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Howl-O-Scream 2019: First Impressions
A Long-Form Manifesto on the Current State of Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Annual Halloween Event
By Zachary Posted in Editorials on September 20, 2019 7 Comments 38 min read
Previous Mid-September Photo Update: Gods, Dragons, and Monsters Next

Prologue

Last week we experimented with reviving a classic form of BGWFans content, the comprehensive, in-depth photo update. This week, I want to give a relatively new-for-BGWFans format a try: An editorial-style first impressions article revolving around a new or updated park offering.

In the early years of BGWFans, we published comprehensive reviews of each year’s Howl-O-Scream. That always seemed like a squarely suboptimal way to cover the event though. If we opted to review the event in its first few weeks, our assessments would always be fairly negative as the casts never perform their best that early on in the event and Busch Gardens Williamsburg perpetually fails to actually have the park fully decorated and ready for primetime until a few weekends in. The alternative was to wait until the end of the Howl-O-Scream to give our full opinions about the event retrospectively. That’s another really unfortunate option though, as an event review is fairly pointless when said event is nearly (or worse, already) over.

So this year, I’m going to write about Howl-O-Scream’s opening weekend and evaluate the current state of the event based upon my two visits this past weekend. Though I’m the one sitting behind the keyboard, drafting up this article, it’s important to note that the ideas and opinions put forth below are the result of extensive conversations between myself and other BGW fans—namely my co-admin Nicole and ParkFans members, Dylon, Luke, Pretzel Kaiser, and Thomas—all of whom accompanied me through the event last weekend. That said, ultimately, the opinions presented below fall on my shoulders. In other words, when you get down to the Shows section and you want to tar and feather whoever this person is who is glad Fiends is gone (yeah, this is that kind of controversial editorial!), I’m your guy.


First Impressions

First off, lets break the ice and get this out of the way right off the bat: Busch Gardens Williamsburg has finally, after nearly a decade of fans like myself shouting about it from the rooftops, adequately staffed Howl-O-Scream. Honestly, if there is only one thing you take from this whole article, that’s what I want you to remember: At long last, Howl-O-Scream is no longer severely understaffed. It’s hard to overstate just how massive a difference this change makes throughout the park’s houses and paths. It’s like night and day.

Unfortunately, though you can’t have a good theme park Halloween event without adequate staffing, Busch Gardens Williamsburg demonstrated last weekend that simply hiring actors en masse is not a silver bullet solution to turn a mediocre event into a great one either. With that in mind, let’s break the event down into its three major components: the houses, the paths, and the shows.

The Houses

For the 2019 season, Busch Gardens Williamsburg announced the removal of Cornered, their farm-themed outdoor haunted house behind DarKastle. Despite its removal, Busch Gardens Williamsburg didn’t officially debut a single new house for this year’s event. I passionately believe that every Halloween event needs new haunted attractions each and every year, because these types of attractions have short effective shelf lives. Particularly at an overwhelmingly locals-focused event like BGW’s Howl-O-Scream, mazes get stale for repeat visitors exceedingly quickly. If one or two aren’t retired and replaced every year, you end up with houses that way overstay their welcome. Case and point: Bitten.

Bitten was an amazing house⁠—it was impeccably designed to scare, it presented a strong, coherent narrative, and it featured high-quality, cohesive scenic throughout. Unfortunately, Bitten was used and abused for nine years in a row until fans of the event grew to hate it⁠—not because it wasn’t a great house, but because over the years, as Howl-O-Screamers repeatedly walked through the same sets, encountered the same characters popping out of the same corners, and trudged through the same sand trap in that all-too-familiar coffin room, they simply became numb to Bitten’s gags.

Ultimately, I believe it’s fair to think of Howl-O-Scream’s houses as magic tricks. The first time you see an amazing, death-defying illusion, it blows your mind. Upon subsequent viewings, it gradually begins to lose its luster. Would you continue returning to the same magic show year after year if the magician continued to perform nearly the same set of tricks as five years prior? No, of course not, you’d go and find a different magician. By not constantly evolving the house lineup for Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens Williamsburg runs the risk of encouraging guests to go find another Halloween event.

Now here’s where I pull the rug out from under everything I just wrote and hit you with the plot twist: Despite not officially announcing any new houses, Busch Gardens Williamsburg actually built at least one new house for 2019.

The Vault: Overtaken

Despite what the name would suggest, The Vault: Overtaken is a new house. What’s more, The Vault: Overtaken is a far better looking, far better structured, and far better performing house than last year’s iteration. The fact that “The Vault: Overtaken” name does not reflect this complete overhaul is nothing more than an enormous marketing blunder in my humble opinion.

Adding a new tag to the end of a house name suggests a story adjustment, not a full, comprehensive retheming. The amount of The Vault XX that has returned in The Vault: Overtaken is, in my opinion, a smaller percentage of the house than was carried over from Deadline to Dystopia. If Dystopia is a new house and not just a set of alterations to Deadline, The Vault: Overtaken is a new maze as well.

The public relations missteps with Howl-O-Scream 2019 don’t end there though. Busch Gardens Williamsburg did a lot of work on two other houses that they’re not taking credit for in their marketing materials as well.

Demented Dimensions

First up? Demented Dimensions. Multiple rooms in this house have been completely redone and others have been reworked to make them far more interesting and effective. This is the type of house renovation where I would expect a tagline, prefix, or twist of some sort to be added to the house’s branding. While the house is clearly still Demented Dimensions, it has received plenty enough new work to justify recognizing it as a substantially refreshed experience.

As for the final mismarketed house of this year’s event, that takes to me an attraction I never imagined I’d find myself praising: Frostbite.

Frostbite

Frostbite is like a chestburster from Ridley Scott’s Alien. Initially it innocently laid dormant inside of DarKastle’s frozen walls. Everything seemed fine from the outside. According to Busch Gardens, its residency would only be temporary—Curse of DarKastle was just supposed to share its home with Frostbite for a bit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly though, that claim was false. The prognosis for the host was truly dire. By Howl-O-Scream 2018, Busch Gardens Williamsburg had almost entirely gutted the Curse of DarKastle ride building to make way for the a “Stage 2” Frostbite to burst out and infect the world.

Adding insult to injury, Frostbite was not a good attraction. In its debut year (2017), the maze was essentially composed of sloppy overlays onto existing DarKastle show scenes and a series of poorly-dressed hallways to link them together. Because much of the area utilized by the house was designed for large ride vehicles, many of Frostbite’s corridors were absolutely cavernous. This lead to there being few effective hiding spots for actors and an incredibly inconsistent environmental tone throughout the experience. Reviews of Frostbite’s first season were mixed but seemed to skew fairly negative by the end of the event.

After Christmas Town 2017, Busch Gardens Williamsburg demolished the interior sets and walls from Curse of DarKastle to make more room for special event offerings inside the building. Since Frostbite 2017 relied so heavily on CoDK’s sets, it would have been reasonable for Busch Gardens Williamsburg to cut their losses there and replace the ill-received Frostbite with a new house. The park, however, doubled down on Frostbite, opting instead to redesign and rebuild the entire house from the ground up. This was a very bad idea.

The house we got in 2018 was wildly different than the original iteration and, somehow, it was even worse. Most of the maze was composed of lazily assembled, 2D walls lacking any color, texture, or detail at all. The scenic was wholly uninspired and lifeless—feeling more like a last minute garage haunt than a theme park attraction. Even worse, no part of the house felt the slightest bit designed to scare—there were just long, empty, primarily-brightly-lit hallways without anywhere for casts to hide.

Why am I laying out all of this backstory? Because I want to highlight that Frostbite 2017 and Frostbite 2018 were both very different houses and I personally hated both of them. That brings us to 2019. What happened to Frostbite this year?

Once again, for the third year in a row, Frostbite 2019 feels like a completely different house. Path splits? No. Ice caves? Nope. Knockoff Night King? Nada. This year’s Frostbite still has some lackluster scenic mid-way through, but overall the house is vastly improved over both of its previous iterations. Whoever the team was that went in and took another look at Frostbite in the time since last year’s Howl-O-Scream deserves enormous props. They righted a ship everyone else had long-since considered doomed.

That said, “Stage 3” Frostbite is so far removed from the original house in both theme and quality that this new, much improved iteration deserves a rebranding of some kind if only to try to rid it of some of the bad press surrounding its predecessors.

Seeing that this year’s house seems to keep visitors inside the bounds of the ice queen’s castle for the vast majority of their visit, I would propose something like “Frostbite: Inside the Walls” or, if they want to lean in to the ice queen replacing the knockoff Night King, “Frostbite: The Queen’s Court.”

At the end of the day, The Vault: Overtaken feels 90% new, Demented Dimensions feels 40% new/updated, and “Stage 3” Frostbite is a 100% new experience compared to its debut year and probably a 75% new/updated house versus last year’s iteration. What’s more, the changes to these houses are overwhelmingly positive. I’m sure there will be people who prefer some scenes from The Vault XX over their replacements in The Vault: Overtaken, but overall I believe most people will find this year’s new house to be a considerable improvement overall. As for Demented Dimensions and Frostbite, I can’t imagine anyone not thinking that both houses are massively improved this season. The sets are more attractive, the effects are more interesting, the houses are structured better for scares, they both have some new tricks, etc. There’s really nothing not to love there if you ask me.

The overhauls these houses received since we last saw them last year should be marketed. From the outside, when guests see this year’s lineup online or in print, the event looks stagnant when, in reality, Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Howl-O-Scream team has done an incredible amount of work to overhaul half of the houses at this year’s event. That work needs to be reflected in the park’s branding and marketing for the event.

The Others

This year’s other three houses are Dystopia, Lumberhack, and Circo Sinistro. Dystopia received some very minor modifications (most notably, the first path split seems to have been removed). Lumberhack and Circo Sinistro both seem to be largely unchanged compared to last year.

In the case of Lumberhack, I have no qualms with it reopening this season as is. If the rumors hold true, this should likely be the last year for both Lumberhack and The Vault: Overtaken and hence, investment into those houses seems a little short sighted. Additionally, Lumberhack has, in my opinion, aged gracefully. Because of its theme, lack of structures, and setting, the house’s atmospherics really haven’t deteriorated much at all since it was reversed in its second year.

Circo Sinistro is a different story though. Of all of Howl-O-Scream 2019’s houses, Circo Sinistro definitely feels like the weak link to me. Back when it debuted, it had some clever ideas to bring to the table. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, many of those intriguing concepts failed to pay off in practice—namely the god-awful, cringy, capacity-nightmare of a preshow, the knife throwing room, and the Room Roulette tent. I believe Circo Sinistro either needs a massive renovation (Frostbite-style) ASAP or it needs to be one of the next houses on the chopping block. Frankly, I’d have liked to see Circo die and Cornered survive for 2019, but I guess it’s too late for that now.

Overarching House Assessments

Based on my two trips last weekend, I’m happy to report that, despite the event just starting, most of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s houses were performing at a surprisingly acceptable level. At one point or another during the weekend, I got good runs through Vault, Dimensions, Frostbite, and Lumberhack. Dystopia was definitely a step below that top tier for me, but I believe a lot of its problems can be attributed to a handful of atmospheric issues that I’ll address in a moment. Rounding out the list is Circo Sinistro which was, truthfully, just bad. The house itself is wildly sub-par now that improvements have been made elsewhere and, frankly, the cast was lethargic and seemed disinterested in scaring. It’s also the only house at the event this weekend where I thought the cast size felt wholly inadequate for the length of the house.

Anyway, I mentioned atmospheric issues in Dystopia a moment ago. What am I talking about? Lighting. In fact, lighting was a major problem at all four of the indoor houses last weekend. Especially in areas of houses with limited top-cover, there was an incredible amount of light bleed seeping in from above the sets and flooding the corridors with light. When every last corner of the house is visible from 20 feet away, it’s really hard to be scared by the person you can see standing in the corner up ahead.

We had a similar experience a year or two ago with the opening weekend of Kings Dominion’s Haunt—every house at the event felt absurdly bright. Thankfully, our critiques were heard and, by the following weekend, our experience in the houses was like night and day (pun intended). By simply turning off any unnecessary lights and redirecting others to prevent reflections and light bleed, the atmosphere inside the houses was entirely fixed. I hope to see similar fixes applied to Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s indoor mazes by this weekend.

So, in summary, overall…

  • Houses: Good
  • Performances: Solid
  • Cast Sizes: Great
  • Scenic: Acceptable
  • Atmospherics: Bad

Considering that we’re talking about the houses at the opening weekend of an event that is notorious for never being ready in time, I’m very impressed. What’s even more shocking to me is that last weekend—again, the opening weekend of the event—Frostbite, Vault, and Demented Dimensions all gave me better performances than they managed to at any point during 2018 (and in Frostbite’s case, 2017 as well). I’d go so far as to say it’s unprecedented in the last 6 or 7 years for a Howl-O-Scream house (let alone three of them!) to be performing this well this early on.

Howl-O-Scream 2019’s house lineup may look really lackluster on paper, but in practice, it’s easily one of the best in the last five years or so. If staffing levels hold, atmospheric issues are fixed, and casts continue to improve, this could be a landmark year for Howl-O-Scream mazes.


The Paths

I am dividing the paths of Howl-O-Scream up into two different sections: scarezones (formerly “Terrortories”) and non-scarezone-but-sometimes-branded-anyway-themed-areas of the park. I promised Nicole that I’d say some nice things about the second category but the first, well, that’s another story entirely.

Scarezones

I hope the positivity from the houses section successfully “cleansed your souls” or whatever, because things are about to get really negative really fast. To put it frankly, the “scarezones” at Howl-O-Scream 2019, at least in their first weekend, were an absolute disgrace to the very idea of a scarezone. It’s a legitimate insult to the haunt industry to even call something like Fool’s Court a Halloween attraction, let alone a scarezone.

Before I provide the laundry list of issues with each of these scarezones, I want to cover what Busch Gardens Williamsburg actually got right. Much like the houses, these scarezones—despite being really horrible at scaring — are, in fact, full of actors. Additionally, especially in the case of Sideshow Square and Axe Alley, overall the casts really are making an attempt to elicit reactions from the guests. Unfortunately, in many cases, due to what seems to be some of the most braindead scarezone design in the history of the industry, trying to scare on the paths last weekend looked to be an almost entirely frivolous exercise.

Axe Alley

This is the second year for Axe Alley and, despite being one of the weakest “Terrortories” in 2018, it’s back essentially entirely unchanged for 2019. Here’s the kicker though: The nearly identical return of last year’s weakest Terrortory was somehow also the most immersive and atmospheric of the scarezones last weekend. Though Axe Alley didn’t feature good lighting or many useful props, the elements that were present still managed to do enough to give the area a sense of place—⁠it’s clear where the scarezone begins, where it ends, what its theme is, and why the actors are where they are. It’s not a good scarezone, but it’s certainly passable by Busch Gardens Williamsburg standards.

Fool’s Court

You know what isn’t passable by any standards? The state of Fool’s Court last weekend. Despite also being in its second season, unlike Axe Alley, Busch Gardens opted to mess with the formula of Fool’s Court for its sophomore year. I didn’t think Fool’s Court was impressive last year⁠—in fact, I thought it was a clear downgrade from Demon Street—but this year, it’s very, very bad.

Before I delve into the issues, let me paint a picture for you.

On Friday night I was walking from the Oktoberfest-area houses over to Killarney through the New France side of the park loop. That took me through Vampire Point (which we’ll tackle in a few minutes), Axe Alley (which, as I said above, really wasn’t bad), and then through Fool’s Court. Entering Aquitaine on the Pepto-Bismol™ Tower-side of the area, I was greeted by a literal tidal wave of bright white light pouring out from the new-for-2019 Aquitaine Refreshments grab-and-go snack and drink booth. This new addition alone destroyed any and all chance of a spooky or scary atmosphere on that side of the hamlet.

That isn’t without precedent though. For years, the Demon DJ had a similar impact on Demon Street. Historically, the Wild Reserve-side of Aquitaine offered the spooky atmosphere that the bathrooms-side could not.

Anyway, I continued to stroll through Aquitaine expecting to start to see some actors towards the middle of the hamlet (around Les Frites). This is typically where the scares started to pick up back when the area was full of demons with chainsaws at a party in hell. Alas, no such luck.

So now, finally moving into the Crêpes & Coffee area of Aquitaine, it was do or die time—unless the cast was all hiding along the Aquitaine bypass behind the hamlet, this was the last chance for Fool’s Court to achieve anything other than blinding white lights and a few flags.

On the Wild Reserve-side of Aquitaine, I found the entire (surprisingly large) cast of Fool’s Court. Despite this being branded as a “scarezone,” however, the cast of Fool’s Court was most certainly not, in fact, scaring. The actors of Fool’s Court were all dancing with children to pop music being played by a DJ in the planter to the right of the entrance to the Royal Palace Theatre.

I have come to accept all of these “party zones” sprinkled throughout Howl-O-Scream. I won’t pretend to like them as I do think they have a severely negative impact on the overall atmosphere of the event, but I do accept them because party zones (and their associated bars) seem to translate into huge piles of money for Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

So that brings me to my core point here: I’m fine with party zones at Howl-O-Scream and I’m even fine with party zones themed to neighboring scarezones. What I’m not ok with is allowing the party zones to take over (and, in turn, destroy) the scarezones. This is, in my opinion, exactly what was happening in Fool’s Court last weekend.

The amazing thing to me is that Busch Gardens Williamsburg has literally already solved this issue in the past. Under Scott Gasparich’s lead, the entertainment department came up with Demon Street, a Terrortory themed to being both a party and a scarezone. Though it certainly wasn’t my cup of tea, I can’t claim it didn’t work.

With its Demon Street overlay, the Wild Reserve-side of Aquitaine was bathed in interesting lighting, sound, and kinetic energy all the way from ground level to the rooftops. That side of the hamlet was home to the vast majority of the Terrortory’s scares and, with competent lighting design, a healthy dose of fog, and a bunch of chainsaws, it was effective despite being relatively open and bright. The other half of Aquitaine was even more open and even more bright and was home to the party half of Demon Street with the Demon DJ taking center stage on the raised platform across from the restrooms.

Why Busch Gardens Williamsburg opted to discard this tried and true, successful formula for scaring and partying in Aquitaine is beyond me. Instead, today, the atmosphere in both halves of Aquitaine has been destroyed—half by the lights necessitated by Aquitaine Refreshments, the restrooms, etc. and half by a pointlessly-relocated DJ and a party that has completely crowded Fool’s Court out of its own area.

Garden of the Souls

The unfortunate reality of quality path scares at Howl-O-Scream for years now has been that they simply don’t exist in any consistent form. There are people who would push back on that claim, likely stating that the yearly criticisms of path scares at Howl-O-Scream are merely the result of an annual echochamber of fans who have unrealistic, unobtainable standards for the event. The issue with this idea, however, is that in my experience, when BGW fans break out of the Howl-O-Scream bubble and visit other, similar events, they consistently report finding far better, more effective path scares.

I highlight this, because for 2018, Busch Gardens Williamsburg attempted to short circuit that entire equation by creating Garden of the Souls⁠—an expressly not-scary Terrortory themed to the Italian version of All Souls Day (Il Giorno dei Morti). Instead of trying to terrify guests with startles or the like, it aimed to immerse the audience in a dark, eirie, tranquil setting that felt both perfectly Halloween and perfectly Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

We were huge fans of this approach last year as, instead of attempting to do something the park has constantly been bad at for years now, Busch Gardens opted instead to play to their strengths and create something beautiful themed perfectly to its Italian setting in San Marco.

Sadly, for the debut weekend of its second season, Garden of the Souls lost a lot of what made it so hauntingly gorgeous in its first year. The lighting feels considerably less sophisticated, the light-up costumes were nowhere to be found, and a lot of props seem to have vanished since last season, as well. Perhaps my biggest gripe with this year’s Garden of the Souls alterations comes from the replacement of one of its main set pieces. Last year, a memorial to past Howl-O-Scream icons was constructed on a cart to the right of Artisans of Italy thus extending this area from the compass circle near Battering Ram all the way to the start of San Marco’s village buildings.

This year, the park decided to relocate the Restless Spirits bar from the seating area past Il Teatro di San Marco over to where that Howl-O-Scream icons memorial used to be. Not only does all of the light and noise emanating from that newly-moved bar really interfere with the tone and atmosphere of Garden of the Souls, but it also means that the actual real estate dedicated to the scarezone has been reduced when compared to last year’s Terrortory iteration.

I will likely always have a soft spot for this scarezone (I still can’t believe the park actually has scareactors speaking Italian!), I would like to see it not be another victim to Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s ever-growing bar and party zone obsession. Conceptually, Garden of the Souls is what I’d like to see more of from BGW, but in execution, it will require more investment in the environmental aspects of the attraction to make it great again.

Ripper Row

Like many others, I long for the early days of Ripper Row when the paths were full of props, there were full-scale building facades setup on either side of the hamlet, and the cast even had short storylines that would play-out throughout the night. That said, the original dream of Terrortories has been dead and buried for years now so there isn’t much sense in letting our nostalgia for the grandiose immersive theater ideals of yesteryear cloud our perception of the current iteration of scarezones. That said, it can be particularly hard to ignore Ripper Row’s past as it was the Terrortory that came closest to embodying the original concept of a Terrortory.

These days, Ripper Row seems similar to Garden of the Souls to me. It’s not scary and it really doesn’t seem like it’s even trying to be scary—meaning that classifying it (and Garden of the Souls for that matter) as a scarezone seems like a pretty severe misnomer. That said, if we set that aside for a moment and look at Ripper Row as nothing more than an immersive, spooky environment, I have no gripes about the area in its current form. The lighting is good enough, there are enough props to convey the intended environment, it plays to the natural theme of Banbury Cross quite nicely, and it feels fairly “uniquely BGW” as well.

Like Garden of the Souls though, Ripper Row feels like an orphan in this new, post-Terrortory world—an attraction type that is more akin to Killarney’s current overlay with Jack is Back than an actual scarezone like Vampire Point.

Sideshow Square

Since its debut, Sideshow Square has always been problematic. There is an incredibly rich Howl-O-Scream history of clown-themed scarezones in Festa Italia and, after all of these years, when the circus finally returned, there wasn’t much to it at all. This is especially sad since, year after year, Sideshow Square has consistently been home to the absolute best, most active, most enthusiastic path scaractors at the event.

The same holds true this season as well. Every last actor in the generously-sized Sideshow Square cast was working incredibly hard to eek out every scare they possibly could. Unfortunately, these excellent actors and actresses are given absolutely nothing to work with. Sideshow’s props amount to a few clown-themed decorations paired with a couple boxes placed away from the guest flow through the area. Last weekend, there was no fog anywhere to be seen and the area was absolutely flooded with white light pouring out of adjacent attractions. Because of this complete lack of atmospherics and props, these superb actors are left just wondering about trying to scare people in plain sight. They deserve so much better than this.

Vampire Point

As you can probably guess from previous iterations of this area, my criticisms are literally identical to what I laid out in the Sideshow Square section above. Admittedly, the park did a fair bit of scenic work on Rhinefeld’s buildings—namely boarded up windows, bats hanging everywhere, ect. I don’t want to downplay the importance of decorations like this as they do contribute notably to giving the scarezone a sense of “place.” With that said, things hung on walls do nothing to make it easier for actors in big open areas to be able to effectively scare, which, I believe, is the key to success in a scarezone.

Just like Sideshow, Vampire Point needs large props bordering the natural guest flows through the area for actors to hide behind and around—it needs significantly dimmer lighting (preferably strategically placed to provide dark shadows for actors to use for stalking and the like)—and it needs fog. Scarezones are supposed to feel tense. When you walk into one, you should feel a difference in the atmosphere—a difference in tone—a difference that sets the area apart from any other normal park path. Actors alone cannot carry a scarezone. Until Busch Gardens Williamsburg learns that, their path scares will always fail.

The Other Areas

Here’s where things gets really weird at Howl-O-Scream 2019. I have just spent a legitimately unsettling amount of time talking about a million and one atmospheric issues facing Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s scarezones. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have spent all that time jabbering about them if I didn’t know that the park could do better. The fact of the matter though is that I do know that the park can do better? How? Many of the areas of the park that are neither officially designated scarezones nor party zones flatout ooze a dark and daunting atmosphere.

Lets take the Wild Reserve for example. After years of fans of the event begging Busch Gardens Williamsburg to bring back the legendary Werewolf Reserve scarezone, it looked like this could finally be the year. The park made signs for either side of the Wild Reserve branding it as the Werewolf Reserve. The park put up a ton of werewolves all over the area—climbing light posts, hiding behind trees, everywhere. It was some of the most impressive area theming we’ve seen in years now.

As the sun sets, Werewolf Reserve gets even better. Many of the area lights don’t come on. The Wild Reserve stays dim and eerie—legitimately, independently creepy. After night falls, there are other dark, gloomy segments of the park as well such as Heatherdowns and the walkway from Pompeii to the compass circle in San Marco. Unlike the Wild Reserve, however, these areas received essentially no theming. Just by merit of the dimmed lighting and spooky music on these seemingly-forgotten paths, however, they often feel more environmentally appropriate for Howl-O-Scream than even the event’s actual scarezones.

Why Busch Gardens Williamsburg won’t simply apply the same philosophy to their official scarezones that they have employed throughout these random, unadvertised, sections of the park, I don’t know. What I do know is that it needs to change. The environment on display in the Wild Reserve this season needs to be expanded to nearly every scarezone at the event. If the park can do this, path scares at Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Howl-O-Scream could finally be worth talking about again.


The Shows

I promised you some really juicy, really controversial opinions on shows at Howl-O-Scream up at the top of this article and I don’t intend to disappoint. Grab those pitchforks and torches, because a lot of people aren’t going to like what I have to say here at all.

Controversial Opinion Number One: Fiends was the best show to cut for 2019.

The most recent iteration of Fiends was, far and away, the oldest show at Howl-O-Scream 2018. Its shelf-life had already long been exceeded if you ask me. Frankly, Busch Gardens Williamsburg made the same mistake with Fiends that they’ve made with Celtic Fyre—they allowed it to become an institution. In a park with a healthy, competent entertainment department, shows should never last more than a few years without significant overhauls or full-on replacements.

Though there may be a vocal subset of the audience that is happy watching the same show for 5+ years in a row, that isn’t representative of the average park guest. Like Howl-O-Scream houses, shows get stale for most people—they lose their luster overtime. In a perfect world, theme park shows should survive long enough to use up their initial marketability and then be replaced with something of equal or better quality before people start to become sentimentally attached to it.

The unfortunate reality is that today, Busch Gardens Williamsburg is faced with shows like Fiends that have been left in place for so long that many people have developed a deep sense of nostalgia for them—the park allowed Fiends to become a perceived pillar of Howl-O-Scream and that’s a dangerous mistake to make. As experience shows time and time again, cutting something that even a very small subset of park guests have become emotionally invested in is often a treacherous path. The outcry about the removal of Fiends this year is just yet another example of that principle at work.

It’s my personal opinion that Fiends was a strictly worse show than Monster Stomp on Ripper Row (which, in my honest opinion, had one of its best years yet in 2018). Though I do believe that Fiends 2018 was eons better than the current version of Night Beats, unlike the Abbey Stone Theatre, Das Festhaus cannot sit dark during Howl-O-Scream as it would cut into dining revenue.

All-in-all, I believe Fiends was well past its prime and was long-overdue for a replacement. Additionally, if a stage show had to be cut this season, I believe Fiends was the worse of the two “cuttable” shows.

Controversial Opinion Number Two: Entertainment’s investment into Howl-O-Scream shows has consistently been far too large since the days of Scott Gasparich and it continues to be far too large today.

In my opinion, investing a bunch of money into theatrical productions that run for somewhere between a month or a month and a half (depending on the show) is a foolish way to spend Howl-O-Scream’s limited (and shrinking) budget. Unlike with Christmas Town, the number of people who visit Howl-O-Scream specifically for the shows is exceedingly small. It may be a vocal minority, but it’s a small minority nonetheless. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Howl-O-Scream’s target audience visits for the houses, the atmosphere, the rides, and the booze.

Back when the event was swimming in money and could put on great shows alongside good houses and solid scarezones, this was a different story. These days though, the funding to accomplish all three of these things no longer appears to be present. This doesn’t mean that I think there shouldn’t be any shows at Howl-O-Scream, but I definitely don’t believe that there should be three big shows exclusively for the event.

Look at some of the premier haunt events across the country. Halloween Horror Nights Orlando only has one stage show. HHN Hollywood? One show. Busch Gardens Tampa? Same story—only one show. Moving away from the top tier, some regional parks like Kings Dominion have a couple shows, but they’re typically out on the paths—not in theaters and certainly not major, high-budget productions.

Ultimately, I believe Busch Gardens Williamsburg would be best served by offering relatively minimalistic entertainment products in their two dinner theaters and having a single large-scale, high-budget Howl-O-Scream production that runs throughout the entire event in one of their main theaters.

Controversial Opinion Number Three: Jack shouldn’t be back.

Jack is Back is a fun, family show, not something that belongs at an event that purports to discourage families with kids from staying past 6pm.

I’m not anti-Jack, but I am anti-Jack as a icon for a modern Howl-O-Scream. Jack has long been a family-friendly persona who presides over a disco show with dancing scarecrows. I don’t think that’s the look of a serious, scary Halloween event. I have a proposal though.

I have long believed that the park needs to do more for families during the day before Howl-O-Scream begins. A harvest festival presided over by Jack would be a perfect way to do that. A downsized iteration of his current show (the current cast is absurdly enormous) would make a great daytime show for families—possibly one that could even be located in Das Festhaus as a replacement for the current abomination that carries the Night Beats name.

Controversial Opinion Number Four: More, small performances on or near paths are a far better investment than massive productions like Fiends, Night Beats, and Monster Stomp.

In fact, I’d contend that Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s actions indicate that they sort of know this for a fact already as evidenced by the ever-increasing number of DJs throughout the event.

What if, instead of DJs, there were frequent performances that fit the themes of the areas in which they were housed. Imagine if every thirty minutes or so, a magician came out and did a ten minute act (with really grim twists of course) near Sideshow Square. Or, alternatively, imagine frequent, alternating performances from a fire juggler and a contortionist near Fool’s Court.

Small, themed performances like these don’t cost must to run but they keep an audience’s attention better than a DJ blasting pop music. Additionally, unlike a DJ, it can be a part of the theme of a scarezone instead of clashing with it. Even better? Since they’d be out on the paths, spectators have easy access to the prime financier of modern Howl-O-Screams: alcohol.

All-in-all, I believe offering a multitude of atmospheric, themed performances as described above would…

  • Be a much cheaper alternative to the major stage shows currently present at Howl-O-Scream;
  • Would be viewed by far more people than the traditional, high-budget shows have been historically; and,
  • It would offer a built-in monetization method through the event’s existing network of bars.

Many of you are likely wondering why, after breaking down each house and each scarezone, I’ve hardly spoken about the actual quality of this year’s Howl-O-Scream shows. The reason is simple. I didn’t watch them over opening weekend and I felt no real desire to do so. I despise the current version of Night Beats. Seeing about five minutes of it by mistake on Sunday just served to reaffirm my position on the show. The only other show running right now is Jack is Back which, again, I caught a few minutes of and I didn’t feel like I had missed out on anything remotely desirable.

Truthfully, my only takeaways from Jack is Back are that…

  • It’s a family show that shouldn’t perform during Howl-O-Scream;
  • It has an unnecessarily large (and likely very expensive) cast; and,
  • More time, money, and effort seems to have gone into it than any of the scarezones at this year’s event.

Conclusion

Once again, all of my impressions of this year’s event are based solely upon my experiences on opening weekend of Howl-O-Scream 2019. Every aspect of this event will, inevitably, improve over the coming weeks. Given how strong many of the performances have already been throughout the park, I think it’s safe to say that the current crop of scareactors is fantastic and, moreover, that they are more than capable of making this the best Howl-O-Scream Busch Gardens Williamsburg has seen in years.

That said, the park could make things much easier on their casts by addressing some of the environmental issues that I highlighted above. Excessive lighting throughout both the scarezones and the houses is an immediately-needed fix as it is, far and away, the biggest thing holding Howl-O-Scream 2019 back right now. Another quick fix? More fog and more chainsaws. You can never go wrong with too much of either. (Maybe I should put that on a t-shirt.)


Epilogue

I’ve written a lot about the first weekend of Howl-O-Scream 2019—far more than I have ever written about any previous year. Why?

First off, Howl-O-Scream is far and away my favorite Busch Gardens Williamsburg event. I have more passion for the park’s annual Halloween offerings than even the construction projects I tend to write infinitely long walls of text about. I love the haunt industry and I love Howl-O-Scream.

Right now, this event that I care so much about is in a state of major change. Following last year’s Christmas Town, it’s rumored that Busch Gardens Williamsburg opted not to renew their contract with Oak Island Creative for the 2019 season. This means that for the first time in nearly a decade, the vast majority of Howl-O-Scream (and soon, Christmas Town) work has fallen back on the in-park Entertainment team.

This is a daunting prospect as historically the park’s in-house teams have not been large enough to manage the enormous scale of these events on their own. That said, it also offers an opportunity for new minds to take a look at the event, reevaluate what’s working and what isn’t, and plot a new course forward. If any of the thoughts laid out in the preceding article make it to the eyes or ears of even one of the folks now responsible for Howl-O-Scream moving forward, this manifesto will have been worth it.

Howl-O-Scream


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  1. Wow! I fully applaud and appreciate what you have written. Please don’t apologize for doing so.

    There are a couple of topic points that I personally do disagree with you, however things like this need to be published for all to read.

    Thank you.

    Bud

    1. I’m glad you found it a worthwhile read and I’m glad there are differing opinions out there! All of our positions are refined through reading about how other people experience the event, so disagreements are only a good thing at the end of the day!

  2. KD used magicians and fire jugglers last season and they were fun to watch. As for the large number of scare actors, hopefully they weren’t just trying out a lot of people and then cutting the ones that just weren’t preforming well leaving next weeks and the rest of the season back to normal staffing. As for atmospheric lighting, every season it seems to take about 3 weekends before the either change bulbs or add gels to all the lights to do away with the light pollution. Look at Cornered, that always looked like a Walmart parking lot the first couple weekends.

  3. I think they’re listening. I went last night and around 9:45 on the way to leave the park we went through the Wild Reserve heading towards Ireland and there were a ton of scare actors with chainsaw all up and down the area down towards the wolves. Being that it is so dark down that path it was truly creepy and made for some unexpected scares! I hope they keep that going!

  4. I totally agree with the fact that the 2019 event is too family friendly with Jack as the icon. The past couple years have each become increasingly disappointing to me with it catering more to families instead of the actual scaring purpose. I also share your excitement about Fiends being gone, that show was like a PBS kids show trying to be PG13. I usually let the event run a few weeks before visiting so hopefully it will be better by October.

    1. Attended Oct 26 and was severly dissapointed. After looking forward to Hallowscreem every year, my Girlfriend and I are thinking KD would be a better option next year. Decorations are WAY down, the fog i areaa was ovegearing, many of the normal rides were closed, most rides were running single cars so lines were longer than need be. The rides that were running 2 cars or more had very short wait. Most of the good displays that were always out were not out. I understand the need to change it up, but not to eliminate so much. Very dissapointing this year

  5. I think this year is the worst hardly any people that scare understaffed. The train ride had no sound track and so many guests that you can hardly move. My husband and I almost just left because we were miserable. The only reason we didn’t leave was that our son who is 17 wanted to go on rides the haunt houses were pointless. I’m disabled and they don’t even use the queuing for that right now it’s not about cutting in line my chair gets in the way of other guests and I can’t stand that long. I have season passes and will be back next year hope it’s better.

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