This is a guest post by Donika Haddock.
September 23rd marked the opening night for Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Each year the park brings in a new theme for their event. Cursed (2014), Unearthed (2015), and new for 2016, Evil Encore.
The premise with Evil Encore is heavily advertised dolls. And not just any dolls, but the creepy ventriloquist type dolls. Aside from the new ‘No’ Escape Room, and some random creepy decorations throughout the park, this is where the creepy theme ends.
New attractions for 2016 include an all new maze, Circo Sinistro, and two ‘No’ Escape rooms, one themed to Jack the Ripper, and the other themed to the dolls and their creator, Mr. Karver.
Returning attractions for 2016 include the same mazes from the last several years, Bitten, Deadline, and Catacombs, plus the new mazes from last year, Unearthed, Lumberhack, and Cornered. I have to say, while I love Bitten and Catacombs, I’m ready for a change. Can we retire them and bring on something new??
I will say though, there were quite a few changes to Unearthed and Deadline that really impressed me. While I won’t give them all away, I will say, the park has added projection screens to the mazes, as well as throughout the park itself. They make a difference to the overall Howl-O-Scream experience, and not in a bad way. They’re well done and not cheesy like one would expect or anticipate. While they certainly don’t replace the human factor in the mazes, they are an added bonus to the overall theme.
Unearthed was my favorite maze last year. The amount of detail that went in to it was fantastic. I still wish we could walk through it with the lights up so guests can take in every bit of detail to the rooms.
This year Busch Gardens presents Circo Sinistro. This replaces last years’ Cutthroat Cove, the pirate themed maze. With this change, Festa Italia has gone from pirates to clowns. Not the creepy terrifying clowns from a few years back with Fear Fair, but a new version of the creepy clowns. I love this theme!
The downside to the new maze on opening night, it wasn’t completely finished. And it was obvious. The characters within aren’t quite sure of their roles, and like most of the mazes, there wasn’t a lot of actors within it. But those that were there did a good job of keeping you on your toes as you didn’t know who would jump at you and when.
On the upside, I LOVE this maze, it’s a new favorite (coming from someone that was terrified of the clowns from Fear Fair), along with the accompanying scare zone, Sideshow Square. You simply must visit the fortune teller booth for your reading!
One disappointment with the park is the removal, or partial removal, of the pirates. If you’re going to do a theme in a particular area, I want to see the theme throughout. While the pirates were a major theme in both Festa Italia and San Marco, it is now just the San Marco portion of Italy that is themed. And by theme I mean, they kept the Pirates Baaaaargh (the bar), and kept the decorations throughout the shops in the area, but that is it. I say get rid of the pirates completely and just make that area circus themed, clown’s and all.
Speaking of San Marco, the park has brought back, for the first time in eight years, their Starfright Orchestra. I wish I could comment on their performance, but since we were there on Friday night, and they apparently only perform on Saturdays, well, we were disappointed. So those attending Howl-O-Scream on Fridays or Sundays won’t get the chance to see this show. Why even bother with one day out of the weekend? Either do it, or don’t. While I tend to avoid the park on Saturdays, I feel I will be forced to fight the crowds at least once this season, just to see this show.
Just beyond Oktoberfest, located in the Wilkommenhaus gift shop, is the all new ‘No’ Escape rooms. These rooms replace the beloved Blood Banquet dining experience. For $30 (before 4pm) or $40 (after 4pm) you can choose between two themed rooms, Jack the Ripper, and The Case of Mr. Karver. You’re locked in, trying to find clues to help you escape. If you’re familiar with escape rooms, you know the drill here. While we were given a ‘modified’ experience for these rooms, the experience was NOT to the parks advantage. Our group was disappointed and confused with the Mr. Karver room. The actor in it is AMAZING however, and I feel that had we been given the full on experience, or even had someone actually EXPLAINED to us what the room was about and what clues to look for, we would’ve walked out wanting more, but this attraction fell flat in my opinion. The Jack the Ripper room though, definitely a keeper. I loved the theme, and the actor inside was great. The sneak peak we had in this room convinced me the money for the full thirty minute experience would be worth the price.
One more thing with this year’s event, a not advertised little piece of fun, if you have the Busch Gardens app on your phone, they have snuck in a game. Basic premise, you go around and pick up buttons. There’s sixteen total around the park. In previous years, you can win prizes such as a free drink, free snack, and during Christmas Town, an ornament. Not sure what the prizes will be for Howl-O-Scream but it’ll be fun finding out!