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Howl-O-Scream is back at Busch Gardens and we went to all the houses

The theme park is celebrating “20 years of fear” now through Nov. 2. Here’s what’s worth checking out and skipping.

Howl-O-Scream comes with a warning from Busch Gardens: It "contains intense adult content such as violence, gore and blood and is not intended for children.”

That is immensely accurate.

The annual event transforms the otherwise family-friendly Tampa theme park into a nightmarish adult playground that, should you ignore the no children warning, will likely make you responsible for years of therapy. Or you could be creating the next Guillermo del Toro. That one’s kind of a crapshoot.

Simon’s Slaughterhouse, one of the park’s returning haunted houses, will forever be a downright terrifying experience. There are plenty of shocks and jumps, but the real terror comes from the reality. Three days later, I can still hear the characters shouting for help as they are dismembered and hacked to pieces or climb through bloody bins of discarded body parts.

It’s my favorite.

The walk to get there, a scare zone called the Meat Market in the shadow of the soon-to-come Iron Gwazi, is also among the creepiest, probably because its theme is the closest to reality among the park’s storylines.

Next up is definitely Death Water Bayou, another staple and always a must-see. Horror and the mysticism of Voodoo along with the eeriness of a swampy bayou are a near perfect match. The house also features some of the night’s best scares with bungeed actors flying overhead or jumping straight at you before being pulled back.

Howl-O-Scream is a little different than Halloween-season events at parks like Disney’s Magic Kingdom or Universal Studios because it’s all original concepts and stories. That gives the park a little more creative freedom and also keeps surprises ramped up.

RELATED: Which houses are worth the lines at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 2019? We rank and review them all

To celebrate the 20th year of Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens is bringing back icons, the characters that matched the theming of each event. That includes Dr. Livingsdoom, left, the event's first icon in 2000 who was in the "Haunted Jungle Trail." Next from left to right are Death Jockey, Trickster, Voodoo Queen and The Butcher.
To celebrate the 20th year of Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens is bringing back icons, the characters that matched the theming of each event. That includes Dr. Livingsdoom, left, the event's first icon in 2000 who was in the "Haunted Jungle Trail." Next from left to right are Death Jockey, Trickster, Voodoo Queen and The Butcher. [ Busch Gardens ]

A good example is Insomnia: Patients’ Revenge. The premise is a sleep institute where mistreated patients with warped minds have taken over. It has some of the wildest imagery of any house with some delightfully over-the-top scenes and set design.

There are six houses spread throughout the park. Death Water, Slaughterhouse and Motel Hell: Infestation — which is full of creepy crawling frights — are concentrated near the front of the park and toward Gwazi. The rest are peppered throughout and it can be a bit of a walk between the other three.

Busch Gardens opens Howl-O-Scream on Oct. 19, a separate ticket event with ghouls and scare zones scattered throughout the park and six haunted houses.
Busch Gardens opens Howl-O-Scream on Oct. 19, a separate ticket event with ghouls and scare zones scattered throughout the park and six haunted houses. [ Busch Gardens ]

Nine scare zones offering some extra frights and photo opportunities help break up the walks between rides and houses. Carpe Noctem, where you can climb into a coffin for a photo op, was a particularly entertaining stop.

RELATED: Halloween Guide: Halloween Horror Nights, Howl-O-Scream, Disney’s Not-So-Scary and more

Lines weren’t bad on opening night. There were times when some houses had no lines at all, but most waits seemed fairly modest. Howl-O-Scream runs from 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., offering plenty time to get most, if not all the houses in.

Tickets start at $39.99 for a single night, but there are a number of upgrades like the Front Line Fear pass ($39.99), that gives you font-of-the-line access to each house and open ride once per night. There’s also an unlimited admission ticket ($84.99-$99.99) that gets you admission to all 22 nights.

One of the best values is the Fright Feast package ($29.99). It starts with a buffet dinner at 6 p.m., then you get to skip the line at all the houses until 8:30, which is not impossible to accomplish. That frees up the rest of the night for nighttime roller coasters, plenty of opportunities to dance and run through all the scare zones your heart can handle.

Things get gory, but it’s definitely a good time.

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