What to Expect: Howl-O-Scream 2016 at Busch Gardens conjures a hellish motel and murderous mermaid
The spookiness at the first night of Howl-O-Scream 2016 began before guests had even entered Bush Gardens proper, when a tram driver ferrying them across a parking lot reminded passengers to wait for the vehicle to come to a complete stop, then let out a ghoulish “hahahahahahaha.”
Entering the Tampa theme park for the annual, after-hours event, it’s striking how dark the place is. You never can quite tell what’s coming at you through all the artificial fog as you walk from one open-air Scare Zone to the next. Sometimes it was a clown with an axe, or a guy in a demented bunny mask, toting a sledgehammer and riding a recumbent bicycle. Other times it was a teenager with a dustpan, cleaning up an overturned container of Dippin' Dots. In an environment that threatens to make you jump with fear at any moment, they’re all kind of unsettling.
The Dragon Fire Grill hosts Fiends, the park’s annual stage show starring Dr. Freakenstein and his sidekick Igor. The show, as always, was an unapologetic mix of cornball puns (Werewolf Blitzer hosts a news show), of-the-moment pop culture references (Igor shouts “squad goals” and plays Pokemon Go) and sexy female nurses and shirtless muscle men dancing to enough high-energy pop rap and 80s rock to fill the latest Now That’s What I Call Party Anthems compilation (available on CD at Target). Think Warrant’s Cherry Pie and DJ Khaled’s All I Do Is Win.
This year’s show takes inspiration from the current election, with incumbent Dr. Freakenstein running for Commander-in-Creep against a bride-of-Frankenstein-type lady who campaigns by getting down to Beyonce. The election jokes took equal aim at both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and got huge laughs, with Dr. Freakenstein at one point noting, “We’re in Florida, votes don’t count.”
The humor was fairly risque — Igor is apparently a “master debater” with a “rising favorability poll” — but it’s mostly double entendres that will fly right over the heads of younger guests. Warning: people did get pulled on stage.
There were seven haunted houses to visit, five classics and two new additions. Guests who hadn't opted for the Front Line Fear pass waited in line to navigate the muggy, musty, foggy gauntlet of very loud noises and hanging plastic flaps (sometimes body bags) that separate rooms, forcing each, sweaty visitor to brush against them as they move, adrenaline pumping, into the house's next room.
The new Motel Hell house stays true to its theme of a deserted roadside motel, as people enter underneath a flickering, 1950s-style sign advertising color TV and a pool. Visitors felt the dingy motel hallway carpet under their feet as they went room to room discovering motel guests trapped in the walls, bodies floating in that pool and progressively more nightmarish scenes set to Mr. Sandman.
The other new haunted house, The Black Spot, took visitors through a sandy, windswept pirate hideout featuring, in order: British accents, loud creaking throughout, bloody pirate booty and a threatening, demented mermaid.
The Circus of Superstition, a holdover from previous years, was a disorienting, hallucinogenic mix of neon colors and spinning pinwheels, blurred together by the paper 3-D glasses guests are handed at the entrance. A room containing a small army of perfectly-still clowns could produce genuine dread in someone willing to play along and get lost in the theatrics of it.
An extremely sweet cocktail seemed to help some people with that “getting lost” part. Guests sucked down Karver’s Creation (whipped cream-flavored vodka with strawberry or grape Fanta), or an Evil Encore (light rum, orange juice, grenadine, sweet and sour mix topped with a spiced rum floater) from “yard”-sized souvenir plastic cups with a straw, available for $10.99 ($7.49 for refills). Beverage stations also had Yeungling and Bud Light on draft.
At the Club Karver outdoor dance floor, a group of small children moved to Unk’s 2007 hit 2 Step, where a hype man with a microphone tried to entice more dancers onto the floor saying, “come on, people!” Around the corner, the Shop of Horrors gift shop was selling Howl-O-Scream blankets, stuffed zombie dolls, and something called a “Monkey Wrench,” which is a wrench-like plastic prop in the shape of a scary monkey head.
There were plenty of free photo opportunities on the way out of the park. Stations were set up for those who wanted to pose with a sexily-dressed female pirate, a sexily-dressed Scream Girl pinup girl, a sexily dressed vampiress, or a machete-wielding gentleman in a bloody hospital gown.
IF YOU GO
Howl-O-Scream runs 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. on select nights through Oct. 30 at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Tickets start at $45.99; package and vacation deals available. buschgardenstampa.com.