I write a lot about being a California native and having grown up with Knott’s Scary Farm and other Southern California Halloween offerings. So, when we relocated to Orlando, Florida last year, I was really worried that I was leaving behind most of the big scares. Or at least the scares that I was accustomed to. In a lot of ways, I think it’s like having a pair of your favorite comfortable sneakers: you know what to expect you know how they fit, and when they finally wear out you don’t exactly know how you are going to replace them.  It turns out I had nothing really to fear, because only three weeks into September, I was invited to cover the opening night of Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream 2019.

Critic’s Note: Normally I don’t make a big deal about pointing out when a theme park has invited us as a guest because we always report as fairly as we possibly can: good and bad. But I mention it here because I want you to understand that I made a pointed effort to keep my review of the houses, the one show, the scare zones, and the food and beverage offerings as objective as possible. Having said that, I’m going to feel free to rave about this event, which I absolutely loved.

Let’s get down to it.

This is the 20th-anniversary edition of Howl-O-Scream. Six houses, nine scare zones,  and a show.  For those of us that live in the Orlando area, it’s about an hour and a half away, and perhaps that is why the crowds on opening night were very light.  We had express passes, but they were almost unnecessary because the longest line we encountered all evening was only about 20 minutes long.  This is a huge contrast to the 40 to 120 minute wait times we’ve seen at Halloween Horror Nights.

For those interested in skipping the waits all together, I should point out that a Front of the Line Fear Pass for the Busch Event starts at only $35 and gives you one-time access to all of the houses and also front of the line access to all of their seven major thrill rides.

For the most part, the houses are arranged around a large main circle that form an outline of the park and between these house offerings lie multiple scare zones.  This really likened the whole experience to an extravagant multi-course meal where wonderful entrees are accentuated and separated by rich palate changing nibbles.   I decided to experience the event in the way they laid it out on the event map (Houses numbered 1-6), which means I headed all the way to the back of the park to experience their new house (for 2019) The Residence .

That also meant that before I even had a chance set foot in a house,  I had so survived four complete scare zones including the Dia De Los Muertos, Deadly Toys, Carpe Noctum, and Maniac Midway.

Day of the Dead/Dia De Los Muertos is a wonderfully charming festival with music, dancing, traditional sugar skull masks and many enthusiastic, sometimes wonderfully playful entertainers. I couldn’t imagine a better way to open the night. Because it is located in the Morrocan Plaza area (that doubles well for a Mexican village,) this is a great place for an opening picture. There is tequila tasting nearby, which I did not experience but I plan to go back and try. As we crossed through this scare zone multiple times over the course of the evening, it was great that the performers were able to maintain the energy of the place all night.

 

Scare Zone – Deadly Toys

As I headed north along the trail, I encountered Deadly Toys. While I was never much for the monster under the bed / creepy doll theme, this scare zone actually delivered some frights.   It’s particularly dark, yet very colorful, with strong accent lighting and the creepy and possessed toys that inhabit it really work well together setting up the scares.  Be sure to take some time to get a picture of the ghost-like toy train engineer or the heavily wounded wooden soldier, because that will allow an evil dolly or possessed teddy bear to sneak up and “get you.”

By the time I had reached one of the new scare zones this year, Carpe Noctum, I was ready for good old gothic thrills and chills. Now in fairness, it was a little bit difficult to determine exactly what the theme of this scare zone was: the costume and make up was fantastic, but it wasn’t until after I was all the way through it and I read the description of it being a Romanian cemetery that I really understood the theming.

I didn’t know that they were vampires at all, a fact that was confirmed by some of the other people around me (someone saw one of the actors with a stake and pieced it together.) This should be the place to come for the sideways scare, meaning they will slowly meander almost past you and then suddenly turn to attack, but that didn’t happen at all.  Most of the denizens of this place moved by so quickly it was hard to get a fright from them, but since this is a new scare zone I expect they will be making many changes and improvements to hopefully bring out the seeming a little more and make it a little more vampire-ry.

Our final stop before house #1 was the Maniac Midway, and the carnival games area of the park made a perfect back drop for mediums, clowns, and psycho Circus performers of all shapes and sizes. This is where the haunt fan in me squeals in delight, for I truly appreciate how hard it is to get scares and make terrifying wide open and brightly lit places.

The killers on the loose here are very high intensity which was a great contrast to the previous ScareZone,  and more interactive than most other similarly themed scare zones I’ve encountered in the past. These monsters will strike up a conversation with you keep you engaged and let their friends literally swarm behind you.  Keep an eye out in this area as well for some of the Howl-O-Scream “nurses” selling syringes filled with delicious Jell-O shots, much needed medicine three scare zones in, and a great place to take a break on the walking trail. There’s also bourbon tasting here, which again I did not experience, but will be back to sample soon.

 

House #1, The Residence

It looked like a normal average suburban family home from the outside, but stepping into the Clark House, immediately things felt off.   Decorated like something from the nuclear 50’s, the chandeliers flicker, the family seems to have a murderous and cannibalistic intention, and the place could probably use some fresh paint and dusting as well.  I also like to clean up all the blood and keep the kids from performing demonic dark rituals in the basement when company comes over, but you get the idea.   This maze is great on creeps, not too many jump scares, and disorienting without being hard to navigate.   The surprise almost twilight zone twist ending I won’t spoil, but it was a great laugh and relief to escape with most of my fingers and toes still attached.  For a new house, this is a solid addition and I expect the story and dementia to continue to improve over the course of the season.

Scare Zone – Camp D.O.A.

Heading to house #2 we encountered on of my favorite scare zones of the whole evening: Camp D.O.A.   Everyone knows I’m a sucker for a good ol Friday the 13th like slasher, and this camp filled with all sorts of backwoods, inbred, murderous folk (you know only the best kind of people in my opinion) was a joy.   Chainsaws and machetes are optional, but I would make sure you are wearing a good pair of running shoes.   This is a long zone dark and very richly themed.  The short camp bus at the end covered with blood was a nice touch.  We asked for directions to the Black Spot, and one of the homicidal maniacs was very kind to help us figure out the correct turns to take, all without breaking character.

 

House #2 The Black Spot

What you might expect if the Pirates of the Caribbean ride went seriously less family-friendly, and I loved it.   Great use of the rock work, water features, and existing caverns near the Tigris rollercoaster.   Entering a pirate grotto, we are warned that anyone who enters is cursed, too late to turn back so I figured I might as well face my fate.  This one was themed to the hilt and lit well enough that I could appreciate the attention to detail.   There were also a ton of great in-your-face scare pirates.  Yes you might make it to the treasure room, but I doubt very seriously they will let you live to tell the tale.  One of my favorites of the night and highly recommended.   More good ol’ close proximity startles in this maze than anywhere else this season.   If you hit this one early in the evening you might even be able to get through it a couple of times before the lines get too long.

Scare Zone – The Little Nightmares

The Little Nightmares scare zone is an abstract masterpiece.  This new for 2019 zone wasn’t particularly dark, as a matter of fact most of the blood splattered porches and front doors were very illuminated.   And with the children flowing around you saying trick-or-treat you might think this was just another typical Halloween night, but the costumes are beyond creepy, the children beyond murderous, and you can sense that one wrong turn and your not just going to end up dead, but trapped forever in a personal torturous ongoing nightmare.   The tiny tots here work in and out of the smoke and shadows.  I came back through this one a few times just because I enjoyed it so much.

Then  I encountered an unlisted and wonderful scare zone near the Sesame Street, Bird Aviary section of the park.   It was very dark and smoky and filled with gilly suit-wearing monsters.   This was another of my favorites, particularly for its use of scares from every direction.   If your hard to startle, hit this area of the park up, it might give you some great jumps even if you are a scarehard.

Scarezone – The Meat Market

To get to house #3, I had to take a little shopping trip through the Meat Market.   Ever since Texas Chainsaw Massacre, hillbillies and cannibalism have gone together like, well hillbillies and monster trucks.  The Meat Market was festive and inviting from the outside,  well once you made it past the machete-wielding tall and foreboding “cousin” at the entrance, and it takes you a little while to realize this is less of a farmers market and more of a market where you are going to be served up mixed with some hamburger helper.   Top talent in this area, and some great selfie spots with the local beauty queens (flirty and deadly to be sure.) and which led us directly to the front door of…

 

House #3 –  Simon’s Slaughterhouse

House #3 Simon’s Slaughterhouse.   Ok so it’s hard not to love a good blood and gore slaughter-fest.  I was expecting to see lots of victims in various states of dismemberment, death, and being butchered.   This house did not disappoint in gore but really didn’t bring a story to life for me.   I still couldn’t tell you who the heck Simon was and why he converted his beautiful farm style slaughterhouse into the bloodfest that it became.  Maybe it’s to stop too many people like me from moving into the area?  Solid in the execution of the elements, but bring me into the family story and it will be a real winner.

House #4 Motel Hell Infestation

Motel Hell Infestation was right across the street and was absolutely the star of the night for me.  Scares started the minute you made it past the very detailed hotel sign entrance and didn’t let up.  Motel Shellburn seemed like it could have been a nice place once. Problem is when you leave the lights on for folks, sometimes the pests take this as an invitation and move in, and not just into the spaces, some of these mutant bugs seem to be eating the brains/sanity out of their victims.   If you are epileptic avoid this maze, it has a very long somewhat hard to navigate strobe section in the middle, but other than that this is one of my not to be missed houses.  And my highest sincere thanks to the maggot-ridden inhabitants who used the corners, the over the top sets and lighting effects to deliver some of the biggest chills and thrills of the night (and yes I did this one multiple times)

Scare zone – Hell On Wheels

Ever wonder what wondering through a post-apocalyptic Mad Max like dystopian x-games might look like?  Well wonder no more because the Hell On Wheels scare zone features everything from BMX zombies to doomed sand buggies (great to jump in for selfies btw.)   Welcome to the flashing red light zombie hoard place (also perhaps a little challenging for those sensitive to strobes) but the monsters here have a real sense of humor, yes I saw them get some scares, but they were also quick to pose for the Instagram photos.   Great set pieces, solid zombies, and that metal soundtrack you would expect for the end of the world as we know it.

 

House #5 Death Water Bayou: Wrath of the Queen

Death Water Bayou: Wrath of the Queen was too dark (period).  I’m not just talking too dark to successfully navigate, but too dark to appreciate what I am sure was a very richly themed voodoo queen maze.   I really wanted to see more of it, because it seemed to have many diverse areas to enjoy.   For the most part, and this was in the middle of the night well after my eyes had adjusted, it was making out where the exit was as I wandered from room to room.   I think I actually did encounter the Queen of the Shadows performing a ritual on a body somewhere towards the middle, but again it was too dark to really be sure.  This is one I plan to hit again later in the season.   The exterior and actors outside set the tone so well and I want to love it, but I have to be able to see it, and after awhile monsters just yelling at you from the shadows isn’t scary anymore, useful for figuring out which direction not to wander in the dark, but not scary.

Passed back through Day of the Dead, still dancing and amazing even hours later….Gracias.

House #6 Insomnia: Patients Revenge.

Finally Insomnia: Patients Revenge.   LOVED IT!   From the very moment you push past the curtains you are under attack.   My absolute favorite performer of the night was the patient bashing the head of the receptionist in with a computer keyboard, which she then proceeded to hurl my direction, with an absolutely sinister gaze.   This onion has layers to peel back.   Some fall out, some homicidal inmates on the loose (and just as many terrified as victims) this is an absolute rollercoaster.   I was disoriented in a great way.   Trying to find the way out and I couldn’t guess what was coming next.   There is a huge mutated boss villain towards the end that I won’t spoil but you’ll know it when you see it.  Plan to do this one a few times if you can.

Stage Show – FIENDS

Finally, I have to talk about Fiends,  a show that is performed a few times a night    Following the misadventures of Dr. Freakenstein, you are guests in his castle which apparently is the only safe place for good and evil alike at the end of the world. The dancing and costumes were great, the story was alright, but like most theme park shows that promise to offend and shock, most of the jokes fell kind of flat.  I would recommend this for the later middle of the night when your feet need a rest.  They have popcorn, and snacks (and of course beer) available at a concession stand inside the theater, go for the dancing (some eye candy there for guys and girls to be sure.)  I think they may be billing this as the last season for the show, and I really hope they plan on replacing it with something a little offensive and “naughty.”  Halloween isn’t just about the scares and chills, in many ways it’s a chance to blow off steam and great shows allow you to do that in between houses.    Anyway by the end of the show we discovered that the end of the world had not come to pass, but I was certainly glad the end of the show had.

Finally Food and Merchandise.   Busch Gardens is already a great theme park for food and drinks, but the special offerings really shine here.   I didn’t sample much of the alcoholic beverages, but there sure seemed to be a richness of diversity for them.  Many of the stands that were there for beverages also had quick bites like build your own mac-and-cheese which looked amazing.   I settled for some quick grab and go food from the front of the park.   Great wings, and you could have fries loaded or not.  They even have a happy hour from 5-7:30 in the Cheetah Hunt Plaza, which I will make sure to visit next time I am there.   They also had a great variety of event specific merchandise which could be found in the Shop of Horror right at the front of thsele park, including some 20th Anniversary t shirts that I will proudly add to my haunt collection.

I left just a little before 1am (event closing) which is something I very rarely do opening nights, because I had a blast.   If you are a theme park haunt fan this one is not to be missed, even with a longer (from Orlando area) drive to visit it.  I would really like to go back and meet with the designers and walk through some of these mazes with the lights on (something we do with our Horrorbuzz events back in California) as I can only imagine based on what I saw, the depth of detail that I could discover.   In any case, Busch Gardens delivers the scares and all the Halloween fun you could hope for with Howl-O-Scream this season.

 

Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream is open select nights now through November 2 and ticket prices start at just $39.99 (depending on the night)

For more information visit https://buschgardens.com/tampa/events/howl-o-scream/tickets/