You know what they say?  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Never have those words been more true then in the case of Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream.  I don’t mean to be harsh, but I’ve never been a big proponent of recycling haunted houses.  Recycling items in those houses, sure.  I understand that there needs to be a way to save money.  But, given that the event is a separate ticket event (you have to buy a ticket – you can’t just get in with a day pass), it seems to me like there should be enough money to at least re-theme the houses, with different actors or slight alterations.  Instead, both Busch Gardens parks (Tampa and Williamsburg) recycle entire houses with almost no changes, which makes for me second guessing the point of attending for, essentially, one or two new houses each year.  *review of 2009’s event here*

So…I skipped 2010’s event.  I really wanted to go, but the draw of Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter was stronger to me.  Not only that, the “chick band rock star” theme last year didn’t intrigue me as much as some of the previous year’s themes.  However, I think the break from the event helped me to enjoy this year even more.

Having been spoiled by Universal’s Press Event the night before with the front of the line access of all the houses, I decided (wisely) to go for the VIP package with Howl-O-Scream.  For $71 (I’m a passholder at the Williamsburg park, so there was a bit of a discount), we received a guided tour of all the houses, unlimited beer and beverages, souvenir cups and a souvenir photo.  Not including beer, all those things would be more expensive purchased separately, so it was definitely worth it, and a great experience.  Really, I’m convinced that this is how I’ll be doing the event from now on.  Not only were the tour guides great, the park really went all out with “secret zombie safehouses” throughout the park for us to stop and rest and have a beer that weren’t open to the general public.  Kudos to Busch Gardens for the planning on this one.

Sharing the theme for the first time with its Williamsburg counterpart, the theme this year for Howl-O-Scream is “The Dark Side of the Gardens,” and, even though I had worried it would be a little generic without a specific icon, was really impressed with the “front of the park themeing.”  I did miss the scare zones throughout the park but, ultimately, feel like those have been generally lacking in most parks for the past couple of years.  Instead of scarezones, Busch Gardens has random groups of zombies that roam the park, scaring visitors.  Less themeing, but still pretty effective.

Busch Gardens has three new houses this year and three returning houses.  The returning houses, Nightshade Toys, Death Row Vengeance, and Deconstruction, were all pretty similar to how they were in year’s past.  Though I know slight alterations were made, the experiences were largely the same.  However the three new houses were all pretty impressive.  Nevermore was a pretty spectacular house.  Taking the Edgar Allen Poe theme (Universal also had a theme based on Poe this year), the park handled things much differently than Universal, focusing more on the stories than the man, with some awesome results.  A spectacular house with great easter eggs for Poe fans.

Ultimate Gamble: Vampire Casino wasn’t as impressive as Nevermore, but was still pretty fun.  You walk through a…well, a vampire casino.  While not particularly scary, there were some cool innovations (like a dry cleaning room) that set the house out from the rest.  Some stellar themeing that, with a little more money and a few more scares, would make for an unforgettable house.  I feel one thing Universal missed out on this year was a casino house (especially given their Lady Luck theme), so this was a nice addition to Busch Gardens.  Zombie Mortuary is, essentially, very similar to the Trapped In The Walls house from previous years, but rethemed enough to make it different for me.  A great house with great scares.

Howl-O-Scream did a bang up job this year and, while I still wish they’d go with new houses every year instead of revisiting previous houses with no changes, the alterations made this year were strong enough for me to not have my enjoyment of the event reduced at all.  Highly recommended you do the VIP tour if you’re going to visit, and definitely worth the visit.

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