Last weekend Zachary and I flew to Florida and back so that we could experience Universal Studios Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights and the opening weekends of all three east coast Howl-O-Scream events (Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Busch Gardens Tampa, and SeaWorld Orlando). Initially, we had considered evaluating all four together, but have decided the HHN is just such a different event that comparisons would be largely meaningless. For example, The Haunting of Hill House is the best haunted maze I have ever experienced, but it relies on a type of atmospheric scare that none of the SEAS events employ.
Anyway. Below you will find an integrated ranking of all of the houses, our assessments of each east coast HOS event, and some things we think they could learn from one another. It is important to highlight that these opinions are based entirely on our experiences during one trip over opening weekend. We know from previous years’ events that the execution and even design of a maze can change daily and sometimes even hourly.
After much debate and some compromises and horse trading, Zachary and I arrived at the following ranked list of all 14 east coast Howl-O-Scream mazes. Each is color coded by its park.
The Witch of the Woods (Tampa)
Beneath the Ice (Orlando)
Killarney Diner (Williamsburg)
The Forgotten (Tampa)
The Residence (Tampa)
Captain’s Revenge (Orlando)
The Witch of the Woods (Williamsburg)
Death Water Bayou: Blood Moon (Tampa)
Dead Vines (Orlando)
Cell Block Zombies (Tampa)
Circo Sinistro (Williamsburg)
Water’s Edge Inn (Orlando)
Busch Gardens Tampa’s The Witch of the Woods was easily the best house across all three parks. SeaWorld Orlando’s Beneath the Ice and Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Killarney Diner, however, were both excellent mazes, as well. It is worth noting that not only was this opening weekend for Orlando, it was also the inaugural year of its event. Already having a house as competitive as Beneath the Ice is a real testament to the strengths of the park’s design teams and casts.
Each of the bottom four houses suffered different problems. Cell Block Zombies seemed to lack both atmosphere and zombies, which is a significant issue for a haunted maze themed to the undead. Circo has never been a strong house, but some of its best elements have now been entirely removed and several of the remaining creative scares were unstaffed or misused. None of the cast in Dystopia appear to have been briefed on the theme, which is untenable in a concept house. Water’s Edge Inn had a great cast, which was given nothing to work with other than an impossibly short — though admittedly well-themed — house.
The houses form the core of HOS and we were thrilled to see new mazes at each event. Understanding that the parks are still shedding COVID constraints, we hope that next year each event can design and staff at least six. Regardless, we enjoyed most of them last weekend and look forward to seeing how they evolve and grow.
Obviously, these events are more than just a collection of mazes. So, we wanted to share our thoughts on each park’s Howl-O-Scream and suggest techniques and ideas they could borrow from one another. Going in order from youngest to oldest, we will start with Orlando.
SWO’s inaugural event was, in our opinion, very strong overall. Perhaps it is because of the SeaWorld Orlando’s proximity to Universal or its access to experts from the Busch Gardens parks. For whatever reason it had strong, well trained casts and some well-designed and executed houses. Especially as a new offering, however, there are some ways SWO could improve the value of its (expensive) up-charge HOS.
Adult Halloween events at parks seem to fall into two categories: haunts with some parties and parties with some haunts. SWO definitely seems to be the latter: a party-focused event with some houses and scarezones. Given the apparent emphasis on bars, dance parties, and roaming alcohol sales, we think there are several cues Orlando could take from Williamsburg. Unlike Tampa, which can rely on dark, creepy atmospherics, a brighter party event needs to invest in a lot of theming. Moreover, given how expensive Orlando’s HOS is, the entire park and many more rides need to be included in the event, not just a small strip from Wild Arctic to Mako. Williamsburg has historically done a great job overlaying the entire park (not just the scarezones) with a variety of Halloween decor. In fact, BGW’s Terror-tory concept is probably very well suited to SWO. Terror-torries, as they were initially conceived and marketed, are themed areas, based around storytelling rather than straight scares. They would lend themselves to the kind of interactive acting we saw from Orlando’s path casts. They also work much better with party zones and bars.
Given the price of the event, SWO should also consider expanding the variety of attractions on offer. Once again turning to Williamsburg for inspiration, things like party zones and street theater are good options for an event like Orlando’s. In addition, they could add special experiences like BGW’s No Escape Rooms. Most importantly, perhaps, SWO would benefit from more shows. Monster Stomp was great (although we question the decision to base Orlando’s version on BGW’s Monster Stomp on Ripper Row, which was designed specifically for the Ripper Row Terror-tory, rather than Monster Stomp Revamped, which is more thematically flexible), but adding more entertainment options would help make the event worth the price of admission.
There are some technical tweaks we would recommend, as well. Tampa’s houses are much darker, which makes them scarier and increases the tension. We thought this was a place where Orlando could learn from its sister park to the west. Additionally, BGT has been building longer houses, which are much better at creating and sustaining anxiety. The incredibly short layout of Water’s Edge Inn completely ruined the maze. Other, better houses like Dead Vines would also have benefitted from more rooms. Clearly, SWO has the casts, designers, and budget to support Tampa-style mazes; it should take full advantage of that strength. We also think Orlando was having some trouble with theatrical sound and light engineering. SWO should consider looking into whatever technical equipment and tricks Williamsburg uses for their theater productions.
Busch Gardens Tampa
Tampa’s well-established event is known for its creative houses and creepy atmospherics. They have some of the best scarezones we have experienced, as well. While Orlando is a party with haunts, BGT hosts a great haunt with a few, well-segregated parties. In our opinion, it is brilliant for the two Florida-based HOS events to have different foci, and we absolutely would not want to see Tampa add more bars and party zones to its event. There are some notes it could take from the other two east coast SEAS parks, however.
As good as Tampa’s mazes are at creating fear, they can be weak at storytelling. Williamsburg’s scenic design, especially in houses like Killarney Diner and the defunct Deadline, serves as a very effective narrative tool, leading guests visually from scene to scene, immersing them in a scary tale. Similarly, Orlando’s casts were consistently the strongest we experienced at conveying a story through their actions and interactions with guests. Their storytelling skills could have improved houses like The Residence, which seemed to be a disjointed series of rooms with few narrative links, and The Forgotten, which lacked any explanation of setting, theme, or action.
Like Orlando, Tampa should look to Williamsburg for ideas to improve the technical aspects of its stage productions. The actors were difficult to understand in Fiends and the costumes did not appear to be well-tailored. To be clear, just as we don’t think Tampa would benefit from becoming more of an adult Halloween party, we wouldn’t want BGT to attempt to match Williamsburg’s show focus. That said, if Tampa is going to include some theater in its HOS, it should provide the best possible technical foundation for its actors.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Unlike SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa, Busch Gardens Williamsburg doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. It is neither a haunt with a few parties, nor a party with a few haunts. Instead, BGW fills its park with a jumble of both. It is possible that Williamsburg could successfully strike a careful balance and offer both parties and haunts in equal measure. The park, however, needs to take a page from Tampa’s book, and find ways to segregate the two. For example, BGT’s scarezone, The Junkyard, was located on an isolated, self-contained path, reminiscent of BGW’s long-defunct Sea Dog Cemetery. By giving it separate space, Tampa was better able to control the atmosphere. Running a party zone directly in front of a haunted maze destroys the atmosphere for both and confuses guests. Exiting a dark and creepy path to find yourself next to a loud bar is jarring and breaks the tension. Williamsburg’s mishmash has been a problem for several years, and the keys to fixing the problem lie in Florida.
BGW is doing its scare actors a huge disservice. It is clear that they are trying to do a good job, but they also clearly lack adequate training. As we already mentioned, the cast in Dystopia didn’t appear even to have been briefed on the concept behind the house, much less what their characters should be doing. In every single maze we were told to “Get Out!” Beyond being a completely unscary throw-away phrase, it made absolutely no logical sense in the context of any of the houses. Williamsburg needs to follow Orlando’s example and train its actors. They need to be given specific characters to portray and guidance on how to use dialogue and movement to create fear.
We were surprised at how bright the houses and paths were last weekend. Like Orlando, Williamsburg needs to emulate Tampa’s approach to lighting. The best sets in the world can’t maintain anxiety if the environment isn’t dark enough. The light also makes it more difficult for the actors to startle and scare guests. In the past BGW has had a much darker and creepier event and we would like to see that brought back.
While BGW excels at sound, lighting, makeup, and costume design for their shows, they oddly have not translated those skills to their paths and houses. Like Tampa and Orlando, they should devote more resources to the visual and atmospheric aspects of the haunt elements of their HOS. Actors should have character-driven costumes and makeup. Lighting and sound should help tell the story. Every aspect of design should be used to enhance atmosphere and underscore the narrative.
Each of the east coast Howl-O-Scream events has strengths and weaknesses. While Tampa clearly has the best event, it lacks consistent storytelling. Williamsburg, with its superior theater tech, still needs to spend time training its actors. Orlando, which boasts fantastic casts, is small and lacks enough variety and attractions.
Thinking about our experiences at each park on opening weekend, BGW only comes in second, despite being the oldest haunt in the chain. SWO, which admittedly is in its first year, comes in last.
We think that SEAS as a chain has the expertise and tools to create three amazing Halloween events. It simply needs to examine each park’s strengths and weaknesses and share best practices across all of its east coast Howl-O-Screams.
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