Howl-O-Scream returns in all its gory glory starting Friday at Busch Gardens. Unlike last year, where scares were limited to open-air fright zones and outdoor mazes to maintain social distancing, haunted houses are back.
Also returning are the roving hordes of creeps who jump out of the bushes or sidle up for a fright. Last year, the elaborate monsters were kept at a greater distance.
At Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando, clear vinyl in haunted houses separates guests and scare actors as a precaution against the transmission of COVID-19. Busch Gardens said it will not be using such barriers.
The park has improved the air circulation in its houses, said event manager John Prast, who is in his fifth year helming the horror show. All the performers will be wearing face masks when indoors and guests will be “encouraged” to do so, he said.
Scare actors have always kept a bit of a distance from guests for safety, operating on a “3-3-3 rule,” Prast said. They are instructed to stay three feet away, scare the guest for no more than three seconds and take no more than three steps toward a guest to startle them.
“Maintaining a proper safe distance whether it’s in our scare zones or our haunted houses has always been the case,” Prast said.
There will be five haunted houses, three of them new, and eight scare zones spread across the park with themes like a voodoo bayou and a section devoted to mythical legends like Bigfoot and Mothman.
Prast said they focused more on the roving scare zones this year, so you won’t find monsters sitting next to you on a roller coaster.
Elaborate costumes set the tone under the careful eye of Loren Bracewell, who has overseen costuming at every Howl-O-Scream since it started 22 years ago. For the new haunted house, The Forgotten, Bracewell said he dug into the history of vampires.
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“It’s a goth-themed vampire lair with a wide spectrum of costuming,” Bracewell said, “from different modern vampires to Old World vampires.”
“When you think of modern you of modern gothic punk and for old timey vampires you think more Victorian, and that’s the feel throughout,” Bracewell said. “Since they’ve been around forever, we blend styles.”
The new Witch of the Woods house has “very earthy” costumes with a rough-hewn nature to it, using lots of wood and leaves.
And speaking of woods, Prast said the house will use the natural geography of a wooded section of the park near the Bird Gardens and the Garden Gate Cafe. Between the scares found in the entrance and exit and the house, it will have the longest pathway of any of the event’s haunted mazes.
The comic Fiends stage show is returning and there are themed food and drinks such as the Blood Bar, where you can find a vampire pouring a bloody shot.
Tickets are $31-$45 depending on the night. There are numerous packages and upgrades available, including a new behind-the-scenes tour for $29.99 that lets you learn what goes into the scares and see a haunted house with the lights on.
For a schedule and tickets, see HowlOScreamTampa.com.
Howl-O-Scream is intended for a mature audience, with images of violence, gore and blood. No costumes are allowed.
For the little ones, Busch Gardens will have Sesame Street Kids’ Weekends kicking off Oct. 2. It runs Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 31 with trick-or-treating, a not-too-spooky Halloween show for families and special Sesame Street character interactions.