Busch Gardens Tampa was one of the few theme parks to attempt Halloween last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. While they made due with just a few scare zones and no mazes, it was a valiant effort in the middle of the pandemic. But this year, they are back with a terrifying vengeance!

I have been a fan of Halloween in theme parks for almost my entire life.  I have experienced events all over the country, and I can say without a doubt that Howl-O-Scream Tampa is one of the best and one of my absolute favorites. Part of the charm of the event is actually due to the circular design of the park itself.  Originally built largely as a botanical garden and zoological park, it has grown to be one of the premier thrill parks in Central Florida.

 

While the region’s most well-known event, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, is celebrating its 30th year with a strong collection of houses, Bush Gardens Tampa has produced three new houses, and brought back some personal favorites.

You will notice some COVID protocols in place this year: the monsters are all wearing masks, but painted to match their masks and makeup.  It does help with both feeling safer and it’s less jarring than the plastic sheets that were placed all over Universal’s houses.

They have also put a whole new twist on the normally bland classic mid-way attraction the bumper cars, by adding flesh eating zombies into the mix.

SCARE ZONES

There are a few returning zones from two years ago, but they are all in different locations, and they bring the fog and the monsters fast and close for all the scares they can.

Little Nightmares

“Take a creepy walk down memory lane to the bygone era of papier-mâché masks and homemade costumes sure to stir up the nightmares of your childhood.”

Little Nightmares was one of the best a few years ago, and it still brings the creeps. Little ones do play with chainsaws here, so at least they are learning valuable trade skills in their trick-or-treat nightmare.  It’s got nostalgic Halloween style, and should not be missed.

The Junkyard

“You’ll find more than spare parts as you rummage through this surly scrap site. Will you make it out in one piece or be devoured by the haunted rubble?”

The Junkyard returns, and like the last time around, I wasn’t super impressed with this one. I think this replaced the cannibal hillbillies from three years ago, but this is not a step up. I had to hunt for the monsters and the whole area was so bright that their costumes were easy to pick our from the crowds and scenery. Great makeup and costumes, but very much out of place.

NEW: VOODOO

“Driven out of the bayou by ravenous werewolves, the witch doctors now practice their dark magic on you as they pursue their twisted revenge through ancient curses.”

The denizens of the swamp have taken over the area that the charming Dia De Los Muertos scare zone occupied.  The set pieces are breath taking, but the scares are few.  I am always up for swamp scares in Central Florida, but I actually think this new zone was a mistake. While it’s great to change things up, the fiesta atmosphere and celebration of culture was really missing at the front of the park, and I truly hope it returns next year.

NEW: SKELETON CREW

“Rising from their watery grave, shipwrecked pirates seek to plunder the world of the living, taking all lost souls as their bounty.”

This was a welcome addition to the park.  Yes, the pirate house is gone, along with the very elaborate skull island entrance, but the rowdy immortal buccaneers are still looking for soon-to-be lost souls to join their crew.  These are the most interactive and jovial monsters you will find in the park, and it’s wonderful.  Plenty of opportunities for great pictures with the set pieces and monsters here.

 

NEW: IN THE SHADOWS

“Eerie legends and horrifying myths passed down through centuries of ghost stories have gathered in the woods, turning wary skeptics into doomed believers.”

Every year at the event, there seems to be one zone with so much ambitious backstory that it’s almost impossible to determine what is happening without consulting the event map.  In the Shadows is that zone this year.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a great zone for scares, and the costumes are absolutely the best.  There was glowing Red Eyes, Slenderman, and more, so some of the monsters were recognizable. But why they were thrown together was not clear.  Very dark and wonderfully creepy, and concept clear or not, this was the best of the new scare zones this year.

DEADLY TOYS

“You can run but you cannot hide as giant toys spring to life in a murderous rampage with you in their sights. Childhood memories will be destroyed when these toys turn a play date into a slay date.”

Finally another returning favorite! These toys are out to play…you just might not like the way they do it! The new location, on a winding path near the back of the park, is perfect for the deadly stuffed animals and maniacal dolls that want nothing less than to lay you out for a permanent nap.   I really have a ton of fun in this area. The monsters are highly interactive and over the top creepy.  Plan to spend some time here exploring all the great props and surprises.

 

ENTERTAINMENT

The entertainment was great this year.  I really have to hand it to the creative staff, who have brought three very different but still largely entertaining, offerings to the event.

NEW: CIRQUE X-SCREAM

“Cirque X-Scream features exhilarating acts and stunts, including trampoline tricks and aerial performances. Guests will be on the edge of their seats during this electrifying show.”

You have one chance to see this offering, only because it’s normally only offered during the day. So if you want to see it, head over to the Stanleyville Theater, towards the back of the park, at 7:30PM.   The performances were all jaw dropping and the dancers who fill the gaps between each act were great as well.  My suggestion is you head here and enjoy the show while the park gets dark, then really enjoy the houses and scare zones in the darkness.

 

The Rolling Bones

The second wonderful surprise entertainment offering is located in the Dragon Fire Grill, where the Rolling Bones perform with light up instruments, and cover some of the best rock songs ever.   I especially enjoyed their take on “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” which they have turned into a riff-off between the keyboard player and lead guitarist.  Dragon Fire Grill in the center of the park, is one of the best places to grab a drink and some food, and there are plenty of tables to enjoy the show.

Fiends

Finally we have the returning “Fiends” this year.  I love a “theme park” show filled with raunchy, puns and jabs at culture. It’s sad to see these disappearing from other haunt offerings.  But once again this was short on laughs for me.  The dancers and performers do their best with the material as usual.

ATTRACTIONS

Crash Test Zombies

Normally we wouldn’t discuss the rides, but this year Howl-O-Scream has pulled out a fun, if not slightly, off beat overlay for their classic bumper car attraction through the addition of a horde of zombies.  It’s not so easy to describe this one, but really a lot of fun watching the undead crashing into others. Watching them swipe at guests, hoping to catch a bite to eat, is really a Zombieland style delight

HOUSES

Finally, we have the houses.  There are five this year, with three of them being completely new, and they really pack a punch, both with scares and with their immersive theming.  Most of these houses are longer, more intense, and largely more adult than the other theme park haunts in the area, which really makes a difference to those of us that love this time of year.  They also don’t rush you through as quickly as other events, which gives you a chance to really take in a lot more of the details.

NEW: WITCH OF THE WOODS

“Something wicked this way haunts…an ominous legend summons you with her inescapable curse.  Curiosity has brought many travelers into this dark forest, but only bone-chilling stories and dying screams make their way out.”

The Witch of the Woods is the first of our new houses this year and was wonderfully wicked.  The scares in this house come from all directions in some of the darkest rooms in the entire park.  It is a little easy to get lost, but that is exactly the disoriented feeling the designers were going for.  Wait for dark for this one to get the maximum scares.

NEW: THE FORGOTTEN

“Dark discoveries await in the underground vampire realm.”

Hands down one of the best houses anywhere in 2021.  The Vampire’s lair is themed with modern gothic designs and the scares are around every turn.  Strong BDSM themes in the bedrooms are completely inappropriate for younger viewers, but I applaud the designers and set decorators for the work they did here.  If you are a fan of True Blood, or American Horror Story, this will be one of your favorites and I hope it is around a long time.

 

NEW: CELL BLOCK ZOMBIES

“Vicious crimes resurface from beyond the grave, as death row zombies seek their own twisted form of justice…and your flesh.”

Like chain link fencing?  This could be the house for you.  There is not a lot of scares or theming in this one.  Lots of toilet smell effects…yuck just for yuck sake.  While it’s still not the worst house that I have seen this year, I did it once and I don’t feel I have to experience it again.  Note to the monster that came up behind and screamed directly in my ear: actually causing pain is not what you are paid to do, it wasn’t scary and it was just kinda lazy.

 

DEATH WATER BAYOU: BLOOD MOON

“New terrors will stalk the swamp this season – can you outrun the pack?”

I would worry if we didn’t have to escape some dark and twisted moss-filled death trap, miles from anyone close enough to hear our screams.  This year, we get the added joy of being hunted by rabid werewolves.  It’s a familiar footprint for this house, but it;s one of the best and that’s why it’s lasted with minor tweaks and changes.  Again, this is a house prepared deliciously and best served after dark.

THE RESIDENCE

“This suburban home paints a pretty picture on its eerily quiet street but open the front door and discover the domestic demons that lie beneath.”

This still one of my absolute favorite houses of all time.  It’s a hodgepodge of horror, and you aren’t really sure if its homicidal madness or demonic forces that are driving the killers to stalk you relentlessly. This one definitively proves home is where the horror is, and this lavish, twisted, truly frightening experience will haunt my dreams for years to come.

 

VERDICT

So, there you have it; a full tour of what I believe is the better overall theme park horror experience than many of the more well known, and ridiculously overcrowded Halloween event offerings out there. I did have one minor complaint with the overall house designs, and it relates to what I like to call “germ curtains.”  You will recognize them as the large heavy and clear strips of plastic that usually help keep some of the cold inside of larger walk-in freezers, but they are in houses as a way to somewhat obscure and separate the various scenes as you walk through.  Most of the other attractions this year have chosen to eliminate them, as they are really a possible infection agent.  I really could have done without having to touch them all the time.  To add to the frustration, the hand sanitizer stations were few and far between and mostly empty all night.  So, I hope that someone will change that.  H

Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream Tampa Bay runs select nights September 10th all the way through Halloween night this year.  They have many special ticket offers, including discounts for Sea World and Busch Gardens annual pass holders.  They stress the event is intended for mature audiences.  With things getting back to normal at least somewhat this haunt season, it is wonderful to have this event back. And trust me this year you won’t want to miss it.

About the Author: Ken Toghia

Ken Toghia is a director, animator, technologist, and horror/haunt fan living in Orlando, Florida. He was raised in Southern California on Friday the 13th films, Elvira’s Movie Macabre, Oingo Boingo Halloween shows, Theme Parks, and Haunts. He started off his career as a Jungle Cruise Skipper and Riverboat Pilot at Disneyland, has a degree in Film and Television from Cal. State Long Beach, and loves to attend haunts and horror films with his amazing wife and sons (who also happen to love this stuff)