The most wonderful time of the year isn't when the halls are decked with holly, but when they're home to ghouls, ghosts and garish creatures lurking around the corners. Halloween in Tampa Bay means sweating through a toasty Pumpkin Spice Latte, early sunsets on the beach and making room on the calendar for haunted attractions.
Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights is back for its 26th year, touting new brand-name scares like American Horror Story, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween filling up its haunted mazes.
"They are iconic and memorable (franchises)," said Greg Nicotero, executive producer for AMC's The Walking Dead, on Horror Nights' opening night. "But watching is different than being immersed in it."
Closer to home, Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream and smaller local haunts have to come up with fresh, original ideas every year. Who knows what you'll find in Howl-O-Scream's conveniently vacant Motel Hell or the new Chamber of Terror at Tampa's American Victory Ship, where creator Courtney McIntyre crafted a four-story experience about a ship full of undead seamen.
McIntyre said while a normal theme park attraction takes about five to seven minutes to walk through, it'll take guests about a half hour to make it out of his Chamber.
"Our actors have the freedom to spend a little more time with you," he said. "We use the whole ship as the attraction."
McIntyre said his creation individualizes the haunted experience, where guests go inside with their own groups rather than as part of a line.
"We give you a theme park quality, but with a more up close and personal experience," he said.
The not-knowing is thrilling and terrifying, and local haunts can deliver just as many nightmares as the big theme parks.
Halloween Horror Nights
Every year, Universal Orlando seems to top itself when it comes to its Halloween Horror Nights. Still riding the high of last year's 25th anniversary of its terror fest, Universal brought in hefty icons to solidify itself as the dominant horror destination.
"(Last year's) 25 was huge. We set and broke records. We defied expectations," said Patrick Braillard, creative development director at Universal, on opening night. "We're taking an opportunity this year to move forward with thematics and tell a sequel of sorts."
Of nine haunted houses, three are original and six are what Braillard and team call "horror properties," or known franchises. Those are the biggest draws.
Universal recreated iconic scenes from American Horror Story, left, dumped half a dozen Leatherfaces and Michael Myerses into the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween houses, magically expanded the bedroom from The Exorcist, far left, (complete with vomit sounds and pea soup covered mattresses), and showed off favorite scenes from The Walking Dead. Universal also brought Christmas horror flick Krampus to Orlando. The kitchen part of the maze even smells like gingerbread.
And starting Sept. 29 is the Repository, left, a virtual reality experience that plops guests into a supernatural world via a head-mounted display. You'll have to fork over another $49.99 to interact with a mysterious world through virtual reality.
Regular tickets start at $55.99. Runs through Oct. 31. halloweenhorrornights.com.
Busch Gardens brings its Evil Encore to Tampa starting Friday with the return of fan-favorite houses and two brand new creations. Ben DeWitt, project manager for Howl-O-Scream, said the park is lucky to have an entire team dedicated to year-round planning of its horror fest.
"We start gathering guest feedback to gauge what was successful and how to build upon that," he said. "We also look at industry trends to ensure we are delivering on the current and emerging horror themes and storylines."
Busch Gardens may not have the luxury of horror franchises, but it doesn't stop quality thrills exclusive to the park.
"It's really a privilege to have so many creative freedoms with Howl-O-Scream," DeWitt said. "It allows us to be flexible and adapt … to create entirely different storylines and characters."
Some of those characters and scenes are showcased in returning houses Zombie Mortuary, Death Water Bayou, Zombie Containment Unit 15, Circus of Superstition and last year's star Unearthed. The centuries-old demon of Unearthed is back to seek her revenge by collecting the eyes of anyone who enters her home.
Rounding out Howl-O-Scream's list of originals are newbies Motel Hell and the Black Spot. In Motel Hell, visitors will soon realize why this dilapidated hotel is conveniently vacant. The Black Spot house, left is home to pirate Saw Tooth Sila who marks those he dislikes for death.
Tickets start at $45.99; package and vacation deals available. buschgardenstampa.com.