Central Florida Horror Vacation, Part 3: Howl-O-Scream, 10/30/04

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Saturday, January 8, 2005 10:58 PM
Part 3: VIP Fear Tour at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Howl-O-Scream
Saturday, October 30, 2004

With the exception of its second year, I have been attending Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay every year. At first, I thought it was a wannabe Halloween Horror Nights. It has evolved into a serious contender to Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights.

Busch Gardens gave three options for the VIP Fear Tours:

The “Viewing”
This tour was three hours long and cost $49.99 per person. It gave front of the line access to all six haunted houses and reserved seating at the two shows.

The “Funeral”
This tour was five hours long and cost $79.99 per person. It gave all the benefits of the “Viewing” tour, plus it gave front of the line access to the major rides. It also included a meal at the Desert Grill Restaurant.

The “Embalming”
This was a private VIP tour that cost $129.99 per person. It had all the benefits of the “Funeral Tour,” plus a special “Fright Feast” at the Desert Grill Restaurant.

Each tour had a guide that escorted you around the park. You also got a 20% discount coupon on merchandise. Each tour group accommodated 15 guests.

I took the VIP Fear Tour for the past two years. I was hesitant to take on this year because the VIP tour didn’t seem, well, very VIP. The guide just took you from one house to another. Unlike the R.I.P. tour guide at Halloween Horror Nights, the guide at Howl-O-Scream didn’t tell the group where they were going or give a background on the rides or houses that they were about to experience. Getting a background on the haunted houses and rides at Halloween Horror Nights enhanced my experience of the houses and rides. I felt I was herded around like cattle in Howl-O-Scream’s VIP Fear Tour.

Plus, Busch Gardens started selling special Howl-O-Scream Express ticket booklets last year. The booklets included front of the line passes to each haunted house and several coupons for food and merchandise. I remember last year a Busch Gardens employee was walking around with a big bag of these Express passes. She was calling guests to buy the booklets so they don’t have to “make a line.” Why would you want to make a line when the lines for the haunted houses were long enough? At night’s end, I saw her again and her bag was just as full.

For this year’s Howl-O-Scream, I was thinking of buying the Express passes instead of doing the VIP Fear Tour. Then I thought if I were to buy those passes, I would probably have to walk through the houses alone, or there would be a big space between me and the group ahead of me. If there is a huge space, I’ve seen Scare-actors jump out at you first. I’d be a walking target! This happened to me last year in Darkheart’s Fear Fair. Somehow, I left a big gap between me and the other people in the house. When I walked through the house, four Scare-actors scared me at once! I thought there would be safety in numbers and the group tends to share in their collective scaring experience, so I decided to sign up for the VIP Fear Tour this year.

I chose the “Funeral” VIP tour. The tour did not include park admission, which was $29.99 with my Platinum Pass discount. I hope I would not have the “herded around like cattle” feel this year.

I was coming from Orlando and I had to drive back the same night. I had to retrofit my vacation schedule to fit in Howl-O-Scream and I was meeting friends that morning in Orlando. I had a two-day reservation at the Wyndham Orlando Resort on International Drive. I purchased this hotel room from Hotwire at $41 a night. The Wyndham Orlando Resort. They had 15 buildings. One of the buildings was about ¾ the size of the Best Western Movieland that I had stayed the night before. The rooms were very clean and comfortable. The rooms had a short walk to the main lobby area. It was a very nice hotel and I had no complaints about it.

I decided to head out of Orlando at around 4:30 pm. Howl-O-Scream didn’t start until 7:30 pm, but I had to arrive a little early to check into the VIP Fear Tours. I also learned my lesson from my first Howl-O-Scream year to arrive early. At that time, I had reservations at the Howard Johnson’s Hotel on Fowler Avenue. I left the hotel at around 6:00 pm and I figured I had plenty of time to arrive at the park and buy my tickets. I headed down Busch Blvd. and traffic was at a slow crawl and bumper-to-bumper. Even L.A. drivers would hate this traffic! It took me about 1-½ hours to make it from Fowler Avenue to the Busch Gardens parking lot. Any other day would have taken me 15 minutes. Then I stood in line for 30 minutes for Howl-O-Scream tickets. I was finally in the park by 8:00 pm and the haunted houses lines were over an hour long. Because of the lines, I only got to ride four rides: Montu, Kumba, Akbar’s Adventures, and the train. During subsequent years, I could see the traffic from top of Montu and it was bumper-to-bumper traffic around 7:00! With construction blocking off 40th Avenue, Busch Blvd. became the main artery to Busch Gardens. I anticipated traffic would be a lot worse. Arriving early seemed a better idea this year.

I did arrive early at around 5:30 pm. I was able to get into the parking lot without any trouble and I got free parking with my Platinum Pass. I was right at the park after a short ride on the tram. I was one of the first people to check into the VIP Fear Tours booth. I found out that my tour guide was Enrico, who would be out later. I had about two hours to kill, so I walked around the front gate to check out the signs with descriptions of the haunted houses, took photos and video, and shopped in the gift shop. I noticed an employee at a drink stand was selling the Howl-O-Scream Express booklets. He wasn’t very enthusiastic in selling them. I don’t think that anyone approached him to buy them. I suppose these guests were at the post office or bank earlier in the day and like to stand in long lines!

Enrico came out at around 6:30 to gather up the people in his group. Throughout the night, he had two expressions on his face: confused and sad. I don’t think I saw him smile once during the night. While Enrico was rounding up his posse, the park turned on the switch for Howl-O-Scream. Outside the entrance I could see flashing laser lights and heard the soundtrack to Ghosts of Mars. I wonder if there will be Scare-actors lopping off heads with big blades? One can dream…

Enrico asked the group if they had their park admission tickets. One guest said, “I have this” and she pulled out her VIP tour confirmation letter. Enrico said that she needed park admission was not included in the VIP Fear Tour. She looked stunned. Other guests said that they too only had the VIP tour confirmation and were shocked to hear that they needed to buy separate park admission. One guest said, “Why am I paying $80 for then?” This happened to about 10 guests in our group. I took out my VIP tour letter and it said in big bold words across the top, “NOT VALID FOR PARK ADMISSION.” The letter also stated that park admission was not included with a VIP Fear Tour. I looked at other letters too and it said the same thing. The rest of us had our admission tickets. We deemed ourselves as “the smart ones.” I don’t recall anyone having this problem at the R.I.P. tour at Halloween Horror Nights.

The guests without park admission scurried to buy tickets and came back a short time later. The gates opened around 7:15 and Enrico lead the group in. The first haunted house that we visited was Escape from Insanity: Lockdown. Unlike the previous VIP Howl-O-Scream tour guides, Enrico actually told us where we were going. However, due to park noise, tour members in the back had a hard time hearing him. It would have been better to huddle up the group into a quiet corner and explain what we were doing. Enrico went into the haunted house with us, which my tour guide at Halloween Horror Nights didn’t. Enrico would bring up the rear of our tour group line in the houses.

The Escape from Insanity: Lockdown haunted house has made an appearance in the last few Howl-O-Screams, but it hasn’t changed much. This year, it has gotten a makeover. Instead of the insane asylum’s residents taking over, they were now supposed to be locked down. They were running amuck anyway. When the group entered the house, two guests in the house were trying to take a photo of a Scare-actor hiding in the table. Hmm…I recall the sign at the entrance to the house said no photography or videotaping without permission. I doubt that he had permission since he was using a single-use camera. He was trying to frame his shot just right before he took his photo. I bet the Scare-actor will be seeing spots in front of his face for the entire night. With the time that he took to take a photo, he left a big space between him and the group before him. That means most Scare-actors will go after him. I was going to love to see him jump, heh heh…

Enrico said that Escape from Insanity: Lockdown was the longest house in the park. It certainly was! I think it took the group 5 minutes to get through it. The house had some good scares. The Charles Manson room is back, where he is loudly blasting Beatles tunes. The squirting toilet made an appearance again too. The part that I had a problem with last year was the corridor with the endless curtains. This area had curtain after curtain. After the third curtain, I was getting sick of going through them. This year, they added scares of Scare-actors pushing their hands through holes in the walls. That made several people in our group jump. As I was walking through the house, I felt very scared. All throughout the house, I was hunched over with my arms in front of me like a shield. I had never experienced this sensation in any other house, even at Halloween Horror Nights.

The next haunted house was Chaos, which was essentially Demented Dimensions in 4-D with a different name. This house is like “what were they smoking when they made this one?” The makers used a lot of florescent paint to create rooms with spots, big pictures of spiders, and other strange patterns. It reminded me of Cedar Point’s Disaster Transport queue. We were given 3-D glasses to wear, which made the funky paintings in this house even funkier. There were some nice scares in this house. The best ones were Scare-actors who blended into the walls of the room. They had the same funky florescent patterns and hid for their next victim. They gave some good scares to their victims! One of our group members even said, “I didn’t even see him!” It wasn’t as disorienting as Disorientorium at Halloween Horror Nights, though. When we were entering Chaos, a few guests were trying to get in with us, but I didn’t see them exit with us. Someone must have shooed the freeloaders away.

Enrico took us next to Montu. It looks like the Montu line began at the bathrooms in front of the ride, but we went up the exit for front of the line entry. We had 15 members in our group, but somehow, our tour guide told the Montu ride operators that we had 12. Three of our group members had to find open slots to ride. Montu was fun to ride in the dark. It seemed a lot faster in the dark.

We went to Corporate Nightmare next. This house was by Gwazi until it was damaged by a hurricane. Which one it was, who knows. There were four back to back, so just pick one! It was now in King Tut’s Tomb. Corporate Nightmare was a haunted office. I’m sure many people’s workplaces are scary! As we entered the house, two guests approached us and tried to come in with us. I didn’t pay much attention to them because when we entered the house, no one wanted to go first. The tour group members in front tried to get others to go first, but no one stepped up to the offer. In the meantime, we had created a large gap between us and the group ahead. I was about to step forward and lead the group in, but the people in front finally decided to walk in. Because we had left a large gap, Scare-actors were jumping out left and right at us, assaulting us with scares. The best scare in the house came at the end. There were a bunch of men dressed in suits and covered with gray masks. They all looked fake, but one was real. I couldn’t tell which one was real until he jumped out and scared us. This house seemed to be less than 3 minutes long. If Escape from Insanity: Lockdown was the longest house in the park, Corporate Nightmare was the shortest.

As we exited the house, our group came out, then the two people who tried to sneak in with us, and then Enrico. Wait a minute…how did these two people get in with us? They didn’t pay $80 for front of the line privileges! Who let the freeloaders in? When I saw them come out, I felt like I was being ripped off. I paid good money for front of the line access to the haunted houses, but I could have just snuck in with a VIP group and gotten in that way? No fair! At Halloween Horror Nights, Chris didn’t tolerate freeloaders. Maybe Enrico needs to get lessons on how to tell freeloaders to go away from Chris.

It was time for our dinner show. The show was Depraved Reality, which was a spoof on stars from reality TV. Since this VIP Fear Tour included dinner at the Desert Grill Restaurant, we were led to Timbuktu. We had to pass through two Scare Zones to get there. The first Scare Zone was Agony Express, which was around the Nairobi train station. This zone had a lot of Scare-actors and some great scares. The best were the Scare-actors who raked shovels in front of your feet. Many guests were jumping and screaming from this. One of the shovel Scare-actors liked to walk up behind guests, stick out his tongue, and shout loudly. We could paint his face with funky black and white makeup and he’d look like Gene Simmons! The next Scare Zone was Sliderz, located near the entrance to Timbuktu. The music and light show were nice here, but I only saw one Scare-actor! What happened to the other Scare-actors? Were they on break? Did they call in sick?

We made it to the Desert Grill Restaurant and were given our meal coupons. The coupons were good for a side dish, an entrée, and a desert. Last year, when others were picking things like spaghetti with meatballs, I decided to go for the most expensive dish and got a salad, a full slab of ribs, and a desert. This meal would normally be $20, so I definitely got my money’s worth! Apparently, with this year’s group, someone had the same idea and asked if she could have a full slab of ribs with the meal coupon. The restaurant employee said that she could only have a half a slab. I was really looking forward to getting my money’s worth with a full slab of ribs! My plans were foiled! I ended up getting a salad, a meatball sub with fries, and desert. I was held up in the food line by picky eaters. One wanted the meat taken out of her dish. Another one wanted no sauce on his ribs. I had my dish, so I wanted to get around the man who wanted the sauceless ribs, but he was too fat to get around. He was about twice the size of me! He then wanted caffeine free Sprite, which the park didn’t have and it took him a long time to make another drink decision.

When I was finally seated, it was 10 minutes until Depraved Reality. You’ve never seen me inhale food so fast. I was done right before the show started. The show was about the host (dressed up like the Scream killer) who wanted to punish reality TV stars for ruining the TV landscape. He gave them one last reality show challenge and there would only be one survivor. Paris Hilton, Nick Lachey, Jessica Simpson, Donald Trump, Anna Nicole Smith, and Simon from “American Idol” made an appearance. The show was good with a lot of singing and dancing, but it had too much of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson. The host turned out to be the greatest star in reality TV history…William Hung! “American Idol” did make him a star, even if it was for 15 minutes.

After Depraved Reality, we were led to the ‘Til Death Do Us Part haunted house. It was set up in the Unga Banga Bumper Cars ride. The haunted house Tortured occupied this space for the last two years. ‘Til Death Do Us Part had the same layout as Tortured, but it wasn’t as scary. The layout was walk down a long hallway, turn a corner, walk down a long hallway, turn a corner, walk down a long hallway, turn a corner, and so on.

A hand that came out of a wedding cake was a good scare, but nothing else seemed very frightening in ‘Til Death Do Us Part. It was nicely done, though. I couldn’t figure out the storyline, though. It seemed like a man lost his wife on his wedding night and they are both haunting a house together, but I wasn’t sure what was happening. An introduction to the house from Enrico would have been nice. At the end of the house, I wasn’t sure if the man was shouting out “Margarlise!” or “More cheese!” If he wants more cheese, he needs to visit Wisconsin! Like the other houses, Enrico came along with us. As he turned a corner, I saw him out of the corner of my eye and a Scare-actor said “Boo!” to him. The sad expression on his face never changed.

Enrico took us to Kumba next. Kumba is a pretty fast roller coaster in the day and it seemed a lot faster and more intense at night. The regular line to Kumba didn’t seem too long. It looked like a 10 to 15 minute wait.

We had two haunted houses left, the Mortuary and Darkheart’s Fear Fair. We went through Sliderz again, which had about two Scare-actors in the whole Scare Zone. We had another walk through Agony Express, which had more fog effects than before.

We visited the Mortuary haunted house first. This haunted house was around for the past two years and remained unchanged through the years. The Mortuary took us through a funeral home with some very demented employees. The demented employees always make for good haunted house residents! One good scare came at the beginning. A series of statues lined the walls and they looked real. Only one was real. She’d stand very still and then she would move and scare her victim. One scare that didn’t really work was a Scare-actor in a coffin. She’d lie very still and then open her eyes and throw her arms into the air. Was she trying to scare us or did we just score a touchdown? The end of the Mortuary was dark and had a lot of people saying, “We’re going to get you, we’re going to get you.” No Scare-actors occupied this area, but we had to move aside lots of hanging human remains and clothing to get through the house. There were so many hanging items to move aside that I was starting to get annoyed by them all. Can I just tear them down so I can get through this house? I thought Halloween Horror Nights’ Screamhouse was better, though, but the Mortuary was fun nonetheless.

Next up as a front of the line ride on Gwazi. I really hate Gwazi. For one, the slow loading times caused it not to duel anymore. A train is sent out when it is ready. For Gwazi not to duel is like Ice without Fire, Lightning without Thunder, Abbott without Costello, and you without IOA Central. They must be together to have the whole experience. More importantly, I hate Gwazi because it is so rough. Someone needs to really re-track this roller coaster so it can run smoother.

Enrico loaded us onto the Tiger side. It took the ride operators 5 minutes to check the seatbelts and then the lapbars. Finally, we headed into the ride. Throughout the ride, I remember saying, “Ow, ow, ow!” a lot. I would have been cursing if not for the younger members in my group. I imagine I will say that too if I ride Manhattan Express in Las Vegas! Riding Gwazi is like sitting on a jackhammer…no wait, sitting on a jackhammer would be better than Gwazi! Some people say that the humidity in Florida causes Gwazi to be rough. These people need to go to the east coast and put their butts in the Dania Beach Hurricane in Dania, FL. It is a pretty smooth wooden coaster. What are the operators of the Dania Beach Hurricane doing to keep their coaster smooth that the Gwzai operators aren’t? I don’t have an answer.

Enrico led the group to the last Fiends show of the night. To get there, we needed to cross through the Scare Zones Bone Crushers and Beware. Bone Crushers had Scare-actors dressed up in fancy motorcycle helmets and robes. I don’t remember too many Scare-actors or scares in this zone. The Beware Scare Zone took us by the Land of the Dragons. Beware had a lot of Scare-actors, but they weren’t going after me.

Our seats at the Fiends show were about 3 rows from the stage. I’ve seen Fiends for the past two years and it has remained unchanged. Dr. Freakenstein and Igor invite classic movie monsters like Frankenstein’s Bride, the Mummy, Dracula, and Wolfman to a big party for his unveiling of his newest creation, the Monster of Frankenstein (or Freakenstein?). Each monster had his or her moment in the spotlight to sing and dance. It’s a pretty fun show and a chance to get away from the scares in the rest of the park. The best part of the show was the scantily clad nurses. I could watch them all night. Put the nurses and the lady from Castle Vampyr on stage. Give me a neon yellow seat cushion and a six-pack of beer. I’ll watch them all night! A person behind us said that he saw the show last year and Dracula had his fly down. He was dancing and you could see his white underwear!

Enrico finally managed to smile before the Fiends show. He was sitting with his co-workers and clapping along to the music. He turned his frown upside down and actually smiled!

The last haunted house we hit was Darkheart’s Fear Fair, a haunted circus with frightening clowns. The house had nice scenes of a circus and a carnival, but I don’t recall too many clowns. I saw a clown with a chainsaw, but they were few and far between. The revolving tunnel was back, but instead of being at the beginning of the house like last year, it was at the end. The tunnel had a sidewalk beside it, so you didn’t even have to go through it. Darkheart’s Fear Fair was a nice looking house, but I don’t remember being scared at all.

Enrico ended the tour in front of Gwazi and said his goodbyes. It was around 12:30 and Howl-O-Scream was open until 2 am. Tonight was daylight savings, but we didn’t get an extra hour in the park. I took a walk to the front gates and looked around in the gift shops a little bit. The Anheuser-Busch Hospitality Center was closed! No free beer samples! Oh, the humanity! I sat at a bench near the front gates. A Scare-actor on stilts scared guests with a flashlight. He’d walk around in the dark, turn on the light, and say, “Boo!” to his victims. The same Ghosts of Mars soundtrack was playing in the background. Enrico was walking to a backstage area and he was goofing off with his co-workers. I saw him again smile here!

While walking around, I noticed that the longest lines were for the haunted houses, but throughout the night, the park didn’t seem overly crowded. The crowd level was surprising, since Halloween was just a day away. Halloween Horror Nights tends to be crowded the Saturday before Halloween.

Overall, I thought that the VIP Fear Tour was good to participate since we got to skip over the long lines to the haunted house. I would be hesitant to take the tour next year. The “VIP” part of the VIP Fear Tour seemed to have been let out. Even though our tour guide Enrico did tell us where he was taking us, I still felt like I was being herded around like cattle. Enrico could have shown more enthusiasm in being our guide. He seemed to have an attitude of “Ho, hum, I’m your Howl-O-Scream VIP tour guide tonight.” My Halloween Horror Nights tour guide Chris had lot of enthusiasm and seemed to take pride in being our guide. I think next year I might do the “Fright Feast.” The “Fright Feast” started at 6:00 pm in the Desert Grill Restaurant and gave you a head start on the haunted houses. I could even purchase the Howl-O-Scream Express passes so I wouldn’t have to “make a line.”

I drove back to Orlando, which was difficult since I had a hard time staying awake. I had to take a nap on a back road off I-4 before I could continue back to my Orlando hotel. Stopping by Mons Venus after Howl-O-Scream didn’t help either.

Since I visited Howl-O-Scream and Halloween Horror Nights, people ask me what event I think is better. Honestly, I couldn’t choose one over the other. Howl-O-Scream had the best haunted house I’ve ever seen – Escape from Insanity: Lockdown. Busch Gardens’ event had some pretty good scares of Scare-actors hiding among the scenery. Halloween Horror Nights, on the other hand, had three well-done haunted houses with good and creative scares – Hellgate Prison, Ghost Town, and Castle Vampyr. Their Scare Zones seemed better stocked with Scare-actors. None of the shows at Howl-O-Scream are as funny and entertaining as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. Rather than trying to choose one over the other, I see both Howl-O-Scream and Halloween Horror Nights as compliments. If you like one, you’d probably enjoy the other. Some things Howl-O-Scream does better and others Halloween Horror Nights takes the lead. If they were two puzzle pieces, they would fit together nicely.

In Part 4, I visit Sea World’s Halloween Spooktacular.

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