Harknell and I experienced Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl O Scream on October 14, 2011. Full disclosure – we were comped into the event by BGT. (Separate post on this to come.)
Longtime readers know that this will not affect my honest opinion. I’ve paid to attend this event for years now, and you can just check my archives to see how much I already love what BGT does. In addition to that, the folks at BGT encouraged me to be blunt and truthful. They care about honesty as much as I do.
BGT’s theme this year was “The Dark Side of the Gardens: Zombies Live Here”. This year there is no icon and no defined scarezones. When BGT first announced this, I was concerned. I have been to large haunts without icons and scarezones. These are generally ones with poor end-user experience. Their marketing campaign is also similar to Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Howl O Scream. BGW is another one of my favorite parks, but we unfortunately didn’t have the best experience at BGW’s 2010 Halloween event.
Yeah, I was nervous. BGT HoS is my favorite Halloween event. No way did I want to lose that.
Leave it to the crew at BGT to completely change my worldview. Not only did they put on one hell of an event – they proved to me that they can reinvent the concept of the scarezone. Let’s break it down:
This year was the first year we did Fright Feast. FF is a dinner buffet and show. The best part is that you also get early access to the houses with an additional limited “Express Pass” to give you front line access to the houses up until 8:30pm. The food served consisted of many salads, chicken, and pasta dishes. New this year was a taco bar. Desserts were also plentiful and varied – cakes of all kinds (including Red Velvet cupcakes). Pumpkin Cheesecake was also very good. There were a ton of dishes to choose from. They had more than I thought they would have, given the low price point ($25).
I found the food to be good and the price to be a really good value. The show was a pop culture-based comedy featuring characters based on Snooki, Sarah Palin, President Obama, Charlie Sheen, and others. It was funny, but the audio levels seemed a bit strange and hard to hear at times. (which we’ve since heard is an issue not limited to this particular show, but the venue itself)
Roaming Zombie Hordes:
Roaming zombie hordes replaced scarezones this year – I believe there were about 20 different hordes in the park (with many having over 15 people per horde). We saw child zombies, cheerleaders, construction workers, formally attired zombies, slider zombies…sooo many! No place was safe in the park. We were having a conversation with Jim Dean, the park President and a zombie attacked him! (Jim Dean seems like the coolest guy ever!)
I loved the zombie hordes. There were so many that losing the scarezones felt like a value. They still themed the park, and there was always something different around every corner. Ideally, I’d like to see a hybrid system next year that incorporated Hordes with a small stage show or photo op for each so that you can be sure to see them all.
The New for 2011 Houses and Alone:
Nevermore was based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. I enjoyed this one. We got to go through rooms based on his books. We passed a beating heart and a really cool pendulum room with great lighting effects! I wanted to do this one a second time to catch all the detail but it got so crowded we weren’t able to get back to it.
They said that this house was like their idea of what “Zombie Fast Food” would be like. The zombies took over the mortuary to get easy meals. :) This house really creeped me out to an epic degree! It starts out in a funeral viewing room where people are weeping. I CANNOT TELL YOU WITH WORDS HOW DISTURBING THIS ROOM IS. It even smells like a funeral home in there! Zombies come at you in various mortuary situations until the final room where you are buried alive! ENOUGH SAID YOU GUYS THIS HOUSE OMG. Excellent.
This house was also really well done. The concept was that vampires opened a casino to draw in and harvest humans. You go through a casino front toward the back area. There’s all kinds of immersive elements like clothing racks and things. There was an undead Elvis wedding back there. You get to a place where they are draining humans and the vampires chase you.
I paid my own cash moniez to go into Alone again this year. Alone is mostly the same as last year but with a new ending. I do know the house well enough now that I’ll probably skip next year without some additional changes. I also think the queue should be set up so that people can be chased out screaming. The final corridor when you exit has you just walking out. I won’t tell you the new ending, but we liked it a lot. It was definitely the right direction. Still, I hope for more next year. I’ll be emailing my suggestions directly to BGT, because I don’t want to spoil you and bore you with technical critiques of rooms you may not have ever been in. This Alone review I wrote last year still applies for the most part, but I did notice small changes and new ad-libs by the actors.
That said, this is still the best house I’ve ever been through. I feel sorry for you if you haven’t done this one.
I would like to see an icon. They had a female zombie in some of their ads – even just a 3-4 line description would do it for me. They did a great event without an icon, but, I do prefer icons.
If you want merch, don’t make a mistake like we did and wait till the end of the day to buy. The Shop of Horrors was so crowded that we couldn’t get in to buy anything. It seemed they were more crowded this year than ever before. I really think they should set up carts outside for people who can’t get into the store at the end of the event. (and maybe even put a shop outside the gate as well–they might have had these and I could have just missed it.)
Some examples of the 2011 merch in the Shop of Horrors:
Cute crane game inside the Shop of Horrors:
Sylvie’s Closet, a section of the store dedicated to last year’s merch:
I really don’t like the fact that they don’t have an iPhone-friendly site. I only take an iPhone and iPad with me on vacation. Also, it doesn’t appear that they have online merch sales, so I can’t order stuff like I had hoped.
This year they have one less house than last year. The lines were long enough that I still didn’t get through my goal of going through everything twice, so it’s not like there is a lack of things to do here. I still hope they can bring back another house next year. I made the mistake of seeing Fiends, their other musical show. I had heard that Fiends is the show to skip, so I had skipped it for the last 2 years. Harknell convinced me that we should finally see it this year. It isn’t a bad show, but it’s just a bunch of comedy dance numbers. It was the reason I didn’t make it through the houses as many times as I wanted to and missed getting on any rides. Houses > Fiends. Oh well, that was my fault. I still had a ton of fun!
The people who dismiss BGT HoS because they only had 3 new houses are really selling themselves short. Yes, they have 6 total houses and 3 were returning from last year. The key thing to understand is that they do make small changes to their strong existing houses and I feel the 3 new houses more than make up for it. I go for quality rather than quantity, and BGT HoS has that. BGT HoS is a big event done well that still retains a family feeling. The first thing I noticed (aside from how epic the houses were) was that the average BGT employee genuinely cares that you have a good time here. There is a reason I paid to come 1000 miles away from home to this event in 2009 and 2010. There is a reason I came back in 2011 and will come back in 2012.
Oni Hartstein is a Los Angeles-based CMO and entrepreneur that is obsessed with progressive rock / metal, marketing, and nightlife. Please direct all business inquiries or review requests to the "Contact" tab on the top nav bar.
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