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In-Depth Escape Room Reviews

Review: Howl-O-Scream – Williamsburg 2017

After dark, the world’s most beautiful theme park unleashes its
sinister side.

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Howl-O-Scream, located at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, is a special event included with regular park admission that runs nineteen select nights between September 23, 2017 and October 29, 2017, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday as well as the last two 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 – one of which is brand new for 2017, while the other six are back again from previous years, five scare zones (known here as Terror-tories), four live show as well as all of your favorite Busch Gardens Tampa thrill rides, including Alpengeist, Apollo’s Chariot, Verbolten and the park’s newest coaster, InvadR – all in pitch black darkness. Unique to the Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream are two separate ticket full-fledged Escape Games – Case of Mr. Carver and Case of the Haunted Hotel (which will be reviewed separately from the event.)

 

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Frostbite

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The fire-breathing giant that once guarded the enchanted dark castle has met his chilling demise. He once stalked the premises, providing the warm lifeblood for the stronghold, but now his bones are mere decoration in a macabre icy grave. Frostbite now consumes all those trapped within. Those who dare to walk through this fortress are exposed to a harrowing array of chilling elements, from a fog-shrouded graveyard to a creepy cavern filled with frigid creatures. The cold is not the only bone-chilling resident of the castle, however. For the ice has teeth … And this frost … Bites.

The story for Frostbite is brought to life the moment the titular character, in a crude, obvious latex mask appears in a preshow video to set the scene for how he’s apparently defeated the fire breathing giant. Frostbite is clearly played by which ever ride operator’s break happened to correspond with the ten minute window that the film crew was on site.

Once inside the haunt- like the pitfall of much of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s event, the story is entirely abandoned. Frostbite quickly becomes not about an immersive storyworld, but rather some rare photo opportunities in the track area of a major dark ride attraction. It’s cool for all the wrong reasons.

Frostbite is this year’s biggest hook for Howl-O-Scream – and unquestionably one of the main sells that got me to Virginia in the first place. But it’s not the haunt itself that makes it unique; it’s the location. Frostbite exists inside – and literally on the track area of the park’s 4-D dark ride, The Curse of DarKastle. (Needless to say, as such it should be noted that The Curse of DarKastle itself no longer operates during the fall season.) Unfortunately one quickly realizes that we’re only to get tastes of the ride’s existing sets- as much of Frostbite seems to be back of house hallways glowing blue.

Interestingly, the massive projection screens from the ride are in use during the haunt, featuring custom footage. Unfortunately, the footage isn’t interesting and adds very little to the experience but a ton of light leak.

In terms of phsical set pieces, while the locales inherited from The Curse of DarKastle are of course compelling, the new bits added specifically for Frostbite were budget at best and embarrassing at worst. It seems clear that the design team opted to really do nothing more than ride the coat tails of The Curse of DarKastle rather than put any real effort into producing any quality enhancements.

So- does it scenically work? In a word, no. Not at all. But I’d be lying if I said the theme park geek in me didn’t enjoy walking the track area of a major attraction. Sadly that still doesn’t make it a compelling haunt at all.

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Much of Frostbite relies on its location- with very little benefit or impact from the (few) scareactors we encountered within. Most frustrating, those scareactors seemed to be nothing more than generic latex masked monsters rather than creatures from Frostbite’s established storyworld.

I feared this Haunt would just not work. Sometimes it sucks to be right.

 

 

 

Circo Sinestro

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No one knows when or where the tents will rise, but all who see them are drawn to find out what lies inside Circo Sinistro at Busch Gardens. The haunted house is not of this world and not of this time – but beware, what you see, you soon will be. 

It doesn’t take much to get me excited to find a haunted circus. CIsco Sinestro, situated deep off the beaten trail of the park’s Festa Italia area very much has an aura of foreboding about it.

There’s a clear sense of “We probably shouldn’t be here,” yet we proceed under the tent just the same.

Circo Sinestro started – or at least, attempted to – with a preshow moment, where large groups of guests are gathered in the first big top tent. What follows, unfortunately, is basically nothing more than a theme park employee trying to “act.” It felt unpolished, in a bad way. Almost as though someone was pulled from their break to cover a spot without any time to prepare. In the end, this preshow added nothing to the overall experience through the haunt – and if anything, it hindered it by creating a much more slowly moving queue to get inside.

Circo Sinestro exists, quite appropriately, within a series of tents set up in a wooded clearing outdoors. As such, keep in mind that should you enter this particular haunt before sundown, your experience may be impacted by light leaks.

Moments within this haunt were actually disorienting. In fact there were one or two where even I inadvertently took a wrong turn and needed a bit of direction to get me back on the intended path. While this may not be the best design choice big picture, I felt it actually added to the allure Circo Sinestro was aiming to achieve.ear-haunt-scares-1031

The scareactors clearly ran away to the circus – and more importantly away from the traditional flavor of the rest of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Howl-O-Scream event. We found them to be a bit more interactive and fun – almost like what we’ve come to expect from their Florida sister park, but sadly rarely found here in Virginia.

Appropriately, while there were your fair share of “boo-scares,” the cast of Circo Sinestro put more effort into acting odd and goofy, which helped bring the storyworld to life.

 

 

 

Cornered

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It’s 1977 and a picturesque farming community is in an uproar over the ongoing disappearances of its residents. Each time someone goes missing, an intricate corn husk doll is left behind leading many to suspect local corn-farmer Jasper McCobb. The McCobb farm has fallen into disrepair since the death of Jasper’s mother. Could the missing townspeople be somewhere in the maze of maize? Join the search party and find out.

Cornered is another example of Howl-O-Scream putting little effort into their story and relying more on the physical location to carry the Haunt. In this case, it somewhat works for them.

Once inside, there’s just nothing that connects to the McCobb farm, (other than simply seeing a barn and silo) or any mention of the missing townsfolk at all. Essentially, the story becomes “walk through a corn maze.”

That corn maze is, in itself what makes Cornered somewhat work. It evokes a classic Halloween flavor that almost excuses the lack of evident story or scares.

I’m still not sure that I understand the extended scene in the middle of the haunt that was literally nothing more than stacked pallets. Because Halloween, I guess?

The corn stocks themselves start smaller and seem to overtake you the further you get into this Haunt. At one point they’re probably nine feet tall, on both sides of you. Without question, what works the most of all is the finale section, where the corn bends over you creating tight passages – literally made of real corn – that you need to duck under and squeeze through if you hope to escape.

This haunt exists entirely outdoors – so keep that in mind when deciding what time you visit during your time at the event.

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The corn is the story, the setting, and sadly also the scares. The scareactors in Cornered don’t do much, and don’t honesty seem very motivated. Many simply stood around.

I suppose we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that’s what scarecrows do.

Cornered was a decent offering on the Howl-O-Scream slate, but that’s just no thanks at all to its (lack of) scares.

 

 

 

Lumberhack

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Hikers beware: the woods hold a terrifying secret.  More than 50 years ago a logging camp was abandoned after a horrific accident where saws ripped into human flesh instead of tree bark. Tragically, the loggers perished … only to inexplicably awaken from death sometime later filled with inhuman rage. The undead loggers rampaged until every living thing in the camp had felt the bite of their axes. Now the forgotten lumberjacks lie waiting for unsuspecting campers to stumble into their den of the damned.

With a loose story to begin with, it’s a bit easier to accept this narrative. Clearly we have indeed stumbled into a lumberjack camp in the middle of the woods, and the mood of the scene makes it easy to become immersed in this one.

Sometimes, and in the case of Lumberhack, I suppose that’s good enough.

Minimal set pieces and decor takes a backseat to the real star of Lumberhack: the actual woods behind Busch Gardens Williamsburg. And after dark, they’re creepy as hell!

As with Cornered, this haunt exists entirely outdoors – so keep that in mind when deciding what time you visit during your time at the event. Intentionally, I passed through twice — one by day and another by night. The experience simply cannot compare. As with any outdoor haunt, Lumberhack is clearly designed to be experienced at night – and as such you definitely should.

Although little was done to make this haunt compelling, Mother Nature has worked her magic over decades of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s existence making the setting for Lumberhack truly unique – not only to Howl-O-Scream, but to many big budget theme park haunts across the country.ear-haunt-scares-1031

In a sense, Lumberhack’s location is its greatest scare. I don’t think I need to tell you how effective a walk through a dark forest can be. Mix in fog and some theatrical lighting and you already have a winner for scares, even before the scareactors step foot inside.

And if that doesn’t get you, the battering ram or chainsaws might.

 

 

 

Catacombs

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Through a ruined cemetery filled with statues lies a tunnel that leads to an underground city. Its history is more terrifying than that of France’s worst revolutions. Deep within these tunnels lie mile after mile of bones—the final resting place for those who are buried here. But all is not as quiet as it appears. As guests venture forth into the dank, dripping corridors of rat-infested remains, the voices of the dead begin to speak, and some have taken shape.

From the start, it’s fairly clear before even entering that there is essentially no story here beyond “go under Aquitaine.” And once you’re inside, Catacombs barely even maintains that non-story.

Catacombs was here on my first visit to the Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream in 2014, and sadly three years later it’s just as bad as I remember it being.

Fans of generic vacuform panels, cheese cloth and burlap are in for a treat. Unfortunately as such, fans of high-quality production value are not.

Catacombs starts in what feels like a castle dungeon, transitions to what feels like a cave and ends up as what feels like a brick sewer.

Fun, right?

Everything in this Haunt feels store bought. If it wasn’t available at the local Halloween store, it wasn’t used in Catacombs.

At the end of the day, Catacombs feels much more like someone’s home haunt than a professional attraction in a big budget theme park.

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No.

I wish I were kidding. Most of this maze was nothing more than scareactors quite literally standing around.

I’m not sure who was more bored- the monsters, or me.

 

 

 

UNEARTHED: Scarlett’s Revenge

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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.

The first time seeing a duplicate maze at both the Tampa and Williamsburg events shows just how much different the quality standards are between the two. Unearthed: Scarlett’s Revenge was originally the feature house of the 2015 event year at both parks, intended to tell the story of then-event icon, Scarlett.

In Tampa.

The Williamsburg version, beyond simply having Scarlett scareactors, essentially tells no story. And as such, this Haunt feels like the bad cover band take on its Floridian counterpart

Unearthed: Scarlett’s Revenge left us wanting more. Budget. This Haunt feels like the park spent a healthy three figure expense on its creation.

It’s remarkable that the same maze can exist in two parks and have such wildly varied levels of quality between them. Unearthed: Scarlett’s Revenge truly feels like it was constructed with the cheapest materials possible. Forget about the ornate details found in the Tampa version of this underground home. Here, it’s barely generic haunted house.

Perhaps most bizarre is early into this haunt, you seem to exit the “story”world and pass trough a movie theater? With a very short clip playing on a loop? I literally have no clue what they were going for with this at all.

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Do you like to be screamed at? Because that’s pretty much all you’re going to find within. Forget the story of Scarlett and endure a lengthy walk through scareactors literally just screaming in your face.

Sadly there’s no unique effects or gimmicks like one can find in the version at the Tampa park. There’s truly not one noteworthy scare.

Awkwardly, Unearthed: Scarlett’s Revenge ends with passing three oversized tarot cards from the 2015 event year, each with their respective past icon character popping out to… say hello? And mind you that’s three– of the thirteen tarot cards.

 

Deadline

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Deep underground, construction of the newest line of the Pompeii Metro was moving smoothly until an ancient pipe was accidentally struck. First presumed as steam, a strange gas began leaking and everyone trapped inside quickly became infected by it. The difficult decision was made to cut off all communication to the outside world. The Deadline was off the grid..

Deadline, perhaps, goes the furthest of all the current crop of Howl-O-Scream mazes to connect guests to its established storyworld. Mentions of gas, broken pipes and even whistling are all present at some point within the haunt. Those who take the time to read the story prior to entering will feel rewarded by their familiarity, while those who did not will still be treated to an ominous, off-putting scene.

Deadline creates an interesting paradox — on the one hand, it’s the oldest returning haunt still at the event, and probably due for a change. However, on the other, it’s arguably still the best thing on Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s slate

The underground caverns of Deadline exist literally underneath the show building for the parks’ Escape from Pompeii shoot-the-chutes attraction. As such, it should be noted that Escape from Pompeii does not operate during Howl-O-Scream.

It’s location within (sort of) an existing day-time attraction allows for an imposing and impressive entry facade. As well, once within the haunt itself, guests will be treated by some of the event’s most permanent looking set pieces, thanks no doubt to the ability to leave them standing, if I were to guess.

Deadline evokes the mood of being underground – from the subway tunnels to beneath them – from the stations to a hellish, apocalyptic world. Interestingly enough, it’s arguably better at painting the “underground” picture that Unearthed: Scarlett’s Revenge attempts to achieve, even though it would follow it many years later.ear-haunt-scares-1031

Deadline’s higher quality scenic flourishes allow for an equally higher quality of scares. With better secluded hidey-holes for scareactors to lurk from, Deadline stands a much better chance of catching guests off guard.

True to the rest of the event, you simply shouldn’t expect to find much more than jump scares, even within its best haunt.

 

 

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Staying true to their thematic roots, Busch Gardens Williamsburg refers to their Scare Zones as “Terror-tories.”

 

Axe Alley

The Norsemen came to invade, but what they got was their own Viking funeral. For this was no ordinary raiding party, but an unleashing of power so grotesque that even those mighty Viking warriors fell prey to its devices. The remains of this horrible attack are strewn among the desolate ruins of smoldering timbers and axe-slashed oak. There’s more hidden among these terrifying artifacts in Axe Alley ™. The spirits are restless and under the control of this madness. They walk the world of the living once more to unleash terror upon the land.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s newest Scare Zone doesn’t feel much like a “zone” at all. A handful of Vikings wandering around the existing New France section of the park- with little added decor beyond entry gates on either end.

While there’s no question that some scareactors are better than nothing at all, I absolutely expected more for one of Howl-O-Scream’s new for 2017 advertised attractions.

 

DEmon Street

Paris is burning. Can you escape before the city is engulfed in flame? Let the smoldering ruins light your way, but beware, fiery fiends lurk around every corner ready to put you on the coals. The smell of a burning inferno fills the air and rumor has it unsuspecting souls will be roasted on a spit. It’s about to get very hot in Paris, so stay cool or you may find yourself going up in smoke.

Festive seasonal decor strung across the rooftops evokes a “Halloween version of Christmas” flavor that really works well. Unfortunately, that building decor IS the scare zone. Beyond it, expect a small handful of demons running around with chain saws- with no sets to hide in or objects to duck behind. To that level, Demon Street doesn’t exactly work so well as a Scare Zone.

 

 

Ripper Row

Things are looking a bit unsettling in England with a murderer on the loose plucking unsuspecting victims from the city streets to satisfy his grizzly curiosity. No one knows what Jack the Ripper looks like or who he will strike next. Authorities hunt furiously among the crowds in search of the killer nabbing anyone who looks at all suspicious. Keep your head down and your wits about you or you might not make it out alive.

The event’s entry statement sees decor throughout the England village, plus the addition of fog and roaming characters. Don’t expect much in the way of scares, as this area really is more about overall atmosphere.

 

Sideshow Square

Your jaw will drop on your way to the big top. What was once only in your imagination is now a frightening reality full of haunts, curiosities and plenty of scare to make you shriek.

True to the pattern set by other areas of the park, Sideshow Square just isn’t even a Scare Zone. It’s just Festa Italy with a few seemingly lost clowns wandering aimlessly. Their scariest trick? Engaging in personal conversation with each other rather than interacting with park guests.

 

 

 

 

 

Vampire Point

Even vampires need a vacation once in a while and Vampire Point ™ is the perfect destination for bloodsuckers. Watch your step and your neck or you might end up being their beverage of choice. Dawn is hours away, so your last salvation lies in escaping the vampire village before the inhabitants sink their fangs into you.

Vampire point is another example of “non-Scare Zone” – and it’s certainly not a vampire village. This is nothing more than the existing Germany games area with a few high school kids in vampire make-up. What happened to you, Busch Gardens Williamsburg?

 

Howl-O-Scream features a whopping four different live shows, although we elected to not see them. Instead we used our limited time to explore the park’s haunts, escape games and killer coasters after dark. For those interested in a brief respite from the terror, here’s their lineup:

 

FIENDS

The wacky doctor and his manic nurses are creating the ultimate Fiend, and there’s not a bad seat in the lab. The voltage is high, and so is the fun as they sing, dance and bring you along on the operation of a lifetime.

Monster Stomp

Monster Stomp™ returns, this time on Ripper Row®. This modern rock and rhythm spectacular features Jack the Ripper like you’ve never seen him before. The beat is back as electrifying percussion, dynamic dance, and sensational singing return to the stage in a pulse pounding revue that is darkly entertaining.

Night Beats: Revamped

They might be undead, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to live it up. Shine your shoes and sharpen your fangs, you’re cordially invited to the gathering of the century. So, pull up a tombstone as these creatures of the night sing, dance and party. You’ll be smitten…until you’re bitten.

Starfright Orchestra

The Starfright Orchestra™ is back together, and has resurrected its popular music for Howl-O-Scream. The 12-piece swing band, featuring male and female lead singers, returns to Busch Gardens after an eight-year hiatus. The show will feature a familiar song list with popular spooky hits like, “I Put a Spell on You,” and “Monster Mash.”

 

It’s remarkable to think that Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Busch Gardens Tampa are under the same corporate umbrella. The differences in how they operate their respective Howl-O-Scream events are night and day (and who wants to go to a Halloween event during the proverbial daytime?)

Puns aside, that does bring us to an important timing aspect that can greatly impact your experience at Virginia’s Howl-O-Scream. Busch Gardens Williamsburg offers the event included with regular admission. As such, it operates only during normal park hours. The haunts themselves do not open until around 6pm, and on the day of our visit, opening night (which also happened to be a Saturday) the park was only open until 10pm. Think about that for a second — Howl-O-Scream offered barely two hours of darkness for the duration of the entire event night.

Unlike our consistent experiences at Busch Gardens Tampa, the Williamsburg event gets exceptionally crowded before haunts even begin to open in the evening. If you’re strictly visiting for the park’s stellar collection of Roller Coasters, those lines will be short all morning throughout early afternoon. However, if you’re attending for the haunts, expect to need to purchase an up charge Quick Queue if you hope to see it all in one night.

And even if you choose to splurge as we did, you won’t be out of the proverbial woods yet. Quick Queue entry ratios need serious work. While I firmly agree that the regular line needs to move as well, standing for as long as we did- every single time- watching dozens and dozens of people pass us regardless of how much we had to pay for the perk is frankly offensive. Operations – much like the overall design quality for the haunts, really need work.

Although generally speaking, Busch Gardens Williamsburg doesn’t do well with haunts or scare zones, where they excel is an area that many parks barely even attempt: seasonal decor. Literally every inch of the park is decked out for Halloween – with spooky-themed garland strung across nearly every building and special lighting throughout the park. In fact, Busch Gardens Williamsburg may put more into their Halloween decor than most parks do for Christmas.

At the end of the day, if it seems like we’re going a bit hard on Busch Gardens Williamsburg, it’s because we are. But here’s the thing: we are merely holding the park to the standards it set for itself. Busch Gardens Williamsburg is an incredible park – easily among my favorites in the world. Closer to home, it’s no secret that we’re also big fans of the Tampa park’s Howl-O-Scream. There’s simply no excuse for a park as good as this one is, under the exact same corporate umbrella to provide any lesser quality of a product.

Just the same, the atmosphere that fills Busch Gardens Williamsburg this time of year is infectious, and easily makes returning into this shadowy forest a worth-while pilgrimage for those seeking a bit of festive fear.

 

Venue: Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Location: Williamsburg, VA

Dates: Select Nights September 23rd – October 29th

Hours: 6:00PM – 10, 11 or 12AM

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

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