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In-Depth Escape Room Reviews

Review: Howl-O-Scream – Tampa 2017

A dark and shadowy jungle sets the perfect tone for what is consistently one of our favorite Halloween events in the country!

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Howl-O-Scream, located at Busch Gardens Tampa, is a separately ticketed event that runs nineteen select nights between September 22, 2017 and October 29, 2017, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday as well as the last three Thursdays of October. Of note, this year the event will not be offered on Halloween night itself. In its 17th year, Howl-O-Scream features seven different haunted houses – two of which are brand new for 2017 while the other five are back again from previous years, five scare zones, a live show as well as all of your favorite Busch Gardens Tampa thrill rides, including Montu, Kumba and Falcon’s Fury.

 

Haunts which return unchanged from the previous year will be duplicated from our 2016 review.

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Demented Dimensions

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Unwanted worlds come together at Demented Dimensions.

Constructed above a vortex of otherworldly energies, the abandoned Sterling Manor houses every door to unwanted worlds, creating a series of portals in Demented Dimensions

Demented Dimensions aims to be the literal portal into some of the most warped and devilish dark worlds outside of our own. Oftentimes, this sort of disjointed collection of themes is difficult to pull off effectively- but boy did Howl-O-Scream succeed.

From the moment you step foot into the dilapidated Sterling Manor, it’s clear that we’ve crossed over into another dimension. And with each turn we take, we jump from one wicked world to another. Some may even be familiar stories from our own world, with a fresh, dark twist.

Demented Dimensions is a sort of tour de force of Busch Gardens Tampa’s scenic talents. Each scene is completely different from the one before it, yet the attention to detail and high quality decor remains constant throughout.

This Haunt takes what on paper sounds like a disjointed clip show and turns it into a flowering attraction that is easily among Howl-O-Scream’s best.

From bent, warped unknown worlds to more familiar themes like Jack the Ripper and Alice and Wonderland, Demented Dimensions has them all- and executes them in a fresh way to the highest scenic standards of the event.

One particularly cool scene found us in a room teetering on the edge of two different dimensions, literally cut down the middle by a laser-like portal with half of it just…. gone. A very convincing, and very off-putting effect!

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As unique and original as it’s story and scenic, so too are the scares. Demented Dimensions is full of some truly cool scareactor hidey-holes- notably bending and twisting common objects like a staircase, air vents and more.

The cast of scareactors were especially energetic- no doubt proud to be part of an opening year attraction. Regardless of the cause, the direct impact on the guests is an even better experience in one of Howl-O-Scream’s best haunts!

 

 

Undead Arena: Live

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In a post-apocalyptic world, the Undead Arena: Live is home to a gruesome event starring The Unworthy.

In a post-apocalyptic world, survivors of the Great Conflict have been divided into The Worthy and The Unworthy. Now for sport, you are The Unworthy and the stars of a gruesome event at the Undead Arena: Live. Infested with Brain Eaters, this gauntlet is an almost impossible feat without guarantee that your group will stay together.

The story of two dueling factions, The Worthy and The Unworthy really never presents itself in physical form once inside the haunt. I suppose one could argue that the monsters are only “The Worthy” with us being solely “The Unworthy” – but in execution this remains entirely unclear.

At the end of the day, this feels more like “Generic Zombie Maze #16.” Undead Arena: Live is all experiential – and barely at that – without any solid impact in the story department.

Lowes must really like Busch Gardens, because they fully bought out all of their faux brick boards. In fact that’s almost the extent of the scenic here. Faux brick everywhere. Faux brick for all! And for good measure, a few chain link fences.

Beyond one scenically compelling game show room, the rest of this haunt feels forgotten. There’s some odd design choices in this Haunt. Fairly large scale open rooms with literally nothing inside them beyond a scareactor in each corner. It’s difficult to think Busch Gardens Tampa could do *less* than the scenic found within Zombie Containment Unit 15, yet here we are.

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A handful of moving walls manned by some delightfully interactive scareactors truly remains the high point of Undead Arena: Live. Honestly, that moment was the first that I really found myself getting into the haunt. Sadly it was also essentially the last. Even more sadly, when we returned later in the evening that effect was already not being used.

A “choose your own adventure” type path splits gave hope for unique experiences, but unfortunate much like Duff, Duff Lite and Duff Dry, they all seem to branch from the same pipe. The express purpose for our return visit to one of our least favorite haunts *was* to see if the other path was different. It was it, it was so similar that I couldn’t tell them apart.

At no fault of the scareactors, the remainder of this haunt really wasn’t noteworthy. To be clear that was not without their effort. They clearly were a very energetic cast. They just simply were not given much to work with.

Undead Arena: Live is a worst case scenario of Busch Gardens Tampa’s returning maze policy. In only it’s first year, we’re a bit disappointed to think this one will be with us for the foreseeable future.

 

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.

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 storyworld? A description of the haunted house itself? It’s slightly confusing and would have played out better as an in-world news broadcast broadcast of some kind.

From stale cigarette smoke to the feel of cheap carpet under your feet, 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.

Some minor scenic changes this year saw the pool moved outdoors and in its place within the haunt, a new scene with a jacuzzi and outdoor games court. This allowed for some fresh actor interaction opportunities. 

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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 member of your group. As guests venture further into Motel Hell, reality begins to distort itself more and more. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite reach the intensity level it should or could, 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. That not withstanding, it’s still a fun ride into dreamland.

 

DEATH WATER BAYOU

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Escape the depths of the Bayou before you fall victim to the Voodoo Queen’s spell.

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 clearly 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 – and oftentimes How-O-Scream as a whole.

When Death Water Bayou first opened it was one of the most detailed houses Busch Gardens had ever attempted. 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 entirely. They hinder the flow far more than they help, especially in a decently story-driven haunt.

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As a returning haunt, Death Water Bayou is unfortunately a predictable experience for long time visitors to HOS. Nothing has changed in the layout – but that being said, it still remains one of our favorites at the event.

Death Water Bayou is a solid haunt, and we’re never disappointed to see it return again and again to the event. We certainly, however, wouldn’t turn down a few even minor alterations to the flow or scare tactics that could help the experience feel fresh for returning guests.

 

 

ZOMBIE CONTAINMENT UNIT 15: MOVING TARGETS

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bgt-hos-zcu1It’s up to you to hold off an undead mob of ravenous zombies.

An 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 returning haunt is a journey through the proverbial 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.

 

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, destroying 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 one way or the other on the quality of this attraction.

 

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.

Unearthed debuted in 2015 as the home of that year’s icon character, Scarlet. It enjoyed a unique viral marketing push through 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 cues 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. 

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, and in turn really helps Unearthed stand out as something different from the norm. 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 2017. 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? 

 

 

THE BLACK SPOT

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An infamous pirate has you marked for death and he has you right where he wants you.

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.

Guests journey through a land of pirates – in a somewhat unique twist for the genre – nautical creatures. It’s a satisfying storyworld to become immersed within, especially in an age of far too many zombie-themed haunts seemingly everywhere we turn. The Black Spot feels fresh and original.

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.

We were most impressed by a truly fantastic mirror scare towards the end of The Black Spot. It’s either something we missed timing-wise during our visit last season, or that has been added since. Either way, it created a truly memorable near-finale moment that absolutely left us talking on the walk out.

 

 

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Howl-O-Scream’s Scare Z ones are a mix of five officially dressed areas, as well as some unadvertised free-roaming hoards to keep you on your toes. One of our favorite interactions of the evening occurred in an unmarked Scare Zone inhabited by – I kid you not – confused and quite possibly insane senior citizens, whose bus has clearly just crashed. Howl-O-Scream’s actors are always seem to go the extra mile to create personalized interactions with guests on a level that many other big chain park events fail to do. 

Class Deceased

See what happens when savage school kids punish their cruel headmaster in this abandoned schoolhouse-inspired scare zone. Our Facebook fans voted to name this scare zone and now you can experience the terror first hand.

A dark pathway along side Cheetah Hunt has been transformed into the smoldering ruins of a burned down schoolhouse. Naturally, it’s still inhabited by the charred spirits of the children who were in attendance that faithful day. This was a truly effective new Scare Zone for Howl-O-Scream that had a very uniquely themed flavor that truly makes it memorable.

Carnie Camp

The backstage area of an old carnival breathes new life with its lingering dirty inhabitants. Eerie music fills the air as spine-chilling fairground performers prowl for new test subjects to be featured in the next spectacle of this horrid attraction.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the notion of a haunted circus or carnival. Unfortunately, this Scare Zone was more of a non-Scare Zone. With almost no scenic decor and most scareactors simply standing around looking board, this was perhaps the most disappointing circus on Earth.

Meat Market

Watch a band of sinister and cannibalistic creatures feast on the weak. With chainsaws and sheer disregard, they might just smell your fear and add you to their monstrous menu.

The hillbilly butcher-type scareactors throughout Meat Market were great, and highly interactive. There’s also some nice little vignette set pieces in this area leading to Gwazi Park. The problem is the “Scare Zone” feels more like a decorated games and food area than an actual dedicated Scare Zone. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but I wish the space was used solely to focus on story and atmosphere rather than to try to make a few quick bucks from us on our way to the next Haunt.

 

Wasteland

Dare to enter through the perils of the post-apocalyptic Wasteland where scenes of past and present atrocities still linger in an abandoned strip of roadway. Rush through the rusting and rotting piles of debris because those who remain will do the unimaginable to survive and make escape nearly impossible for newcomers.  

A tight passage from the Congo section of the park sets the scene for a truly effective scare zone. Great scenic and highly energetic actors are proof that the old school style of scare zone isn’t dead in a big theme park. Wasteland is an end of the world that I welcome with open arms!

 

Playground

A paranormal Playground lurks in the shadows of Howl-O-Scream 2017. Squeaking swings and rusty merry-go-rounds are now inhabited by hordes of deadly toys and lost children eager to stalk unsuspecting guests.

There’s just nothing creepier than ghost children – and Playground, as such, instantly becomes one of the most effective and impactful Scare Zones of the event. See-saws and swings move on their own, while lonely lost spirits gone way past their time play hopscotch and giggle from the bushes. This is the kind of Scare Zone that can give you nightmares, in all the right ways.

 

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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.

 

 

Though unquestionably done one a bit more modest budget than Central Florida’s other Halloween heavy hitter, there’s just something about Howl-O-Scream that often feels more gritty and satisfying – and sometimes, dare I say it, a bit more scary. The park’s naturally dark setting shrouded in ominous trees only serves to add to the mood, creating something that on Howl-O-Scream nights feels much more like a different place than simply “Busch Gardens in the dark.”

In stark contrast to Howl-O-Scream’s competitor just down I-4, 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.” This year saw what seems to be the start of integrating more triggered dialogue, so with hope over time, the quality of interactions will only continue to increase.

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 in some cases even surpasses them in terms of quality of guest experience. There’s something “home-grown” feeling about Howl-O-Scream — and I mean that in the best possible way. It feels like a “neighborhood tradition,” and it’s always a fun, memorable, enjoyable evening that is a highly of every Halloween season.

Venue: Busch Gardens Tampa

Location: Tampa, FL

Dates: Select Nights September 22nd – October 29th

Hours: 7:30PM – 1AM

Cost: $104.99 at the gate, or save as much as $60 per person if purchased in advance online.

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