Eric and I just love Halloween and have grown to think of it as “our” holiday. We love the spooky ambiance, the tasty candy, the fun events, the dramatic organ music punctuated with Boris Karloff laughs. Unfortunately this year we were both so busy a good deal of the time that we didn’t get to do a lot of that stuff this ‘go round. So I decided we had to have our actual Halloween weekend be the most awesome one possible. Almost immediately, I thought of the famous Howl-o-Scream event at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
Every year I hear all about how great Howl-o-Scream is; both the park and the “spooktacular” event have some majorly dedicated fans. I hadn’t been to Busch Gardens myself in something like 20 years, so I was very excited to get back and see if it was just as I remembered as far as rides and settings go (and refreshingly, it pretty much was).
During Howl-o-Scream, Busch Gardens is filled with spooky decorations during the day and comes alive with shows, haunted houses, and scary walk-through areas with actors in costume at night. Eric and I purchased a very economical package deal including hotel, dinner, and park passes, and got to the park an hour after opening on the day before Halloween. The entire park was decked out with all kinds of spooky monsters, werewolves, and evil clowns, and ghosts were strung along the highest branches of the trees. Jack-o-lanterns lined pathways and sat in fields. Garden areas were transformed into graveyards. Fountains were covered in cobwebs, and there were a few appropriately-themed do-it-yourself photo ops. But my absolutely favorite was the giant Grim Reaper that greeted us in the France area!
There were also Halloween stores and a special Howl-o-Scream shop dedicated to this year’s theme, The Dark Side of the Gardens, and its “mascot” of sorts (a red rose with an eyeball peeping out of the middle). There’s even a really creepy theme song, sung by the Lady of the Garden, which played all over the park (most notably on the footbridge over the Rhine River) and which you can listen to right here.
But I’m sure what you really wanted to hear about were the things that come alive as soon as the clock strikes 6 PM during Howl-o-Scream season – the shows, the haunted house-type attractions, and the Fright Zone walkthroughs. Could they live up to the hype?
Fear Fair. Located mostly outside in a series of shacks and tents, this house was themed around a crazy stranded carnival full of cirus freaks. It was the first one we walked through and it was genuinely rather scary. I hate clowns, but not because I’m scared of them. I just think they’re dumb. But I was really impressed with the way the park’s staff had used an incredible variety of decorations, noisemakers, themed music, and actors in costume to create a truly creepy and unexpected walk. You never knew when someone or something would sneak out at you, or worse, follow you unnoticed for some time. Actors cleverly deduced who would be most frightened and went after those people. One man dressed like a clown boy with ponytails came after me no less than three times! The theme ranged from funhouse mazes and games to a tent of giant honeybees grown to giant proportions. There were funny moments too; at one point an actor in a giant frog costume appeared on the path ahead through the fog, aimlessly wandering around the opening of a tent. I actually found his random appearance scary after having been chased by clowns through a hayfield and shrieked, while Eric pointed, laughed and yelled out “IT’S A FROG! HAHAHAHA” I give Fun Fair 4.5 screams out of 5!
Dead Line. Located in the Escape from Pompeii ride house, which had been closed for the season (who wants to ride a water ride in freezing cold water?), this attraction’s story had you trapped underground inside the construction tunnel for the latest line on the Pompeii Metro after a pipe broke and something went “terribly wrong” … and that something was zombies! I hate/love zombies because I find them terrifying, but just love a good scare. These guys delivered. The decoration inside was incredible and truly looked just like an old abandoned branch of a Metro station, with spray-painted vending machine, walls, and bathrooms with burbling toilets. The creepiness began early on as we first had to walk through a very low-lying tunnel with a white cloth obscuring everything from sight. As we walked through the tunnels and Metro cars, the bloody, drooling, initially motionless actors were almost impossible to distinguish from the mannequins draped here and there. Really, really frightening! Just ask the girl who was so scared she fell on the floor in a ball, kicking and screaming no less than two times! 5 out of 5 screams! (Special note: people who had to wait in line for the ride got to watch a special video “news report” of what happened in the tunnel to get them all good and scared before they even stepped in there.)
13: Your Number’s Up. This attraction is based around 13 distinct phobias, some more obvious than others in this rather vague “haunted house.” Different phases represented different phobias, all marked with a number over a door. Some, such as the fear of snakes and insects, were far more obvious than other areas, where it seemed like nothing was really going on other than the occasional actor leaping out at us. The hospital room was the scariest with a corpse actor slowly rising up from under the covers, leaving people to wonder who she was going to jump out at first. But the best part of this attraction was the teenaged kid behind us who came in with his sister or girlfriend. He screamed – loudly – at everything that jumped at him, then would yell “Stop grabbing on me!” at the girl with him, who was mostly silent but clutching him for dear life. As we passed through an especially dark passageway, guests started screaming ahead and remarking one by one about how scared they were. The kid’s remark, hollered out in the darkness, was “It smells like jalapenos!” (He was right – was it a fear of hot vegetables section?) He was the saving grace of what would have otherwise been a mildly unimpressive walk. 3 out of 5 screams (not counting teenaged boy)
Catacombs. I don’t have much memory of this one other than walking through some, well, catacombs and having skeletons and creepy hands slide out from behind mannequins and small trapdoors in the walls. It gave me the shudders and provided a more classic kind of scare. 3.5 out of 5 screams.
Bitten. Held in what I believe was the old storage house for either the defunct Big Bad Wolf or Drachen Fire roller coasters, the scares in this one were too far and few between. We saw far less actors in this than we did in others, and many times it was easy to spot an actor long before he or she actually did anything. Vampires leaped from behind and inside coffins and around corners and fake blood was fairly plentiful. The floor was covered in sand for some reason. The last part was a long walk out with no actors in sight. Attractive costumes and staging, but very lackluster execution. 2 out of 5 screams.
These are out in the open areas that one would normally have to walk through to get to another section of the park, each with fog machines and decorations meant to keep you from seeing what would pop out at you. At least a couple had “Bypass Scare Zone” routes marked for the faint of heart.
Grin and Scare It. This clown-themed zone was easily the most well-done, and I should know because we had to walk through it four times. Full of quick scares like clowns popping out of stacks of crates, or snapping balloons at you through the fog, it was quick, creepy, and fun. The actors were excellent at their craft and were clearly enthusiastic about it. A woman decided to make a break for it and ran straight through with both arms over her face so she wouldn’t get “scared.” A heavyset male clown was not having that and he took off right after her! Eric and I got a kick out of that.
Scavengers. This area never turned into the Fright Zone the night that we were there, so I don’t have a review for it. It was supposed to revolve around evil scarecrows.
Widow Makers. This area looked creepier by the day, with giant spiders stuck in webs strung all about the path. At night, loggers carrying “chainsaws” appeared, presumably aiming to chop down the webs, but instead going after guests. Some actors seemed less than enthused; two were even hanging outside the wood-carver’s shop chatting and loosely holding their chainsaws! Others were far more into it, even chasing guests outside the area.
Stichin’ Time. Monsters, zombies, and an evil mad scientist snuck up on people and prowled the grounds. Great costumes.
Unleashed. Lastly, there was the werewolf Scare Zone. During the day, almost cute-looking werewolf decorations peeped out from around poles and trees. At night, actors in werewolf masks roamed!
We only caught two out of the three shows. Jack is Back was a musical in the Ireland section of the park, featuring dancing pumpkins and scarecrows, quite talented breakdancers on stilts, and the Howl-o-Scream mascot, Jack, a cackling pumpkin-headed fellow who goes back and forth from the stage to the roof. The show is basically a dance party to popular (not spooky) music and the crowd loved it. Lots of fun! Some variation of this will surely be back next year – be sure to catch a hot drink from the nearby pub ahead of time and stay warm.
We ate our dinner inside the giant German-themed Festhaus dining hall and watched part of Fiends, a musical extravaganza for “adults” featuring a mad scientist, dancing monsters and scantily clad pink-haired nurses, and some adult humor that will probably go right over most little ones’ heads. As we left, we found another nurse and Frankenstein’s Monster doing a choreographed dance in the main hall 🙂
An additional show was Monster Stomp Revisited which we missed.
Rides: Most rides were open, including all coasters. Water rides like Escape from Pompeii, Le Scoot (the log flume), and Roman Rapids were closed. Some of the coasters, as well as Curse of DarKastle were included on the Quick Queue (line-skipping) pass, which I highly recommend. I’ll review the rides themselves in a later post.
Verdict: Busch Gardens Howl-o-Scream more than lived up to all the hype. Eric and I both had an absolute blast with plenty of thrills and chills, and agreed that this was the perfect way to spend the day before Halloween. We just might do it again next year!
*BUY THE QUICK QUEUE PASS, unless you already live in the Williamsburg area and have more than one day to wait in line for haunted houses. If Eric and I had not bought these passes, which allow you to skip to the very front of the line, we would have only been able to see two, maybe three of the haunted houses on this particular date. We heard the line for one was an hour and a half long, but we waited no more than two minutes MAX for each ride and attraction shown on our QQ passes. If you can spare the extra dough, it is well worth it when you only have one day to see it all! The Quick Queue pass includes all five haunted houses as well as five rides.
*Festhaus is the best place to eat dinner. This giant dining hall has plenty of both German- and American-themed goodies and lots of bang for your buck, and can seat tons of people.
*You can rent mini-lockers for the day, or just pay a quarter or two (can’t remember) for a one-time use and then pay again each time you need to open it back up.
*The priority parking may be worth it if you’ll have to make return trips to your car or plan to win a giant stuffed animal later that can’t fit in a locker. At this writing, regular parking is $13 and priority (right at the entrance to the park) is $18.
*Be sure to visit the special Halloween stores located near the entrance. Lots of fun goodies inside!
*If you’re worried about losing sight of your kids, your friends, or your significant other, buy a light-up necklace or other such bauble from one of the souvenir shops. Eric and I got light-up jack-o-lantern necklaces because we thought they were cool-looking, but then realized that it was a great way to keep an eye on one another as the park grew dark. Both the pumpkin and the necklace itself light up bright orange so you can spot members of your party both ahead of and behind you. We found ours in one of the stores in the Ireland section. (Similar necklaces with uglier pendants, like giant dollar signs, are available year-round.)
*The Guinness tasted watered-down … pass.
*Howl-o-Scream isn’t really intended for young kids, but the scary stuff doesn’t come on in full swing until 6 PM, and the park opens at 10 AM, so you’ve got plenty of time if you’d rather avoid that stuff.
Next up, I’ll review more of Busch Gardens itself.