST too late for us on this visit!
Some of the houses were the same as last year, with a few additional tweaks, and some were brand new, while the Pantopia Grill also featured the show Fiends, with Dr Freakenstein, his companion Igor and a cast of Naughty Nurses in a song-and-dance parody of many traditional haunted themes, in slightly risqué fashion (there are some buff male dancers for the women, too!).
The Basement is the first house you encounter, a chilling journey into ‘Momma’s Meats’ and the gory way she create her “award-winning recipe.” It is definitely not for the faint-hearted and scores a big 10 out of 10 on our gross-ometer (as well as being terrific fun). It is a wonderfully grisly story and features the inevitable chainsaw guy at the exit.
Brand new for 2014 is Deadfall, a rambling Victorian garden and greenhouse where evil spirits gather to lure unsuspecting guests into their world full-time. This has one of the best settings of them all, and definitely scores highly on the out-and-out scare factor, with several little ‘hidden’ frights among the overall ensemble.
Zombie Mortuary returns from 2013 and is another great set-piece of classic mortuary horror, complete with zombie ‘mourners’ and other macabre touches, while there are more flesh-devouring shocks in store at the all-new Zombie Containment Unit 15.
This latter is also new this year and is another imaginative creation as visitors are armed with ZEDs (“Zombie Eradication Devices,” but really just laser-tag guns) to enable them to hold off an undead mob in this video-game style house.
Slightly easier on the scare-factor is Circus of Superstition, a clever delve into a twisted clown-filled world, where 3-D glasses add extra disorientating effects and the evil clowns can pop up almost literally all around you.
Blood Asylum is another hold-over from last year, with a truly creepy journey through an asylum for the criminally insane that has gone absolutely stone-cold bonkers, with a disturbing ‘creature’ on the loose that threatens to appear around every dark corner.
Finally, our favourite from 2013 is also back. Death Water Bayou is the home of the Voodoo Queen and all manner of black magic minions to do her bidding. This house features two totally startling ‘bungee creatures’ that suddenly dart out at you with amazing speed just when you least expect it (and this still makes us jump, even when we know they’re there!).
As well as all the mock-horrors in store, there are various other options to take advantage of during your Howl-O-Scream visit, notably the Fright Feast, a buffet dinner from 6-7pm with a special showing of Fiends and a half-hour head start for the haunted houses, plus front-of-line access until 8.30pm.
There are also VIP Tours that offer front-of-line guided access to various houses, coasters and show seating, while adding complimentary drinks, and a Front Of Line fear pass that provides access to six of the haunted houses, and Front Of Line Extreme that adds five major rides as well.
Additional entertainment is provided by various DJ stations and party-style Hubs, including Club Cursed, a combination high-energy bar and night-club area in the Marrakesh Theatre venue.
One other offering we really liked was the Shop Of Horrors, which features a complete horror-style makeover of one of the park’s trademark shops and serves up a clever range of souvenir and gift items in suitably gruesome surroundings.
All in all, it is a truly compelling and fear-inducing programme that packs a lot of fun and fright into the park’s expansive acres, lending a completely different aspect to doing most of the rides at night. And, if you thought Falcon’s Fury was a long way up during the day, just trying doing it in the dark…!