2009 Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream Review
Published: October 5, 2009 at 6:35 AM
Busch Gardens Williamsburg has been in the Halloween business for over 10 years now, and it seems that they’re hitting their stride this year with numerous intense mazes, scare zones throughout the park, and several high energy live shows. We had an opportunity to visit the park early in the Halloween season this year, and will provide a full rundown of all of this year’s Howl-O-Scream attractions.
Let’s start off with the shows. Jack is Back is little changed from its first appearance at Howl-O-Scream. This is an outdoor singing and dancing show, featuring the famous Jack of the Lantern himself. Jack acts as your emcee through a show of popular dance hits of the 70s and 80s. Scarecrow stilt walkers and pumpkin dancers boogie down to the music and get the crowd involved. The show has a street party vibe and is family friendly- it is just a tiny bit scary at the beginning and end. A big improvement this year is the addition of a designated walkway around the show and through the lobby of the Abbey Stone theater, allowing people to get through towards France and not be trapped until the show was over. This show is a lot of fun, but could probably use an upgrade or revamp in the near future.
Next, Frankenrock in Da Haus. This is a big departure from previous shows that have been in the Festhaus, with a live band backing Frankenstein and his gang of guys and ghouls. While the show includes seasonal favorites like the Monster Mash, Thriller and Time Warp, it also includes some strange selections from the 90s and early 2000s, like Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”, Spice Girls “Wannabe’, Ricky Martin’s “Living la Vida Loca”, and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”. The cast is strong in singing and dancing, but it’s difficult to perform in the round, as is required by the setup of the stage in the Festhaus. Try to sit in the front if you choose to see this show. The live band gives the show a better feel than one where singers are performing with a backing track, but there’s only so much you can do with the songs that were chosen. This show is worth checking out earlier in the day if you happen to be in the area, but not worth making time to see, unless you need something to occupy the kids for a while.
Monster Stomp Revamped has taken up residence in the Abbey Stone theater, an improvement over its old location in New France. This show features a large troupe of dancers, singers and percussionists. This is hands-down the best show in the park, as evidenced by the long line outside 45 minutes prior to the show. Both the male and female lead singers were very impressive, belting out difficult rock songs like Heart’s “Barracuda” and Guns and Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”. There are numerous dance numbers, including a really impressive black light skeleton dance, and the best tap-dancing werewolves I’ve ever seen. However, the stars of the show by far are the incredible percussionists. From standard marching-band drums to high tech percussion sets to cleavers and knives on boards, these guys put on one heck of a show. Even in its second week, this show is drawing the biggest crowds, so get in line early for this one.
Other Halloween entertainment offerings include a themed version of the Sesame Street show, and Movies of the Macabre – a selection of silent movies being shown in Italy’s Teatro de San Marco.
Busch Gardens has changed up the scare zones somewhat this year. The one thing that’s a little disappointing now is that it’s impossible to walk around the park without walking through a scare zone. For anyone who really doesn’t want to be scared, there doesn’t seem to be a safe route around the park that doesn’t include an encounter with a roving ghoul. Perhaps a clear “no-scare” path could be provided for those who simply want to ride the coasters at night and aren’t interested in the Halloween activities.
The first scare zone in the park, The Moors, is between England and Ireland, and is inhabited by large gentlemen in kilts, with wooden shields and swords, prepared to chase you out of Heatherdowns and into Ireland.
The second scare zone, Mischief and Mayhem, is located in Jack Hannah’s Wild Reserve, between Ireland and France. It features scareactors in ghillie suits, who jump out of the bushes to startle passers-by. In New France, the Watchers has a scareactor on bungee cords, which let him jump out at people walking by and scare them. A few roving ghouls help to hurry people along towards the bridge to Germany.
At the entrance to Octoberfest, the Werewolves scare zone features, what else, werewolves. There appeared to be an additional walkway next to the main path for use by scareactors, but it did not seem to be in use presently. Harvest Hollow is the scariest advertised scare zone, and it is located after the two mazes in Festhaus Park. It feels like you are walking through the movie Children of the Corn, with scarecrows around every turn.
This scare zone had the largest number of scareactors, with at least 7 along a 100 ft path. If the haunted houses didn’t scare you, this scare zone should send a shiver down your spine.
Finally, as you exit Festhaus Park, you encounter Strangers Beware, which gives a final group of scareactors one last chance to scare you before your final escape from the area. The scare zone Spell Bound, along the path from Festa Italia to Pompeii, did not appear to be in use- no scareactors were visible, though a recording of blood-curdling screams from the bridge area occurred every so often to scare bridge crossers.
This year Busch Gardens has opened some mazes earlier in the day. One is family friendly during the day: Revenge of Pompeii. Before 6 pm, the maze is treated like an archeological museum, and does not feature the scareactors and additional effects that are turned on after 6 to make this a more intense experience at night. This is a clever idea for parents with kids who aren’t sure how they will react to a “real” haunted house, or are curious about the interior of the mazes. With all the lights on, kids can see what’s inside. Consider this an introductory haunted maze, but be forewarned that when the sun goes down, it is no longer recommended for kids. After dark, the archeologists who took you on a tour during the day are now out to scare you. As in previous years, this maze relies on a lot of mechanical/automated effects and scares. However, there do seem to be more human scareactors stationed through the maze than in years past, which is a definite improvement.
One of the newest mazes, the Cavern of Darkness, is located in and through the Corkscrew Hill attraction. The maze actually takes you across the ride, through the pre-show area, and out the entry queue. Due to its newness, this maze still has some kinks to work out, like lighting issues, especially when entering the maze during the day (this maze opens at noon). However, it shows a lot of promise, in particular the scareactors at the end, who are well camouflaged with the rocky walls of the queue.
The Catacombs is located below the stage of the Royal Palace Theater in France. This maze had the best set design of all the mazes in the park, with corridors that really made you feel like you were in the sewers under Paris. Scareactors lurk around every corner, and potentially may pop out of any hole that you might see in the walls.
A pair of mazes awaits in Festhaus park, with Bitten coming first, followed by the Hunted. Bitten, as expected, is themed around bloodsucking vampires, while the Hunted is themed around werewolves. Bitten features an interesting element I’ve never seen before – namely, the ending hallway floor covered in sand. This promotes a feeling of fear, since you feel that you can’t run away from the vampires fast enough. The Hunted has another interesting element, consisting of floor boards that tilted as you walked on them. This caused a feeling of insecurity, like trick track on a rollercoaster. As soon as you feel like you have a secure footing, a scareactor is waiting around the next corner to scare your pants off.
Cursed is another new maze, located behind Roman Rapids (not in the queue area as in previous years). This location provides one of the largest areas for any of the mazes, and felt more like three mazes in one, with a number of indoor and outdoor sections. Witches inhabit this maze, cackling and startling maze goers. There is a lot of potential in this maze, but it seems like it may take some time for the scareactors to figure out good hiding places. As well, it could use some more scareactors due to its large size.
Through the generosity of Busch Gardens, not only were we provided with Quick Queue passes, which eliminated lines for a number of the mazes, but we were also given an opportunity to experience the Halloween incarnation of the Dine with Elmo dinner show: Count von Count’s Halloween Spooktacular.
This show is intended for families with young children, although anyone is welcome. It features an all-you-can-eat buffet, consisting of a selection of foods ranging from hot dogs and chicken fingers to pit ham and beef fajitas. The show features all of your kids’ favorite Sesame Street characters, like Big Bird, the Count, Elmo, Oscar, Grover, Zoe and Abby Caddaby. There is lots of singing and dancing, and most importantly, lots of interaction between the characters and the audience. There are ample photo opportunities during the hour long experience. The meal is finished off with tasty chocolate chip cookies and Elmo/Cookie Monster cupcakes. This experience is an excellent value - if you have kids who love the Sesame Street characters. The character interaction is on par with Disney character dining, which can be attributed to the excellent character to audience ratio.
With years of experience under their belt, Busch Gardens continues to improve on their Halloween showing. As Howl-O-Scream becomes even more popular, Busch Gardens continues to up the ante with more mazes, scare zones, improved live shows and more intense scares, bringing the Virginia experience a little closer to the extreme scares found in the Florida and California “scream parks”.