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Busch Gardens Williamsburg opens its 16th edition of Howl-O-Scream

By Russell Meyer
Published: September 16, 2014 at 11:07 AM
When you are a seasonal theme park with one of the more popular Halloween events, there’s little need to change to ensure success every year. Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s annual fall event returns for its 16th season with a few tweaks here and there, and the reimagining of a fan-favorite that was sorely missed in 2013. As a Theme Park Insider contributor and Busch Gardens Williamsburg Ambassador Blogger, I was invited to an exclusive blogger preview of the event. While I was provided complimentary access to the park during the event, my comments and opinions presented here are my own.


Halloween events at theme parks have become big business in recent years, so much so that Walt Disney World held their its Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party this year on Labor Day (September 1). While Busch Gardens Williamsburg doesn’t necessarily hold the largest event, with six haunted mazes, three shows, and five scare zones, it works hard to make just about everything a must-see for guests. The park also features a number of add-ons to enhance the guest experience, with two dinner shows, multiple bars with unique cocktails, and behind-the-scenes tours that give guests a ghoulish makeover along with VIP access to all of the haunted houses and shows.

In 2014, Busch Gardens returns the same six mazes it featured in 2013. 13: Your Number’s Up explores thirteen of the most terrifying phobias back to back through the queue and backstage areas of Europe in the Air. The design of the maze is a bit hamstrung by the corridors and rooms within the simulator attraction, which create a number of log jams, causing guests to bunch and ruin the pace of the maze. I still feel that this maze has one of the best practical effects in a haunted house, but ultimately, the pace of the maze and the park’s inability to create blind corners and switchbacks within the already existing ride keeps this maze from being excellent.

Catacombs, in France within the bowels of the Royal Palace Theater, is a well-constructed maze with sharp turns and shadowy corners where scare actors lurk. The maze also features ceiling portholes where actors can reach down on guests from above. The theme of the maze around the subterranean caverns of Paris works perfectly in the section of the park where it’s located.

Root of All Evil is themed around a haunted greenhouse located in the backstage area behind Curse of DarKastle. This maze features a number of good effects, including a strobe room that makes this maze off limits to guests sensitive to intense flashing lights. This maze could probably be improved with better transitional areas between the greenhouses where guests can see other guests ahead of them, potentially ruining some of the upcoming scares.

Bitten again returns in the former Drachen Fire station behind the Festhaus. The vampire-themed maze has some well-designed corridors and set-pieces that offer great opportunities for maze actors to startle guests. Bitten also features one of the most simplistic effects that some guests might not even realize until it’s too late. A thin layer of fine sand on the floor in the final rooms of the maze provides just enough of a psychological effect on guests to make them feel that they will not be able to escape before being devoured by the bloodthirsty inhabitants of the maze.

Cut Throat Cove returns for its second year in the backstage area behind Roman Rapids, and on opening night was home to one of the most enthusiastic scare actors I encountered in the park. The maze takes guests through a number of tents and outside areas where pirate ghosts roam. As with the other mazes that feature outdoor areas, such as Root of All Evil and Bitten, guests are advised to wait until later in the evening when darkness falls on the park to experience Cut Throat Cove.

The final maze in the 2014 lineup is Deadline, which is inside the Escape from Pompeii show building. The maze is themed to an Italian subway taken over by zombies, and features one of the grossest scenes I’ve ever seen in a haunted attraction. The strength of this maze are the sets with one room that is a near perfect replication of a subway train.

Metro map

For those who don’t like being confined inside walled mazes, scares also can be found in the five scare zones (Terror-tories, as the park calls them). Demon Street in France features red-faced characters chasing passers-by with chain saws throughout the area. Guests also can rock out to a winged demon leading a head-banging rave above a flaming skull.

Demon Street

Speaking of skulls, Ports of Skull in Italy is where pirates have landed to scare some treasure out of unsuspecting guests or just coax them to walk the plank.


Ripper Row, located near the park entrance, features Bobbies, inspectors, and other Victorian-era characters in search of the infamous Jack the Ripper.

Ripper Row

Vampire Point in the Germany section of the park is where the undead roam in search of blood. The newest Terror-tory, Wendigo Woods in the New France section of the park, is an Army experiment gone wrong. Being new, the actors in this section were still feeling out how to best work this area, and the centerpiece animatronic was not helping with guests circled around waiting for a startling movement that seemingly never came. While I was disappointed in this new section of Howl-O-Scream, I would expect that opening night kinks and unfamiliarity will be worked out by the peak weekends of the event in mid-October.

Wendigo Woods

The park also features three shows, Fiends in Ireland’s Abbey Stone Theater, Night Beats in the Festhaus, and Monster Stomp on Ripper Row in the Globe Theater. The first two are virtually unchanged from last year’s versions, but the latter brings the returning favorite to a whole new level. Taking advantage of the digital projection technology and upgrades made to the Globe for London Rocks, Monster Stomp on Ripper Row is a can’t-miss show that has singing, dancing, banging, stomping, spinning, drumming, throat-slashing, and is simply amazing. Even with a few awkward musical transitions in the first public performance of the show, the experience was top-notch, and fans of a show that was absent from last year’s Howl-O-Scream lineup couldn’t ask for more.


Howl-O-Scream also features two different dinner-show experiences that give guests entertainment and an all-you-can-eat buffet for $22. Igor’s Fright Feast in Ireland’s Castle O’Sullivan is a spin-off of the popular Fiends show, where Igor gets to take the lead with his naughty nurses and a strangely costumed swamp monster. The buffet is complete with salad, chicken wings, pasta bar, chili, smoked turkey, mashed potatoes with assorted toppings, and delicious desserts.

Igor's Fright Fest

The other dinner show option is Blood Banquet, located in the clock square of Germany near Land of the Dragons. Blood Banquet is returning this season with an increased stage created around the square’s fountain, but still follows a family of vampires running a hotel. I did not have an opportunity to experience the Blood Banquet this year, but last year’s dinner show featured a much more impressive menu than what I experienced at Igor’s Fright Feast. Both dinner shows are the same price, but based on the menus, I would recommend Blood Banquet over Igor’s Fright Feast, unless there is inclement weather, since the Blood Banquet is outside while Igor’s is inside. However, both experiences offer a good value with an all-you-can-eat buffet combined with live entertainment.

Blood Banquet

After 15 successful years, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has a proven formula for a successful Halloween event. This year’s 16th-annual edition offers much of what past guests have grown to enjoy, along with just enough change to keep the event fresh. The return of Monster Stomp with improved effects provided by the Globe’s off-season technological upgrade and the additions of Wendigo Woods and Igor’s Fright Feast give guests something new to see. Also, as with most Halloween events, the quality will steadily increase throughout the season as guests and actors alike get into the spirit, and actors get more familiar with each other, their characters, and surroundings. Even if there was nothing new, and many will criticize the park for minimal additions this year, Howl-O-Scream would still be a must-visit for any Halloween fan.

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Some 'hot' news updates from Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: September 15, 2014 at 10:07 PM
Greetings from crispy California, where the temperature hit 100 degrees at Disneyland today, and is expected to hit 100 there again tomorrow. Of course, Anaheim's relatively near the coast, so it got off easy. Temperatures approached 110 degrees in other parts of the metropolitan area today.

Jose in the Tiki room
The best place to be when the temperature hits triple-digits at Disneyland.

This provides an opportunity to remind people that the number-one safety danger in theme parks actually is the weather. Heat and sun send more people to the first-aid center at theme parks than any other source of illness or injury. So please take a moment to read our theme park safety tips when you're sitting in the shade or air conditioning and helping yourself to a drink of water tomorrow. If you're out in the parks, stay out of the heat as much as you can. When it's 100 at Disneyland, if you don't have the words to the Tiki room show memorized by the end of your visit, you're not doing it right. (Remember, they'll let you take your Dole Whip floats into the theater!)

In other news from the Disneyland Resort:

Disneyland's now using the return-time ticket system for its Anna and Elsa meet-and-greet that the Magic Kingdom was testing earlier this year. That means no stand-by wait for the Frozen stars — instead, you'll pick up a return-time card and come back then for your photo-and-autograph op.

The 4D "Magic Eye Theater" in Tomorrowland appears to be turning into Disney's sneak-peek theater, as the park has announced plans to show previews of Big Hero 6 in the theater, starting September 26. Over the summer, the theater was showing previews for Guardians of the Galaxy. Hey, anything to keep Captain EO from returning.

Roast pork loin at Flo's
No more of this in Cars Land

Last week, we wrote about/mourned the loss of the flatbread pizzas at the Boardwalk in Disney California Adventure. This week, the menu changes continue — this time at Flo's V8 Cafe in Cars Land. Off the menu are the sliced roast beef, pork, and turkey breast platters, replaced by a rotisserie chicken, turkey dip sandwich, roast beef & cheddar sandwich, and barbecue ribs. I guess Disney figures it will sell more if they put more stuff on buns? Anyway, the citrus turkey salad and veggie tater bake survive.

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Monday Top 10: Disney's Best Roller Coasters

By Robert Niles
Published: September 15, 2014 at 11:32 AM
Roller coasters probably aren't the first things that come to mind when you think about the Disney theme parks. But Disney really helped start the modern era of coasters, as its Matterhorn Bobsleds (built by the late Arrow Corporation) was the first multi-train, tubular steel roller coaster in the world. Disney's led the way since then in blending theme with thrills with several wildly popular coaster rides. In fact, it's likely that more people have ridden Disney's roller coasters than coasters at any other theme park chain, due to Disney's huge lead in theme park market share.

Here are the top 10 roller coasters at Disney theme parks, as rated by Theme Park Insider readers. To maximize variety, for coasters that Disney's copied at multiple parks, we've listed the top-rated version.

10. Matterhorn Bobsleds

Disney's first roller coaster hangs on in the number 10 spot, though it'd probably have rated higher if not for the new trains installed during the 2012 refurbishment. Many fans have complained about the smaller seats, as well as the new 42-inch minimum height requirement that keeps the Matterhorn from being the "first coaster" that it was for generations of future coaster enthusiasts.

9. Raging Spirits
Tokyo DisneySea

Raging Spirits

Themed to a South American archeological dig, the Intamin looping coaster packs a punch in its relatively small footprint. You'll also find this coaster at Disneyland Paris as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril.

8. Space Mountain: Mission 2
Disneyland Paris

Space Mountain: Mission 2

Okay, we've got two "Space Mountains" on this list. But Paris' Jules Verne-themed version is so unlike the other Space Mountains around the world that it deserves a separate entry. This Vekoma launch coaster offers sidewinder, corkscrew, and tongue inversions, a top speed of 44 miles per hour, and headaches galore for people expecting the tamer, traditional Space Mountain ride. But for riders who know what they're getting into, SMM2 offers the most extreme thrills legally available at a Disney theme park.

7. Crush's Coaster
Walt Disney Studios Paris

Crush's Coaster

Star with a Maurer Söhne spinning coaster and surrounding it with a Finding Nemo-themed dark ride and you'll have what was (until Remy arrived) the most popular ride at the Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris Resort. With no Fastpass, though, the hours-long waits depress many readers' enthusiasm for the ride.

6. California Screamin'
Disney California Adventure

California Screamin'

A modern steel coaster decorated to look like an old-fashioned beach-side woodie, this Intamin looping coaster couldn't be more different than Raging Spirits in look and feel. Enhanced with on-ride audio and a high-speed launch, Screamin' is a great ride for young fans looking to make the first step up to "big kid" coasters.

5. Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
Disney's Hollywood Studios

Rock 'n' Roller Coaster

The ultimate in blending high-speed thrills with a high-volume soundtrack, this Vekoma launch coaster is Disney's most popular "upside down" coaster, and the wildest ride to a concert you'll ever (again, legally) experience.

4. Expedition Everest
Disney's Animal Kingdom

Pour one out for the still-broken "Disco Yeti," but then just allow yourself to enjoy the highest-rated roller coaster at Walt Disney World. Wonderfully decorated, with a blend of speed, thrills, and excitement that appeals across generations, Everest truly is a "can't miss" experience for first-time visitors to the Walt Disney World Resort.

3. Space Mountain

Space Mountain

Among the traditional Space Mountains, Disneyland's version gets the nod from readers for its on-board soundtrack and smooth-riding track, thanks to a 2005 rebuild. And if you visit in the fall, you can experience the "Ghost Galaxy" overlay, when Disney changes up the music and the visual effects for Halloween.

2. Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars
Hong Kong Disneyland

Perhaps overshadowed by the wildly popular Mystic Manor, Big Grizzly Mountain also helped transform Hong Kong Disneyland from an afterthought to a park that's now high on many Disney's fans "I wish I could visit there" bucket lists.

1. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Disneyland Paris

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

The "wildest ride in the wilderness" is our readers' favorite ride on a coaster in a Disney theme park. Paris' version wins over the other Thunders, thanks to its length and unique tunnels under the Rivers of America at the beginning and end of the ride, keeping it ahead of a late challenge from Anaheim's new "explosive" finish.

What is you favorite thrill ride at a Disney theme park?

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The Week Ahead: Disney and Universal schedules for September 15-21, 2014

By Robert Niles
Published: September 14, 2014 at 5:14 PM
Planning a theme park visit this week? Here are the operating hours for the week ahead at the most popular theme parks in the United States:

Walt Disney World

  • Magic Kingdom: Monday 9am-9pm
    Tuesday 9am-7pm (Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, 7pm-12am)
    Wednesday 9am-9pm
    Thursday 9am-10pm (EM* Thursday, 8am-9am)
    Friday 9am-7pm (Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, 7pm-12am)
    Saturday 9am-11pm (EM* Saturday, 11pm-1am)
    Sunday 9am-7pm (Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, 7pm-12am)
  • Epcot: 9am-9pm all week (EM* Tuesday 8am-9am, Wednesday 9pm-11pm)
  • Disney's Hollywood Studios: Monday-Thursday 9am-7:30pm
    Friday-Sunday 9am-9pm (EM* Saturday 8am-9am, Sunday 9pm-11pm)
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom: Monday 9pm-6pm (*EM Monday 8am-9am)
    Tuesday-Thursday 9am-5pm
    Friday-Saturday 9am-6pm (EM* Friday 8am-9am)
    Sunday 9am-7pm
*EM is "Extra Magic Hours" for Disney's on-site hotel guests.

Halloween Horror Nights
Halloween Horror Nights start this week at Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood

Universal Orlando

  • Universal Studios Florida: Monday 9am-8:30pm
    Tuesday-Thursday 8am-6pm
    Friday-Saturday 8am-5pm (Halloween Horror Nights, 6:30pm-12am)
    Sunday 8am-7pm
  • Islands of Adventure: Monday-Wednesday 9am-7pm
    Thursday 9am-6pm
    Friday-Saturday 9am-8pm
    Sunday 9am-7pm
*Universal's hotel guests get one hour of early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, M-Su.


  • Disneyland: Monday-Wednesday 10am-8pm (EM* Tuesday, 9am-10am)
    Thursday 9am-5pm (EM* Thursday, 8am-9am)
    Friday-Saturday 9am-12am (EM* Saturday 8am-9am)
    Sunday 8am-12am
  • Disney California Adventure: Monday-Wednesday 10am-8pm (EM* Monday, Wednesday 9am-10am)
    Thursday 9am-8pm
    Friday-Saturday 9am-10pm (EM* Friday 8am-9am)
    Sunday 8am-10pm (EM* Sunday 7am-8am)
*EM is "Extra Magic Hour" for Disney's on-site hotel guests, plus selected ticket-holders.
SoCal passports blocked Saturday. SoCal Select passports blocked Saturday and Sunday.
Mark Twain Riverboat, Captain EO, Finding Nemo, and Blue Sky Cellar closed all week. Indiana Jones Adventure closed Tuesday-Thursday. Golden Zephyr closed Wednesday-Thursday.

Universal Studios Hollywood

  • Monday-Thursday 10am-6pm
    Friday 9am-6pm (Halloween Horror Nights, 7pm-2am)
    Saturday 8am-6pm (Halloween Horror Nights, 7pm-2am)
    Sunday 9am-7pm

Closing soon:
Epcot's Maelstrom closes Oct. 5.

Where are you visiting this week?

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Insider's Update: Universal's heading in One Direction

By Robert Niles
Published: September 13, 2014 at 10:14 AM
Theme parks often book pop bands for concerts, especially during otherwise slow periods when parks need to boost attendance. Most times, though, the bands parks welcome hail from the nostalgia circuit and haven't had a hit in decades. But, thanks to an assist from its TV network sibling, Universal Orlando has landed a band from pop's A list. One Direction will perform Monday, November 17 at CityWalk for an appearance on NBC's Today show.

One Direction
Photo courtesy Universal Orlando

Universal hasn't yet revealed details such as the performance time, the specific performance location, or when and where fans need to show up to get the best view of the performance. (One Direction's been playing in Theme Park Insider's hometown of Pasadena, California for the past two nights, so we are well aware of the crowds that the band attracts!) Universal is making the rest of that day a "One Direction" day at Universal Studios Florida, retheming Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit that day with One Direction songs, and showing a special One Direction-themed Universal Cinematic Spectacular that night. The Cabana Bay Beach Resort also will be offering recorded wake-up calls from band members that day.

Following the lead of its sister park in Virginia (not to mention a certain Disney park up the highway), Busch Gardens Tampa will introduce its own Food & Wine Festival next spring. No specific dates yet, just a promise of "a variety of food, wine and entertainment." Our correspondent Russell Meyer reviewed Busch Gardens Williamsburg's second Food & Wine Festival this spring, and the initial event in 2013.

Disney fans continue to fume or rejoice over yesterday's news that Frozen will replace Maelstrom in Epcot's Norway pavilion. The rest of the pavilion will remain open and retain its theme after the ride has its final day October 5. The new Frozen ride and character meet and greet will open in early 2016.

HalloweenTime has started at the Disneyland Resort, with the Haunted Mansion Holiday and Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy overlays opened for their seasonal runs. We've been busy previewing many of the top haunts around the country, with sneak peeks at Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida and at Universal Studios Hollywood, as well as at Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm.

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Vote of the Week: Apple Pay, MagicBands, cards, or cash?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 12, 2014 at 5:19 PM
Before the Maelstrom news blew up the Disney fan community, the biggest news this week involving the Walt Disney theme parks might have been Apple's iPhone 6 announcement. In case you missed it, part of the new iPhones' (and Apple Watch's) functionality will be the ability to "tap and pay" with the devices at many retailers across the country. And one of the first big retailers to accept the "Apple Pay" system will be the Walt Disney theme parks.

Here's a good description of how the Apple Pay system will work, which uses new NFC [near field communication] tags installed in the devices to interface with tag readers at the retailers' check-out locations. The Apple Pay system charges your selected associated credit card for the purchase, but does not share that card information with store employees. All they see is a device account number and a transaction approval code. The iPhone will require a fingerprint scan on your phone screen to confirm the payment, so no one else can use your phone to make charges. And "Find my Phone" can disable the functionality on lost or stolen phones, too.

Disney's already built the infrastructure to support an NFC-driven tap-and-pay system at Walt Disney World, with its MagicBand system. Guests staying at Walt Disney World hotels can use their MagicBands to make purchases throughout the resort, which will be charged to their room account. Starting next month, other visitors will be able to use the tap-and-pay system, provided they have an iPhone 6 or Apple Watch. (WDW day guests and annual passholders with MagicBands cannot use the tap-and-pay system. At least not yet.)

Cellphone vs. MagicBand

Other providers have tried to launch tap-and-pay systems in the past, perhaps starting with Mobil's Speedpass, which worked with its credit cards at its gas stations. Broader alternatives, such as Google Wallet, haven't captured much market share, but Apple's bringing its huge Apple account customer base to the table here, so perhaps the iPhone might be the device that makes tap-and-pay popular in the United States.

The big question is, though... do you care? Does anyone really want to pay for stuff with a cellphone, or are people happy to continue using credit and debit cards and cash?

Increased security provides some appeal for the Apple Pay system, at least until more Americans' credit- and debit-card accounts switch to a European-style chip-and-pin system. And there's the potential convenience and security of simply leaving your cards at home. The convenience of having "one band to do it all" led Disney to create the MagicBand, which combines a theme park ticket, room key, charge card, PhotoPass and Fastpass return tickets in one device.

With Disneyland's new app enabling visitors to use their smartphones as theme park tickets, presumably a Disneyland visitor with that app on an iPhone 6 might get some of that MagicBand functionality on the west coast, where Disney has yet to roll out the bands. At this point, Disney's not supporting the use of smartphones to open hotel rooms, though other hotel operators are testing that functionality. Nor will a smartphone trigger on-ride photos when you ride, as a MagicBand can. But, then again, you can't take your own photos and video with a MagicBand, nor can you use it to call or text family and friends or browse the Internet while you wait in line.

The big problem with single devices that do everything is that they become a single point of failure to ruin your day. Lose your MagicBand and you're going to be losing time from your day trying to get it replaced. Lose your smartphone and you're facing an even worse hassle, particularly if it's unlocked and whoever finds it gains access to all your personal information stored or linked on the phone. (Not to mention the cost of replacement.)

Losing a wallet is a huge hassle, too, but you don't have to worry so much about dropping a wallet, or getting it wet. It'll be okay when you pick it up, or once it dries. A smartphone? Maybe not so much.

And then there's cash. Accepted at all restaurants, shops and food carts, there's no security issue with cash. No one can track what you spend. No one can steal your identity if he gets your cash. Sure, if you lose it -- it's gone. But there's no huge credit card billing awaiting you at the end of your vacation when you pay in cash. It's an interest-free way to enjoy yourself. (Just don't get pulled over by the police when you're driving with cash on you, though, as they might just decide to keep it!)

So how would you prefer to pay on your next theme park vacation? Would you like to use a MagicBand-style system? Or your own smartphone? Or would you prefer to stick the more traditional methods of payment -- cards or cash?

Let's break down your personal pros and cons for each system, in the comments.


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Disney makes it official: Frozen is taking over Epcot's Norway ride

By Robert Niles
Published: September 12, 2014 at 10:22 AM
Walt Disney World confirmed today what many fans have be hearing (and some have feared), that Epcot's Maelstrom will be replaced by a new Frozen-themed attraction.

Disney Parks President Tom Staggs announced:

"The new attraction, which replaces Maelstrom, will take our guests to Arendelle and immerse them in many of their favorite moments and music from the film. The pavilion will also include a royal greeting location where Anna and Elsa can meet our guests. We think these “Frozen” elements are great compliments to the Norway Pavilion, which showcases the country and region that inspired the film."

No word on timing for when the new attraction will be open, or even when construction will begin. Maelstrom opened in July 1988, a month after the Norway pavilion's official debut. The Norway pavilion was the last one added to Epcot's World Showcase, and Maelstrom offered a relatively simply shoot-the-chutes boat ride, distinguished with a backwards section and, of course, Disney dark ride storytelling. Featuring the Norse god Odin and some mischievous trolls, the ride finished with a six-minute travelogue -- the sort of movie that visitors usually find as a preshow.


Up until Disney implemented its Fastpass+ system and categorized rides in a way that encouraged people to book Maelstrom reservations, the attraction rarely drew much of a line.

The arrival of Anna and Elsa will mark the second time that Disney IP [intellectual property] have taken over a World Showcase attraction, following The Three Caballeros' introduction on the boat ride in the Mexico pavilion. But that attraction kept the setting in the nation of Mexico. The Frozen ride in Norway will be set in the fictional land of Arendelle, not Norway, which would be a first for a World Showcase attraction.

The big question, at this point: How much of a change will this be? Is Disney simply changing the animatronics and scenery around the same boat ride, or will it gut the building and craft an entirely new ride system and experience?

Update: Readers came through with the dates. Maelstrom will close October 5 and the Frozen ride is slated for early 2016.

Given the pace at which Disney's been developing attractions at Walt Disney World, an early 2016 opening suggests that there won't be a major structural overhaul on the Maelstrom building, and that even the ride system might be retained.


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