The following blog post was written by Andrew Stilwell from North Carolina. He had the chance to visit Howl-O-Scream as part of a social media promotion. Thanks Andrew! - Mike
“Thank you for participating on the Busch Gardens social media channels. Could you email us your mailing address so that we may invite you to social media events in the future? Hope you are having a great summer.
Busch Gardens’ Social Media Team”
I had the opportunity to attend the Verbolten VIP event the day before the new roller coaster opened in May, because of a photo caption contest that was run through Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s facebook and twitter accounts. I thought that night would be the end of my social media “reporting” at Busch Gardens.
Regardless, I responded to the email just in case, not really thinking much of it.
Several weeks later, I received a small package in the mail. It was wrapped in plain brown paper, but had Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s address on the label. I was confused. I hadn’t sent away for anything from the park, and the earlier email didn’t even cross my mind until I started to open the package.
Inside, there was a small red box. Inside of the box, there was a dark bottle with a Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream Logo, with the message that read:
“The Lady of the Gardens summons you to the Dark Side of Busch Gardens.” Followed by “#FrightNight September 15, 2012.”
(It was tough to tell what was inside the bottle at first, though after some shaking, it revealed some gummy worms with a candy coating that were quite tasty.)
I’m not a member of the media who regularly receives invitations to special theme park events. I’m just your average guy who loves theme parks roller coasters more than a normal 22 year old does.
This invitation was something that I wasn’t expecting, but needless to say, I immediately RSVP’d, and made plans to head to Williamsburg, VA on the 15th. I had never been to any “scary” theme park Halloween events before, so I didn’t really have an idea what to expect.
The confirmation email I received said that I needed to be at the park by 3:00pm. I was there by 1:15. I figured that they’d maybe let me in early, and I could ride a few coasters in the meantime. I could dream, right?
Registration didn’t even start until 3. There’s a hilarious story that involves an employee from the Columbus Zoo who was at the park for an animal event, as well as a Busch Gardens employee who was confused as to why there was a table set aside at a side gate, but I’ll spare you. (The Sportsman’s Grille in Williamsburg is right down the street, and a great place to kill an hour and a half watching football and drinking.)
“Andrew Stilwell? Oh, I recognize your name from Facebook and Twitter!” Whether or not that was true, it was a great touch.
At the gate, we were presented with a bag that contained two black roses, two unlimited “quick queue” wristbands – good for all haunted houses, and all but two roller coasters (Verbolten and Loch Ness Monster) – and a few other items. We were also given a sheet of instructions that said to meet at the Black Forest picnic area at 5:00pm, where we were supposed to present the roses as an invitation to dinner.
We entered the park right after 3:00pm, and were able to take full advantage of the Quick Queue wristbands for two hours. (The park was the most crowded I had ever seen it – even the parking lots across the street were being used.)
The park looked great all prepared for Halloween, even in the daylight.
There were Halloween-themed items everywhere - ghosts hanging from the trees, gravestones dotting the gardens between Ireland and New France – for my first “Halloween” event, it was incredible to see. Everywhere you turned, there were different Halloween decorations.
Even the signs for the Haunted Houses looked great during the day. One of the best decorations I saw was an entire bridge between New France and Alpengeist covered in Spider webs.
The dinner was an array of foods – spare ribs, mini quiche, meatballs, and chicken drumettes, in addition to some creative “scary” desserts – nutter butter cookies covered in white chocolate with Dots as fingernails, and spider oreos with licorice legs. The buffet table and surrounding tables were decked out with “bloody” table cloths, as well as some creative decorations and centerpieces
Midway through the meal, the Lady of the Gardens started making her rounds. She actually popped up behind me in the buffet line, and just eerily stood behind me as I picked up a meatball and put it on my plate. Her lack emotions and talking would give the Blue Man Group a run for their money, though she did break a few times, and cracked a smile.
After dinner, it was 6:00pm, and Howl-O-Scream started. We had a few hours to explore all that the park had to offer as far as Haunted Houses go.
This begins the part of my report where there are some Spoilers. SPOILER ALERT. There, you’ve been warned.
As we got in line for the first house, the “Roaming hoards” emerged. Busch Gardens seems like it’s taking a page out of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights and not having scare-zones, rather these groups that roamed the entire park all night. There was a crowd of evil clowns, a “chainsaw army,” and a group of zombies, none of which were particularly frightening in the day light. The clowns had no problem coming right up to you and getting right in your face though, which I thought was a great touch.
We were able to see all six houses because of the Quick Queue wristband – and several of them multiple times. I’ll rank my favorite houses in reverse order.
6. FEAR FAIR
Located in the Festa Italia section of the park beyond the Roman Rapids queue line in a horse paddock, FEAR FAIR is set up like a carnival gone wrong, right down to the smell of horse crap.
When I picture a “Man-Eating Chicken,” I always think back to the Little Rascals and Spanky carnival barking so the gang could build a new Clubhouse. I digress. The draw at the Fear Fair was Clowns, and lots of them.
You walk from tent to tent, exhibit to exhibit – and there are clowns everywhere. I didn’t find this maze particularly scary, more creepy than anything. There were plenty of hiding places for the clowns, and they came out of the bushes and tall grass, and out from behind hanging banners. Don’t get me wrong. It had its’ moments. (I had a clown pop out of the tall grass at me and cackle, and I jumped back pretty far.) And, maybe it was because I experienced this maze in the daylight, but this was my least favorite maze by far.
The first house we visited that night was BITTEN. Housed in a wooden building beyond the “Black Forest” of Verbolten, BITTEN is a haunt that is centered around the times of Vampires of Eastern Europe in the 1800’s.
This maze wasn’t particularly scary to me. Maybe it’s all of the desensitizing that Twilight and its’ sparkly Vampires have caused, but I personally don’t find Vampires to be particularly scary.
There were several great scares within the maze – a few that jumped out at me (pun intended) were a vampire that popped out from under a coffin, as well as a vampire who sat with his leg up on a barrel as you came around a corner and screamed and cackled as you left the maze. His voice may have been the scariest thing in the attraction for me.
What I felt like was the smallest maze; CATACOMBS took place near the Royal Palace Theater. Themed with Skeletons and Rats, even though it was the smallest maze, it was easily the most concentrated with scares and actors. The “skeletons” were caged in by elastic “bars” and they would use the elasticity to their full advantage, popping out and bouncing back into their cells. The maze was too short to really take anything from it, but the population of scare-actors within the maze was easily the best. They did their job well, and elicited quite a few screams from people within the maze.
T-2. DEADLINE/ROOT OF ALL EVIL
I had a difficult time choosing which of these I liked better. Each maze had two of the biggest scares (at least to me) of the night.
DEADLINE was housed within the ride building at Escape from Pompeii. (I had no idea that there was a separate maze area underneath the ride track.)
Biohazard signs, traffic barrels, and even televisions broadcasting a fake news broadcast about the subway system failure dotted the Pompeii queue line and surrounding areas.
The best part of the maze was the different areas within it. There were distinct scenes – a subway station, a bathroom, an electrical room, and even a subway car.
The two scariest moments for me happened during two separate walk-throughs of the maze. During the first walkthrough – at the very end of the maze, there was a scare-actor with a gun. The gun was pointed at the ground, but as I was walking through the final scene, he “fired” it. The noise was unreal, and I hoofed it out of the maze very quickly.
As I was walking through, one of the dummies – obviously an actor at this point – got up, and slowly walked about 8” in front of me, only to go slump over in another seat. It wasn’t particularly scary, but it was one of the most unexpected scares of the night.
The newest house for this year’s Howl-O-Scream was aptly named ROOT OF ALL EVIL.
In short, it was themed as a greenhouse gone wrong. There were plants everywhere, and the indoor-outdoor maze was not short of thrills. It was especially hard to maneuver this maze after dark, because some of the plants and the way they were arranged made it difficult to navigate the maze.
The maze started in a greenhouse with an attendant who screamed at anyone who entered “DON’T TOUCH THE PLANTS!” As I was exiting the Greenhouse, I turned, and looked at her, and calmly said. “I just touched ALL OF THE PLANTS.” She proceeded to flip out, and bang a shovel on the table. It was great improvisation on her part.
The best scare of the night in my opinion came in this house while we were walking around the outside portion of the plants, and a scare actor popped out of a garden fountain that was filled with water, splashing everywhere. It was incredibly tough to see the fountain, let alone know that there was someone inside the fountain. Best scare of the night.
One other thing I learned from this maze – the sound of a spade, shovel, or other garden tool on concrete as one comes around the corner is an incredible way to scare people.
13 was my favorite maze of the night. I’m not sure if it was the constant fear of what was going to come next, or the fact that it was 13 different fears housed in one location.
Many major stereotypical fears were represented in this house – Claustrophobia, Fear of the Doctor’s Office and Waiting Rooms, Fear of being strangled by Plants, Monsters under the Bed, Snakes, Spiders, Heights, The Dark, and Bad Luck – the list goes on.
The claustrophobia scare involved finding your way through an incredibly thin, dark tunnel; which was created by air blowing two sheets on either side of you. This led into a waiting room that was dimly lit, with awful jazz music. I was curious on my trip through the maze if it was “Fear of Jazz Music.”
Probably the coolest illusion of the entire night took place in the area that symbolized fear of heights. Walking over a “plank” with a mirrored floor on either side, depicting water reflected off the ceiling.
I caught myself several times tapping my foot on the mirror just to make sure that it was real. 13 was more of a psychological scare than a physical scare, and I really enjoyed that.
After the houses, the Social Media Team had one final treat for us – reserved seats at the last showing of FIENDS, one of three shows at Howl-O-Scream.
There were several song and dance numbers with Dr. Freakenstein and his servant, Igor – as well as several scantily clad “nurses.” Classic monsters also made appearances – Dracula, singing Bon Jovi, the Wolfman singing Duran Duran, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
After several failed attempts and plot twists, Dr. Freakenstein finally created his monster (who didn’t look like a monster at all), and the show ended with a Beatles Cover. (I get by with a little help from my Fiends.)
Overall, Fiends was mildly entertaining, and provided a good 20 minute window to sit down and rest that night.
Riding Griffon and Verbolten in the dark were completely different experiences than riding them in the daytime. It didn’t hurt that Busch Gardens went all out on the fog machines at Verbolten, and the final drop was like riding a roller coaster through a cloud.
For my first time at a park Halloween event, I thoroughly enjoyed myself after not really knowing what to expect.
My one issue, if you could even call it that, was the lack of presence of the roaming hoards. Busch Gardens made it seem like “no dark path was safe,” – but aside from the “releasing” of the hoards at 6:00pm by the Bitten house, we ran into the clowns twice, once in the Fear Fair area before it got dark, and about 9:30, after Fiends. We didn’t see the Chainsaw army or Zombies at all.
Finally, I’d like to thank the Busch Gardens Social Media team for a great evening. I’d love to go back to Howl-O-Scream again this fall.