11 days. 11 outstanding days. A trip I had anticipated for years. It didn't disappoint...not one bit! In my opinion, the trip was about as perfect as it could have been. Sure, I did miss out on a few high profile rides, and the schedule was a bit more demanding than I would have preferred, but I enjoyed pretty much every bit of it. As much as I want to go back to Florida in the future (though probably not until 2021 or later), I've got a feeling the second visit won't quite live up to the first. After all, you can only experience something once for the first time.
Part 10: The Conclusion
As I've already covered every park in Central Florida, this final installment will be a bit different as I go over a few other components of the trip.
Halloween in Orlando
One of the big reasons for the timing we decided upon was to experience the parks during their Halloween events. Evan, Dan, Sean, and Andrew are all huge fans of theme park haunt events, and while I'm not quite as into them I still find them very enjoyable to visit. During this trip, we experienced not one, not two, but three separate events. I know this report is a bit out of season, but perhaps it will aid those considering a trip for the 2018 events.
Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa
During the day, Busch Gardens Tampa is about the coasters and the animals. However, on select weekend nights in September and October, the park is overrun with monsters of a different sort. Here, brave visitors can face their fears in five scare zones, attempt to navigate seven mazes, and conquer some of Florida's most extreme thrill rides in complete darkness. About 3/4 of the park remains operational for the event, ensuring there is plenty to do to fill an evening of terror.
Like most haunt events, How-O-Scream requires a separate ticket. However, if purchased online in advance, tickets are discounted quite a bit from their rack rate. For those interested in this event, I recommend making a full day out of it...get to the park in the morning, spend the day riding coasters, then stick around for the mazes and scare zones at night. When doing this, it also makes a ton of sense to purchase the Fright Feast...around $30 gets you access to a buffet prior to the start of Howl-o-Scream, as well as an hour of front of the line maze access for the first hour of the evening. Thanks to this perk, we were able to do most of the mazes twice...once early, then again later in the evening.
Speaking of mazes, Howl-O-Scream features seven of them. Due to the line, we passed on Zombie Containment Unit 15, but took the time to check out the others. From best to worst:
1. The Black Spot: The best maze at the event, and the only one we didn't get a chance to go through twice (it had over an hour wait...other mazes were generally 20-30 minutes). As the name suggests, this maze is themed to pirates, a nice diversion from the far too common zombie theme. The sets in the house are largely great, with all carrying a nautical theme. There isn't anything in this maze that stands out as amazing, but there also isn't anything bad about it either. The actors in this one did a great job as well...every room had multiple opportunities for a scare.
2. Demented Dimensions: This maze seemed like something straight out of the Twilight Zone. The rooms all have their own themes, with a bunch of seemingly unrelated scenes linking together into a surprisingly good maze. In addition to excellent sets, this maze had some of the best scares, including a number hidden so well that I got startled by the same actor the second time through. If the maze was a bit more cohesive it would probably be the best of the event, but it's still a top tier haunt maze on par with those found at top tier events.
3. Death Water Bayou: A step down from the previous mazes, this one is showing its age a bit but still holds its own at the event. The maze has a variety of New Orleans-themed scenes and felt similar to Voodoo at Knott's Scary Farm, though with a few additional tricks. It's a solid maze that is well worth doing, but as one of the more popular mazes at the event it does tend to get lengthy lines.
4. Motel Hell: I wasn't quite as crazy for this one as some of the group, but it was still really good. The maze is themed to an abandoned motel, with all the creepiness that would be associated with that. This maze is a bit more atmospheric and a bit less scary than others at the event, but it still has a good number of classic tricks to startle guests as they walk through.
5. Unearthed: Built underneath the remains of Gwazi, Unearthed has a really cool setting that isn't fully utilized during the maze. The sets throughout are excellent, though this is the goriest maze at the event and was slightly too much for my taste. In addition to typical scares, the maze also features a giant animatronic and a unique in-maze photo element.
6. Undead Arena: By far the weakest maze of the event, this is a fairly generic zombie maze themed to an impossible game show. There are a couple neat sections, such as a branching path and a couple large scenes populated by a number of actors, but for the most part this is a dull and uninteresting maze.
Of the event's five official scare zones, the best were Class Deceased and Playground, two separate sections along the path from Falcon's Fury to Cheetah Hunt. Both of these zones are very dark and foggy, with plenty of actors running around to leap out at guests. The Playground had a lot of creepy set pieces as well...see-saws, swings, and a merry-go-round all ridden by ghosts.
Wasteland, located between Kumba and Sheikra, was a smaller but still very effective section of the park. Carnie Camp, which takes over what is Sesame Street Forest of Fun during the day, had some very good actors but was a little too sparsely populated. Lastly, Meat Market seems to be just a setup for Undead Arena, and much like the maze itself the scare zone was underwhelming.
Overall, I'd say Howl-O-Scream is a step above most regional park haunts, but a step below the top events in the industry. It is a lower budget event, but this does come with the advantage of talent-based scares. At Howl-O-Scream, there are no triggers or cues to tell an actor when to perform...it is up to them to make their move. Not every actor can do this well, but when they can it is much more effective than the scripted scares. Of the six mazes I experienced at the event, five of them were very good, and a couple were on par with an above average Scary Farm maze. Plus, while I didn't make much mention of it, riding Cheetah Hunt and Kumba in the dark was a lot of fun (SheiKra is a bit too close to the walkways to be overly dark). If you're going to do one Halloween event in Florida, I probably would go with something different, but for those that have already tried Halloween Horror Nights, Howl-O-Scream is well worth checking out for a different type of experience.
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida
When it comes to theme park haunt events, a vast majority of fans declare one of two their favorite: Knott's Scary Farm, or Halloween Horror Nights. As a Southern California resident, I've attended Knott's Scary Farm a few times (I generally go every other year, and missed 2017's event), and it has been consistently excellent. However, many say Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando is the superior event, so I was excited to check it out. Note that I've never been to the event at Universal Studios Hollywood...it just seems a bit too expensive for what is offered.
HHN offers a grand total of 9 different mazes, 5 scare zones, and two shows. In addition, around a half-dozen of the park's rides are in operation if you need a break from the scares. Unlike Howl-O-Scream, the event covers the entire park, with mazes located in small clusters around the perimeter of the park. Signs and team members do a good job directing guests to the various mazes, but a couple of them are in semi-obscure locations. Generally, however, if you're near a scare zone you're also near a couple mazes.
Like almost all events of this nature, the mazes at Halloween Horror Nights can generate significant lines, but here it is not uncommon to see multi-hour waits. Fortunately, we visited on a Sunday (generally a lighter evening), so most lines were more in the 45-60 minute range. If you don't want to miss anything, I highly recommend the Front of the Line pass for this event, as while we managed to do every maze it took pretty much the whole evening. On a busier night, expect to only see around half of them.
At most events, each year features one or two new mazes and the rest return for several years in a row. Here, however, each maze is new each year, with some themes recycled in multiple years. Therefore, this won't matter much to next year's event, but favorite to least favorite, I rank the 2017 mazes as follows:
1. Scarecrow: This maze was outstanding in every way, and according to my Florida friends it's one of the best ever at the event. Unlike a majority of the mazes here, there is no IP connection with this one, allowing it to build a unique story through a number of extremely well-done sets. In addition, this one had a ton of scares, with some slow moments scattered throughout to give a false sense of security. Overall, it was simply one of the best mazes I've seen anywhere, and the rainy weather just added to the atmosphere here.
2. Hive: Located right next to Scarecrow, Hive disappointingly had no facade and was built inside a fairly plain tent. However, the maze inside was far better than I expected it to be. While this one uses the common theme of vampires, it had lots of cool sets and some interesting characters. This was our first maze of the night so the exact details are a bit foggy, but I remember it being one I would have liked to do again had time permitted.
3. Dead Waters: The third must-do maze at the event, this one had a lot of similarities to Death Water Bayou but was clearly built with a much larger budget. The sets are all built inside a soundstage, but they're done so well that you feel immersed in the theme. I also remember this one having some of the better actors at the event, likely because they're not bound by the rules of a specific character. It wasn't quite as impressive as the above two mazes, but still one of the top three at HHN.
4. The Horrors of Blumhouse: I liked this one a bit more than the rest of the group, probably because I'm a bit more familiar with the source material. A lot of the individual scenes in this house were done very well, with very good recreations of moments out of the films. Unfortunately, the maze lacks a cohesive flow as it is made up of several unconnected IPs, but a weak story in a maze can be somewhat countered if you're constantly kept on your toes.
5. American Horror Story: I don't watch this show, but the maze did a pretty good job of being accessible to non-viewers. The maze features three distinct sections (presumably each based on a season of the show), with each featuring grand sets and characters from the show to portray a specific location. I would probably rank this one higher if I was more familiar with the source material, but in either case it is still a very good maze.
6. The Shining: Based on one of the best horror movies of all time, this maze was unfortunately a bit of a disappointment. It had a lot of the key moments from the film, but it felt a bit too focused on jumping from one to the next without connecting them in a logical manner. This would have probably worked better as a more atmospheric maze with more portions of the hotel recreated.
7. Saw: Another franchise I'm familiar with, this maze unfortunately didn't portray it that well. It felt more like a sequence of violent displays rather than trying to make guests fell like they were Jigsaw's next victims. It's more of a 3rd person haunt, if that makes any sense, and for an event that's supposed to be scary that doesn't work so well.
8. The Fallen: Truthfully, I don't really remember much about this maze much. I know it was about some type of good versus evil battle and had a few neat sets, but the whole thing felt generic. The most memorable thing about this one was that the maze broke down the first time we tried to do it, which is not something I'd expect to happen in a walkthrough attraction.
9. Ash vs. Evil Dead: I don't watch the show, so I had no idea what was supposed to be going on inside this one. It had a promising exterior, but the inside made no sense whatsoever (at least without IP familiarity), making this the weakest at the event.
Surprisingly, the scare zones at Halloween Horror Nights were really weak. While the park advertises five scare zones, only the Purge and Trick 'r Treat felt like proper areas (and both were done very well).
The other three scare zones were either very small or too sparsely populated to be effective. For one of the top Halloween events in the country, this was a huge surprise, and I'd say the combination of the Playground and Class Deceased at Howl-O-Scream was better than anything here.
Other than the mazes and the scare zones, there was one other thing on my must-see list: bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure. 2017 was the final year of this long-running show, and I'm really glad I got a chance to see it before it went away for good. The show is legendary, with each iteration making fun of that year's pop culture as well as including a number of other elements (mostly dance numbers). It was a very good show, but in my opinion the similar Hanging at Knott's Scary Farm is superior. Part of that may be the thematic fit...the Hanging feels right for a Halloween event, while Bill & Ted are a bit out of place, but I also think Bill & Ted relies a bit too much on hype and reputation to drive popularity rather than trying to make a great show each year. Either way, still a very fun show, but a little short of what I expected.
Overall, I'd say that describes Halloween Horror Nights as a whole...very good, but a little short of what I expected. A majority of the mazes are great, and it is clear that Universal puts much more money into their event than any other theme park. However, the scare zones were a bit of a letdown, the event now lacks a signature show (unless they come up with something good next year), and the crowds may make it difficult to enjoy any night that was even slightly busier. As a local, this is an event I'd probably attend annually to check out that year's mazes, but with Knott's Scary Farm just across the county, I'm not sure I'd specifically try to include Halloween Horror Nights in another Florida trip (granted, I'd still go if they overlapped, but I wouldn't plan around the event again).
Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party
Visiting Orlando with kids too young for the other events? If so, this is one you should definitely check out. Like other Halloween events, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (abbreviated MNSSHP from here on) is a separate ticket after-hours event at the Magic Kingdom. Unlike other events, the focus is on having a good time rather than on giving you nightmares.
Originally, I saw this event as a way to add a second Magic Kingdom day without paying full price for a one-day ticket. However, while pretty much all of the park's notable attractions are in operation during the event, it does offer a number of unique, event-exclusive experiences. Most prominent are the many Trick-or-Treat Trails, where all visitors receive handfuls of free candy (just standard Mars candy, but still...it's free). I ended up with so much that I had to leave half of it behind to close my suitcase. In addition to the candy, there are unique character greeting opportunities for those with interest and enough patience to wait in the lines.
For those who want rides, most of the queues are only 10-15 minutes during the party, making it easy to experience your favorite Magic Kingdom attractions. Lastly, for those who enjoy dressing up as a character, this is the only time you can visit the park in costume (though, sadly, there are a large number of restrictions).
Two party-exclusive attractions deserve special mention, however. First is Happy Hallowishes, the party-exclusive firework show. Largely themed around the villains, this show features more aerial explosions than the park's regular performance, as well as an excellent soundtrack full of the villainous themes not commonly used in other Disney spectaculars.
The other noteworthy exclusive is Mickey's "Boo-To-You" Halloween Parade, a character parade with characters not typically featured in the parks, as well as a few interesting floats and an extremely catchy soundtrack.
The event does have a couple other shows, but we used the rest of our evening for rides and trick-or-treating.
Overall, MNSSHP is a must-do if you happen to be visiting Florida in the September/October timeframe and you are traveling with children. If you don't have kids, it is still well worth checking out for the exclusive shows and shorter wait times at lines. Plus, if you're into cosplay and can make something that fits the restrictions, the event holds an additional layer of attraction. Honestly, I enjoyed this event almost as much as Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream, just for very different reasons.
Florida's Theme Parks as a Whole...a few parting thoughts
Florida is the theme park capital of the world. Nine major theme parks surround Orlando, eight of which are very easy to access for tourists visiting the area (Busch Gardens Tampa is a bit trickier). Here, it is relatively easy to combine a variety of experiences into one vacation. You can immerse yourself in the world of movies one day, hang out with Mickey and Friends the next, and test your courage on some of the best white-knuckle thrill rides the day after. If you tire of the parks, the Orlando area has plenty of other activities to keep you entertained, and beyond central Florida much natural wonder can be found (visiting the Everglades is near the top of the list for my next trip).
For those looking for theme parks, Florida hosts some of the best in the world. Islands of Adventure and Magic Kingdom both make it onto my top ten parks list, and everywhere else I visited (expect perhaps Legoland Florida...and Hollywood Studios in its current state) is somewhere I'd absolutely make a return visit to. By comparison, only four of the seven major parks in Southern California would warrant a return visit if I were not a local (I'll leave it up to you to determine which non-Disney parks are worthy of one). While it would be out of my budget to visit Florida annually, it is definitely a place I see being a once every 4-5 years trip to see what is new and re-experience what I loved before. Although, with plenty of friends living in the state, it wouldn't be unreasonable to do a long weekend trip every couple years (particularly if a big new attraction opens).
That said, Florida does not have everything. They are missing a true thrill ride park, and they are missing a traditional theme/amusement park that doesn't rely on IP. For that reason, Florida should not be the only destination a theme park enthusiast plans to visit. To be completely honest, if I could only visit one single park, I'd opt for somewhere like Cedar Point over any of the Florida parks. That's not to say the Florida parks are bad by any means...they just tend to work better as a piece of a whole than as stand-alone entities.
So, should you visit Florida? If you've never been, absolutely! It should be the next destination you choose for a theme park centric trip. If you have, I'd recommend trying to do at least one non-Florida theme park centric trip between each Florida trip, as it will add more variety and allow you to appreciate the differences between the parks more. Plus, if you can take advantage of season pass deals, traveling to other places can be a bit lighter on the wallet.
Onward to the Next Adventure
And thus concludes this Californian's Florida Adventure. Like I said before, it was one of the best trips I've done in some time, and I look forward to going back in the future. However, as the book closes on 2017, it is time to look forward to 2018 and what is to come. While I've got a couple other trips planned in the near future (such as a ski trip to Colorado at the end of the month), I've begun work on my big theme park trip for 2018, and this time I'm looking for others to share in it.
This summer, Cedar Point debuts Steel Vengeance, and based on what has been shown so far it could possibly be the best thrill ride in the country. Therefore, I am putting together a trip covering the noteworthy parks of Ohio and Pennsylvania (and possibly a bit more). If the idea of spending a week to 10 days traveling around to theme parks with a small group of friends sounds appealing, you can read a bit more about it in this interest survey. If it's not quite your cup of tea, then just know that I'll have another comprehensive trip report coming next summer/fall.
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