Monday, September 16, 2013

[Haunt Review] Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Howl-O-Scream - 15 Years of Fear

This weekend +Carrie H.C. and I were invited down to check out the opening night of this year's Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. This year's event was boasting quite a few new changes and features that hadn't previously been been done before, fitting that it's their 15th anniversary. Go big or go home, right?

The biggest additions for this year are the new TERRORtories, the Cut Throat Cove maze and a couple of brand new interactive food experiences.

I have to say, the park really went all out with these new experiences.The four new scare-zones or "TERRORtories" as they like to call them; Demon Street, Port of Skull, Ripper Row and Vampire Point, really did add quite a bit to the whole atmosphere. There wasn't a single area that wasn't themed out making a much more immersive experience for everyone. Well, almost everywhere...but we'll get into that later.

For now, a quick look at the experience...
  • Date Visited: 10/13/13
  • Staff Present: +Carrie H.C. and +Kitsune Hazard 
  • Rating: Good
  • Recommendation: They still have a long way to go and there's a lot of things they're missing out on. The addition of the new bars and food options are amazing though and I wouldn't miss out on Blood Banquet or the Schooner Hot Cider (alcoholic), both are killer though.
  • Likes: Cut Throat Cove (new maze), Blood Banquet, Ripper Row (finally some love for England!) and all the other TERRORtories were great additions.
  • Complaints: Not enough actors in many places and 10pm or 11pm closing is ridiculous for an event this scale.
  • Pro-Tip: Plan to spend at least two days or shell out for a Quick Queue, the park is not open long enough to hit all the mazes, eat and see a show or two otherwise if it's even moderately crowded. 
Disclaimer: We were invited down to experience the event and were treated to the Blood Banquet dinner experience by Busch Gardens Williamsburg as media. That said, the fact that we got in for free and enjoyed many other perks due to the Media Event has in no way swayed my opinion of the event as a whole.


So, without further ado, let's dig into this one fully, shall we?


Our night started a bit late due to the whole media event reception so we didn't actually get out into the wilds of the park until well after 6pm. This won't be a problem for most of you out there, but it did cause a few issues for us.

That said, our first stop was to the all new Blood Banquet which was located in Germany at the Wilkomen House. Not only did they retheme the whole building that usually holds the discount goods store, but they also added a large al fresco dining area to the outside.

This was completely off the charts as far as food quality goes and the live improv by the actors was excellent as well. They definitely tried to keep it lively and while some of it was cheesy, it was the good kind. You could tell that not only were they having fun with the roles, but so was everyone else that was dining. Some really great interacting going on but the food really stole the show. The Slaughtered Lamb Stew, fresh carved meats, chili and even fried palenta were on the menu at this all you can eat buffet. They even had station for alcoholic drinks as well, which definitely was a nice thing to see.

Everything was dead on and I think is some of the best food that I've had the park in all the years I've gone there, which is saying something since food at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is always top notch. Either way, if you're going to be attending Howl-O-Scream this year, Blood Banquet is definitely worth the $20 fee per person and I personally I hope it comes back year after year.

It really was just that good. Anyway, onto the scares, shall we?


Speaking of Germany, this was the location for Vampire Point. Boarded up windows and fear of what was lurking in the dark were the hallmarks here. Nice to see Germany get some much needed love for the event as in the past it never really had much going on for it. At least not that I remember, it was always a void of sorts between Alpengeist and Oktoberfest for the most part.

However, while the theming was great, we didn't really run into many actors in this area at all. The atmosphere was right, but there just didn't seem to be anyone trying to scare people. We saw at most 5 actors in the whole area and from what we saw, they didn't really do much in the way of scares. Sure, it was the first night so they probably didn't have their footing yet but the small number of them is a bit worrying.

There should be a lot more wandering about in here as it's a pretty large area, they were trying though, but there just wasn't enough of them about.

By this point it was already dark and seeing the line for Root of all Evil, we decided to pass it up and head over to France to see the all new Demon Street.  Part of the reason for passing up on Root of all Evil was due to the line being so long. Last year it was one of the better mazes they had by far and we kind of hated to pass up on it this year. Even if just hoping to see the crazy gardener guy and the creepy vine girl again, they were really great as were many other actors in the haunt.

So, quickly moving on and after crossing the spider infested covered bridge into New France, always nice to see that come back, we caught a glimpse of the burning hell that was where we were about to wander into.

From a distance, Paris really was burning! How they pulled this off was a bit of brilliance as well and really did look like there was a raging inferno burning in the distance. Close up, a bit less impressive, but still was damn cool either way.

The problem that I had was that you could even really see it from a distance. New France had all the werewolf and spider theming going on, but no actors at all. It was just a fairly quiet dead space. A bit strange if you ask me, but honestly...if there were actors there we probably would've missed them as well given the lack of actors so far.

However, now completely dark out, we ran into another scare-zone with very few actors. Chainsaws in hand, these demons were out for blood, well the few of them that we saw at least. I did catch quite a few having a blast chasing teenagers and all manner of other scared guests, so at least they were enthusiastic about it!

The other big feature in Demon Street was the live Demon DJ that they had tearing up the night atop a huge giant skull with flames in it's eyes and mouth. Definitely looked great and the crowd gathered below was having a blast watching the show as well. 

Maybe this could use a bit more area to it though as it's kind of congested with one of the new bars, "Demon Drinks", and the bathrooms right next door. Overall though, it really worked and the DJ was having a ton of fun as well. Then again, when do you get to look like this guy did and drop some great tracks, eh?

By now you're probably wondering why I haven't really talked about many of the mazes yet. Well, the reason for that being is that the line for Root of All Evil was pretty long and so was the line for Catacombs.

The fact that our time was limited in the park, we really didn't have the chance to wait in line for things. So, with that in mind we decided to hightail it down through Ireland and over to Italy to check out the newest additions for this year's event.

I really am kind of sad we missed Catacombs this year, as it's easily one of the best mazes that they have and other friends of ours in the park confirmed that it was again this year. You really do feel like you're under Paris surrounded by the dead in maze of graves and tombs in the sewers.

So, off we went towards Italy. One thing we did notice on our travels was that the crowds were pretty thick so while fearing more lines, we continued on our way in hopes that they wouldn't be too bad by the time we got to Italy. 

Ireland was of course themed out as Frankenstein's Castle and courtyard once again and definitely more the party atmosphere but it really does work here. The 13 Your Numbers Up maze is located here as well which does fit with the whole "Luck of the Irish" which pits guests with facing various phobias and other such fears that people have. Overall, we didn't spend a lot of time here as we were just passing through, but this is one of those areas that I still love for some reason, can't put my finger on it though.

Sadly we had to pass up on 13 as well here, the line was over 45minutes long and with under 2 hours to go, we just didn't have time to wait on it. All in all, if you've been to the event before you can expect much of the same as it has been. From what I heard, it's still lacking any real climax to things and is just so-so all around.

It's good, but not great overall and I'm not not broken up about having to pass it up to be honest. We saw it last year and hadn't changed up much for this year either from what I gathered.

Passing through Scotland we got another dose of a favorite area of mine. The whole hanging, lighted pumpkins that they have is just a great bit of work and while not scary, just lends itself to the atmosphere of Halloween and autumn perfectly. I could easily spend quite a while there, but tonight we were on a mission and I couldn't doddle, as much as I really would've like to. It's really just a great way to get into the park proper.

Thankfully, once we got Deadline, we noticed that there was almost no line at all. This was a bit weird, but everyone else in the park probably decided to head in a counter clock-wise direction. At least this is what I'm telling myself.

Deadline has been around in one form or another for a very long time now, but I really don't mind as they continually change up the layout and it's always well themed. If you're pressed for time when you visit, you won't want to miss out on this one.

While there was a lack of actors in the first half of the maze, they made up for it in the second half quite a bit. The subway car is always one of the best scenes in this one and where they put it completely caught our group off guard.

Overall, this suffered from the "lack of actors" syndrome though as well. We counted a dozen, maybe 15, actors in the whole maze. While the ones that were there did a good job, there really needs to be more going on inside. The first half was very dead and only a few scenes towards the end saved it from being a complete bust. 

Our next stop after a quick pause for a drink at the all new Pirate Baargh was Cut Throat Cove. First off, the Pirate Punch at the bar was great and while it was a pre-mixed kind of deal, it still packed a worthy kick. The bartenders were having a lot of fun with things as well, always a good thing to see.

Just outside of the bar area was the Port of Skull scare-zone, which is...you guessed it, new for 2013 as well. I wouldn't really call this a scare zone. It was more like an interactive wonderland of crazy with many places for guests to take pictures with the pirates doing various things. Walking the plank? Check. In the stocks? Check. On a rack? Sure, why not! Even cages and a crows nest was to be found here.

However, if they were going for a "scary" vibe to this area at all...it just wasn't there and completely missed the mark. Whoever sold them that map, keelhaul 'em.

If they were going for more "family fun" and interaction? Yep, they nailed it dead on as people were having an absolute blast with the scurvy dogs who inhabited the area. Though, I doubt that since they were constantly reminding folks it wasn't "kid friendly at all. Weird, huh?

So, onto Cut Throat Cove. This is new for this year and replacing Fear Fair and the whole clown thing. First off, kudos to Busch Gardens for getting rid of the clowns! This is one thing that definitely sets them apart from other events that seem to have an absurd addiction to them. Seriously, I'm done with the bastards...keep the pirates!

For this one we did have a Quick Queue, which was supplied to us, and thankfully we did. The line looked to be at least 45min long by the time we got there.

Let me say this, this is an amazing addition to the event for this year. It's long, it's twisting and winding through a ton of great thematic elements from taverns to shanty towns to powder kegs. This thing has it all and the acting was definitely a cut above, even more impressive as it was the first night. No "arrrghs" or grunts here, they were actually fully into things and in character with their scares.

Our whole group really enjoyed this one and thought it was not on the best thematically, outside of Deadline and Catacombs, but also contained the best acting in the park outside of a few areas. Whoever is the manager for this house, treat 'em to a round of the hot cider, they did a great job getting their crew ready. 

The only thing that was disappointing for the whole Ports of Skull area was that it just wasn't scary. Not even remotely. I think I saw maybe two actors wandering about and the bridge to get over to where Cut Throat Cove was? Not a single actor around...not a single one near the maze either. Sure it's the first night, but not a great first impression here. Populate this area more and lay off the schtick a bit and it'll be just fine. Right now? Fun, but not exactly what I'd consider scary at all. 

So, a quick stop at Captain Barghbie’s Booty for a taste of the Schooner Hot Cider (which is incredible...you really do have to try it!) we made our way back up to Oktoberfest and to Bitten. Now, last year we spent quite a bit of time around here.

Right outside of the Festhaus is the Open Casket bar and back then it was the only place to get hard liquor in the park. The prices might be a bit high, but the drinks are good and the bartenders friendly and having fun with their roles.

So, on to Bitten. This was the last house we got a chance to hit as we were nearly out of time in the park with it being just about 10pm. (It's still incredibly stupid to close that early on a Friday!) Not much has changed in this one at all. It's pretty much exactly the same experience as it was last year and probably the year before that and before that and so on.

I really wish I had more to say about the house but the acting was only about average and the scares weren't really all that great. It's the first night so many of them probably weren't in their full element just yet or comfortable entirely, but they really do need to change this one up or replace it with something entirely new. Also, get more actors in here as well, lots of dead areas with not much going on. This could easily be one of the best houses, but during our visit...it wasn't.

4-5 years is enough time here with this one and it's just not as good as Deadline or Catacombs to warrant sticking around any longer. Keep the vampire theme but go in a new direction with it already!

On our way out, we finally got to see the new Ripper Row. However, by this time was quite late and I'm not sure it was just timing or what, but there wasn't many actors around again here either. I'm willing to bet there were more than the three or four that we saw, but it's hard to say given how sparsely populated the other TERRORtories had been.

The theming was great though and the trellis that they added with all the body parts? Really nice touch along with all of the White Chapel nods and random ends that they put in as well. They really did well with the atmosphere...it's just you need both actors and atmosphere and they were once again severely lacking. 

Again, I'm not sure if it's just because it was opening night or they just didn't hire enough people, but it really was shocking. An event this size should be packed to the gills with actors and scares around every corner.

Overall, the event is put together in a pretty good way and the shows and mazes definitely are good, a couple even great. The new TERRORtories are a very welcome addition as is the food and drink options.

However, at $72 your mileage is definitely going to vary quite a bit. If you want to see and do everything you're pretty much going to have to put out the extra cash for the Quick Queue here. This is especially true if you arrive later in the day and want to catch a show or two and not be rushed or wait in long lines. The other options are to show up much earlier as the shows run all day or plan to spend a second day and hope that the crowds aren't too bad for the second night.

So, there ya have it. Everything that we experienced during our time at Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Howl-O-Scream for opening night. The theme for this one, as you can probably already guess, if you've made it this far, has been "Where are the actors?". There really weren't enough of them and the ones that were there were still trying to get into the swing of things I think.

I hate to be this harsh on the event, but it has to be said. It's the 15th Anniversary of Howl-O-Scream here, atmospherically it's great but they really need to get on the ball with better acting from their crew and hiring more of them. There's no excuse for it really, not after doing it for so long.

Should you check it out? Sure, but don't expect to be blown out of the water by what you see. At least from my experience,  it just doesn't warrant that kind of accolade. That said, you do get a lot of bang for the buck and there are some truly great experiences to be had.

Here's to hoping that their Sweet 16 party in 2014 offers a bit more insanity for everyone!

For more information about this year's event, head on over to the official Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream website for times, tickets and more.

As always you can follow me @KitsuneHazard on Twitter or +Kitsune Hazard on Google+. Also keep an eye out for the hashtag #HT2013 on both as Haunt Tour 2013 continues!