Escape Authority

In-Depth Escape Room Reviews

Review: Howl-O-Scream – Tampa 2018

A sinister jungle offers no safe space to hide from hundreds of monsters lurking at every corner!

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Howl-O-Scream, located at Busch Gardens Tampa, is a separately ticketed event that runs nineteen select nights between September 21, 2018 and October 28, 2018, every Friday and Saturday, every Sunday in October 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 18th year, Howl-O-Scream features six different haunted houses (which is actually one less than last year.) Two of these haunts are brand new for 2018 while the other four are back again from previous years. The event also features six scare zones, a live show as well as all of your favorite Busch Gardens Tampa thrill rides, including Montu, Kumba and SheiKra.

Haunts which return unchanged from the previous year will be duplicated from our 2017 review.

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Insomnia

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Every door in this haunted asylum leads to your worst nightmare and the doctor is accepting new patients.

Have your fears turn into fate as this reality comes to life. Patients will be forced to stay awake and receive a new terrifying form of treatment.

On paper, the story of Insomnia gives the impression that it may carry a “generic asylum haunt” flavor. Luckily there’s no paper inside this facility (to a void paper cuts, for safety reasons, no doubt.) Insomnia is something truly different for Howl-O-Scream, and it works really well.

Insomnia may be the closest Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has come to having its own “comedy haunt.” Although not entirely crossing that threshold, this maze is delightfully light-hearted, while still packing in the scares. If you pay attention to the actors throughout, there are several clearly intentional moments of comic relief that made our group chuckle much more than once.

While at its core, Insomnia’s scenic actually is “generic asylum haunt” flavor, it’s what occurs in each scene that gives them distinct and memorable character. Plain hospital-like hallways separate patient rooms, however each room is dedicated to a specific phobia that patient may suffer from. And naturally, rather than help the patient deal with that phobia, it is instead harshly forced upon them. As we mention above, some of the results are truly funny.

But maybe we’re just twisted.

Common phobias like the fear of spiders or drowning lead way to some more… specific fears – like that of nuclear war or falling asleep at the wheel. Each provide a distinct environment for that terror to play out on the patients, all while we watch, doing nothing to help them. Yup. We’re just twisted.

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While Insomnia does have it’s share of “mental patient yelling at you” type scares, much of what plays out before the guests relies on the natural human discomfort that comes from seeing other people suffering right in front of you. Many times, it’s much more about what’s happening to the patients than to us, and while this may make for a more passive experience anywhere else, within the walls of Insomnia, it actually works really well.

Leg ticklers (straight from a 4D theater) enhance the spider attack. A monster literally pulls a terrified patient into the bed, while another reaches out from under it to grab your own feet. And perhaps most compelling of all is a padded cell that may drive you insane enough to think it’s moving all around you.

And a word of advice — be careful when counting sheep; one of them may try to eat you.

 

 

 

Simon’s Slaughterhouse

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By merely walking into the house, you have agreed to play Simon’s sick and twisted games.

Simon’s Slaughterhouse takes screams to the extreme. Enter this horrifying realm at your own risk.

Simon’s Slaughterhouse takes an enjoyably warped “hillbilly” approach to the extreme, servicing everything from livestock to… live people in this make-shift meat processing plant. The story here is a bit light – demented backwoods bumpkins (who may or may not also be cannibals) want to kill you. It’s pretty cut and dry (Get it? Do you get it?) but that doesn’t necessarily make it work any less.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay clearly markets Simon’s Slaughterhouse as recommended for guests aged 17+. After experiencing it first hand, we wonder if this may be just a bit of a marketing ploy to create an infamous aura around the new haunt. We didn’t find anything inside particularly more gorey or violent than anything they’d done previously.

Simon’s Slaughterhouse is a healthy (?) mix of barn, hillbilly shack, meat processing plant and a little bit of cannibal. In short, it’s what you might expect to find.

Plenty of blood and severed limbs are scattered about staining the old wood and faux brick finishes. It should be noted that if you are the over-reacting PETA type, there are several cut open pig carcasses hanging throughout – but come on, it’s a slaughterhouse, and it’s Halloween. So you need to get over that hang up.

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Beginning with scareactors stalking the queue as a sort of pre-show entertainment, the cast of Simon’s Slaughterhouse are definitely engaged and clearly excited to be cast in the roles which they received. Many of them bring the hillbilly flavor to life, using thick back-woods accents while they threaten your very existence.

Simon’s Slaughterhouse begins with guests entering one of three doors to be processed into the facility – Pigs, Cattle or Poultry. Groups will be separated. Every group. Every time. But if it helps your bravery, know that the separation itself is extremely short – basically just the doorways themselves before groups are almost instantly reunited for the duration of the haunt.

 

 


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.

Your path through Motel Shellburn will take you both inside and out, including a visit to a recreation area complete with a jacuzzi and games court. New this year, the motel’s parking lot full of cars offers a unique finale. 

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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.

 

 

 

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.

New this year, select guests (not everyone) are issued dimly lit flashlights in an effort to draw them more into the storyworld. Unfortunately, these are not of the programmable Gantom Torch variety, and at the end of the day add no true substance to the overall experience within Unearthed.

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This is the goriest house on offer at Howl-O-Scream. 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 Zones are a mix of six officially dressed areas, as well as some unadvertised free-roaming hoards to keep you on your toes. There is no safe space throughout the entire, massive theme park. Expect to run into monsters anywhere and everywhere, even if the area you are in is not explicitly listed as a scare zone on the park map. 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. New this year, even the roller coasters themselves aren’t off limits – as you may find yourself strapped in next to a menacing scareactor for the duration of the ride!

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. Tying this area into the new Simon’s Slaughterhouse haunt makes it feel far more “complete” than in its debut last year, offering a flowing experience from (before) start to finish.

 

Maniac Midway

Join Sparky and his carnie crew as they force you to be part of the “scariest show on earth.” Clowns have overtaken the midway and will scour Pantopia looking for the newest stars of this horrid attraction.

A massive scarezone full of demented clowns takes over the Pantopia section of the park. Though light on scenic (aside from a few broken down magic tricks left over from the circus they attacked) this section has a lot of scareactors. Like, a lot.  They’ve everywhere – and they spill out much further than the marked scare zone itself as seen on the map. Cleverly, far beyond the gates to Pantopia, past the elephant habitat and by the entrance of what was once the Rhino Rally attraction, a crashed clown car sets the tone for an unmarked scare zone full of even more clowns. It’s a fun storyworld attention to detail implying that perhaps this is how they all got to Pantopia, and the reason they’ve taken it over is because their broken down car won’t allow them to leave.

CAMP DOA

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 very thematically appropriate new scarezone – a campsite in a state park. A mix of rangers and monsters (and rangers turned to monsters?) this area has a very unique feel and offers an enjoyable backdrop for the long walk from SheiKra to Kumba. Cabins, tents, teepees and even a ranger’s station set the tone and bring the world to (after)life around us.

Deadly Toys

Childhood memories will be crushed as the horror comes to life in Howl-O-Scream 2018. Lock up your toy box because life-size toys are heading out on a murderous rampage and no one is safe from their deadly wrath.

A scare zone that could have / should have had a whole lot of promise – a world where evil toys come to life and stalk the kids who once played with them falls flat. It is our hope that perhaps at the time of our visit they were short-staffed, or something prevented it from being finished on time, because if what we saw was the final product, this long walkway adjacting to the Sesame Street Safari of Fun kid’s land featured a guy with a teddy bear mask, a guy with a panda mask, a crashed toy train (that was completely unlit, making it almost impossible to even see) and, well, not much else. 

Hell on Wheels

Attempting to approach this apocalyptic arena? Think again, as a motorcycle gang protects the food and supplies that guarantee survival. With this gang in charge, the path to survival is looking grim.

One of the first Scare Zones guests will encounter, Hell on Wheels occupies the area up to and around the former Gwazi wooden roller coaster. A sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland overrun by a menacing Mad Max-inspired biker gang. this area is full of crashed vehicles, chain link fence obstacles blocking your path and a lot of fog accented by swirling lighting.

 

 

DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS

 

Spirits and souls have been asked to return for a one-of-a-kind celebration. This spooky festival includes a parade to honor those who have gone before us.

A Scare Zone that’s much more about atmosphere than actual scares, Día de los Muertos is, appropriately to the Hispanic culture, much more a party-type atmosphere, full of Sugar Skull-faced mariachis and their swirling dance partners, as well as a few really tall, really compelling skeleton puppets. We found this section of the park much more willing to pose for photos with guests (though this makes a lot of sense, as they’re not exactly “evil” spirits in this world.) Día de los Muertos is different from what you’d typically find at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Howl-O-Scream, and for that respite from the constant onslaught of monster attackers, it actually works really well.

FIENDS

bgt-hos-fiends1Is 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 opted to skip this show in favor of more haunt time. Although a long running feature of Howl-O-Scream, it’s not our preferred style of entertainment.

 

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 experienced enough or directed well enough for these moments to truly work. Dialogue is often a mixture of all the cliché haunted house expressions. “Get out,” “Get over here,” “I’m going to get you.” Over the past few years, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has thankfully been integrating more triggered, pre-recorded audio for the actors to utilize, so in due time, this issue will most certainly solve itself.

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. Interestingly, though, the event’s two brand new haunts for 2017 – Demented Dimensions and Undead Arena: Live did not return this year. In the case of the former, a version of it debuted at Howl-O-Scream’s sister event at Busch Gardens Williasmburg for 2018. As for the latter, well, its quick discontinuation may actually be positive news.

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.

You can find an extended photo gallery from our night at Tampa’s 2018 How-O-Scream in this exclusive album on the Escape Authority Facebook page! While there, why not give us a “LIKE” if you haven’t already? We’ll give you candy!

Venue: Busch Gardens Tampa

Location: Tampa, FL

Dates: Select Nights September 21nd – October 28th

Hours: 7:30PM – 1AM

Cost: $39.99 – 44.99 depending on the date chosen if purchased in advance online. Prices are significantly higher if purchased on event night.

 

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