Halloween is here in full force, and Central Florida's famous haunted houses are again offering jump-scares for the masses. But if you crave a more intimate way to celebrate spook season, try one of these tricks or treats on for size.
The Illusionists The 2016-2017 Fairwinds Broadway Across America series kicks off this week at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts with an unusual detour away from musicals and into magic. The Illusionists, a diverse troupe of prestidigitators who have performed on Broadway and across the country, arrives with seven master conjurors. One is Jeff "The Trickster" Hobson, who recently granted me an interview, in which he demonstrated his comedic coin manipulations while describing life on the road as a wandering wisecracking wizard. "The personalities in magic are weird, quirky individuals, because it is a strange dark art," Hobson says, but he insists the team has no "prima donnas," likening his cohorts to "the Avengers of magic."
Hobson got hooked on magic at an early age, and was "the busiest magician in Detroit" by the time he finished high school. He's since performed for Fortune 500 companies, on cruise ships, and at the defunct Caesar's Magical Empire in Las Vegas, as well as venues ranging from minuscule to massive. "I'm a comedy club guy. I love being where I can touch the front row because intimacy is part of what's great about theater," he says as we discuss the challenges of performing sleight-of-hand in a 2,700-seat house. "Luckily, our show has a large high-def screen, so people in the back can see up close. I think that's part of our success."
At the same time, Hobson warns against thinking television or YouTube is a substitute for witnessing illusions live. "If I were king, I'd never rebroadcast magic, ever. It's one medium that must be viewed in person. ... Overall, it's better for magic that things are on the internet, but if I had to go back and start it again, I wouldn't allow it." (Through Sunday, Oct. 9, at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts; drphillips.org)
Vault of Souls In recent years, I've road-tripped toward the Gulf for fright events at Shallow Grave and Busch Gardens, but this year I expanded my westward expedition into downtown Tampa for the Vault of Souls, an interactive haunted experience crafted by former Howl-o-Scream director Scott Swenson. Now in its second year, Vault of Souls is set inside a historic bank building, and blends traditional haunt elements with Sleep No More-inspired voyeuristic immersive theater for an upscale reinvention of haunted attractions.
The pre- and post-show lounges are like a fancy (if freaky) wedding reception, with exceptional hors d'oeuvres, crafty cocktails, and live – or at least undead – entertainment like ghostly ballroom dancers and an eerie acrobatic clown. Eventually, guests are summoned in small parties to don featureless white masks and descend into the basement. There they wander freely, mutely interacting with the detail-rich sets and demented denizens, who babble hints about the bank's soul-sucking backstory.
Don't approach Vault of Souls like an escape room, or you'll find yourself frustrated by red-herring riddles and dead-end puzzles. Instead, simply soak in the elaborate atmosphere as you explore, and remember to ask for the elevator as soon as you're ready to escape upstairs to a 1920s speakeasy and assorted tarot card readers. At $100 per person (valet parking included; cash bar), the Vault costs about as much as a full-price Halloween Horror Night ticket, but provides a far more classy, civilized experience that even the gore-averse can embrace. (Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 29 at the Vault in Tampa; elegantfear.com)
The Repository The Halloween Horror Nights haunted houses I reviewed last month are all cattle-car conga lines, but for the first time Universal is also promising a more personal experience in exchange for an additional fee. Universal's Art & Design team (led by T.J. Mannarino and Rick Spencer) has been experimenting with RFID and augmented reality for years under the "Legendary Truth" banner, and now they've brought their prototypes to the public with the help of VRCade's virtual reality technology.
The Repository invites parties of four to explore an ancient museum of arcane artifacts for a half-hour adventure that incorporates live theater and escape room puzzles with digital stereoscopic headsets. The actors and scenery that set the stage are superb even by Universal's high standards, and the finale challenge (which my team tackled in under the two-minute time limit) was suitably nerve-wracking.
Disappointingly, the touted VR is more tech demo than polished product, with chunky graphics and constrained interactivity that falls short of the promise of the developer's promotional videos. And while I appreciate that familiarity with Legendary Truth's dense mythos wasn't a prerequisite, the riddles really had little relevance to the backstory players were encouraged to explore. I can't advise the $50 up-charge (on top of event admission) for everyone, but for hard-core Halloween fanatics, it's a fair price for a glimpse of the future. (Select nights through Oct. 31 at Universal Studios Florida, halloween horrornights.com)