The original plan was to have a review posted following opening weekend, but there was a problem: Howl-O-Scream’s opening weekend was literally one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced at the park. Everything was an absolute disaster. Houses were horribly understaffed, the actors that were present did absolutely nothing, the houses were in awful shape, and park theming and atmosphere was basically nonexistent. Now I know you’re probably thinking to yourself: “O, there goes Zachary, being all negative and whatnot again.” Well, I was just one of the many people who noticed how bad things were (yes, each of those words is a separate link). The good news is that since the first few weekends, things have improved quite a bit. Are things great? Not really, but it’s apparent from the work that has been done over the last few weeks that the park is actively trying to improve the shortcomings of the event.

Now, about this review: It’s worth noting that I’ve been 5 times so far this year and I’ll be taking all of those trips into account in this review. Naturally, with something like a haunted house, the overall quality of the experience fluctuates constantly and I don’t feel it would be fair to judge a house after just one, two, or even three trips. Hopefully, I’ve experienced everything enough times now to provide a pretty solid average for what you should expect from each attraction. Enough nonsense, onto the reviews.

[hr]

Houses

Each house will be judged on two aspects: First, the quality of the house itself. This will take into account the theming quality, atmosphere, hiding places, music, location, etc. Secondly, each house will be rated on how well staffed it feels and how well I think the actors are working their attraction. Each of those to criteria will be worth five points each resulting in a maximum total of ten points per attraction.

[hr]

Bitten

[one_third]House: 2/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Actors: 2/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 4/10[/one_third]

[one_half]
House Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Excellent theming[/li]
[li]Fantastic layout[/li]
[li]Great use of lighting throughout[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Well staffed[/li]
[li]Impressive costumes[/li]

[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half]
House Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]It’s ridiculously old[/li]
[li]Sand is a neat effect on paper, but isn’t much more than an annoyance to guests in practice[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]After the first weekend, most of the staff has seemed completely uninterested in scaring people[/li]
[li]First few rooms can feel pretty empty[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]

I’ll be honest, I had a hard time rating this house. On opening weekend, I was really impressed by how well the actors were doing. Since then, however, the house has slowly fallen lower and lower on my list. The main reason for its decline? Over the last few weekends, the actors seem to have lost all the energy and enthusiasm that was present on opening weekend. Additionally, while, in my honest opinion, Bitten is still one of the best designed houses at the park, it’s getting really old. Yes, the theming is still spot-on, there are great hiding places all throughout the house, and it really provides a great, spooky atmosphere, the problem is that the house is ancient. After so many years, houses simply get boring and predictable. It might be a house with great potential (that I honestly feel it was reaching on opening weekend), but it’s time for it to go. Bitten needs to be on the chopping block for next year. Honestly, it shouldn’t have been back this year.

[hr]

Catacombs

[one_third]House: 3/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Actors: 4/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 7/10[/one_third]

[one_half]
House Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Consistent experience[/li]
[li]Great hiding places[/li]
[li]Solid theme execution[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Well staffed[/li]
[li]Actors use distraction techniques fairly well[/li]

[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half]
House Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Lighting is a bit boring[/li]
[li]Would benefit from a bit of fog[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Lacks the energy of previous years’ cast[/li]
[li]Doesn’t use some of the houses effects (dropping doors and flexible bars) to their full potential[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]

 

Catacombs might be the second oldest house at the event, but it’s also, at least in my experience, an extremely consistent, solid house. Unlike Bitten, which doesn’t feel like it has been touched since it debuted, Catacombs seems to change noticeably each year and those changes really do a great job of keeping the house feeling fresh. I’ve been through this house countless times since it premiered and I can honestly say that it seems there’s always a skeleton popping out of a  new location each time I walk through. Additionally, I find the theming of Catacombs to be quite impressive. They really do pull off the underground feeling perfectly. Though I could see this house being on the chopping block for next year because of its age, I’d much rather see Catacombs back in 2013 as part of a lineup that doesn’t include Bitten, Thirteen, or Root of All Evil. As long as the park continues to keep the house fresh each year, I don’t see why this house would need to have an expiration date.

[hr]

Deadline

[one_third]House: 5/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Actors: 2/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 7/10[/one_third]

[one_half]
House Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Stunning theming and set design[/li]
[li]Great props throughout the house[/li]
[li]Impressive special effects including lighting, sound, water, and more[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]A handful of the actors are really into their roles[/li]

[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half]
House Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Like Catacombs, some of the more open areas of Deadline could benefit from some fog[/li]
[li]The first half of the house is fairly uneventful[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Too many actors attempt to use sounds exclusively to provide scares. It doesn’t work.[/li]
[li]Staff seems to leave some of the best areas of the house completely empty. For instance, I have yet to see anyone in the janitor room this year.[/li]

[/list]
[/one_half]

 

Ah, Deadline. Lets get this out of the way first: Deadline’s theming is amazing. The house has a great layout, great set pieces, a great story, and a few really neat effects. Sadly, almost every time I’ve been through this year, it has been royally underperforming. This house should be a perfect 10 out of 10, but the actors aren’t using the house as well as they should be. In fact, many of them simply stand around and hit things with sticks while leaving the great hiding places that are spread all throughout the house completely empty. Additionally, actors are spread out very disproportionately though the house. The long open room with the snack machine can have a good number of actors while the first half can be almost completely empty. Also, I believe lighting could be executed much better than it currently is. A good amount of the house is simply too bright. More fog in some of the larger rooms could also be a huge help. Overall, Deadline should be absolutely fantastic but it’s simply not performing as well as it should.

[hr]

Fear Fair

[one_third]House: 5/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Actors: 0/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 5/10[/one_third]

[one_half]
House Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Excellent theming and atmosphere[/li]
[li]Lighting is well executed in most areas[/li]
[li]It’s themed to clowns[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]None. None at all.[/li]

[/list]
[/one_half]

[one_half]
House Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]The maze tent can cause some pretty bad stacking[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Not an ounce of energy[/li]
[li]Horrifically understaffed[/li]
[li]Actors doing pointless things such as finger painting. This is Howl-O-Scream, not kindergarten.[/li]
[li]The guy in the frog suit from last year is missing as are all the chainsaws. There’s not a single notable scare in the entire house this year[/li]
[li]I have yet to see a ringmaster at the podium out front this season[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]

 

Fear Fair is yet another house that has been completely ruined by a rather awful cast. If you remember last year, Fear Fair started out as an absolutely awful house. It was horrible. By the end of the event, however, Fear Fair had developed into my favorite house ever. During the last two weekends of last year’s event, Fear Fair’s actors had turned into mean, lean, scaring machines. The cast learned how to use the house’s layout to play off one another to produce some amazing scares. This year however, though the house itself is still absolutely fantastic (I prefer Fear Fair’s theming and atmosphere over even Deadline’s), the house’s staff is showing no signs of improvement. Not only that, but a good fraction of the maze simply isn’t staffed. Whole tents are completely empty. The paths between tents are just lit walkways. It’s really, really bad. I still have hope that something will change whether it be a flood of new actors or the current ones simply step up their game, but for the time being, this house needs help. Bad. Such a shame to see a house with so much potential go to waste like Fear Fair has this year. Seriously Busch Gardens, fix it

[hr]

Root of All Evil

[one_third]House: 2/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Actors: 1/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 3/10[/one_third]

[one_half]
House Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Has shown a ton of improvement since opening weekend but, well, when it’s still the worst house at the event, that doesn’t matter much[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]There’s one or two good actors in here but they aren’t given much to work with[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half]
House Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Lacks isolation and a feeling of urgency[/li]
[li]Very few hiding places[/li]
[li]Needs fog and better lighting desperately[/li]
[li]Path switch just shortens the house and makes you bypass one of the only fairly good scares (the ghillie suit guy in the wooden planter)[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]The best a lot of the actors can do is simply say “Stop touching my plants” as you walk by[/li]
[li]Most of the costumes are basically polo shirts with some random logo on them[/li]
[li]Guy in the pool of water, if I wanted water splashed all over me, I’d ride Roman Rapids[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]

 

 

Root of All Evil is the park’s only new house this year and, before you get your hopes up, let me be the one to tell you that it’s an absolute disaster. If I had something positive to say about this house, I’d say it now in a weak attempt to make this review sound slightly less bias than it already does. The problem? There aren’t any positives. The best I can say for Root of All Evil is that, since the event’s first weekend, it has, actually, improved dramatically. It should, however, be mentioned that on its first weekend, a trip to your local Walmart garden center would be scarier than it was. It actually was that bad. The bad news? It’s still, by far, the worst house I’ve ever been through.

[hr]

Thirteen: Your Numbers Up

[one_third]House: 2/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Actors: 2/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 4/10[/one_third]

[one_half]
House Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Length[/li]
[li]The fear of heights room is fantastic[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Positives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]A good scare here and there[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half]
House Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]The fear of heights room needs to be moved right after the claustrophobia room to reduce stacking (which can get quite bad)[/li]
[li]Extremely inconsistent theming and set design. Some areas look great while some are just empty hallways. No, really, there’s multiple empty hallways. No joke.[/li]
[li]Severe lack of hiding places[/li]
[/list]
[/one_half]
[one_half last=”true”]
Cast Negatives:
[list style=”2″]
[li]Inconsistent performance[/li]
[li]Feels fairly understaffed[/li]
[/list]

[/one_half]

 

Thirteen: Your Numbers Up was one of the Oak Island-built houses that debuted at last year’s event. Sharing a designer with Deadline and Fear Fair, it should be a great looking house, right? It should be, but in reality, it’s anything but. There’s the occasional impressive set piece and one or two of the rooms are very well done (Fear of Going to Sleep and Fear of Heights both deserve a mention here); however, most of the house’s theming is lackluster at best. On top of that, there are a total of maybe five real hiding places in the entire house. It truly is that bad. In all honesty, I feel sorry for the actors working Thirteen. They are literally given basically nothing to work with.

[hr]

Shows

As you could probably tell from my house reviews, the park hasn’t done so well in that department this year. The good news? The park did an amazing job with the shows. This is, truly, in my opinion, the greatest lineup of shows I’ve ever seen at the park. First you have the adorably cheesy Dig it Up which is a show perfectly suited for the whole family. Next, you have the always controversial (and great) Fiends for the older crowd (think PG-13) with its famous nurses. Then, rounding out the park’s lineup this year is Night Beats. Night Beats is, simply, stunning.

As with the houses, each show is given a rating on show quality (setlist, set design, show content, etc.) as well as a rating based on the cast (singing, dancing, musical ability, etc.). Those two scores will be added together to give a total score out of ten. And now, onto the reviews:

[hr]

Dig it Up

[one_third]Show: 5/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Cast: 5/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 10/10[/one_third]

 

A perfect score?! Zachary gave a perfect score?! Shocking, I know. Put simply, Dig it Up is fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. The show features everything from cavemen playing We Didn’t Start the Fire, to Egyptian soldiers playing Walk Like an Egyptian, and even a space alien dancing to the Cantina Theme from Star Wars. It’s simply a really cute, fun, show. Not only does it have a great set list, but it also has an amazing cast. Everyone in this show is excellent. It’s that simple. Great dancers, great musicians, great acting, great set design, and great lighting, come together to make a show that, for the life of me, I can find nothing wrong with. Great job Busch Gardens, you knocked it out of the park with this one.

[hr]

Fiends

[one_third]Show: 4/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Cast: 4/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 8/10[/one_third]

 

As you may know, last year, Fiends and its infamous nurses became a very, well, controversial addition. In fact, that’s probably not doing the firestorm it created justice. Anyway, in response to the hate from some parts of the park’s clientele (read: those who aren’t BGW fans), the park moved Fiends from Das Festhaus (the park’s largest eatery) into the Abbeystone Theater (a fully enclosed theater). Well, that created yet another mess because that meant that it would be replacing one of the most popular shows in the park’s history: Monster Stomp Revamped. Basically, Fiends was surrounded by a ton of strong feelings. A good fraction of the park’s customer base seemed to think a show like Fiends didn’t belong at the park in the first place while another section of the park’s fan base couldn’t stand the thought of the park watering down the show because of all the controversy.

With the move to the Abbeystone, the park saw a chance to completely rework the entire show. They took that opportunity and, at least in my opinion, it resulted in a show that is leaps and bounds better than both last year’s Fiends and last year’s Monster Stomp Revamped. The jokes are cheesy, the story is ridiculous, and the entire show is corny, but there’s something charming about the whole production. With all this praise, what’s keeping it from hitting the 5 point mark in both categories? Well, first off, the show. Sadly, some of the jokes seem to fall pretty flat with the audience. Additionally, the whole opening to the show feels a bit out of place. And the cast? Well, I hate to say it, but some of them don’t have voices that are very well suited for their roles. Luckily, the Creature and Igor make up for a lot of the cast’s shortcomings. They’re both amazing. Anyway, check out the video above if you won’t be able to check it out at the park this year. Also, if you didn’t see last year’s and you’d like to for comparisons sake, you can check it out here.

[hr]

Night Beats

[one_third]Show: 5/5[/one_third]

[one_third]Cast: 5/5[/one_third]

[one_third last=”true”]Total: 10/10[/one_third]

 

Another 10/10? Yes. I’m just as surprised as you are. When I started hearing leaks about this show, I wasn’t expecting much. Then came Past Member Appreciation Weekend when the park gave us a look at the opening number of the show. I was impressed, but I still wasn’t sold on the concept. Well, five minutes into seeing the full show for the first time, that changed. The show has some details that I’m not a fan of (the antennae they’ve added since the recording above are one of those things), but I can overlook those small details because everything comes together to make a stunningly good show. What about the cast? They’re awe inspiring. I have never seen any theme park show that can match the talent that can be found in the cast of Night Beats. Between the two leads, the “Shadows of the Night”, and the live band, there’s just nothing that can compare. Night Beats is not only my favorite show at this year’s event, but it’s also, in my opinion, one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen at the park.

[hr]

Hordes

As you may know, the park has tried a lot of things over the last few years in an attempt to scare their guests outside of their houses. Back in 2009, we had actors themed to their locations that used various different tactics and props to try to scare people in roughly designated scarezones. This worked to an extent, but the complete lack of props and hiding places meant that most of the time, actors were left to simply stand in the middle of a path and act scary. The next year, 2010, the park started marketing what they called “The Scare is Everywhere”. Instead of marking areas staffed with actors, they placed actors all over the park randomly. Unfortunately, by trying to cover the whole park, they were spreading their staff too thin which resulted in seeing the occasional lone actor. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It also allowed the park to get away with very little hamlet theming because the majority of the time, actors were just hiding behind the corners of buildings.

Following “The Scare is Everywhere”, the park shifted to very well defined scare zones similar to those that can be found at many other parks all around the country. They used props, they themed everything quite well, and they really gave the areas the atmosphere they needed. Unfortunately, because of the park’s relatively narrow paths, these themed scare zones caused awful backups on the park’s paths and there were often too many people packed into them for the actors to actually scare anyone effectively  With that in mind, it’s pretty easy to see why the park was looking to radically redo the way they scare people outside of the houses once again for Howl-O-Scream 2012.

This year, Busch Gardens Williamsburg took a page of out Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream playbook with roaming hordes of actors that circle the park throughout the night. I was a little worried about how it would turn out after hearing from a few people who had seen the tactic used in Tampa say that it was a definite downgrade from traditional scare zones. Well, opening night came and my worst fears were realized. Four hours of Howl-O-Scream and I only spotted a horde once. I then went back 2 days later for the whole night and guess what: I didn’t see a single horde all night. The good news? I’m happy to report that since the first few weekends, the park has taken guest feedback seriously and added one additional horde (bringing the count up to 3) as well as stationary actors sprinkled throughout the park. Since they’ve put said changes into place, it would be virtually impossible to circle the park without seeing a few sets of actors. Now for the bad news: They’re simply not that scary. The actors are very enthusiastic and entertaining; but, because they’re just walking around the park, they can’t really use the environment to help them scare guests like actors could in the scarezones of previous years. I give the park props for trying a completely new concept and for putting in the effort required to refine said concept in the middle of the event, but I simply don’t see how the hordes can be considered an upgrade over the scarezones of last year. I think it may be time to go back to the drawing board again for a fifth year in a row come 2013.

[hr]

Conclusion

Overall, I’d rate this year’s event about even with last year’s but its strengths are in very different areas. Last year, we saw an event with very strong, new, houses accompanied by mediocre shows and scare zones (though, the scare zones of 2011 were a notable improvement over what we saw from “The Scare is Everywhere” in 2010). For Howl-O-Scream 2012, the park seems to have shifted the effort (and budget) from the scares and to the shows. This change gave us fantastic shows, but scares that are universally lacking. While I don’t consider the hordes a downgrade (in their current form), I wouldn’t exactly consider them an upgrade over the scare zones either. Maybe next year will be the year they’re able to balance the scale and give us great shows accompanied by scares that would rival some of the other halloween events out there. Who’s ready for Howl-O-Scream 2013? I know I am.