Words and Photographs by Darren Schmidt
If you’ve never been to Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream, (I’m willing to wager it hasn’t made the top of the list for a lot of west-coasters on their Orlando trips) you are missing out on one of Florida’s most original, innovative, and creative Halloween events in a state that has no shortage. Entering their 20th year of frightening festivities, the crew at Busch Gardens has consistently provided an event that allows their scareactors to shine by giving them original characters to develop and work on through the season, with improv seemingly encouraged if our multiple walkthroughs were anything to go by. Some are funny, some are disturbing, some have worked their roles for years and are recognizable to the fans that have attended year after year. The one thing they all have in common is that they love what they do, and what they do is scare people very well.
I would say Howl-O-Scream’s closest relatives on the west coast are Aunt Mary and Uncle Knott’s. Like these events, Howl-O-Scream eschews intellectual properties for fully original lineups. The level of polish sits right between the two, pulling the technical and impressive set design of Knott’s and throwing in the darker party vibes of Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor. Drink Specials, bars, dance floors and food stands abound between the nine scare zones and six houses on offer this year. Professional dance squads keep the parties going on two dance floors on opposite sides of the park and DJs are in the booths all night. Much like Dark Harbor, Busch Gardens likes to make sure you have a good time around the scares as well.
On the Knott’s end of the spectrum, Howl-O-Scream offers solid, established haunts that stand the test of time for years. The do re-use houses, using the time in between seasons to update, enhance and sometimes completely change the theme of the houses. Insomnia, a new house last year, returns as Insomnia : Patient’s Revenge. In the original house, each room represented a patient and why they couldn’t sleep, be it fears of car crashes, monsters, or even nuclear war. For it’s twist this year, the patients being tortured last year by their fears are fighting back, using their fears against you. The new house for this year, The Residence, changes radically as you proceed though, starting off as a normal suburban home and ending as… something else entirely. You’re going to have to see that one for yourself. Also on the returning list are The Black Spot - a pirate and treasure filled cave haunt and Death Water Bayou - a 7-time Cajun-themed haunt. Simon’s Slaughterhouse - A uh slaughterhouse, owned by Simon (we don’t know either) where they slaughter *gasp* people! Makes you think twice about those spare ribs you got at the smokehouse earlier. Rounding out the list is my personal favorite, Motel Hell : Infestation. Motel Hell is in it’s third year, but this year has been left to the bugs as roaches and other creepy crawlies enhabit the decaying Motel Shellburn, a 1950’s roadside motel that offered a killer for every room. There are exterminators, but they aren’t there for the bugs.
Rounding out the event is an unheard-of nine scarezones placed all over the park. From the spooky kids at Little Nightmares to the beastly maniacs in the Meat Market, each street scareactor seems to develop their character far more than I have seen at other events, playing out their character’s personalities whether they think guests are looking or not. Each zone is unique and worth checking out, with some very detailed sets as well. The Dia De Los Muertos zone is perhaps the most unique, in that it has no scares. Being respectful to the holiday it represents, the actors in this zone are the happy spirits of lost family members and even perhaps ancestors. They dance to the beautiful music in the zone, even pulling guests out of the crowd to dance with. An interesting and a welcome change to your average haunt event that had me smiling the whole time. Even when there is empty space between these zones, you’re still not safe as random scareactors hide in ghillie suits in bushes the lines the paths, invisible in the pitch back surroundings. Also returning this year is the fan-favorite stage show Fiends, a satirical pop culture show featuring scantily clad dancers and the famous “Naughty Nurses”!
Finally, all the coasters and most of the other rides that Busch Gardens is famous for are open at night as well. For an extra twist, scareactors hop on randomly and ride with the guests on all the attractions. If you’ve never seen someone terrified of clowns locked in next to one on a coaster, get ready to have some fun. The bumper cars, normally empty on a night like this, are bustling as people wait to ride with zombies. We also saw circus psychos riding the carousel and in line at guest services, waiting their turn to growl or honk their horns at the team members. There is so much going on that you’re bound to have a great time wherever you end up throughout the night. It also encourages return visits, which they offer for very reasonable prices. Just for comparison’s sake, you can currently get a season pass for $60 dollars and a season long express that covers rides and houses for $150. This covers all 22 nights, for the price of one night with express at a park down the street. Be sure to check out howloscream.com for all the other extras available, including VIP tours, Nightly express passes and the popular Fright Feast option.
Howl-O-Scream Tampa runs select nights through November 2nd and is a separately-ticketed event. Thank you to Busch Gardens for having us out for their opening night festivities and to Creepy Kingdom for having me represent them. If you’d like to see more of Howl-O-Scream throughout the event, you can follow me on Instagram @UUOPDarren and check out my Universal Orlando podcast at UUOPodcast.com for awesome interviews with the creators of your favorite rides and haunt attractions, news and reviews!