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and Team / Co
Jul 22, 2013
Arlington, VA
Last Sunday Zachary and I traveled to BGT to attend their Howl-O-Scream.  We plan to write a full article for BGWFans, but in the meantime, I wanted to share my personal opinions.  I believe Zachary plans to post his thoughts, as well, because unsurprisingly, we do not agree on everything.

We went last Sunday, so I don't know if or how the crowds affected our experience.  For us the paths were easily navigated and there was no stacking in the houses.  It is possible on a busier night, the event would have suffered.  Additionally, we bought the front of the line passes ("Front Line Fear"), so we generally were able to be at the front of our group, as we walked through the each maze.  Regardless, here are my impressions.

BGT has several different types of houses.  In addition to the usual haunted mazes, we experienced a fun house and an unusual laser tag attraction.  My ranking is based on how much I enjoyed each house, regardless of how scary it was.

1. Death Water Bayou
Not only was this maze my favorite of the evening, it is one of the best haunted houses I have ever experienced.  The maze paired beautiful and varied set design with a creepy and enthusiastic cast.  As we noted on Instangram, it was physically, mentally, and emotionally disorienting; the amazing and fully-engaged cast achieved constant and incredible scares; and the overall experience created and maintained high level of stress and tension from start to finish.

2. The Black Spot
I understand this is one of BGT's new houses, and they really did a great job.  Walking through it reminded me of Halloween Horror Nights without the conga line. For example, the sound effects were timed to enhance both the live action and automated scares. The excellent cast, combined with integrated effects, created an incredible level of tension throughout the entire house.  

3. Circus of Superstition: The Last Laugh
Was this fun house frightening?  No, not particularly, although there were a couple of unusual and effective scares.  It was very disorienting, however, which for me is an equally entertaining approach to a haunt attraction.  The house reminded me of Universal's Asylum in Wonderland, which I also enjoyed and valued for being so dramatically different than all of the other houses at HHH.  The colors, the music, the 3D effects worked well together to create a dizzying and freaky environment.  At the end of the day, I found this fun house to be a lot of fun.

4. Unearthed
This house seemed to have all of the right elements.  The set was detailed and interesting, and the designers used lighting very effectively. Unfortunately, I felt as if I was observing a haunted maze, rather than experiencing one directly.  I never felt anxious or afraid, just curious.

5. Zombie Containment Unit 15
Like Circus of Superstition, this attraction did not really seemed designed to scare anyone.  In fact, according to the storyline, you are hunting zombies, not vice versa.  It is hard to feel anxiety, when you hold the power in the situation.  Regardless, it added variety to the event, which I really appreciate.  I find myself getting tired of going through the same maze over and over again: Changing the theme or even the type of scare does not really dramatically change the subjective experience; it only affects the intensity and quality.  This house provided an unusual experience, and honestly, shooting at zombies with a laser tag gun was cool.  I was also impressed with how quickly they moved people through the house, without crating stacking or a conga line.

6. Motel Hell
The set and the storyline were brilliantly executed.  Unfortunately, it seemed designed for actors to stalk guests, rather than startle them. I imagine at an event like BGT's HOS, the sheer number of guests makes it unfeasible for an actor to follow or block a guest inside a house, so the result was ineffective scares. I did experience near-constant sensory overload from the detailed sets, varied lighting, and constant sounds; but that created annoyance, rather than tension.  The disconnect between the set and the scares left me disappointed.

7. Zombie Mortuary
I'm not entirely sure I even understood the storyline for this house.  Why would there be zombies an a funeral home?  Regardless, despite the brilliant use of scent and some very clever scares in this house, I was left pretty much bored throughout.  About halfway through, I just started to wonder, when I could leave, and maybe grab a bottle of water.  Ironically, that was just about when it started to improve a bit.  Unfortunately, by the time the maze had developed into something interesting (or at least less tedious), they had already lost my attention.

Of course, there more to a haunt than just the houses.  I thought the rest of the park was brilliant, as well.

The atmosphere throughout the park was amazing.  At first we were a bit surprised at the lack of props and décor, but then we noticed the brilliant lighting effects.  The park used everything from projections to creepy colors to enhance the effectiveness of the dark paths and dimly-lit hamlets.  Music and sound were also employed effectively to create the right mood.

Perhaps more interesting, however, was the deployment of the scare actors on the paths.  We expected the roaming hordes to move around the park and appear unexpectedly to threaten us, as we tried to check the map or take a water break.  We had not anticipated, however, that the scare zones would switch themes periodically.  We went through the same area twice in about an hour, and encountered a completely different set of actors.  It was really a very cool and effective idea.  Essentially, it meant that every part of the park was unpredictable, which really added interest and anxiety.

We were both prepared to be incredibly annoyed by the bars and DJs.  Somehow, despite their being scattered throughout park, they rarely interfered with the atmosphere.  For me the party elements of the event faded into the background, and I was generally able to ignore them.

Overall, I thought this was a great event, and I really enjoyed every minute.  Before this weekend, I was beginning to experience a sense of ennui about park haunts.  I wasn't even sure I wanted to make the effort to try Tampa's HOS.  I am very glad I went.  It was scary and fun, and far and away my best experience so far this Halloween season.
Damn, I gotta get down to T-town next year. In general would you say Tampa did HoS better, the same, worse, or imcomparably to Williamsburg?
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I am actually going to write a full piece on BGT from the perspective of a BGW guest, so I don't want to steal my own thunder too much. That said, I think it was a better event. I think the fact that it is separately ticketed probably makes a huge difference.
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Yes I would likely agree with you there. And I can't wait to read that article! I've only ever been to Tampa once in 2001 so I imagine it's changed substantially, let alone its Halloween event.

Very well done review!
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If you haven't been since 2001, it is worth visiting regardless. Also, I recall a lot of specialty cocktails.
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To tell the truth I'm not surprised that Tampa has a better HOS event cause when you have to compete year after year with HHN at Orlando and the magnitude of the Disney event. This tends to get the creative team and the actor performance to take it up a notch.
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I've long felt some sort of obligation to visit Busch Gardens Tampa's Howl-O-Scream.

Note the use of the word "obligation"—not anticipation or some other word that would imply excitement. Have I been curious about the event? Sure. Was it something that was super high on my personal (read: non-ParkFans-driven) priority list? No. Why?

Well, I always figured that whenever I happen to be in Florida during haunt season, I'd personally much rather visit Horror Nights—that's where the real investment into this part of the industry goes—that's where the innovation happens—that's the shining star in the industry that everyone else is out to reach for.

So why the sense of responsibility to visit the event? Tampa's Howl-O-Scream plays a large role in the direction of Williamsburg's event. Plus, BGW and BGT have a sibling rivalry of sorts across basically all aspects of both parks. I've long felt that I needed to be able to take a position on the matter. With that in mind, I bit the bullet and decided to make a visit down to Tampa.

Now admittedly I went into this event expecting to be disappointed. Looking at the event map, the park proudly promotes DJs, bars, and even a club. Scare zones aren't even named or listed anywhere that I could find. Aside from a list of house names and quick descriptions, the haunt side of the event almost seems like an afterthought.

It is no secret to anyone how I feel about the continuously growing "party atmosphere" at VA's Halloween events and the continual demotion of, you know, actual scares. From what I could tell of the event from afar, Busch Gardens Tampa was about to assault me with more of the same.

I was wrong. Lets start with atmosphere...

Yes, there are DJs booths around the park and yes, there are a lot of bars. That said, surprisingly they are all contained to small areas and kept far away from the path scares and houses. Busch Gardens Tampa's layout really is set up exquisitely well for this. The long paths between many of the park's hamlets can be kept incredibly (almost shockingly) dark and secluded from the more lit areas.

As Nicole stated, the lighting is brilliant. All around the entire park BGT has managed to minimize the number of necessary props and decorations; instead utilizing projections, lights, and darkness incredibly effectively.

So, path scares...?

Though BGT struggles with actually scaring crowds on pathways (as the entire industry does these days), I can firmly say that they have the best setup I've ever seen. Between interesting characters, fantastic acting, great costuming, cycling themes, etc. I was constantly, at the very least, immersed and intrigued. In a time when Horror Nights is basically waving the white flag on this front and opting to turn scare zones into Pathways with Monsters for Selfies, innovation in the realm of path scares is incredibly refreshing.

And what about the houses?

Busch Gardens Tampa's lineup is immaculate. That is going to be a very controversial statement, I know, but let me explain.

First off,
Nicole said:
Also, I recall a lot of specialty cocktails.

Unfortunately, I most likely wont get to go to BGT this year for HOS, but I am glad to be able read your opinions and see photos from the event. Obviously since I haven't been this year, my opinions are based on 2015 and prior seasons.

I agree 100% on what you said about Death Water Bayou. It's also probably my favorite haunted house. The set design is entrancing. It 'calls' to you to come and explore, yet it still maintains a great scare level throughout, unlike just about every other well-decorated house I know. I'm sure it will last a long time like Zombie Mortuary. It will be a challenge to fill the void when it comes time for the house to go.

That brings me to my other point- Zombie Mortuary. I have always found that to be in the top two houses there, so I'm surprised and saddened to hear that it disappointed you so much. Maybe they just decided to let it go by lowering positive guest reception. Honestly, that's probably the only way they could get away with retiring such a popular house, even after so many years (in the eyes of corporate).

Everyone seems to have a very different take on Motel Hell, so I found yours to be interesting. You are not the first to tell me that it looks great, but the scares are not practical. I'm mainly interested in how they pulled off the swimming pool. As soon as I heard about that room I was elated that they would event attempt such a thing. How did it play out in your perspective?

Otherwise, your review doesn't surprise me too much, which is a good thing. Most people either love or hate some of the remaining houses. I hear it in many ways.
I honestly don't recall anything in the swimming pool room other than a mannequin floating face down. Maybe I went through at a bad time?

And to give appropriate credit, the assessment of the types of scares in Motel Hell came from a discussion with Zachary. We spent a fair amount of time examining why the house wasn't tense or frightening.
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I thought Motel Hell was pretty good outside of a few of the black wall rooms. Those didn't really fit anywhere in the overall story. Everything else was incredible. Lots of fun set pieces, solid actors, and a few decent scares. I still think No Vacancy was a little stronger but Motel Hell was def one of my favorites.

I'm surprised you ranked Zombie Containment so high though. I thought it was the park's worst maze. The shooting element is fun but the maze didn't really do anything for me scare wise. It was impossible to see any of the rooms thanks to the thick fog. Actors weren't scary and the guns don't really affect any outcome of the house.

Zombie Mortuary was lots of fun too. I'd probably say it was one of the better mazes when I went.
As I said, I was specifically NOT ranking the houses based on scariness, but rather based on entertainment value. For me, the fun house and ZCU both ranked higher than some of the more traditional mazes, because I enjoyed myself more in them.

I believe there is value in variety in an event like this, especially when there are seven houses. While I was not particularly frightened in either, I had significantly more fun walking through those attractions than either Motel Hell or Zombie Mortuary, both of which bored me. It takes more to make a maze interesting to me than a pretty set.
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