Escape Authority

In-Depth Escape Room Reviews

Review: Howl-O-Scream 2016

This Evil Encore brings two brand new houses, the return of a park full of street actors, and five old houses taking the stage again. Some hopefully for their final curtain call.

Howl-O-Scream Entry

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Howl-O-Scream is a separately ticketed event running 21 nights across September and October. Running since 2000, Howl-O-Scream is the only real competitive event to Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights in the Central Florida Market. This year it features seven Houses, two of which are new and the other five returning from previous years. In addition to two fully built scarezones, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has unleashed roaming hordes of scareactors into the dimly lit jungles of the park.

Also joining the house lineup is the Musical Horror Comedy show Fiends, and all the major Roller Coasters and Thrill Rides normally on offer at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. There’s even bumper cars with live zombies in an experience called Crash Test Zombies.

 

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Motel Hell

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Nightmares become reality at this deserted motel once you realize why it’s conveniently vacant. The paranormal presence of its former owners still lurks on the untouched property, mysteriously preventing the brave souls who have attempted to tear it down. Guests who dare to enter will find themselves face-to-face with their worst nightmares and inescapable fate.

In this first year maze the Sandman’s come to town, but he hasn’t brought any sweet dreams for us. His nightmarish, and largely unseen presence in the house, causes its inhabitants to go mad. This plays out in scenes throughout the property showing us the effects of his spell.

A strange storytelling element is the queue line voiceover. In a dulcet tone it reads the story of the house as if it were a paperback book description broadcast on the History Channel. Oddly it’s addressed in the second person giving it an off putting feel. Is this meant to be in story world? A description of the haunted house itself? It’s slightly confusing and would have played out better as an in world broadcast of some kind.

From stale cigarette smoke to the foot feel of cheap carpet, this is every seedy motel you kept driving past on the interstate. Little touches like sand filled room windows add to the “Sandman’s visited” atmosphere here. It’s also worth noting this is a fully new layout for this location. The past inhabitant, The Basement, used the same layout as the premium house before it, Alone.

A scene that I hope was only having issues because it was opening night is a Sandman’s lair scene full of skulls. It looked like it should be a near pitch black space filled with fog and some light spilling from the eyes of skulls. Instead, the room was brightly lit showing all its imperfections.

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This house’s floor plan feels fairly wide open as compared to other Howl-O-Scream houses in some areas giving guests a bigger safety net. The nightmarish context of the house presents itself in a variety of scenarios sure to play off at least one fear for every guest. As guests venture further into Motel Hell, reality begins to distort itself more and more. It doesn’t quite reach the intensity level it should as the maze concludes with a bit of a whimper.

There’s a good dose of classic distract and scare tactics on display, but nothing new or innovative. Though it’s still a fun ride into dreamland.

Death Water Bayou

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In the depths of the Bayou, the Voodoo Queen and her sadistic creatures transform wanderers into evil minions with dark magic. Descend into the swamps if you dare as you try to escape the evils that lurk in the shadows.  Get out before you fall victim to her spell.

From the moment guests see the decrepit backwoods house at the end of the queue line they feel like they are in Louisiana about to enter the home of a Voodoo Queen. Throughout the experience, the theme and storyline of journeying through the bayou and encountering all manners of the Queen’s minions is apparent. The opening scene inside the Queen’s house is a standout show moment that sets a bewitching mood for the rest of the house.

When Death Water Bayou first opened it was one of the most detailed houses Busch Gardens had ever made. The already mentioned house facade beautifully sets the tone for the experience and is lit in a perfect manner.

Several New Orleans street scenes give this house a real amount of variety. The swamp scenes have a stylized neon art-style to them, but still bring an immersive nature to the experience. Natural sound effects surround guests and make it really feel like a twisting bayou. 

The one stand-out negative element is the inclusion of the spinning tunnel near the beginning of the house. These are rarely used in innovative ways and I wish haunts in general would just stop using them. There are also a few oddly placed small black rooms with laser lights in them. These stand in stark contrast to the otherwise well dressed sets.

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Now in its fourth year, Death Water Bayou is a predictable experience for long time visitors to HOS. Nothing has changed in the layout. Most scares are the typical jump and scream of Howl-O-Scream actors, but there are a few clever moments scattered throughout, some of which are just other scare staples for the brand.

When a house as solid as Death Water Bayou returns again and again to an event, even minor alterations to the flow or scare tactics would help the experience feel fresh for returning guests.

Zombie Containment Unit 15: Moving Targets

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img_8068-sizedAn undead invasion leads to a containment failure in Z.C.U.15, leaving zombies in search of flesh. Armed with only a Z.E.D. (Zombie Eradication Device), you’re the next target, and it’s up to you to hold off an undead mob in this interactive zombie hunting experience.

This third year house is a journey through the Howl-O-Scream prop warehouse where Iron Man Arc Reactor clad zombies amble around chain link fences. The concept is that “Undead Americans” have been rounded up into humane containment facilities. A breach has occurred and guests must pacify zombies with their stun guns.

The story is a different take on a traditional zombie narrative, but it doesn’t come through in the presentation of the house at all. There’s not a sense that the actions guests have are helping to pacify zombies, or that this is some type of government facility, or that there are really any stakes at all.

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This feels just like an off season storage space with fences and strobe lights tossed in. Hallway after hallway, room after room, it all feels the same without a real sense of place. Keen eyed observers will also recognize props from years past. Easter eggs, or lazy set decoration? You be the judge.

If this were a zombie containment facility, wouldn’t there be more to it? Offices, security suites, housing areas, something more than wooden crates and chain link fences? Also, why is this facility full of dance music, club lighting, and strobes at every turn?

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Each zombie’s chest is adorned with a large white LED ring that activates when players shoot it. The main problem with this is the brightness of the lights is so intense it illuminates the entire space. This also alerts all subsequent guests where the actors are. This destroys having any element of surprise while traversing the house.

Another issue is zombies barely react to being shot. Other than the light change there’s not much of a reward for succeeding, and no points awarded to guests who exhibit skill. The “interactivity” advertised is minimal and removing the guns from the experience wouldn’t have a major impact on the quality of this attraction.

 

Circus of Superstition: The Last laugh

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You’ve tried to avoid black cats and sidewalk cracks, but all those years of bad luck have finally caught up with you! New demented fears make it impossible to survive the terrorizing surprises and startling scares that wait inside Circus of Superstition: The Last Laugh.

As one would expect, the circus is full of twisted clown comedians attempting to kill you in mischievous ways. The clever trick here is all the danger is represented as manifestations of common superstitions and old-wives tales. There’s not really a pre-tense that this is an actual circus operating, more so this house plays out as a fever-dream about maniacal clowns.

img_8048-sizedThis fluorescent basked 3D house surprisingly has some clever Chromadepth tricks up its sleeves that almost justify the use of 3D in the maze.

Unfortunately too many other scenes just utilize the standard methods for decorating 3D houses resulting in minimally dressed rooms without an intent to create depth.

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Now in its fifth year, The Circus of Superstition feels stale. One can only conquer their fear of empty rocking chairs so many times before they feel empowered to take on the world.

I really used to enjoy this house. Some superstitions are represented with visually interesting elements that create some real stand out moments in the maze. It’s just that these are the moments that have been standing out for years now. This circus should either pack up and head to a new town, or find some new tricks to wow the audience.

Unearthed

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During maintenance at the park, an excavation crew uncovered a centuries-old house buried deep beneath the ground. Upon entering the house, a sinister force is unearthed. The vengeful demon takes her revenge by collecting the eyes of all who enter the house.

A return of last year’s icon house. Unearthed saw an elaborate series of pre-event opening videos detailing the process of excavating the ruins of a mysterious house. Spearheaded by Robin Cowie, Producer of The Blair Witch Project, Unearthed promised a deep story of an ancient creature seeking revenge.

Guests do get a number of story queues as they walk up to the active excavation site. However, Scarlet’s storyline is a bit lost in the house as it instead feels like a mish-mash menagerie of different creatures with some non-descript murderous maniacs sprinkled in. 

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The best thing going for Unearthed is its beautiful sets. Creaking boards, dropping dust, and moving walls all make this space feel unstable and unsafe. A deep earthy smell permeates every room.

A small amount of queue line decoration blurs the line of where the experience actually starts. This concludes with a large scale animatronic figure just before guests enter the house.

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This is the goriest house on offer at Howl-O-Scream 2016. Its tight quarters put guests in close proximity to all the scares on display without much room to repeal. Monsters range from humans, to animals, to unidentifiable creatures each with a twisted appeal.

Strangely, Scarlet, who is the icon for this house, has had her finale scene removed and seemingly is not in the maze at all. Without her presence is this just a strange haunted house? 

 

Zombie Mortuary

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Led by their queen, the zombies that infest this small town funeral home feed on the fresh flesh and brains of mortuary mourners to satisfy their insatiable hunger. Avoid the undead or you may find yourself six feet under.

After seven years this is a house that needs to be laid to rest. Despite the new description touting a zombie queen, there hasn’t been any changes made to the story or flow of Zombie Mortuary.

And just to be clear, it is completely unclear how this mortuary operates. Are these intelligent zombies capable of running a mortuary? Is this the norm for all zombies in this story world? Aren’t patrons confused by the sales pitch from the undead?

Zombie Mortuary looks like an older style haunted house. It’s scenic quality is certainly not up to the standards of the other offerings at Howl-O-Scream. While the first scenes wandering through the mortuary’s halls provide some good layouts, later scenes descend into an out of place butcher’s shop that still to this day does not make sense with the theme.

A lengthy segment travelling behind the rat infested walls of the mortuary also doesn’t match with the overall idea of the house and is a problem that should have been corrected somewhere along the house’s seven year run.

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I’ve been through this maze so many times now I could probably sketch it completely out and plot the location of every actor. I used to enjoy the first few scenes of the house greatly with the interplay of mourners. However, once the locations of those actors are seen over and over, it diminishes their impact. The former finale of this maze was a uniquely surprising moment. Last year it was replaced with a dull and nearly non-existent scene.

I’m also a little confused on why one zombie decided to speak to me in very clear English. Maybe that’s part of the abilities he has that lets him be a successful mortuary owner?

The Black Spot

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When Saw Tooth Silas, an infamous pirate, decides that one should no longer exist, he marks them for death. Victims are then sent to The Black Spot, where they meet their horrifying end. The trick lies within the dimly-lit corners of the mysterious hideaway, holding the secret to escape… or demise.

In this first year house guests journey through a land of pirates and nautical creatures. The idea of this house taking place inside of “The Black Spot” wasn’t very apparent to me. The story in this instance feels more like program filler than an actual experience guests are a part of.

The scenic quality of this house is mostly top notch. Secret cave hideaways, and the interior hulls of crashed and still moving ships immerse guests into this seafaring and moonlit world.

One scene brings guests into an out of place underwater realm that felt not as fully realized as the rest of the house, but it provided a few good actor interactions.

Beyond the underwater section, there’s not a lot of variety from scene to scene. It’s difficult to place any one moment in a specific area.

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Pirates and creatures from the depths of the sea hide behind every crevice and barrel. Some may even taunt and seduce before revealing their true nature.

The scare tactics here are all traditional haunt fare without any new ideas presented. As one of only two new mazes for this year, I would have expected more effort to have been placed on trying out something new.

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img_6306-sizedPrimarily Scarezones consist of roaming hoards. These groups move throughout the park and consist of post-apocalyptic wastelanders, creepy children, a murderous halloween costume wearing group, zombies and their handlers, lost senior citizen hospital patients, and of course sliders and stilt walkers. Howl-O-Scream’s actors are mostly quite good at creating interactions with guests.

Surprisingly Howl-O-Scream had two full dressed and unmarked scarezones. One a cramped apocalyptic ruin, the other a blacklit haunted playground. Scattered around other areas of the park were some large set pieces, but these didn’t really seem like fully developed zones.

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Is there a doctor in the house? These captivating creatures of the night will infect you with dance fever and keep your pulse pounding with their deranged dance party. But when Dr. Freakenstein’s naughty nurses start operating, the diagnosis is always “code pink.”

We didn’t see the show on this trip to Howl-O-Scream, but it is a long running pop-culture send-up staple of the event.

 

Following the late 2014 departure of the event’s long time creative director, there was an unknown mark on what the event would look like moving forward.  The 2015 event only saw the addition of a single house, only very minor alterations to existing houses, and a diminished streets program.

With 2016 two fairly good houses were added that provide significant changes from their previous occupants. While returning houses were either exactly the same as previous years, or in the case of Unearthed, actually lost their finale scene.

The streets program brought back two dedicated and dressed zones with some additional set pieces scattered around the park. The roaming hoards give an unexpected flavor to the already atmospheric forested paths of the park, but don’t feel connected to their space like the full zones do.

In stark contrast to Howl-O-Scream’s competitor to the east, the vast majority of actors in houses do not have sound or light triggers and instead rely on their own voice or objects to create startle stares. While this does allow for more interactive and personalized moments between guest and actor, most of the talent is either not skilled enough or directed well enough for these moments to work. Dialogue is often a mixture of all the cliche haunted house expressions. “Get out,” “Get over here,” “I’m going to get you.” Integrating more triggered dialogue, or providing actors with a more robust script would add to the quality of interactions.

An interesting element of Howl-O-Scream’s 2016 marketing plan was the event’s doll icons

The one sorely missed component to Howl-O-Scream is their once innovative journeys into premium up-charge attractions like 2010-2012’s Alone and 2013-2014’s The Experiment. With Universal Orlando now venturing into that territory with their VR walkthrough experience The Repository, Howl-O-Scream needs to go back to providing unique immersive attractions to stay competitive in the market.

Central Florida has an interesting relationship to Howl-O-Scream. It’s often overlooked for it’s higher budget competitor. Largely this is in part to the repeat nature of the event. The slight variations from year to year provide a diminished return for guests that want to come on an annual basis. However, for a guest that has never been to the event before, or has missed it for the last several years, Howl-O-Scream brings a haunting style different from other events in the Florida market that should be experienced.

Venue: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Location: Tampa Bay, FL

Dates: Select Nights September 23rd – October 30th

Hours: 7:30PM – 1AM

Cost: $45.99

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