Florida's Best Halloween Event?

You never really hear loads about Busch Gardens Tampa's Howl O Scream. At least comparatively when everybody is absolutely raving about Halloween Horror Nights at this time of year. Like, I know it's a thing because I'm an enthusiast but I think your average Joe family popping over the pond to do a Disney wouldn't even consider driving down the road for more spooks. Which is a shame because IT'S THE BEST DAMN HALLOWEEN EVENT IN FLORIDA. Look, Halloween Horror Nights is obviously amazing. Like, of course it is. But for me, there was something missing. I guess with it being such a high budget and finessed event it's missing some of that grit and grunge that I would associate with these kinds of events, and therefore it didn't feel as good to me as the horror events that I love.

Howl O Scream is scary. Like, properly, properly scary. Halloween Horror Nights isn't. HHN looks amazing and the set pieces are detailed and immersive, but the actors are very regimented in what they're able to do, there's no sense of frenzy or unpredictability and therefore a lot of the fear for me is lost here. I wanted somewhere that had that high calibre of set design combined with an awesome scare level, so I was excited to see if Howl O Scream would deliver and I'm so glad it did. I'm not going to sit here and tell you the theming is better than HHN because it's absolutely not. Nothing is. But it's definitely up there with some of the better European events I've visited.

And then there's the scares! When I say there was actors everywhere I mean literally everywhere. I'd love to know the size of the cast because Busch Gardens Tampa is a big ol' park and there wasn't a path we tread that wasn't crawling with actors. Even outside of the marked scare zones - you literally couldn't turn a corner without being accosted by some sort of creature. But I think the thing that set Howl O Scream apart for me was the innovation, which I'll detail more below in just a minute. Not only do you have this incredible combo of high budget set design and a great cast, you also have this peppered with clever and unexpected scares that were just as delightful as they were terrifying.

Set in and around the old Gwazi queueline, Unearthed follows the story of an old house renovation that has unknowingly unleashed some kind of evil demon. Our task is to go in armed with a torch to...save a missing person or something? Honestly I was a little foggy on the actual storyline of this one (mostly because I was distracted by the cool concept of walking around the old abandoned wooden coaster yay). But I feel like haunted house stories don't really need that much of a narrative to make them enjoyable so didn't feel like we missed out too much!

Anyway - the maze is bloody incredible. It's a haunted house sure, but it doesn't go down the typical gothic mansion style of interior. It's more like a cabin style, walls literally creaking and coming alive as the evil seeps out. There were some spooky plants, creepy bedrooms, stinky kitchens and all the other good stereotypical haunted house stuff, but for some reason it felt slightly edgier than your average. And there were some TERRIFYING scares in this one - most notably the walls in one of the rooms literally creaking and bursting open and also spooky skeleton man who had disguised himself as part of a chandelier so expertly that when we walked past and he burst to life we almost fell to the floor we jumped that much. Seriously good stuff!

Y'all know I love a hillbilly slaughterhouse maze so I was excited to try Simon's Slaughterhouse, which is a new for 2018 Howl O Scream attraction. This one was billed as being the most extreme maze of the event, with content only suitable for over 17s so suffice to say my expectations for the worst of the worst were pretty high. It's your standard rednecks-want-to-eat-you affair, with squealing pig noises, disgusting characters in dungarees sniffing you and telling you you look tasty, etc etc. But there were some really cool set pieces in here. Winding, confusing rooms with light pouring in through the gaps in the fences creating unnerving shadows on the walls and long clinical blood spattered corridors sent a chill down my spine to walk down and really set an almost unbearably tense mood throughout the entire attraction.

Where this slightly fell down for me came a lot with the fact that the marketing had really hyped this for me, so I couldn't help but feel slightly let down. I have a theory that our scares here in the UK are more 'hardcore' than other countries, and so when I'm told a maze is extreme I expect to basically be abused the entire way around. The actors didn't really get near us at any point throughout, and so whilst the Texas Chainsaw Massacre reminiscent sets and narrative were enough to create a chilling atmosphere all on its own, this really could have been elevated by some brutality from the actors that sadly never came.

Ohhhh good lord this maze was like my kitsch horror maze dreams come to life. Spooky hotel has been absolutely done to death, but spooky MOTEL is something I've not experienced before and in Florida of all places you KNOW this was going to be good. From the moment we passed the fab retro flashing entrance sign I was in love and once inside it just got better from there. Again, the narrative wasn't the clearest. It was basically go in the motel and spooky shit goes down, and I'm 100% here for that. Each room of the motel offered some different twisted scene - from crazy electrics to some poor sod face down in the jacuzzi to some gross laundry room, every scene was well thought out, imaginative and above all - packed to the brim with scares.

This was our first brush with the infamous Howl O Scream bungee scares and ohhh lord it was some good spooky shit. The way they came flying at us out of nowhere and disappeared again almost instantly into the darkness, I lapped it up. And there was one other incredible scare using mirrors that had us all literally whopping and cheering because it was so damn clever. Absolutely loved it and it's probably the most 'Florida' horror maze in existence, which it something I can totally get on board with.

Ah, the first stinker of the night. And that's not to say The Black Spot was atrocious in any way, but when Motel Hell, Simon's Slaughterhouse and Unearthed come before it you'll forgive me for having fairly high expectations. At that point we were three for three for good mazes so it took the wind out of our sails a little bit. Which is a shame, because I can't recall doing a spooky pirate maze before and for me that theme opens opportunity for some really dark scares - you could go down the realistic route of having the pirates be total assholes or you could do something more magical around curses or something. I don't know, I guess what I'm saying is there's a ton of potential with something like this. 

Set in and around the old splash boats ride, the theming was great as it utilised all that existing rockwork. The place was dank and wet like you'd expect a pirate cavern to be and all around were torn flags and rigging and treasure. Such a shame then that the actors didn't really...do anything? Which was frustrating, because having done more than a few of these things it was clear that there were a ton of places to hide and loads of set pieces clearly designed with a specific scare tactic in mind that were just sat there unused. Frustrating. No idea what was going on during our run through but part of me wishes we'd gone around for another go to see if it improved because it's mad to me that all that stuff is sat there not realising its full potential. 

Clinic-style mazes are a dime a dozen, so I wasn't overly gagged for this one, but sometimes that's the best way to approach these things because Insomnia blew me away! I love a maze where I just walk from room to room grinning like an idiot because I'm having such a good time being scared and this maze delivered exactly that. The idea is that you're entering a sleep clinic who are conducting experiments on things that might keep you awake. And as you can imagine with such a subject matter, things get real weird real quick. 

The lighting and set design is really warped - it felt Terry Gilliam-esque in the way it made everything feel off and dreamlike and I was living for it. So unnerving - to walk from a room where there are monsters under the bed grabbing your feet to another where an actors literally jumps up from within a bed and pulls another actor down into the mattress to counting sheep gone wrong where the sheep is savagely biting some poor git's neck off - the creativity and imagination used to achiever the scare moments here were second to no other maze I've ever experienced. And the final room where the walls are literally moving and swaying as you walk through - utterly insane and incredible. It only loses points because I was so distracted by how weird and wonderful everything was that I kind of forgot to be scared!

Sooo up for the theme of this one - deep south inspired Voodoo maze, like Princess and the Frog gone wrong. Fabulous! The theming in this maze was to die for - I adore that kind of spooky vibe that comes with a New Orleans Voodoo theming, almost akin to magic and witchcraft and pagan styles but with that cool deep south edge. And it was so clear where we were going - starting off in a witchdoctor's cabin deep in the bayou and moving through to the winding backstreets of the French Quarter, the attention to detail and stylisation is really stunning and on point. Beautiful to look at. 

For me, this was wasn't too scary. I think I maybe got a bad spot in the group but for me all the scares were either resetting so I could see where they were coming from or they missed me entirely, which is such a shame! My favourite scare of the entire maze was the funeral scene. It was your typical 'which ones are mannequins?' setup but with suited figures carrying a coffin into a mausoleum. It was just so creepy and atmospheric but also terrifying to walk through, really got me!

For me, what sets Howl O Scream apart from other events is that the terror truly is everywhere, but in so many different styles and ways. You have projections, projection mapping, lighting, smoke, music, actors, creepy set pieces, shows, detailed and awesome looking scare zones - all of this on top of six really world class horror mazes. It's just so much - every inch of the park gets involved with bringing the scares to life and from the minute the event starts you're absolutely drowning in spookiness. It's just brilliant and I urge you to go check it out if you're ever in the Orlando/Tampa area around Halloween time!

Talk later xoxo,