Review: Howl-O-Scream 2010 mixes Halloween haunts with humor and a party atmosphere at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

in Events, Music, Theme Parks

Seven haunted houses. Two musical comedy shows. A rock concert. A night club. And one personal experience in horror. It is with these unique elements that Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has transformed Howl-O-Scream 2010 into much more than a scare-filled Halloween event. Their design team, led by creative director Scott Swenson, has made a conscious effort to keep the scream in “Howl-O-Scream” while at the same time creating a “party atmosphere” throughout the event.

To find out more about what Busch Gardens has cooked up for this year’s Howl-O-Scream, I talked with Swenson during a “bleedup” the park held on October 1, using social media (Twitter/Facebook) to invite a select group of fans to enjoy the night’s event on the house:

The impact of this year’s icon, rocker chick Sylvie, can be felt throughout the park, not only from her own nightly rock concert but also in her haunted house and several scare zones inspired by her band My X and the notion of romance-gone-wrong. (Hear more directly from Sylvie herself in our interview.)

So while Sylvie herself only shows a hint of Halloween horror in her act, it seems she has inspired much of the sinister acts seen throughout the night. It’s a subtle twist on the concept of having a single icon represent the Halloween time event. Not everyone may see the connection between a rock band and Halloween, but it all seems to be part of what makes up the overall feeling of Howl-O-Scream 2010.

Howl-O-Scream 2010 Haunted Houses

When discussing Howl-O-Scream, it’s tough to decide which aspect of the event to comment on first, as they all differ greatly from each other. But given that it is a Halloween event, I’ll start with its seven traditional haunted houses.

Technically there are eight haunted houses this year, but the uniquely personal “Alone” experience is much more than a typical maze. As such, I’ve written much more about the Alone experience in a separate (spoiler-free) article. It deserves it. So go there to read all my thoughts about it.

Before getting into the haunted house review, here’s a quick video overview of this year’s Howl-O-Scream haunted houses:

Six of the Howl-O-Scream haunted houses this year are returning from the past, each with some changes made – some good, some bad:

  • Deconstruction: The Dr. Is Out of Control – The haunted house formerly known as Reconstruction has suffered since its premiere a couple years ago. Its first year showed off gore around every corner and included one of my favorite actor-based visuals inside a haunted house. A false body was pinned to the wall with its skin stretched outward in all directions and an actor’s real face sat atop, filled with agony, making the effect come to life. But in the last two years, that encounter has been largely overlooked as the actor has been replaced by a static, fake head. This change is one example of how this house is still fun, but not as much as it once was.
  • Nightshade Toys: Son of Nightshade – Nightshade Toys enters its second year at Howl-O-Scream in a new location, but with essentially the same haunt experience. Though, like with Deconstruction, the house this year lacks my favorite moment from the past, during which a large wooden crate is unexpectedly “thrown” overhead inside a warehouse scene. Even without the “look out above” gag, I still enjoy a trip through this insanity-filled toy factory as each scene within it is completely unlike the previous one. And really, how can you go wrong with a haunted house featuring evil toys that come to life?
  • Death Row Vengeance: No Escape – Still one of my Howl-O-Scream favorites, Death Row Vengeance is set inside a ghost-filled prison and while it doesn’t change much from year to year, there’s really no need for it to. Non-traditional scenes here include an air-blasting firing range, surprising dual-electric chair, and no shortage of floating inmates seeking their, well, vengeance.
  • Trapped in the Walls: Ghostchasers – This classic Howl-O-Scream haunted house places guests “inside” the walls, pushing insulation and other building materials out of the way while trying to escape the evil within. It’s a novel concept but stretches on for far too long. This year’s “Ghostchasers” addition serves only to bookend the house (and seems to be Busch Gardens’ answer to Universal’s Legendary Truth haunted house at Halloween Horror Nights, which features the “Spirit Seekers”). The house stands fairly well on its own and didn’t need the overlay.
  • Trapped in the Walls - Ghostchasers haunted house entrance

  • Taste of Blood: A Different Vein – Last year’s Howl-O-Scream icon, vampire fashionista Ms. Vayne, showed upin his house, appropriately. But not this year. Instead, a different icon from Howl-O-Scream’s past appears within, but I’ll leave that as a surprise to you. Taste of Blood is another excessively long house that would benefit from a few less-exciting scenes being cut out, condensing more actors into a smaller space.
  • DEDer: Extreme Rush – The sorority-themed house returns for its second year with a new twist. It seems that Sylvie has written a special version of her popular “My X” song for the sisters, swapping out the lyrics for some amusing sorority-themed ones. Unfortunately, this catchy song plays non-stop, looping throughout the majority of the house. Even as the fun-loving girls turn deadly, the bubbly song blasting through the maze’s halls often overpowers the visuals. And there are plenty of visuals to be found. With an abundance of skirt-wearing girls paying guests close attention in this house, it’s no wonder visiting guys have a tough time leaving. The house is filled with comedy and scares, but this year DED(er) concludes with a particularly perfect (and unexpected) going away moment. Looping music aside, I enjoyed this house even more in its second year.
  • DEDer - Extreme Rush haunted house

  • My X: Revenge Rocks – The house that ties the My X theme together for Howl-O-Scream 2010 is less of a haunted house and more of a uninvited trip backstage at a concert. There aren’t too many ghouls to be found back there, only roadies, bouncers, and other stagehands all wondering why you’re wandering around behind a My X concert. Like the DED(er) house, the “My X” song plays throughout the experience but in this case, it works well, as it heightens the experience of going backstage at a rock show. So while scares are few and far between here (unless you’re really afraid of bouncers), you will come out feeling like you successfully snuck behind the scenes for a couple minutes.
  • Alone – I hesitate to include Alone in the “haunted houses” category, as it’s a unique experience that Busch Gardens is experimenting with this year. Overall, I deem Alone a success for its first year. As I wrote above, I’ve separately reviewed Alone, as it is the standout feature of Howl-O-Scream 2010. But in short, everyone will enjoy Alone differently. If you get scared in a traditional winding haunted house, you might be terrified inside Alone. Personally, I rarely am startled or scared inside haunted mazes, so likewise nothing scared me inside Alone. But I was thoroughly entertained for the roughly 8-9 minutes I was inside. The personal attention given by each actor throughout the experience coupled with special moments, effects, and scenes that would be impossible to successfully achieve inside a traditional house form an overall enjoyable attraction like no other I’ve seen inside a theme park. Read my full review for the spoiler-free tale of my experience in Alone.
  • Alone haunted house entrance

    Howl-O-Scream 2010 Scare Zones

    One of my favorite parts about attending Halloween time events like Howl-O-Scream is to slowly stroll through scare zones, watching others get scared and enjoying the small scenes that play out within. This year’s scare zones gave me plenty of laughs and entertainment.

    Here’s a quick video tour through the Howl-O-Scream 2010 scare zones:

    Of the bunch, the most enjoyable is easily Crazed Love, which includes several individual vignettes tied together under a common theme. A high school prom dance is ruined by a chainsaw-wielding cheerleader. Large wedding cakes form the backdrop for a bride whose groom apparently has left her in hopes of seeking out Sylvie (the cakes, by the way, have life-size bride/groom toppers with the bride’s head conveniently sliced off). And then there’s the all-business woman on a cell phone who is dragging around her boy toy on a leash. When those scenes are juxtaposed with the song “So Happy Together,” sheer Halloween amusement is created.

    Crazed Love scare zone

    Crazed Love scare zone

    Crazed Love scare zone

    Crazed Love scare zone

    The other scare zones, Light of Doom, Spiders and Snakes, and Road Trip (not seen in the video above) each produce startles of their own, but greatly rely on darkness and misdirection to achieve their goals rather than providing in-your-face entertainment like Crazed Love. It’s a mixed bag of scare zones, enabling everyone to choose their favorites.

    Light of Doom scare zone

    Spiders & Snakes scare zone

    Howl-O-Scream 2010 Shows and Other Experiences

    While Howl-O-Scream certainly features fun haunted houses and scare zones like any good theme park Halloween time event, it’s the shows and other experiences that make it unique.

  • My X Live – Sylvie and My X put on a solid 3-song concert twice nightly, at 10:30pm and midnight. The songs are nothing to scream about (or maybe they are), but the band is solid and puts on a good performance. Embedded in the audience are the “Xtreme Fanatics,” characters which have scarred themselves in tribute to Sylvie and the band, sporting bloody lyrics and X’s on their torsos and even wearing severed fingers around their necks. But more interestingly than the actors pretending to be fans are the actual fans of My X. It seems that Busch Gardens has successfully created a band with real followers who are eager to dance to Sylvie’s tunes and even sing along with the lyrics. While the performance itself has nearly nothing to do with Halloween (short of a brief sinister moment at the very end), it is providing entertainment that fans are gobbling up each night. As creative director Scott Swenson mentioned in the interview above, this is the actual band you hear on the radio, see on TV and on the web site, so there’s nothing phony about the performance.
  • Here’s a video of the complete 3-song concert on midnight, October 1:

    Sylvie and My X show

    Sylvie and My X show

    Xtreme Fanatics at My X concert

  • Club X – Howl-O-Scream also features a 21+ nightclub that has a bar, DJ, and stage with plenty of dancers. Again, it has very little to do with Halloween but it is there to provide some extra enjoyment for those who simply wish to party. It can be a nice change of pace from the incessant screaming of the actors found throughout Howl-O-Scream’s haunted houses and scare zones.
  • Here’s a glimpse at the dancers doing their thing at Club X:

    Dancers in Club X

    Club X dancer

    The October 1 “bleedup” for Twitter and Facebook fans took place inside Club X, where Busch Gardens treated the invited crowd to a private one-song performance by Sylvie and My X along with bringing out their popular “Sliderz” roaming hoard to show off to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

    Here’s a video of My X inside Club X:

    And the Sliderz “Thriller” performance:

  • Blood Relations – New for Howl-O-Scream 2010 on the stage inside the Desert Grill restaurant is a show called “Blood Relations,” created by Halloween Horror Nights alum J. Michael Roddy. The musical show features a talented cast who can not only sing and dance, but also do a fairly fine job of parodying a select group of pop culture icons from 2010. Unlike the similar “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure” at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights, “Blood Relations” allows each parody character to evolve on stage, rather than appearing for a few one-liners and then vanishing. Characters include over-the-top versions of Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, Miley Cyrus, and Bret Michaels. It’s a comedy show with a Halloween twist that leaves you smiling and laughing. (And it’s a heck of a lot better than the shows on this stage in the past two years of Howl-O-Scream!)
  • Video of “Blood Relations” highlights:

    Blood Relations

    Blood Relations

  • Fiends – This show might as well be called “naughty nurses,” because they’re the only reason anyone goes to see it. While the show’s jokes slightly change from year to year, it’s essentially the same show that has been running for more years than anyone can remember. It’s a Howl-O-Scream staple but I decided to skip it entirely this year. While the nurses are visually appealing, it may be time for “Fiends” to have a grand finale.
  • Photo Opportunities – Anyone dreaming to get their picture taken with the scantily-clad stars of Howl-O-Scream’s shows will thoroughly enjoy the event’s elaborate sets and characters ready to pose for you. From DED sorority sisters to naughty nurses (including shirtless and muscular male nurses this year) to “gritty pretty” rocker chicks, it’s tough to leave Howl-O-Scream without striking at least one pose for the camera. Then you have to go home and explain it to your significant other.
  • DED sorority girls photo op

    As a Halloween event, Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay delivers with seven traditional haunted houses, two Halloween-themed live shows, and one exceptionally unique personalized horror experience. Its haunted houses may not feature the same artistry and atmosphere that can be found in Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, but the bangs and screams throughout each maze will surely leave you on-edge. In addition, Howl-O-Scream is on track to become much more than a typical Halloween event, with its nightclub and live concerts providing a lighthearted “party atmosphere” that inject some life into a time of year that focus so much on the dead.

    More photos from Howl-O-Scream 2010 at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay:

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