After 45 minutes of driving south of all major Orlando attractions, I find myself maneuvering increasingly dark and foreboding streets leading into what seems to be the middle-of-nowhere. It is within this darkness that you will find Beasts of Blackwood, a new immersive experience set in a forest full of myth and mystery, ready to entertain guests looking for a fun new type of adventure this Halloween season.
Located not too far outside the sprawling ChampionsGate community, Beasts of Blackwood is not your typical Halloween affair. This not a haunted house, by any means. But it is definitely creepy from the moment you arrive, driving down an unlit, unpaved road to reach what appears to be a rustic campground.
In reality, by day, it’s a local hang gliding attraction. But by night, the creative team from up-and-coming company Make Real has brought new life to this forest by bringing in a handful of actors to lead up to 8 guests at a time through a lighthearted, but simultaneously spooky one-hour experience.
It all begins as guests meet up at a fire pit, where a rather bumbling and incompetent park ranger may or may not actually have been able to light a fire. Surrounded by nothing but a soggy empty field, dark skies, and trees as far as the eye can see, guests learn that some kids have gone missing in the woods. From what I could best gather from the man’s meandering yammering, the kids were out there to film a documentary on the infamous “Beast of Blackwood.” Naturally, the kids have disappeared and no one has been able to find them, so guests are brought in as an unauthorized, after-hours search party to help find them – or discover what horrible fate they may have met.
Stepping into the darkened woods without knowing who, or what, may be lurking ahead is nerve-wracking for sure. But it isn’t long before the group of guests meets up with a pair of friends expertly portrayed as confident, but teenagers who are eager to help find those missing kids. Quickly arming guests with finicky flashlights that have a tendency to flicker off at the worst possible times, the group spends the next 45-60 minutes discovering clues littered amongst the trees.
It’s exciting to stumble across a backpack or tent filled with notes, tapes, and other surprises that move the story forward, pushing guests deeper and deeper into the woods.
But there’s more to this story than just a few missing kids, as the feeling of dread grows within the group, flanked on either end by actors offering decidedly different spins on the story. Whether you’re at the front of the pack or the back as you trek through the woods, you’ll get a rather different experience, either bold and adventurous or afraid and downright paranoid.
The whole experience is completely interactive, not only through constant conversation with the improv-trained actors but also hands-on with various props and gadgets. There’s always something to grab, look through, or discover. Guests who are willing to give themselves over to this experience and play along will find great fun bantering with the actors, embodying a character of their own while sneaking, hiding, and sometimes even running through the forest. Those who aren’t the social type will find excitement in searching for clues hidden within various audio and video recordings found throughout the experience. There’s a little something for everyone – as long as you’re willing to participate. Those simply looking to stand back and watch a show should not attend, as this is a fully participatory experience – and a downright fun one at that.
Beasts of Blackwood is light on the scares, but makes up for it with an constant sense of suspense that only falters at the very end with a rather lackluster finale that fails to live up to the rest of the excellent time.
The experience also stumbles a bit in its story’s time period. Set in the 1980s – no doubt inspired by the success of “Stranger Things” – Beasts of Blackwood can be more than a little heavy-handed with references to the decade. They’re really not at all subtle about it. The park ranger is a bit too quick to drop references to Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, “Risky Business,” and (many) more pieces of ’80s pop culture. Throughout the experience, guests encounter VHS tapes, tube TVs, large camcorders, and other antiquated pieces of technology. It’s fun for a little while to chat back and forth with actors about the “current” time period (I made a Ronald Reagan joke), but eventually that schtick gets old and ultimately detracts from the experience by drawing too much attention to itself.
But overall this new immersive experience is a welcome addition to Orlando’s Halloween scene, a fantastic departure from the usual “boo” scares of haunted houses in favor of a rather simple, yet completely entertaining evening event.
A word of warning to potential participants: This experience is literally out in the middle of the woods. There are bugs. There is dirt. There are puddles. Wear long pants and shoes you do not value. You will be glad you did when you find yourself running away from the dangers that lurk within this darkened forest.
Tickets and more information for Beasts of Blackwood can be found on their web site. The event took a hiatus following Hurricane Irma but is back up and running beginning tomorrow, with availability through October 28.