Written by Russell Meyer
Published: September 23, 2005 at 12:46 AM
It's that time of year again, when your average theme park turns into a scream park. Busch Gardens likes to call their Halloween makeover Howl-O-Scream, and this sixth incarnation at Busch Gardens Williamsburg brings back some of the popular attractions of years past and a few new scares for 2005. This year also brings guests the most opportunities to check out the action with seven weekends of ghouls, ghosts, and goblins. With 18 more days of scares left this year, this is your guide to all of this years hits and misses.
The scare zones this year are all returning from last year. However, for those who have been to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando or Knott's Scary Farm (the undisputed kings of October theme park transformations), Busch Gardens Williamsburg's areas are child's play, and I'm not talking about Chucky.
But I think it's unfair to compare the Williamsburg park's transformation to parks that charge an additional admission for the Halloween attractions. BGW's Howl-O-Scream is part of your regular admission, and is still far superior to any other park that offers Halloween attractions as part of the normal admission.
England has been taken over by crazy scalawags and their skeletal remains, as the pirates have conquered Banbury Cross. The area is decorated with skeleton pirates posed in many interesting scenes, and actors dressed as real live pirates who are ready to plunder and pillage. The land is also home to a stage show, “Hip Hop Pirates,” which is a pirate spin on the “One Last Jam” show. The area has a great amount of subtle detail, but the actors were less than enthusiastic, and weren't really interested in entertaining guests. In previous years, the pirates have been some of the best and most entertaining actors in the entire park, but from my one experience this season, they were not as great as in previous seasons.
The wolves of Jack Hanna's Wild Reserve have escaped, and are terrorizing guests. This has become a really great scare zone, and those who venture into Werewolf Reserve will likely not escape without being scared out of their shoes. Just when you think you've escaped the wolves, the foliage comes alive to chase you out. The lack of lighting in this area makes it a prime spot for scare actors, and it's a shame that Busch Gardens has not been even more creative. It is easily the darkest park of the park, and can often be the quietest, so Busch Gardens should consider making more out of this area. However, as it stands, it's still probably the best of the scare zones.
A carnival gone wrong is the story behind Festa Italia's Howl-O-Scream transformation. This scare zone is very much the same as in previous years, with crazy clowns and gypsies running rampant through the village. A couple of fortune tellers, some disturbing clowns, and some great props give guests a happy-circus feeling during the day, but will have everyone looking over their shoulder at night. One of the actors who always haunts this part of the park is back again as a maybe-deceased clown puppeteer.
More of a show than a scare zone, this area becomes an extension of Fiends of the Festhaus, as many of the actors from that show come out to party with passers-by. This area is rated three pumpkins, but as with many of the other rated attractions, the rating is incredibly deceiving. It's a fun romp with the really dead and the not-so-dead with dancing and strutting. It's not terribly scary, but like much of the Howl-O-Scream entertainment, it's good for the whole family. Unfortunately, one of my favorite little touches was not present this year- namely, the talking skeletons on the bridge into Oktoberfest. You may recall that these skeletons were the first to “talk” about Curse of DarKastle, but they failed to make an encore appearance.
Many of the live shows are also repeats from prior years. Once again, Busch Gardens needs to rethink how they rate their attractions.
The Canadian Palladium Theater hosts a show that is exactly what the title says. Imagine Stomp! with monsters making all of the racket to the beat of your favorite rock and roll tunes. AC/DC, the Doors, and more of your favorite classic rock artists are featured in this surprisingly entertaining show. It's not really scary as its four pumpkin rating would suggest, but very clever and well produced with talented actors. This show is best appreciated from a seat within the theater, but benches are limited. Prepare to arrive early for this great show, or be relegated to standing in the back.
Easily the dorkiest show in the park, as pop tunes serve to backup a Frankenstein-styled story. The highlight of this show is the use of shadow dancing, but it's a shame that part only comprised one minute of the program. The cast has fun singing and dancing their decaying limbs off, but one has to think that the back half of the Festhaus would serve as a great haunted house in lieu of this silly performance.
Yes he is, and this very entertaining street party is always a treat in Ireland. It's corny, but the energy from the performers is addictive. Jack of the Lantern and his friends sing and dance to some fun tunes, and everyone seems to love those orange and black streamers that are shot off at the end of every performance (there are rarely any left on the ground for the sweepers to clean up).
I wasn't able to catch all of the shows. Nightscares…Awakened by Magic is a big magic show at the Royal Palace Theater that begins its Howl-O-Scream run on Friday, September 23, 2005. The show by Aaron Radatz (who performed in this space last year as well) is something I'm looking forward to seeing when we return - if it's anywhere as good as last year's magic show, it's definitely worth a look. It cannot be near as bad as the ice skating show that graced the Royal Palace Theater the first few years of Howl-O-Scream. The Starfright Orchestra is an extension of the normal big band nightly show, The Starlight Orchestra, highlighting big band versions of Halloween favorites.
The stuff that the hardcore Halloween fans come for are the haunted houses and mazes. Busch Gardens Williamsburg brings us four returning attractions and one new one this season. However, the new maze, Last Laugh Industries, is merely a reinvention of the Distorted Dimension from previous years.
This is somewhat similar to last year's Distorted Dimension, but leaves out the cool 3-D glasses and awesome vertigo tunnel at the end. The maze takes guests backstage of a circus big top filled with more fluorescent paint than a paintball factory. In comparison to last year's maze, it's definitely a step backwards, and I was really disappointed to see the shortened maze lose some of its edge. 55 gallon drums provide the most convenient form of scare tactic in this maze, but the racket becomes numbing after repeated bashings. I'm sure this house will go through some tweaking over the next couple of weeks as the actors learn how to get the best reactions out of the guests, but it's going to be difficult to get this maze as good as Distorted Dimension.
This maze sends guests through the Van Tassel mansion and Ichabod Crane's encounter with the Headless Horseman. In an interesting change, this maze is taken in the opposite direction from last season, but most of the rooms are the same. From shaking body bags to some great lighting, this maze has become the class act of the park. There are some great props in this haunted house, enough that many people walking through this maze will completely forget the incredible roller coaster that used to run through here.
This is the most technically advanced maze, with lots of moving parts. Guests are brought to this haunted archaeological site as all sorts of creatures lurk within. Not much has changed about this attraction since its original debut, but if it's not broken, don't fix it. Those who have seen this attraction before can still appreciate the complexities, and a good scare actor can make even the most obvious scare corner interesting.
Zombies and pirate ghosts inhabit this maze. As in previous years, this attraction falls short because it lacks the claustrophobic effect of narrow hallways and blind turns. It's hard to scare people when guests can see you coming. The Sea Dog Cemetery has a lot of intricate theming, but is hard to appreciate it in the dark. Subtle lighting adds an air of mystery to the attraction, but more direct lighting creating long shadows would make this cemetery much spookier.
This haunted train ride through your worst nightmares rounds out the Howl-O-Scream attractions. The soundtrack for this years ride through your fears is much improved over previous years, but as usual, many of the effects, props and actors were not completely set up for the first weekend of Howl-O-Scream. Signs for the attractions warn that guests WILL get wet, and history would support that warning. However, our ride on the Nightmare Express did not yield a single drop of water. So either Busch Gardens didn't want to make new signs, or the incredible rain effects from last year have not yet been installed. Previous experience would support the theory that all of the effects have not yet been put into play on what is normally a very entertaining train ride.
Interestingly, Busch has adopted a technique used by some of the parks better known for their Halloween makeovers- coupon books are available for purchase that offer front-of-the-line access for the four mazes and Curse of DarKastle. In addition to the FOTL coupons, there are game and merchandise discounts included in the book. Prices are not posted, but upon inquiry I found out that the cost of one book for a season pass holder was $20. The books were not necessary during my visit, since the lines for the mazes were very short, but they might be a good investment as it gets closer to Halloween and crowd size grows.
That's the rundown of this year's Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. It's very much like previous years, and, at present, might disappoint those who have been loyal fans of the October theme park transformation.
It's important to note, however, that this year's event is starting earlier than ever before. As someone who has been on both sides of a Halloween attraction, as a guest and scare actor, I can tell you, it's really hard to be in the mood for scaring people the first few times out, especially if the first few performances are in the middle of September. Not only that, but guests are probably not in the mood to be scared quite yet. I'm sure within a couple of weeks the screams and the eeriness of the park will be at a climax, and when all of the bugs are worked out, and the actors are in a groove, Howl-O-Scream will be as good as ever.