Over the last month, I’ve been on my annual whirlwind tour of haunted attractions across the country, from Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights to the Disneyland Halloween party in Anaheim, Calif. This week concludes this year’s fright season right back where I started, or so it seems. Busch Gardens Tampa has been steadily building a following for its Howl-O-Scream event, and this year’s Dark Side of the Gardens goes toe-to-toe with Universal’s more established offering – quite literally.
Whether it’s a pointed example of great minds thinking alike or a byproduct of cross-pollinated personnel (J. Michael Roddy was a longtime maestro of Universal’s HHN before moving over to Busch), a curious number of elements at this year’s competing events are mirror images of each other. The remarkable thing, given the Tampa park’s comparatively limited budget, is how much more I enjoyed Howl-O-Scream.
Busch gives park visitors a bonus right off the bat: Howl-O-Scream ticket holders get to enter the park an hour before it closes to day guests, giving them time for a few non-horror attractions before the ghouls get going. (I finally tried the Cheetah Hunt coaster; for those not into the ride, the adjacent cheetah habitat makes a great waiting room.) For an extra $22.50, the Fright Feast pass gets you an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet (edible but unexceptional) and a private performance of The Midnight Hour, a new musical satire show that’s thematically similar to Universal’s Bill and Ted show. Palin, Sheen and Obama appear here, as they do in Orlando, but the cameos are less hit-and-run, allowing the jabs room to land. Plus, the cast sings live – a few members are quite good – and the requisite dance numbers are better integrated into the slim story.
Finally, it was time for the haunted houses, which brings me to the best Fright Feast benefit: a head start on your haunting with exclusive access to all the mazes for 30 minutes before the general public and an additional hour of express entry past the standard queues. With it, I was able to experience all six of the park’s houses (and even see one twice) before 8:30 p.m., without waiting in a single line. While Howl-O-Scream rarely gets as overcrowded as Halloween Horror Nights, there were hourlong queues by mid-evening, making the Fright Feast (or one of the more expensive front-of-the-line passes) a must-have.
Among Busch’s houses, my favorite was Nevermore, which shares a name and theme with one of my top picks at Universal. Both are based on the macabre literary works and life of Edgar Allan Poe, and both re-create scenes from the same stories – though Tampa tosses in “The Black Cat” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” for good measure. Howl-O-Scream’s take doesn’t have Universal’s elaborate scenic detail, but it felt longer and more intimate – especially the claustrophobic inflated “birth canal” corridor. Likewise, the Vampire Casino shares a gambling theme with Orlando’s Lady Luck spokesdemon, but expresses it in a visceral (yet humorous) vision of vamp-infested Vegas, complete with slot machines and Dead Elvis. Zombie Mortuary, the third all-new maze, was also a winner, with a well-paced mix of the creepy (an authentic-smelling crematorium) and the campy (the “Russo Romero” funeral home sells “certified pre-owned” caskets).
The remaining three haunts are holdovers from last year, and all are a little lacking compared to their younger brethren. Also returning is Alone, the appointment-only maze you experience on your own (or with up to three friends). The highly theatrical haunt, filled with interactive actors and the park’s most impressive effects, hasn’t changed significantly since last year, aside from a brief tacked-on tunnel finale that may give portly visitors pause. So my verdict is the same as last year – it’s the best haunt in any area theme park, and arguably worth the extra $40 for hard-core fans.
Howl-O-Scream doesn’t have Universal’s artistry or technology, but they’ve got what counts – old-fashioned scares. Walking the park’s foliage-choked paths, you’re guaranteed to be startled when a band of zombies (in surprisingly effective makeup) stagger out of the fog. It’s like the difference between an A-list studio feature and a 16-millimeter exploitation flick shot in someone’s backyard. I know which one is more likely to make me jump.