You drive deep into rural Pasco County long after sunset, past dead-end roads and dirt paths, past dark, open fields and through thick woods. It's the type of two-lane road where your car would definitely break down if this was a horror movie. And then, just as you start to question whether or not you're lost, a sign says you've arrived at Scream-a-Geddon, the Dade City "scream park" advertised with a blitz of new billboards this month along Interstate 275 in Tampa.
From the grass-field parking lot, all that's visible are black silhouettes of low-slung buildings under strings of white lights, and the occasional burst of flame from above the Infected house, but you can clearly hear the screams and the roar of distant chainsaws.
The front gate opens into a center courtyard known as the Monster Midway, where guests can play a carnival game, get a creepy caricature drawn or grab a beer ($7 to $10) or a barbecue sandwich ($7) to enjoy at one of the picnic tables. A guy with an axe, and what appears to be some kind of alien with black eyes, powder-white skin and a creepily-smooth head, offer an intimidating stare outside the gift shop, where t-shirts reading "normal people scare me" ($19.99) hang from the wall.
Outside Blackpool Prison, a woman offers guests the option to go "interactive," which means putting on a glowstick necklace that lets the prisoners within know they're down to be physically touched. Inside, an inmate immediately grabs a reporter wearing the necklace by the shoulders and shoves him into a dark hallway that separates him from the rest of the group.
Guests are pushed alone into cells, doors slamming behind them as a demented inmate emerges from the darkness, leans in way too close, and demands they "tell me where the guards are!" Others are forced into an "oven" the size of a broom closet. It's pitch black in there until white "smoke" begins to fill the space. Some guests get pushed down into a barber's chair where an inmate threatens to take some off the top.
The reporter, unsure how to respond to an inmate who has backed him into a corner and refuses to move as he repeatedly asks "why are you here?," sheepishly sidesteps they guy and slips away laughing awkwardly. Whether or not it's true, it seems like the path through the prison isn't totally set, and getting lost feels like a real possibility.
The Dead Woods attraction makes use of the actual woods that surround the park. Four or five person parties are given a single glowstick to light their way as they traverse an outdoor trail that starts with a soiled outhouse and leads through a series of cabins filled with cannibalistic hillbillies who warn that "Pa's gonna eat you." Their human prey beg for your help.
This attraction is a reminder that footwear should be a definite consideration when planning a visit to Scream-a-Geddon. On a rainy night, things get a bit muddy, and losing a flip flop while running down a dirt path from a chainsaw-wielding cannibal is a real struggle for one guest.
Guests are given 3D glasses before entering the Bedlam 3D house, which make the neon skulls that cover one room jump off the wall. A scary clown emerges from a pool of fog at one point, and another one, attached to some sort of springy harness, flies out of the total darkness. It's a disorienting experience, with floors literally moving underneath guests' feet and a bridge through a spinning tunnel that is anxiety-producing.
Infected, the park's other interactive haunted house, leads guests through a farmhouse featuring some delightfully disgusting props, and an abandoned school bus where it's unclear which zombies are mannequins and which are about to jump at you.
The Cursed Hayride is closed on this particular night due to rain, but Scream-a-Geddon president Adam Sala says the park brought in a "scare consultant" and spent months upgrading it from last year's version.
IF YOU GO
The cost of admission, which ranges from $21.95 to $35.95 depending on the night, includes four haunted houses and the Cursed Hayride. The park's operators say they expect to never have wait times beyond 30 minutes, or slightly longer on Friday and Saturday nights, but there is an option to skip the lines by buying VIP fast pass admission, which ranges from $37.95 to $62.95. The park is located at 27839 St Joe Road in Dade City. Tickets and hours are available at screamageddon.com, or by calling (813) 452-5412.