Haunt Review: Busch Garden Tampa's Howl-O-Scream

Welcome witches and warlocks,

I had the pleasure of attending Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa this year and I thought I would offer up a few thoughts on the event.  To give a little perspective, this marks my seventh year attending Howl-O-Scream so, since they sometimes repeat a house with minor changes, my perspective may be a little different than that of a first time attender.  Like with my other haunt reviews, I will put the houses in the order I saw them, not necessarily from favorite to least favorite.  Now, onto the review!

FIENDS (SHOW)
We join Dr. Freakenstein and Igor during an election season where every monster is throwing their hat into the ring to become the President of the Monster's Society of America.  Obviously the story got quite an overhaul this year to correspond with the election and it worked fantastically. The jokes spoke more broadly about politics in general while skirting around mentioning the actual American election in progress.  That is not to say it was all politics, there was still plenty of pop culture references, music, and (most importantly) Naughty Nurses.  All in all, this is one of the best versions of Fiends I have had the pleasure of seeing and is definitely worth checking out to get a good comedy fix. 

ZOMBIE MORTUARY (HOUSE)
The deceased residents of a small town have awoken and are running amok at the local mortuary.  In the past their antics have made this one of the scariest houses I have ever been through.  The layout alone is disorientating and the scares come from everywhere (above, below, in front, behind, and from either side).  The problem with this year's take is that some of the darker areas of the house are more lit up, making it so that we can see where the actor is hiding. All in all, the set design and actor intensity is just as good as ever, but some poor lighting choices make it easy to see some of the hiding places.

ZOMBIE CONTAINMENT UNIT 15 (HOUSE)
We are recruited into a task force charged with taking down an oncoming zombie horde; we enter the madness with only a laser gun standing between us and extinction.  The addition of the laser tag, plus the action movie feel really sets this apart from ZOMBIE MORTUARY.  I have always found this to be nothing more than a fun house, but this year the lighting was more intense making it so that a couple of times I legitimately did not know where I was supposed to go next.  Quite a few of the actors must have seen my confusion, because they descended in force upon me.  The downside to this house is that, even though I felt lost for a bit, the sets are nothing impressive as they have an industrial, chain link fence look.  All in all, I liked this house more than I have in years past, thanks to getting lost, but I would love to see the sets get an upgrade.

DEATH WATER BAYOU (HOUSE)
The voodoo queen has placed a curse upon up and now we must find our way out of a bayou intent upon our demise.  The set design on this house has always been stellar, but there have been very little tweaks over the years as far as scare actor locations.  Another issue I found was, on my walk-throughs anyways, there seemed to be less actors in here than usual.  These empty stretches were noticeable which kept this house from being as good as it has been in the past.  All in all, the beautiful sets and actors help to keep this enjoyable, but it felt a bit lacking from past iterations.

UNEARTHED (HOUSE)
An archeology crew explores a buried house that happens to be overrun with demons.  Those who went last year will quickly notice that the story of this tenement has been changed from being focused upon Scarlet to a more general theme of demons.  Much like last year, this house has a convincing entrance where we walk among the wooden support beams of an old rollercoaster and down a ramp into the house proper.  This descent to enter the haunt captures perfectly the idea of a buried homestead that we are entering.  The house itself still captures the dilapidated glory of last year, but it felt like a few of the more convincing effects were either turned off or not working.  The actors still did their best to make up the difference, but it was not nearly as unnerving or convincing without the aforementioned effects.  I will grant that they changed the finale a bit for the better, but (apart from the ending) last year's version of this same house was perfect.  All in all, no matter how hard the actors tried, something was lost between years that kept this from the new classic status it had last year.

MOTEL HELL (HOUSE)
We check in at the Motel Shellburn only to find out that a sinister Sandman has taken up residence and would like nothing more than to keep us trapped in an eternal nightmare.  The song Mr. Sandman can be heard as we walk up to the run down Motel Shellburn and first lay eyes on the flickering neon sign that occasionally spells out Motel hell.  The sets are very 1950's which creates a fun feeling that is, at the same time, just a bit too surreal to believe.  As we go further into the house the designs make it more clear that we have in fact entered a nightmares world.  The cast populating this real is on point and there were some truly unique scares that I have not seen before in any of the many haunts I have attended.  The one downside is that the Sandman himself does not make an appearance until the very end and it is entirely possible to miss him as there is only one actor.  All in all, this was easily my favorite house of the event as the story, scares, and sets all worked in perfect harmony to create a unique experience.

CIRCUS OF SUPERSTITION 3D: THE LAST LAUGH (HOUSE)
This circus rolls into town stuffed full of every superstition from black cats to spilling salt and clowns.  Lots and lots of clowns.  The facade of this house is fantastic and the clown barker on the ECV out front does a great job drawing us into this world.  In the past, this has most definitely been the fun house of the event with some nifty tricks that play with our vision.  This year, a few of the more memorable tricks were not at all operation leaving it to the actors to make up the difference.  This put the cast at a disadvantage as many of the scares stemmed from the gags, so the rooms where the effects were not operating were weak.  All in all, the facade is as good as ever, but the lack of effects in some rooms make this house one of the weakest of the event.

THE BLACK SPOT (HOUSE)
After a glimpse at cursed pirate's treasure, we are flung into the world of swashbucklers who are all intent upon exacting their bloody revenge.  The walk up to this house has three different, distinct scenes plus a pirate barker outside welcoming us into this world before we even step foot into the haunt.  Once inside the sets are of various quality with some being a wonder to behold while other rooms are made up of netting which the actors can hide within or on.  The actors themselves are quite good, but some of their scare locations feel too far removed from guests to be effective.  I will say that there is one particular trick pulled off with a mirror that caught me so off guard I jumped backwards (not a common occurrence for me). All in all, the more built out sets are fantastic, the atmosphere is palpable, the actors are good, but the scare locations leave something to be desired.

CRASH TEST ZOMBIES (RIDE)
Bumper cars with zombies; do I need to say any more?  Okay, how about this; as we enter the attraction the zombies stare us down, waiting to see which cars we are going to pick.  Once all of us are seated, the zombies pick their cars closest to the victims they seek to torment.  One zombie might use his hand to push his stationary car toward a scared guest while another might wave a rubber severed leg in another rider's face.  Then the ride proper begins and these zombies chase, taunt, and attempt to use their rubber limbs to grab the steering wheel of a guest's car.  When the ride stops the zombies jump up and corner the most scared guests, daring them to try to get out.  All in all, this is a fun must do for anyone at the event no matter their age or scare level.

SCAREZONES
As in years past there are a few scarezones scattered about, but for the most part they are run into accidentally more so than planned stops.  These zones have theming and cohesive costumes, but they are not really advertised so it is hard to single them out.  In addition to these zones, there are also roaming hordes or other actors hiding around the park (seriously, some of them were alone) creating a nowhere is safe feeling.  This year the paths and defined zones felt very well staffed with people seemingly around every bend and nearly all of them are highly interactive with guests.

MR. KARVER'S WORKSHOP (SCAREZONE)
I feel I need to single this scarezone out as Mr. Karver serves as the face of the marketing campaign this year and this area is just outside of the park gates.  We enter this zone passing under a curtain creating the idea that we are indeed entering the theater of the man himself. Mr. Karver's minions (actors made to look like ventriloquist dummies) roam around with no real props to hide behind, which made it all the more amazing to see them keep such a high energy.  All in all, the level of commitment the actors show to their roles is what makes this zone memorable and it does a good job of drawing us into the event.

All in all, some of the returning houses had some problems, but the event still retains all the fun and scares of years past.  I was much happier with the scarezones and roaming hordes this year as they seemed to cover nearly the whole park, leaving some of my more easily frightened friends clutching my shoulder all night.  First timers to the event will get a good taste of what Howl-O-Scream has to offer as the actors are bringing their A game, FIENDS is the strongest I have seen it in a few years, and each house has at lease one or two inventive scare/moments.

Nighty Nightmares,
The Creeping Craig