Every year, Busch Gardens Williamsburg puts together what is, essentially, the best deal in haunts around with their annual Howl-O-Scream event.  Unlike most other theme park Halloween events, BGW’s Howl-O-Scream event isn’t separately ticketable.  So whereas you have to buy a specific ticket for events like Halloween Horror Nights, or even Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream, for the event in Williamsburg, you can purchase a regular day ticket (or, for season pass holders, just show up at any time during the day), enjoy the regular park during the day, and enjoy the Howl-O-Scream festivities in the evening.  The best part of all?  All the Howl-O-Scream shows play during the day as well, so you can watch all of them before the houses even open, and hit the houses without interruption, which is kind of vital, considering the crowds this place gets on weekends.

Howl-O-Scream opened this year on September 14th, a direct response to the fact that for almost the last two years going, the park has hit capacity every Saturday of the event, dealing with extremely long lines and wait times and, worst of all, turning away business.  Of course, I attended this year’s event on a Saturday, and, even though I got to the park at 1PM and was able to hit a good amount of the shows and a coaster or two before the house’s opened.  Sadly, even with this head start, without a Quick Queue pass, I was only able to hit 5 of the 6 houses, and 2 of the 3 shows.  Yes, the lines were THAT long, and closing the park at 10 (4 hours after the houses opened) didn’t help.  I’ll talk a little bit more about the options available for those trying to jam it all in in one night after the jump, as well as reviews of each of the houses!

Unfortunately, though the event is a great deal because it’s included in the cost of your day ticket, there’s also the old adage “you get what you pay for.”  Very little is new in Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream event (only one new house and two new shows), so I’m kind of grateful that I actually didn’t attend last year.  As a result, 4 of the 6 houses were new to me.

As previously mentioned, I got to Busch Gardens around 1/1:30 in the afternoon, and the actual houses didn’t open until 6 (with the exception of two entirely indoor houses, Deadline and 13: Your Number’s Up, which opened at 5:30).  Because I was there earlier, I was able to attend two shows before hitting any of the houses.

Night Beats: As a reaction to parents being very upset at the Fiends show being in the Festhaust last year, Fiends has been moved to another location, while the Festhaus has been given a new show in the form of Night Beats.  Much more family friendly than Fiends, Night Beats is about a vampire night club where they sing songs from the 60s-80s.  It’s a fun show overall, though I have to question the selection of some of the more obscure songs, as well as some of the awkward costumes (they dress as jitterbugs at one point) that are more cheesy than Halloweeny.  Still, as a show for the Festhaus, the production values are solid, and the singers aren’t bad.  If you end up missing it, don’t shed any tears, but if you’re in the area and have some free time, it’s worth checking out.

Fiends: Just check out BGW’s Facebook page for the parental feedback on this show.  Last year parents were fuming that BGW took it’s biggest eating establishment, the Festhaus, and set a baudy show with sexy dancing nurses and dirty jokes in it.  Having seen the show this year, while I do feel the content is a bit more on the adult side, of course the fact of the matter is that if you’re attending an event that focuses on blood and gore, you really shouldn’t be complaining when a sexy nurse dances around.   I’m sure the complaints are already rolling in this season (I could tell by the audience reaction that some people were shocked, despite the MANY warnings the park gave about the show’s adult content).  That being said, the show actually is a lot of fun, and certainly nothing worse than the Bill and Ted show in Universal Orlando.  If you don’t have too delicate a sensibility, I’d say check it out.

The Houses

So one thing that shocked me this year was that, in addition to the traditional Quick Queue Pass, Busch Gardens offered individual one-time Quick Queue passes for each house at the cost of $10 each.  I personally found the cost a bit shocking, given the Quick Queue Pass itself is only $30-$40.  It felt like taking advantage of the folks who would see the hour wait lines and only want to purchase the pass for one house.  While not a horrible idea, I do think that $5 would be a more manageable price.  I’d love to hear how successful these passes actually are.  I know I would have purchased one or two, given that the last two houses of the night had me standing in line for an hour each.  As a result, if you’re trying to jam it all in in one night…don’t do it on Saturday.

Here’s my thoughts on each of the houses, in the order I hit them.

Dead Line: Replacing the park’s long running Pompeii themed house, this was the first house of the night and, being entirely indoors, opened at 5:30 as opposed to the 6pm the rest of the houses opened.  Dead Line is the story of a new subway being built in Pompeii that accidentally unleashes an ancient evil.  Though the subway theme doesn’t come into play as much as I’d like, there’s some really great theming, especially in the final room of the house, where you walk through a subway train.  Dead Line was really a great way to start the night and, though a repeat of a house from last year, was new to me.

Fear Fair: I think Fear Fair was also a house last year, but was new to me.  Unfortunately, hitting this house right at opening (6pm) was great for a shorter line, but bad for the scares as it’s almost entirely outdoors.  An evil carnival, you get to walk through different tents themed to clowns and freak show attractions.  Despite not being entirely scary in the light, I really dug this house.  Some of the effects seem like they’d definitely work better in the dark (such as the man-eating chicken that looked entirely horrible in the light), but who doesn’t love a clown-themed haunt?

Bitten: The exact same house it’s been for the last four years.  Think it’s time to retire this one.  It’s not a bad house, but if you’ve been to it once, you know exactly what you’re in for.  It’s a vampire house if that wasn’t obvious by the name, and they pipe in the Bram Stoker’s Dracula score over the speakers.  Some imaginative theming, and overall a nice house…just one that I’ve been through multiple times already with practically no changes.

Root of All Evil: The only new house this year, this house was actually really enjoyable while also being a great big missed opportunity and a logistical clusterscrew.  The house is themed to take advantage of the event’s “Dark Side of the Gardens” theme, and you do get to briefly see the Lady of the Gardens, the event’s mascot.  After an hour wait for the house, maybe I was a little frustrated, but near the beginning, your group is split (intentionally) going into a particular shack.  The problem is that the shack is dark and you don’t realize this is happening, so I noticed a good number of people (myself included) wondering what the hell happened to the other people in their party, to the point that the actors stepped out of character to tell us there were two paths.  A great idea, but without the warning that it was going to happen, it led to confusion that took away from the fun of the house.  The last section of the house was also lit solely by strobe light – a great disorienting effect, but one that should only be used when there is a clear path to the exit.  I found myself bumping into a lot of things because I wasn’t sure which way to go.  If these issues are fixed, and more advantage is taken into telling an actual story with the house (such as what Universal did years ago with their Bloody Mary house), rather than just random garden-related violent scenes, I think this could be a really great house.

13: Your Number’s Up: Another hour wait (this time in the rain) and I was able to hit my final house of the night.  With 13 rooms, each themed to a different fear, this house was pretty imaginative, but faced MULTIPLE flaws.  First of all, the signs as to what the fears are are outside the attraction in the queue.  So unless you have a good memory, you’re not going to remember what all of them are, and some of the rooms aren’t entirely clear.  And if there’s no line at all, you may walk by those signs entirely. Seems like it would be pretty easy to just put “FEAR OF BEDTIME” on a sign before each room or something.  Also, the fear of heights room, while imaginative (it involved a mirrored floor), STOPPED the flow entirely.  To the point where we stood for up to 10 minutes in a room just hanging out and waiting for the line to continue moving.  It was a frustrating experience, to say the least.  Especially since the rooms we got stuck in were some of the least imaginative.  Not a bad house, but seems like a few easy fixes (including long period of house with no themeing at all) would have made this more effective.  Why couldn’t the mirrored room be the FIRST one?

Catacombs: Unfortunately, because of lines, I wasn’t able to hit this one, but I hear it’s the exact same it’s been for the last couple of years.

Closing

For pure value, you can’t beat BGW’s Howl-O-Scream event.  You can hang out at a theme park all day, catch some Halloween-themed shows, then hit the houses at night.  While I don’t recommend attending on a Saturday without an Express Pass, there’s more than enough to enjoy here.  If you’ve been in previous years, keep in mind that very little is new, and scare zones have essentially been done away of entirely, in lieu of roaming hoards (of which I saw the same 2 or 3 multiple times), so you’re not likely to get a different experience than you did last year.  Still, one of the biggest events Virginia has to offer, and worth the price of admission.

For more about Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream event, check out the official site!

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