Inspired by perhaps the most evil of years, Busch Gardens Tampa created a story for Howl-O-Scream 2013 that fittingly brought forth The 13, a creepy assortment of characters to act as this year’s icons.
Greeting guests immediately at the front gate, The 13 introduce an event that shows off entertaining and impressive new additions, mixed with bag of tired old Howl-O-Screams tricks. This year’s event improvements are noteworthy, but not enough to keep the thrills and chills continuing throughout a full evening of exploring the massive theme park.
Howl-O-Scream 2013 Scare Zones
Three scare zones are featured at Howl-O-Scream 2013, along with a small assortment of roaming characters. With a park this big, most of the streets are severely lacking in entertainment or any sort of Halloween decor this year. While The 13 and Pain Lane are lively and quite entertaining, Harvester’s Haunt is only mildly a musing. It’s definitely a downgrade from previous years, with most of the excitement packed at the front of the park.
Arriving early affords the opportunity to see The 13 during the day. Winding in and out of slamming doors, much as they appeared throughout the weeks of teasing on the Howl-O-Scream web site, The 13 come and go in groups, each with their own quirks and bizarre behaviors.
The 13 are The Possessed, The Torturer, The Hunter, The Butcher, The Banshee, Voodoo Queen, The Surgeon, The Demon, The Zombie, The Cannibal, The Psychopath, The Hangman, and The Clown - some far more entertaining and interesting than others.
Once night falls, these thirteen fiends do their best to sneak up on unsuspecting guests that pour into the area or think they are safe posing for a picture. It’s a high-energy area that proves to be one of the most entertaining of the evening, seen together with Howl-O-Scream’s two other scare zones this year (plus a few of their always-popular pin-up and shot girls) in the videos below.
Video: Scare zones of Howl-O-Scream 2013 - The 13, Pain Lane, Harvester’s Haunt
Video: Closer look at The 13
The Possessed crab crawls across the ground, barking unintelligible insanity reminiscent of Reagan from “The Exorcist.” It’s an effective scare tactic. The Banshee, on the other hand, shrieks the night away with a high-pitched shrill that will surely leave her voiceless by the evening’s end - but not before shattering everyone’s eardrums.
The Psychopath maintains the creepiness with his oddly gaping mouth hanging open for much of the evening, switching off with occasionally mumbling various insanities. Meanwhile The Cannibal is constantly in search of his next meal, content with licking his knife in in the meantime.
The Voodoo Queen stands out as an intriguing character, a natural fit to have her own new haunted house this year, Death Water Bayou. (More on that below.) The Demon also is particularly unique, with his evil grin and stare popping out from his pitch black appearance.
The Torturer, The Hunter, The Butcher, The Hangman, and The Clown are among the least original of the group, though two of them do take on bigger roles in the Pain Lane scare zone. (More on that below too.)
The Surgeon is not at all scary, but certainly draws attention as the more alluring of the group of maniacs. With sultry eyes and a high-heeled strut, she does have a strong presence, but not in any kind of spooky way.
And then there’s The Zombie, lonely and sad - not at all intimidating or the least bit interesting. This undead would be better to simply wander off.
Overall, encountering The 13 is a fantastic way to start off the evening at Howl-O-Scream… almost too good. It sets the bar much higher than the rest of the event lives up to.
Howl-O-Scream takes a turn for the depraved and disturbing as Pain Lane brings out the sadistic side of scaring. Featuring The Torturer, The Hangman, and a girl who might just be some kind of dominatrix, this area is filled with torture devices and victims who succumb to them. It includes lots of crying, screaming, whipping, and beating. And yet somehow guests find themselves smiling their way through. Such is the nature of a Halloween event. There are some good scares in this area and the characters do a good job of keeping the appearance of pain flowing through at all times.
Unmarked on the event map, this scare zone is located near the train station in the Nairobi area of the park.
The screaming scarecrows of this area bathed in orange, blue, and green lights can provide some quick startles, but mostly create a sleepy and somewhat repetitive environment. There are a couple nice touches, including a large pile of hay that surprisingly comes alive and a tribute to the famous painting American Gothic. But jumping out of dark corners and scraping shovels along the ground will always get a cheap scare, so it’s effective for those who don’t see it coming.
Also not marked on the map, this scare zone is located near the Sesame Street area of the park.
The rest of the street characters are few and far between. I saw a great group of larger-than-life cloaked characters immediately upon entering the park, later spotted inside as well. They were definitely adding some great Halloween flare. But other stilt walkers later spotted in the evening just seemed to be wandering through, not really trying to scare anyone. And a lone shirtless bloody guy was walking around one area of the park, leaving me puzzled as to what he was supposed to be doing. There really wasn’t much to see.
Howl-O-Scream 2013 Haunted Houses
For Howl-O-Scream, I don’t use the same ratings and rules that I do for reviewing Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando. It’s not at all fair to compare these to widely different events as their approach to Halloween haunts is vastly different. Universal goes big with their scale, detail, atmosphere (and budgets) while Busch Gardens generally presents a series of startles wrapped in crazy stories. Plus Busch recycles many houses from year to year, and they do tend to grow stale over time.
The Howl-O-Scream houses are simply ranked in order of my personal preference after experiencing them all last night.
1. Death Water Bayou
I have never been more impressed with a Howl-O-Scream haunted house than I was with Death Water Bayou. Granted I am partial to the themes of voodoo and the general New Orleans motif, but even putting my own personal bias aside, this maze is wonderfully executed. Just the approach to the foggy old wooden shack is more impressive than anything I’ve seen at Howl-O-Scream in the many years I have been frequenting this event. The sounds, the smells, and the sights all perfectly blend to create the feeling of stepping into a middle-of-nowhere cabin in a Louisiana swamp, complete with a few backwoods characters out front.
Inside, the Voodoo Queen immediately makes her presence known in a surprising seance scene, followed immediately by an effects driven encounter with a witch doctor of sorts. After passing through his voodoo portal, the shadow spirits seem to come alive through a variety of scenes that take visitors through the swamp, a jazzy funeral procession, and even outside into highly themed and instantly recognizable New Orleans style streets. Somewhere in the middle are close encounters with a few tikis and other surprising scares.
It’s an excellent blend of highly detailed environments, cool characters, and an overall sense of place that combines to create a fantastic haunted house that I look forward to returning in years to come.
2. Circus of Superstition 3D
Surprisingly, a returning house that was introduced in 2012 retains a top spot at Howl-O-Scream this year. This is easily my favorite 3D house I’ve ever been through, with inventive gags continuing through the entire experience. And Busch Gardens has managed to plus it with a few new twists, including a particularly LARGE one near the end of this maze. It’s filled with laughs, scares, bright lights, darkness, lots of colors, and never once ventures into the tired “evil clown” routine. It’s simply an enjoyable maze to walk through..
3. Zombie Mortuary
It is tough to classify the remaining five haunted houses, as none are particularly good. Zombie Mortuary was a favorite of mine a couple years ago when it debuted and it still holds up today, particularly for newcomers. Now that I’ve been through it many times and very little has been added or changed, it’s getting a bit old. But those who haven’t seen it before will surely have the same strong reactions I did when I first encountered the introductory funeral scene, setting the depressing tone that continues throughout. And stepping outside of the world of the living and quite literally into a grave is still a nice touch.
4. The Basement
Much like Blood Asylum disappointed me as a new haunted house last year, The Basement has done the same this year. It feels like an old Howl-O-Scream maze already, despite being brand new, somewhat do to the fact that it reuses scenes and sets from the “Alone” house, retired this year. But even beyond that, the concept of a butcher shop gone insane is so overdone at Halloween events that nothing in this maze feels new. There are a few choice moments involving wacky characters, overindulgence of mystery meats, and some nasty smells, but beyond that it’s just a long walk through familiarity, filled with nonstop banging and screaming.
This Edgar Allan Poe-based house has gone through its paces, starting relatively weak in its first year, getting much stronger in its second, now meandering back into mediocrity in 2013. It has its nice moments, like feeling the beat of the Tell-Tale Heart under your feet and blindly stumbling through the Masque of the Red Death as red and white strobes completely mess with everyone’s vision. But like much of Howl-O-Scream, it succumbs to an assault of actors popping out out drop doors screaming random phrases. The feeling of Poe has been lost.
6. Blood Asylum
Some might be frightened by the “Creature” - a killer of some sort that is escaping from an insane asylum along with other inmates. I still find this maze to be rather obnoxious. It is definitely not for those who are claustrophobic, with many tight corridors winding through scenes of, yes, more people screaming. Add in some gnarly masks and a few water effects and this maze stays pretty simple and entirely too long. There’s one fun moment in which an mutilated body triumphantly hangs directly in the path, heavenly illuminated, requiring all to push their way through. It creates a moment of pause for everyone who turns that corner. But that fleeting piece of originality quickly disappears into halls of more banging and screams.
7. Ultimate Gamble: Reversal of Fortune
There is no doubt in my mind that Ultimate Gamble is the next Howl-O-Scream haunted house to be replaced. This maze has gone through many transformations, originally a vampire casino, then turning into a somewhat fun flashlight-required experience. Now it is “condemned,” overrun by werewolves. And the path is reversed from what it used to be. What all that basically means is they’ve turned the lights really low and let it fall into a shamble of what it once was as a glorious glowing casino environment. Now strobe lights often fill the seemingly endless paths that hopefully mark the last time I ever encounter this attraction. The completely lack of any line whatsoever for this maze on opening night indicates I’m not the only one with this opinion.
For an additional $50, Howl-O-Scream 2013 features a different sort of take on a Halloween experience, sending one to four victims in to face their fears of bugs, snakes, darkness, needles and other goosebump-inducing activities. I did not partake. This is not my idea of fun, by any means, particularly at that price point. And judging from the almost nonexistent flow of guests at its entrance, not too many others did either.
But in the interest of reporting on it, I did lurk at the exit asking a few folks what they thought. From outside the final scene, I overheard a loud, surely large man yelling at The Experiment patrons to not reveal any details of what they had just seen. Naturally, I wasn’t asking for spoilers either. But I did briefly speak with a group of four who left with smiles on their faces, saying it was fun but nothing too special. I also talked to a man who identified himself as a Howl-O-Scream regular and made it clear that he didn’t feel he got his money’s worth of entertainment. He said it wasn’t particularly scary, admitting he is also difficult to scare, adding that a close encounter with a snake was the best part.
If anyone out there partakes in The Experiment and wants to offer your own thoughts, please comment at the bottom of this article.
Shows and More
Last but certainly not least, Howl-O-Scream’s annual show Fiends has received a major upgrade this year. Though the stage show’s naughty nurses are always popular, this year the show is loosely wrapped in a story set at Dr. Freakenstein’s university, introducing each monster as a professor of a variety of inane subjects. In between, pop culture is jabbed with many clever one-liners mixed in with an updated playlist of contemporary songs, replacing many of the ’70s and ’80s tunes previously filling this show.
Now including Robin Thicke, Justin Bieber, the Harlem Shake, and even that YouTube sensation cup song that everyone is sick of, Fiends is now topical and relevant while remaining among the sexiest theme park shows around. It’s still tucked away in the Desert Grille, which makes it difficult to watch from sideways-facing benches designed for eating. But the air conditioning is nice and the show is now an absolute must-see.
For those who can’t make it or want a preview, check out the full show video below along with a couple of highlights, followed by more naughty nurse photos than you can probably handle.
Video: Full new Fiends show at Howl-O-Scream 2013
Video: “Blurred Lines” with naughty nurses during Fiends at Howl-O-Scream 2013
Video: Harlem Shake during Fiends at Howl-O-Scream 2013
And in the end, the audience is invited up onto the stage this year to take pictures with the nurses, both male and female.
This year’s night club has been reduced to a food and drink gathering, no longer requiring guests to be 21 years old to enter. There are no dancers, only a DJ. And serving food is the excellent Tampa restaurant Taco Bus, out of their food truck. It’s a drastic difference from past years, as the dancers were always entertaining. But I will gladly take good food from Taco Bus over them any night, as the rest of the park is always lacking in decent places to eat. Unfortunately, the DJ is loud and obnoxious to the point where even the Taco Bus staff was noticeably overwhelmed.
This year’s girly photo opportunity doesn’t quite fit any concise theme. They’re called pin-up girls but they also feature a random assortment of wounds and other makeup to try to fit the in with the Halloween event. They’re certainly an assortment of attractive girls, but there didn’t seem to be a steady flow of eager guests wanting their photos with the group this year as there have been in the past with vampires and other more easily recognized outfits.
Meanwhile the Jello shot girls are as present as ever, sporting “13″ branding on their chests - which is where most guys are already staring anyway. Though they want you to buy their alcoholic products, they also are always friendly and willing to take a picture.
Shop of Horrors
Finally, this year’s Shop of Horrors features a wide variety of interesting unbranded products that are just generally spooky, many of which are quite cool collectibles. Sadly there is no collectible pin this year, but there are plenty of T-shirts and other apparel with The 13 all over them - and the nurses.
Howl-O-Scream 2013 offers the best and the worst of what this event tends to show off. Death Water Bayou, the new Fiends show, and The 13 are all beyond entertaining, among some of the most enjoyable Halloween experiences in Central Florida. But the rest of the park suffers with only two small scare zones taking up very little of the many long, dark walkways, leaving not much else to see. Overall, it’s an average year for Howl-O-Scream, absolutely worth going to for Death Water Bayou alone, but with lower expectations for muc of the rest.
Howl-O-Scream continues on select nights through October 26, 2013 at Busch Gardens Tampa. More information and tickets can be found at HowlOScream.com.
More photos from Howl-O-Scream 2013:
(Photos by Ricky Brigante and Michael Gavin)