2010, General, Haunted Attractions, Theme Parks, Virginia

Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl O Scream 2010 review

EDIT: Since I have posted this, Donnie Sturges has reported to me that they have removed many of the strobe lights in the main areas of Howl O Scream so that it is more manageable for people with epilepsy.

I just got back from my 6 hour drive from NJ to Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The mission? To check out and live tweet BGW’s new incarnation of Howl O Scream.

BGW itself during the day was amazing as usual. It is one of my favorite parks. I rank BGW just below the big guys in Orlando. Solid coasters, excellent theming, and decent food make it always a pleasure to visit. Park experience is the biggest factor that will bring people back to a park year after year. BGW has that. I have visited all the way from NJ twice this year alone. I highly recommend BGW during the day. Even their shows are amazing!

Unfortunately, I cannot yet extend this assessment to their version of Howl O Scream.

BGW’s HoS event has had some criticism in past years for being for babies. For 2010 they are taking a different approach – the events before 6PM are for children, the events after 6PM are for teens and above. They claim to have 6 houses and “the scare is everywhere”, implying that the scarezones are everywhere, but none are defined on the map.

I really liked where it seemed that they were going with this at first. Judging from what I have heard from the locals, it seems that they have put more work into their houses this year and more money into their props. I commend them for this and hope that they continue down this line of thought.

I enjoyed the Monster Stomp Revamped show. This plays during the day before HoS starts. I also got to see a “toned down” day version of the Catacombs house before the event started. It was nothing special in the daylight, but I wanted to come back and do it when it was really open for the actual after 6PM event.

This never happened.

Ironically, it was when HoS started that the day started tanking really badly. Some huge problems came up really fast that ultimately left us on a sour note. BGW’s HoS is so poorly executed that once the HoS event started I only got to see one show and do two houses out of six. One member of my party was forced to leave the park due to strobe lights posted everywhere on main walkways which put her in danger of having a seizure.

The Houses:

The two houses I managed to get to were Revenge of Pompeii and Cursed.

Revenge of Pompeii: This is an average and unmemorable house. It wasn’t very scary. It fell very short of what you might expect from BGW’s sister park in Tampa or even a local farm haunt.

Cursed: The Cursed house needs to be seen in the dark due to a lot of it being outside. Unfortunately we did it before it got dark, so I can’t honestly give you a review of this house. During the daytime it certainly wasn’t very scary. We wanted to come back and do it later, but that didn’t work out.

Rather than writing a blow by blow recap of how bad this event was for our group, it is easiest just to list the problems that we feel made it bad with the hope that their management will read this and fix them for next year.

Problem #1: BGW needs to understand that HoS needs to be a hard ticketed event to be successful.

You cannot buy a hard ticket for BGW’s HoS like you can for Busch Gardens Tampa. You can get into BGW HoS with a regular ticket or a season pass. Most of the families with small babies and toddlers did not leave after 6 when the teen+ houses and scarezones started. This led to scarezones clogged with breastfeeding mothers and tired children. It is kind of hard to be scared of a monster when he has to step around a mom with her three kids to get to you. It also added significantly to the crowds and caused issues with small children being scared.

Six Flags also makes the mistake of allowing season pass holders into their Halloween event. This leads to ridiculous crowds and a very poor park experience. I refuse to go to Six Flags due to their “cram every person you can fit into the park and who cares if they have fun” mentality. I am really sad that my beloved BGW seems to also be doing this. You cannot overload the park and have a great park experience. If no one can move around the park, no one can spend money and they also won’t want to come back.

BGW needs to choose. Is their HoS demographic small children or teens+? You cannot do an event with both present and still do it well. You cannot flood the park and still have this be a fun event. This has to be a hard ticketed event to be successful. If they need proof of this, they just have to look at their sister park in Tampa and it’s crazy strong fanbase.

Problem #2: The slogan said, “The Scare is Everywhere”. Where was it?

There were no defined scarezones that I could tell. (Nothing on the map) It seems that they stationed some scare actors in certain places, but it was too confusing, lacking in scenery, and most times poorly chosen, well-lit locations. They really need small sets to set the mood and the scarezones need to not be in front of well-lit souvenir shops. If you could actually find a scarezone at this event, the poor theming made it hard to suspend disbelief.

Problem #3: The lighting failed to light anything but the walkways.

Some areas of the park were too dark to even see the Halloween decorations. They had a big monster guy at one of the bridges. I have no idea what he was because once it got dark you couldn’t see him at all. I couldn’t even get a photo of him for you. Why on earth would you not light a great set piece like this? The walkways were lit, but the cool HoS decorations just disappeared after dark. It does not make sense to have your HoS decorations disappear after HoS starts.

Problem #4: Ridiculous use of strobe lights.

They decided to randomly place strobe lights everywhere in the Germany area, under bridges, and in an area where a line for three houses went through. This is a significant portion of the park and areas that everyone has to walk through. Someone in my party was epileptic and literally could not continue after dark because of this. How awful is that to pay for Howl O Scream but have to leave after an hour and a half because something that can give you a seizure is placed through half of the park? The houses all had strobe warnings, so clearly they must understand the medical implications. The worst part? The strobes didn’t add anything. They were actually quite annoying.

Problem #5: Three houses, one line.

BGW decided to place 3 of their haunted houses together such that one line fed all of them. Really? Come on! If your 3 houses are fed from 1 line that is really 1 house. 1 attraction. BGW HoS doesn’t have 6 houses, they have 4 houses. 4 total attractions.

I can’t stand this way of artificially increasing your attraction count on paper.

This bit of business led to a hellish line that was worse than the likes of what I’ve seen in any of the Orlando parks in my worst nightmare. It went all the way into Germany, around a blind queue, up and out backward, through another blind queue…I have no idea how much longer. No wait time was posted but I heard people saying 2 hours or 4 hours.

A lot of people just gave up and left. We didn’t even get through this line, so I have no idea if any of these houses are any good. The number of people in line could not possibly get through it before the park had to close. Were they going to turn people away or keep their employees for overtime? I have no clue.

We called it a day an hour before park closing after barely seeing much of HoS. This massive line is the worst idea ever. I expect this kind of distasteful thing from the likes of a park like Six Flags, not BGW. It is just common sense that creating a bottleneck like this will kill the user experience.

Problem #6: Autopilot Scares

There were a few speaker systems set up to create scares. This got old really quickly. The repetitive screams and such coupled with everything else just seemed like someone cut and paste one of those generic “Halloween sounds” cassettes from the 80s into the park. There was just a lot of repeating of the same scream and the same lightning sound. We just wanted to get the heck out of this park by the time we were through with all of this. Harknell pointed out, “You know, I’ve been really tired before in the Florida parks and wanted to leave, but I’ve never wanted to just…”get the heck out” of the park.”

Yep.

The Upshot:

I really wanted to love BGWs HoS, but poor organization, poor lighting, and half-assed scares make it a huge disappointment. I am glad that I did this one before the Orlando leg of my haunt blogging so that I can end the season on a positive note. While BGWs shows are more entertaining than your run of the mill Six Flags variety and we did have a lot of fun during the day at this park before HoS started, we didn’t drive all the way down here a second time this year to do BGW during the day again. This just reinforces what I said earlier about BGW being a great park, but its HoS event is pretty terrible. Unfortunately, Harknell is a non rider and came just to do HoS, so he made the long trip to VA for mostly nothing.

Small changes can make BGWs HoS a phenomenal event. If the park experience itself is good, we can even forgive a weak house because we are having a great time with our friends. Most importantly, they need to NEVER make people wait in a MEGA OMFG HOLY CRAP LINE for daisy-chained houses a la Six Flags.

Please BGW, give your Tampa location a call and talk things over. You could do an event as awesome as BGT. I know you could. I really want to hear about it being that good so that I can come back and write a totally different review. I am so disappointed about this because I love your park and I want to love your HoS event. As it stands I probably won’t be making the 6 hour drive to BGW HoS ever again.