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Event review: Busch Gardens Williamsburg's 2017 Howl-O-Scream

By Russell Meyer
Published: September 26, 2017 at 9:47 AM
Busch Gardens Williamsburg brings back its popular Howl-O-Scream event for 2017 with many familiar shows and attractions, along with a few additions that will keep long-time fans wanting to make another visit this year. Howl-O-Scream is included with a standard daily park admission and season passes, unlike the similar event at Busch Gardens Tampa, which requires a separate event ticket. As a contributor to Theme Park Insider, I was invited to the park’s media event to preview some of the new additions and explore the rest of the park, but the opinions provided are my own.

In 2016, Busch Gardens Williamsburg debuted an “escape room” attraction (No Escape) that I was unable to experience. However, this year’s media event offered me a chance to see the inside of this season’s two escape rooms, one of which is all new for 2017. For those who aren’t familiar with escape rooms, a small group of guests are locked into a themed room with a number of puzzles to solve in order to locate the way out during a limited time frame. No Escape offers two choices of rooms: The Case of Mr. Carver, which is a similar theme to last year with new puzzles, and The Case of the Haunted Hotel, which is themed to a hotel lobby with an actor playing a creepy bellhop. The media preview offered me the opportunity to explore both rooms, but only a few minutes to look around, not the full 30 minutes paying guests get to experience in the room. For my money, the Case of Mr. Karver room looked far more interesting with lots of props and a convincingly psychotic actor inhabiting the space. The Haunted Hotel room was much more sparsely decorated, but appeared to have more complicated puzzles, possibly with alternate solutions.

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No Escape allows for up to 6 guests at a time to experience each room with smaller groups and singles matched up together, and advanced reservations are recommended, especially on busier nights near the end of the event. Visiting a room costs between $30-50 per guest depending upon date and time. I’ve never experienced any escape room attraction before, but the concept is very intriguing to me, and what I was able to see during the media event looked very entertaining. However, while the price point is similar to other stand-alone escape room experiences not associated with theme parks or other haunted attractions, those do require guests to also purchase a theme park ticket or season pass just to have the opportunity to visit the escape room. Nonetheless, the experience was very popular last season, and guests that I observed exiting the room on opening night appeared to have enjoyed the experience.

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The other new attraction for Howl-O-Scream this year is a new maze called Frostbite. This maze uses the queue and ride track of the Curse of DarKastle and incorporates some interesting effects and props. The maze will obviously draw comparisons to a certain highly popular cable television show about incestuous feuding families in a Medieval-like setting, an army of the dead from the North, and a trio of dragons raised by a short blond lady immune to fire who becomes the de facto leader of a primitive race of horsemen. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, Frostbite will appear completely original and unique, but if you’re familiar with that show, you might think this maze is a bit derivative. Even if you can’t look past the similarities, most guests should appreciate many of the unique effects and use of an actual ride track and projection systems on a haunted maze. The maze even incorporates a few of the DarKastle screens to project images predominantly to distract and setup scares. The maze also uses quite a bit of lighting, including a series of backlit translucent acrylic walls with hands and figures projected on them to mimic characters trying to escape the walls of ice. Fake snow is also used (soap bubble type) to help set the scene of a world where demons are escaping their icy tombs to prey on unsuspecting guests. Even on the first night of operation, where the actors are still working on their timing and trying to figure out their roles, I could see the tremendous potential in this maze. It really is not like any other haunted maze I’ve ever been in before, primarily because of the much brighter lighting than typical mazes. I also think this might be one of the few mazes outside of Universal Orlando that could work using the “conga line” technique of continuously loading guests through the maze, despite the opening day’s method of running guests through the maze in groups of 10-20. The wide corridors of the ride track give the scare actors much more space to perform –they are not limited to blind corners and false walls and doors.

This year, Howl-O-Scream features a new scare zone. With the installation of InvadR, Vikings have invaded the New France section of the park, and have changed what was Wendigo Woods into Axe Alley. The props in this area are solid, and the Viking costumes work well even in dim lighting. Wendigo Woods always seemed a bit out of place with lab-coat wearing scientists and loud, obnoxious military characters running around an area with predominantly log-cabin style buildings. Axe Alley is a serious step up in continuity and concept for this area, and all the actors in this scare zone were well cast.

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The rest of Howl-O-Scream remains relatively unchanged aside from the elimination of Bitten, a maze staged in the former Drachen Fire station building. Lumberhacked is still being staged in the wooded area beyond the former Drachen Fire area, so unfortunately guests walking back there can only experience one maze instead of 2, but Lumberhacked is still worth the trip. Circo Sinestro, last year’s newest maze, is still a strong entry, but it appeared that some of the practical effects were not up and running for opening night. The maze still features a fork in the road where guests can choose one of two paths, which I always find intriguing in mazes, and it also uses a number of false scares that build anticipation and intensity.

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Other fan favorites, including Scarlett’s Revenue (in the former Europe in the Air queue area), Cornered (in the backstage area behind DarKastle), Catacombs (in the Royal Palace backstage area), and Deadline (underneath Escape from Pompeii) return with some minor upgrades. Deadline, in particular, appeared to have received some upgrades in practical effects, and is still one of my favorites - recreating a Roman subway taken over by zombies.

Vampire Point, Demon Street, Ripper Row, and Sideshow Square return as scare zones, with Ripper Row located near the front of the park in the area around the Globe Theatre. The same lineup of shows is also back for this year, with Fiends at the Abbey Stone Theater, Night Beats in the Festhaus, the Starfright Orchestra in Italy, and Monster Stomp on Ripper Row in the Globe. I didn’t have a chance to see Monster Stomp this year, but it is always a highlight. I did see Night Beats, which is a pretty standard jukebox-style show with a live band. I would note that in previous years, this show had a bit of plot exposition that was missing from this year’s production.

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With Halloween events growing more and more popular, Busch Gardens Williamsburg continues to improve and expand their event. Considering other parks with similar sized haunts are offered only as hard ticket events, Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a great value, particularly for regular season passholders. Additionally, compared to other Halloween events in the mid-Atlantic region, Howl-O-Scream continues to be the cream of the crop with unique elements and concepts, a high level of integrated theming, and an overall ambiance that’s tough to beat.

Read more of our Halloween event coverage from around the country:

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Careful satire isn't giving in; it's stepping up for your audience

By Robert Niles
Published: September 24, 2017 at 3:27 PM
Theme parks' devotion to their family audience typically keeps them from anything more than an occasional, gentle dabble into satire. But parks that run after-hours, hard-ticket Halloween scare events get a more adult audience to entertain.

Both Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure at Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights and The Hanging at Knott's Berry Farm's Knott's Scary Farm show that theme parks can do bawdy, adult satire as well as any late-night TV show. But, at times, they also show that park entertainment can bomb as badly as a soon-to-be-shunned stand-up comic, too.

I mentioned both shows in my reviews of the two Halloween events [HHN, Knott's], but I wanted to say more about the productions and their use of satire. As some of you might remember, Universal Studios Hollywood canceled its version of the Bill and Ted show four years ago, when it caught flak for a joke that some considered homophobic. Universal Orlando has announced that this will be the last year for Bill and Ted at its event. The Hanging seems to be going strong at Knott's, which has given no indication that the long-running show will not be back for another year in 2018.

Can theme parks produce satire responsibly? And what does "responsible" satire even mean? Because these questions raise some adult themes — issues of sex and politics that we generally do not get into around here — I decided to post my thoughts over at RobertNiles.com: Why theme parks need to punch up their satire.

But since this issue might interest many of you anyway, I am including that link here, along with my invitation to you to click over and read my piece. (You can comment over there via your Facebook account, too, if you are interested.)

I also would like to invite you to follow me on Twitter, like my RobertNiles.com Facebook page and subscribe to my weekly newsletter if you are interested in reading my (usually) non-theme park columns. Even though the topics are wider ranging over there, I still try with each one to provide something of value to you in appreciation for the time you spend reading it — just as I try to do over here at Theme Park Insider. Thank you for reading.

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Do drinking and theme parks mix?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 23, 2017 at 3:35 PM
Great theme park attractions reflect class storytelling: Heroes battle villains; pilgrims embark upon trying journeys; and tourists strive to get that damned singing dolls' tune out of their heads. Sometimes, the parks themselves become catalysts for dramatic quandaries: What can we sacrifice to afford that trip to Disney World? Is hoarding and scalping souvenirs on eBay good business or bad citizenship? And should be people be drinking all that much when they visit a theme park?

Before we go any further, let's stipulate this: I do not care what you do on your time and dime so long as it does not affect me. What to drink around the world at Epcot? If you can afford it and not trouble anyone else while you do it, go ahead. Want to go through Halloween Horror Nights with a boozy slushy in a blinky cup attached to your lips? Keep your hands and your comments to yourself, and I do not care.

An editor of mine long ago told me that he refused to believe that alcohol was a drug. He said it was just food. But like so many other things that human beings have corrupted over the centuries, it all depends upon how we use it. Some theme park fans would never think of abusing alcohol to the point of becoming drunk and disorderly while in public. But for other fans, getting crocked to that point *is* the point of drinking.

Unfortunately for the "booze is food" crowd, the nasty drunks often force businesses and communities to limit or ban the consumption of alcohol, in an effort to avoid the problems that the drunks can cause. We told you earlier this month about Universal Orlando's new restrictions on the sale of mixed drinks at Halloween Horror Nights — a move that no one disputes came in response to continued incidents of drunken misbehavior by a few guests at the event.

The change, which came about at the last minute (Universal had promoted more expansive alcohol sales on its blog a few days before the event started), sparked a flame war on Facebook groups for Universal fans. But just as that seemed to be dying down, The Orlando Sentinel jumped in to throw a gallon of Everclear onto the fire.

In a column entitled The Halloween Horror Nights Drinking Game [the headline has been changed in this cached version, which otherwise remains as originally published], The Sentinel basically encouraged the type of drinking-for-drinking's-sake behavior that Universal seemed to be trying to stop.

I cannot wait to hear the inside story of what happened when Universal executives saw the story. But whatever went down, The Sentinel walked back the piece, changing it from a drinking game into a description of a scavenger hunt. (Yeah, right.) And Universal followed up with a blog post of its own, Let's Keep Horror Nights Fun and Safe, written by the resort's head of PR, in which he took the highly unusual act (in this business, at least) of calling out The Sentinel's piece.

Let's run through all my disclosures and conflicts here: Obviously, I run a website that covers the theme park industry and have worked with Universal's PR people for years. But I also worked for years teaching journalism at a university, where I edited an internationally-recognized journalism review that required me to evaluate and comment upon others' practice of journalism. I currently write a weekly column for a newspaper chain that competes with The Sentinel's Tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing) in some markets, including in my home of Southern California. And I've been quoted as a source in countless Sentinel stories over the years, and even did a consulting speaking gig for them many years ago.

So you should know where I am coming from when I say... what the f--- was The Sentinel thinking on this one?

Many of my colleagues in the newspaper business fret that local journalism does not get enough credit for making an impact in communities. Well, remember this incident when Universal says "the heck with this" and switches Halloween Horror Nights to beer and wine only next year. Local journalism can make a difference!

Side eye

Previously:

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Event review: 2017 Knott's Scary Farm

By Robert Niles
Published: September 22, 2017 at 2:20 AM
Knott's Scary Farm kicked off Thursday night at Knott's Berry Farm for its 45th year of Halloween haunts, scares, and even some spooky silliness.

This year marks the end of the road for Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, who is concluding her run at Knott's Scary Farm after more than two decades. She's still bringing it after all these years — showing off her, um, assets, as well as the self-awareness to know that what she's really selling isn't sex, but humor.

Elvira

Elvira's best move is to pose, so she's never going to fit in the dance numbers that drive much of the show. But Elvira knows that as well as the audience, and there's a great bit in the middle of the show where she's replaced by an obvious stunt double, then a foam dummy, for some uncharacteristically athletic moves. It's all done with one of the Mistress of the Dark's winks — equal parts come-hither and you-know-we're-kidding-right?

Knott's other Scary Farm show is The Hanging, which this year runs with the subtitle "Fake Noose." With that, you know the Trump jokes are coming, and indeed the President plays a recurring part in the show, which gives an even larger role to Russian President Vladimir Putin. You can write your own joke about that here, and there's a decent chance it will be funnier and maybe even more original than anything found in this production.

The Hanging

The performers acknowledge the limitation of this show's format in spoofing politicians, noting that the Secret Service does not take kindly to depictions of hanging the President. So they settle for portraying Trump as Putin's leather-clad submissive, instead. But most of the show is just one blood-squib-soaked fight scene after another, culminating in the the hanging of... the Cash Me Outside girl? How about this: Instead of pretending to hang a 14-year-old, we instead show the hanging of the record company executives who gave her a contract, or the talk show hosts who keep booking her on their shows, instead?

Moving along, Knott's this year also added a seasonal overlay to its Timber Mountain Log Ride, which becomes Halloween Hootenanny. There are some nice touches in here, including a few jump scares from live actors. But the aliens who show up in the middle made me laugh most, and the log ride is always wicked fun at night, even without the Halloween overlay. But enough with the side shows. Let's get to the main event — the mazes.

One of the new mazes this year is Dark Ride, an abandoned carnival attraction that's become home to every out-of-work sideshow freak in the county. Knott's really seems like it wants to call out lots of competitors' attractions here, but that it doesn't want to pay any lawyers to respond to cease-and-desist letters, either. So we get fire-breathing dragons and possessed furniture, but also an enormous helping of the generic blood and guts you'll find throughout Scary Farm's mazes. This was one my top two mazes at the event, but it could have been all-time classic snark for theme park geeks. As it is, it's just a fun time for everyone.

My next-favorite maze was Paranormal Inc., which returns from last year. I love the pre-show that sets up the maze, with its earnest parapsychologists trying to capture a ghost spirit. Be careful what you wish for, guys. The pre-show leads into a trek through an abandoned hospital returned to life, with corpses and vengeful nurses out to get us. Almost everything at Knott's Scary Farm is played with tongue firmly in cheek, but the performers in Paranormal find the right balance between creepy and cheesy to make this a maze worth doing again.

In general, the actors are the strongest parts of Knott's mazes. In most of the houses, you get opportunities where actors don't just jump out at you for quick scares, but where they try to engage you for several seconds to advance a storyline. (Yes, it's also a way to keep you moving through the attraction.) The interaction is most engaging on Special Ops: Infected, a laser-tag zombie hunt — with few actual scares — that I loved way more than I should, simply because I am a sucker for shooter attractions.

The Pumpkin Eater is new this year, taking visitors into the lair of a seven-foot creature that likes to have its visitors for dinner. Literally. The maze takes you through the inside of a giant pumpkin, seeds and all, as well as through all sorts of other creepy obstacles, including a cave of creepy insects, a labyrinth of thorns, and a cornfield.

Moving along through other returning mazes, I enjoyed the "school field trip from Hell" storyline in the Red Barn, which otherwise is just another country bumpkin slasher flick in the (bloody) flesh. Voodoo offers a few glimpses of ambitious set decoration but the cast's vibe in the house struck me as more look-at-our-freak-show than let-us-scare-the-crap-out-you. And The Tooth Fairy is just straight-up cheesy gore throughout. A fun show, but once was enough.

I wish I got what Knott's was trying to do with Trick or Treat: Lights Out, a trip through and around the Green Witch’s haunted home. You are giving a weak flashlight to carry with you through the maze, which is supposed to trigger some interactive elements, but for the life of me (pun maybe intended...), I couldn't figure out what the flashlight was supposed to do. It vibrated a couple of times near the end of the maze, in the presence of the Green Witch, but if that was supposed to signify something, I missed it. My frustration with the flashlight didn't help sell me on what is otherwise a fairly generic walk through common Halloween tropes.

The final maze is Shadow Lands, which I missed tonight because the line was not moving and they weren't letting anyone in the two times I tried it. Shadow Lands is a returning, Samurai-themed maze, so if any of you got to it, let us know in the comments what you thought.

In all, Knott's looks its best for Scary Farm, when monsters roam the fog-shrouded streets. Whether this is a better event than Universal's Halloween Horror Nights is up for debate, but there should be no question that the much-lower-priced Knott's Scary Farm is the theme park industry's value champion for after-hours Halloween events. Knott's Scary Farm runs 25 nights through October 31.

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Tokyo Disneyland details its 35th anniversary celebration events

By Robert Niles
Published: September 21, 2017 at 10:30 AM
The Tokyo Disney Resort today detailed the parade, shows and attraction refurbishment that it will debut next year to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Disney's first theme park outside the United States.

Tokyo Disneyland opened on April 15, 1983 and today remains Asia's most-visited theme park and the third-most visited theme park in the world, behind Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The Tokyo resort will mark its anniversary with the theme, "Happiest Celebration!"

A new daytime parade, Dreaming Up!, will debut on April 15, 2018, replacing Happiness is Here, which ends its run on April 9 next year. The parade will include floats based upon a variety of Disney films, including Fantasia, Beauty and the Beast, and Peter Pan, and also will include a Baymax-themed float.

On the same day, Tokyo Disneyland will reopen It's a Small World ride, which returns after a rebuild and now will feature characters from selected Disney films, much like at the original in Anaheim. (Except that Tokyo is getting Elsa, Ana and Olaf from the ubiquitous Frozen, too.)

Next summer will see additional entertainment offerings at the resort. Celebrate! Tokyo Disneyland — a new nighttime spectacular featuring projections on Cinderella's Castle — will debut on July 10, 2018. New stage shows in Adventureland and in the New York area of the American Waterfront in Tokyo DisneySea will open on the same day.

Finally, Tokyo Disney will wrap up the Happiest Celebration with a "Grand Finale" season that runs from January 11, 2019 until the anniversary's conclusion on March 25, 2019.

In 2020 — when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics — Tokyo Disneyland will open several new attractions as part of its expansion project, which broke ground earlier this year.

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IAAPA's 2017 Legends panel to feature creators behind top IP projects

By Robert Niles
Published: September 20, 2017 at 8:17 PM
Bob Rogers has announced the participants in his annual "Legends" panel at the IAAPA Attractions Expo, and this year's line-up includes the creators behind some of the most talked-about IP-driven attractions in the industry.

Participants include Joe Rohde the Executive Designer and Vice President, Creative, Walt Disney Imagineering who oversaw the recent Pandora: The World of Avatar land at Disney's Animal Kingdom and Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! ride at Disney California Adventure.

Also joining the panel will be Scott Trowbridge, Walt Disney Imagineering's Portfolio Creative Executive overseeing the upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge lands at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World.

And for the first time this year, the former "Disney Legends" panel will include a leader from Universal — Thierry Coup, the Senior Vice President - Creative Studio, Universal Creative, who oversaw the development of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in addition to Transformers: The Ride and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

IAAPA Hall of Fame Inductee Bob Rogers once again will moderate the panel, which will include a tribute to long-time participant Marty Sklar, the Disney Legend and former Imagineering chief who passed away earlier this year.

The Legends panel will start at 3:30pm on Wednesday, November 15 at the IAAPA Attractions Expo at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

"The objective of this panel is to share hard won wisdom plus practical, applicable insights with the next generation of attraction creators, operators and leaders, sharing ideas that can be put to work by others tomorrow, a month from now and a decade from now," Rogers said.

Advance Registration for the 2017 IAAPA Attractions Expo is now available on the IAAPA website.

Coverage of last year's panel:

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Theme parks prepare to open even more Halloween events this weekend

By Robert Niles
Published: September 20, 2017 at 1:48 PM
Walt Disney World kicked off the Halloween season in the nation's theme parks early this year, with Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party starting in late August. But if you can't get to Orlando for the after-hours event (or don't want to pay the hard-ticket fee), Disney will live stream the Mickey’s Boo-to-You Halloween Parade parade on Friday night, starting at 9:30 pm Eastern.

No, it's not quite the same as filling your bag with all the candy you collect in the party's unlimited, all-ages trick-or-treating, but it a free way to enjoy the approaching Halloween season. Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party runs select nights through November 1 at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. On the west coast, Mickey's Halloween Party starts at Disneyland tonight, running select nights through Oct. 31.

Universal opened its annual Halloween Horror Nights events in Orlando and in Hollywood last weekend, as did Cedar Point and its Halloweekends. Knott's Scary Farm gets into the mix tomorrow night. (We will be in Buena Park for the debut.) Other Halloween events kicking off this weekend include:

• SeaWorld Orlando's Halloween Spooktacular, a family-friendly event featuring Sesame Street characters, starts Saturday and runs during regular park hours on weekends through October 29. Trick or treating is available to children in costume.

• Howl-O-Scream opens Friday at Busch Gardens Tampa and Saturday at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The Tampa event is an after-hours, hard-ticket scare event, while the Williamsburg event takes over the park after 6pm, but is included with regular park admission for the day.

• Six Flags Fright Fest starts at Six Flags Over Texas, Six Flags Over Georgia, Six Flags America, Six Flags New England, and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. (Fright Fest started last weekend at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Six Flags Great Adventure, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, and Six Flags Great America.)

Which events will you be visiting this year?

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