As I walked into a presentation with Scott Swenson, Creative Director of Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl O Scream, he was speaking to someone about doing an interview; it was with a kid who had contacted Scott to do an article for a school newspaper. I told Scott right then and there that this is one of many reasons I find Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl O Scream to be my favorite event of the year. Anyone with any level of perception or knowledge of Sociology can immediately sense that people and fans come first at this event.
My spider sense furrows like a happy mack truck. Some photos from the presentation:
The original Trickster mask:
You can hit my search bar or read my other reviews and see that I’ve been a fan of this event long before I ever met anyone who worked for this park. It was a happy bonus to find out that the people behind something I liked were in alignment with my own worldview. I haven’t received anything from them to write this post, and have actually been urged to be as critical as I can so that they can review any reported faults so they can be even better next year.
This is a tough freakin’ assignment (to be critical) because I had a blast at Howl O Scream this year. Thus far, they are poised to take the #1 spot in my “Best Of…” list for a 3rd year in a row.
You have to understand that I saw Howl O Scream 2012 on a day when there was a driving torrential downpour over Tampa. I felt like Captain McShufflebutt in a dapper plastic theme park bat costume. I was thinking there was no way that the scare actors could ever be working at a regular level in these conditions as I broke out my poncho and headed into the event.
I was wrong.
On a night when the scare actors should have been at their worst – dripping wet and cold – they gave what I feel is the best performance I have ever seen in the hundreds of haunted attractions I have been to. The only thing that suffered was my ability to take pictures as I had to keep my camera in my bag to prevent it from being soaked. (See photos at the end in the gallery.)
Atmosphere and Scarezones:
BGT is using the “Roaming Hordes” concept (as in, scare actor groups can be anywhere in the park) for this year (which they started with last year). When most parks would use this as a cost-cutting measure, they used it as an excuse to obliterate you with so many actors, props, and theme elements that you wonder where the kitchen sink is.
I saw more scare actors at BGT in 5 minutes than I saw at any other park for the entire night. They were everywhere! They weren’t just lunging at people – they were doing advanced scares. Improv. Comedy. Tag teaming. I had an interaction with a scare actor at least every 10-15 minutes and could not avoid them if I tried.
The park was themed so well and so fully. You can make no mistake – this is Halloween. Props were plentiful. Makeup was high end (It’s actually custom made / designed specifically for this event), and the costumes all told a story.
BGT is the only park I can think of that gives more than they promise in their advertising. They actually had Trickster (their 2012 icon) on display up front on a pedestal. They normally had soft music and lights playing, but then a sudden switch to aggressive music with lights caused him to “change” from a statue to an insane maniac who malevolently cackled and threatened all in the vicinity—and the other zombie actors in the area swooned and reacted as if Trickster were influencing them. It was a well thought out and acted display.
The scare actors were very good and precise at what they were doing as well. They scared a park guest who bumped into me. I exclaimed, “Oh wow, she really clocked me!” No less than 5 seconds later a scare actor broke character and was right there checking to make sure I was OK and asking if it was one of her actors who did it with genuine concern. (I was fine, it was no big deal and it was just another park guest who bumped into me.) This was a welcome relief from some other parks I have been to where you can be pushed around in chaos with no one in sight. I felt very safe here.
The Fright Feast add on is a good one. We got to partake in a buffet of good quality food (it included things like fish, chicken, mac & cheese, a taco station, multiple desserts and drink options) and a special exclusive viewing of the show Fiends. Fiends is a Dr. Frankenstein inspired dance show with naughty male and female nurses and other classic horror characters. They dragged Harknell on stage and made him dance to the Monster Mash! HAHA!
Fright Feast includes early entry to the houses at 7PM before regular guests are let in at 7:30. Following that it included Front Line Fear access (no line) until 8. I do miss the Blood Relations pop culture-style show they used to do for Fright Feast, and hope they bring back an original production with live singing in the future. I do overall recommend Fright Feast.
Faded Memories Scare Zone:
I loved this. It was a great and well-themed photo op scare zone of icons of the past. They had ambient lights, signs, props – it really felt like it’s own little universe. I have only been going to this event since 2009, but I am sure that those who have been going longer than I would love to see all of the old school characters come back.
New for 2012, Circus of Superstition: This was, hands down, the best 3D house I have ever been to. Normally 3D is a cheap gimmick used to mask lack of theme or planning. I liked this house, but didn’t quite know why. When they told me that the house was made to be a good house without the 3D and that there are only 3D accents on 3D surfaces and props, I then knew why I liked it. 3D is not a gimmick here – it’s additive and made things even better.
New for 2012, Blood Asylum: This house is ambitious. They have a fancy (and hilarious) queue video. Smells are incorporated into the asylum. Each room has a story – you can see and understand what happened to each body. Was it dragged? Shot? You can tell. This strong attention to detail is evident and a key factor in why the haunts at BGT HoS are so good.
Nightshade Toys: Mutation: We love this one, but it’s mostly similar to past years when we have reviewed it. I feel this one is most in need of a big change as it’s been around for a while. From what we can guess, it’s likely this is the last year they will have this house in their rotation.
Vampire Casino: Condemned: Another strong haunt. The flashlight scenario they did for this was the right way (dimly lit) not the wrong way (pitch black). A problem flashlight houses have are that pitch black versions tend to cause terrible backups and are often used to disguise bad theming. You will find none of that here. We loved it. Like Nightshade Toys, I have to guess that it’s very likely this will be the last year for this house as well, but I don’t know.
Zombie Mortuary: This one is my favorite one due to the lush, creepy scenes. The mourning room and the final scene where you are buried alive coupled with the high number of scare actors who work in tandem to destroy you – this one is a masterpiece. Harknell was “pinball scared” at the end of this house where no less than 5 scare actors jumped at him one after the other from each side as he left.
Nevermore: I am a big Poe fan. I love this house as well. It’s nice to look at and quite creepy. I didn’t feel it was as scary as the others but I don’t necessarily think that a Poe house should be straightforward scary. His writing was all about madness. I felt this summed it up very well.
Alone: Alone is the upcharge house, and requires an additional fee for access. I have been very vocal about how good it is before. I did not do this house this year as I have done it for the past 2 years in a row. I am going to wait for a significant change to do it again. If you haven’t done this, you should do it. This one is game-changing, with you (and up to 3 others) being the only people in the house and having a storyline revolving directly around you.
Howl O Scream 2012 comes highly recommended to you from me. They made it better this year in my opinion because they brought back an icon and an experience at the front gate and invested in 2 stellar additions to their house lineup. I hope they continue to embrace narrative in the years to come, as I believe this is one of the things that make them stand out ahead of everyone else.
Overall, Howl O Scream seems to embrace and nurture their people first, and showed me the best scare actors I have ever seen in my haunt reviewing career. Their passion for people shows in their event quality and transcends into greater things than I have seen anywhere else.
If you don’t have the opportunity to go and see this, I feel genuinely sorry for you.
Some pix from the event:
NOTE: This attraction gave us press passes to attend for free. This does not affect our review in any way. We work for our readers and no one else. Read our commitment to you here.
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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