Thursday, October 8, 2015

[Haunt Review] Unearthing the Secret of Scarlett at Busch Gardens Williamsburg's 2015 Howl-O-Scream

Busch Gardens Williamsburg has really upped the ante for this year's Howl-O-Scream. Not only featuring more mazes, but several of the old ones have seen some updates to them. Three new mazes introduced; Cornered, Lumberhack, and the feature maze, Unearthed: Scarlett's Revenge, this year has more to do than ever. Add in the revamped Blood Banquet character dining experience shows and more, and it's a lot to get done in a 4-5 hour window!

Top that off with the Scarlett's Revenge trading card dueling game, which is pretty fun to play, and a ton of other things make this year's event really shaping up to be the best it has been in years. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't still problems, but we'll get to those down below.

I should also point out that our visit was also on the first night, so some weirdness is always around and a few things may have changed by the time we've written this. Top that off with the weather, and it was even more strange than normal for a review trip. However, they were the cards that were dealt for us to look at things.

Quick Look

  • Date Visited: 9/25/15
  • Review Team: +Kitsune Hazard, +Carrie H.C.
  • Rating: Really Damn Good
  • (Food: Really Damn Good, Mazes: Really Damn Good, Scare Zones: Very Good)
  • Recommendation: New improvements, new mazes, and more to do, definitely check it out!
  • Likes: Scarlett's Revenge is an amazing maze, better than anything they've done. Lumberhack is a good new addition and the upgrades to Bitten (acting wise) and the rest was nice to see.
  • Dislikes: Scare zones still lacking actors, Demon Street is still confusing, Cornered not really that great but fun still. Hours of operation is still a major issue too, not enough time!
  • Pro-Tip: Since the park is open all day, check out the shows early and don't do Lumberhack, Cornered, or Cut Throat Cove until dark as they're all outside and are better after sunset.
  • Video Review: COMING SOON
Disclaimer: We were invited out to see this year's Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in order to do our review as part of their media night. This did give us some unique experiences, but as always, has not influenced the opinions or thoughts on the event.

Right, down to business!

Like many theme park Halloween events, Busch Gardens Williamsburg is open all day, so we ended up at the park early to check things out a little bit and get ourselves settled before Howl-O-Scream kicked off at 6pm. Mostly, this meant a few shots around England and Scotland before we parked ourselves in Ireland for a while in wait for things to start.

A couple of drinks later, we got ourselves checked in and then were off to the races. The first stop of the evening, Unearthed: Scarlett's Revenge.

One of the new mazes for 2015, and the home of the icon, Scarlett, for this year, we had our expectations set pretty high. Not only because how heavily it was touted, but also because Rob Cowie, of Blair Witch Project fame was the mind behind the insanity.

Past the sign in out in front and around the back of a building, we quickly realized that this was not our typical Howl-O-Scream experience. Sure, not really anything theming in the line, as there hardly is for these, but there was activity going on outside!

From the get go, we realized that this was something on a different level than we'd seen in the past and it was all good in our books. 

Seriously though, this maze was phenomenal. We did hear some reports of uneven scares throughout the night, but it's the first night of operations. So, can give that a pass. When we went through? Was phenomenal. The detail, the way they incorporated some really unexpected elements from the ride building and just everything....this is what Howl-O-Scream should be, on every level.

But that's not enough, oh no. Outside? There's the chance to get your picture with Scarlett herself, as well as try some new adult beverages, Scarlett's Potions. Which, I have to say, was pretty good! The photo op? Tons of fun as well. Carrie and I couldn't resist giving it a go...I mean, not often you get to do such with an event icon such as this one!

From here, we decided to make our counter clockwise trek through the park, mostly because we had an 8pm time slot for Blood Banquet, but more on that in a minute.

For now, it was time to get this movable feast on the road, darkness was falling and we had a lot to get to in a very short amount of time. That was more scary I think, at least at the start of things. 

From Ireland, home of Scarlett's Revenge, we entered into Wolf Country and I still have to say I love what they do with this section. No, there's not a lot of scares due to the hilly terrain, but it's still one oft hose places that really just sets the mood.

The woods have all kinds of ghostly apparitions in them and the lighting is just great. This is always a favorite section of mine. Sure, I wish it had some scares but that hill is evil and not worth getting people hurt over that!

Once through here, we get to a very packed and full area of the park that not only feature Catacombs, but also the Demon Street and Wendigo Woods scares zones.

Demon Street is one of those things that I love half of, and hate the other half. The front section has the exact feel and atmosphere you'd expect. Everything is red, there's fires (pulled off by some rather creative effects) and this is where you run into Catacombs.

One of the older offerings this year, it's still as good as it has been in the past. Interestingly enough? They've changed the layout of things this year. It was a bit jarring, as usually this is a very claustrophic kind of experience, but the new section seemed a bit too open and the transition, noticeable.

Overall though, enjoyed it. No, it's not the best, and I don't think as good as it has been in the past, but it's still rather fun and fits with the theming of France. Which, is a really nice touch when you get down to it.

Forgetting the second half of Demon Street, it's just bad, make it like the first half. I will say, we did see more demons and chainsaws flying about so, that was good, but the DJ thing needs to go. Anyway, from here we found ourselves face to face with Wendigo Woods.

In it's second year, there's a lot to see and tons of action going on. This is such a great addition and it takes up all of New France.

There's military, scientific personal and civilians running about and they're all in search of, or running away from, one thing. The Wendigo. Yes, there actually is a wendigo in these woods, but where you find it will be a little surprising. There's a ton of interaction going on as frantic people rush up to you trying to solve the mystery that's going on.

As much as I do love this scare zone, and think it's their best, there needs to be a little more in the way of scares here. Being yelled, questioned and hurried along isn't really scary. You don't really know why...maybe some actual wendigo running about would fix it? I'm not sure, but they do need to up the scare a bit.

Almost halfway!

Having survived, we made our way into another quiet area and across the bridge into Rhineland and the home of Vampire Point. In the past, this was a spider infested area, but the transition works a lot better now as the covered bridge has been completely rethemed and now features bats. Makes sense...vampires are in our future after all.

Again, no scares here but as I said, it's a great transition area and a place where not a lot could be done with things in all reality. I'm sure if I thought long enough there could be, but it's tricky.

Once we passed through into Vampire Point, we saw that once again, not many vampires and not a lot of theming. Sure, they don't really need theming here, but it's this section that leads up to the Vampire Hotel, where all the vamps seem to congregate and not a lot after. Which, again, is a bit of a let down. I dunno if it's opening night, or staffing issues but they really need more actors as the area stretches a good bit.

Speaking of the Vampire Hotel, this is the site of Blood Banquet, the sole dining experience to be had during Howl-O-Scream. It's an all you can eat buffet style meal that comes with outdoor seating and interaction with Igor and his band of misfit monsters. Sadly, we really didn't get to see them as the weather a little off and it was kind of raining a bit.

The food is good, never have had bad food at Busch Gardens Williamsburg actually, and while I miss some of the older menu items from the first year of Blood Banquet, the new fare is good and worth the $23.

Back to the mazes!

Next up on our rocket fueled terror tour of Howl-O-Scream, Cornered. Which, is another all new maze for 2015.

Cornfield/farm themed mazes are popular out there, and this was definitely an upgrade over what Root of All Evil had turned into. So, with that in mind, we weren't expecting much.

Which was good, this maze is a very curious take on things and there's a few elements that were confusing to us. I'm not sure why there are mirrors in a cornfield, but they're here. The overall level of performance was great, and the actors were having a lot of fun with things. Some really unique and different scares going on, but it's a fairly un-unique theme too. Either way, better than it what it was!

At this point, if you don't have Quick Queue, definitely look into heading to Lumberhack. The entrance to it and the exit of Cornered are right next to each other and it's a loooong walk around to Lumberhack. After doing that, you'll be able to hit Bitten. However, if you do have Quick Queue, do like we did and head straight over to Bitten.

This is another maze that has been around for a very long time, and in the past, we really weren't thrilled with things. This year? Wow, it was actually really fun. There were vampires and other creatures all over the place in here.

You'll travel through tapestry laden hallways, coffin lined catacombs, chapels and even places where sand covers the floor. While not much has changed at all in this one, the actors and performance were definitely better than they have been in years.

The only complaint I could have, is that they're still just in "hissing and screaming" mode here. I mean, sure, I get that they're vampires and all, but a few more lines wouldn't hurt. I don't know if that's cast direction or just lazy actors falling into things, but hopefully it's something that gets corrected. The few lines that we did hear? Were great, so more of that please!

As I said above, from here you can get straight into line for Lumberhack, if you have quick queue, and avoid the huge walk around to get to it.

Lumberhack, another all new maze for 2015, definitely upped the ante yet again. The acting at the start of this one was really great and you knew right away that things had gone terribly wrong for this camping trip. 

Filled with the maniacal undead sawmill workings roaming these woods, there was really no safe haven. Really big wide open areas and since it was outside, scares that could come from anywhere. It's a great addition, but again, felt a bit empty.

Some sections were really large for just one or two actors, and the walkway portion could use a bit of work for the scares and theming there, it felt way too new and not part of things. A bit jarring, but we look for these things, that's why we go, right?

The Final Push

Having made it over halfway through the offerings, we just had to cross over into Italy to finish the night out with Ports of Skull, Cut Throat Cove and the ever present, Deadline.

First up, Ports of Skull. This one still is a very hit or miss thing. It's more photo op than scare zone and while there are some scares, it's way too kid friendly for an event that touts itself not being such.

When we got there? No pirates to be seen in the main area at all. Earlier in the night there was an announcement saying something about weather, so we assumed the pirates were scared of a little rain. Not sure why that is, as it never rained that bad at all throughout the night.

Before we got too far though, we had to stop for a drink and just a break. We'd been going pretty hard for nearly two hours and definitely needed a rest.

So, to San Marco we went. Here there's a gift shop that sells a hot cider drink called Schooner Cider. It's just awesome, and is great for chilly, damp nights like the one we visited on. Given the lack of pirates, it really was a fitting break for things.

We did take a bit of time to relax here, as I said, it's a lot to get through in short amount of time, and sadly, as above, no pirates around for us to watch. Even if they're scary, it's still amusing to pass the time with. Rejuvenated a bit, we were off once again!

Finally, we made our way to Cut Throat Cove, and with not much time left at all in the night. So it was a quick trip to be had through this pirate infested shanty town. I still love the theming here and the actors are always fun, even if they're scaring you. That's never a bad thing in my book.

Though, I'm not going to talk much on this, as like the other returning mazes, this one hadn't changed much. I will say that it's way better in total darkness, since you can't see where a lot of the scares are coming from, so definitely save this one for after the sun goes down if you can!

Next up on the list, Deadline. Another old one, and usually pretty good, but by the time we got to it, either the actors were feeling a little drained after the first night or something else. Again, not much has changed here at all either.

It's the same as it was last year for the most part. Down into the subway system that's been infected by some kind of toxin which has turned everyone into zombies. There's a lot of creativity here, but it never seems to fully live up to its potential.

Whew! Made it through everything, well, almost everything. We still had one more section of the park to get through, and that was Ripper Row. Seeing as it was nearly 10pm already, we were catching things on the tail end with this one. Thankfully, some of the scare actors were still out and about, so we could see them in action.

Themed after 19th century London, around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, this section of the park has a good mix of police officers asking if you've seen the Ripper, locals fingering you as the ripper and maybe a few other surprises.

They do a lot of additional scenery work on this one to bring out as much of the Whitechapel feel as they can. It works to a degree, but it's a shame that many are in the park and don't really get to see it due to it's location. If you come after 6pm, you will!

And now that's everything.

Overall, this year's event was a definite improvement. However, the rating we had on this from last year hasn't changed. Why? Well, a few things that we'd like to see more from, just aren't there. However, for the first time in a long while, I can say that we're hopeful that they will happen.

Actors, still need more of them, need some work on theming, even in the other new mazes for this year and a few other things to really toss this one over the top.

The back end of the park, especially around Das Festhaus is really packed and other areas seem a bit empty, but those are kind of minor things to deal with there. Again, with wanting to see everything, the four hours that Howl-O-Scream operates on early in the season just isn't enough. I've thought long and hard on it, and there are ways to stay open later, but that's another matter. 

In the end, it can get there, and it will, as Unearthed: Scarlett's Revenge really is an entirely new level for this event that shows a ton of promise for the future, but that's not now. Right now it's still leaving us wanting.

Again, if you're in the area or going to be, it's worthwhile checking out. And a little advice; expect some pretty big crowds as the season goes on, especially if there's nice weather. Planning for two days isn't a bad idea either. While the $75 per person price is high, you can get a fall fun card. That gives admission for the entire season for the same price. So, something to think about there as it's two days for the price of one. Quick Queue is also an option, but pricey at times and two days could be a better option.

And there ya have it. The full rundown. For more info, head over the official Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream website to find out more on hours, dates and other such useful bits.

Stay tuned, more reviews coming as Haunt Tour 2015 continues on the twisted journey to find the very best haunted attractions around!

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