Category: Theater

2016, Attractions, Florida, General, Halloween, Haunted Attractions, Reviews, Theater

Tampa, Florida: Interactive Theater Review: The Vault of Souls

Thankfully Hurricane Matthew didn’t hit where I was in Orlando directly, so general pre-hurricane chaos, losing a couple of haunt days, and having to drive 20+ hours out of my way (OMG) to get home because 95 North was flooded was the maximum impact we experienced.

Yeah – my back still hurts days later. :( This is why the reviews are coming out slower. The hurricane really impacted us.

Orange County lifted the curfew just in time for me to get to Tampa on Friday, October 7th, 2016 to see The Vault of Souls for their second year of operation. Time to go haunting!


I reviewed them last year and was very impressed at that time. I felt like it was an amazing start to an innovative show. I was extremely pleased that they did it again. Did I mention that they they won an Innovation award from us? Yep.

What was it like this year?

This year they took the concept up to the next level with some great alterations and additions. First, let’s talk about what The Vault of Souls is if you haven’t read my previous review. It’s Interactive / Immersive Theatre; a haunted experience located in a Tampa landmark that also draws upon the local history.

“The Exchange National Bank opened in 1923 to protect the worldly possessions of Tampa’s High Society. The founders of the bank soon discovered that there was also a desire to protect their clients’ “other-worldly” possessions as well. After consulting with the most prestigious psychics and local native Shaman, they were able to invoke “The Vault of Souls”. This paranormal purgatory was constructed in the basement of the bank and became the safe haven for carefully selected souls. To this day, Tampa’s elite gather in October, when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest, to enter this mysterious vault. For some it is a brief visit. For others, it is an eternity.”

This is not a startle scare chainsaw fest. There are no startle scares in here whatsoever. If you enjoy theatrical haunts OR don’t care for scary things but enjoy theatre, this is for you. Yes, even your friend who hates haunts will like this as long as they enjoy fun.

Harknell and I love it.

You start off in “The Arrival”, which is a bar area with live music, dancers, and people serving small bites of food. The food is included with your admission, the alcohol is not.


Shepherd’s Pie and Shrimp and Grits:


The Vault Ventilator, their specialty drink:




You wait here until your name is called. Characters will interact with you up here, which is new this year and a great addition. I encountered a clown, fortune teller, researcher, and at least 1 other from the time period. They have added enhanced effects and animated ghost projections on the wall.


When your name is called you enter “The Ritual”. Before you enter you get to watch 2 ghosts do a waltz, and then you enter in small groups. You have the ability to wander around for as long as you want, exploring, solving puzzles, and piecing together the story. Remember adventure video games in the 90s? This is that in real life. I freaking loved those type of games.

You get to go deeper into the story of Lucy, whose soul was kept in the Vault by her parents. Her parents couldn’t afford to pay the fee to join her there so you run into their ghosts looking for Lucy. A particularly unsettling scene added this year was Lucy’s Mom done with a Pepper’s Ghost effect. Mad props to that.

They don’t cram people inside. We were in there for over an hour and didn’t get to everything that we could have done – this year there is so much more that you can do inside. You”ll notice some similarities with last year’s show but they have expanded almost everything. There are now several quests you can complete in order to find out pieces of the story. I didn’t complete all of them but I did ask Creative Director Scott Swenson if they could all be completed if we had stayed longer. He told me that yes, every quest has an ending and something that happens. Cool!

After you choose to leave you go upstairs to the Gin Joint, just like last year. I’m told that they may make the Gin Joint a year-round thing. This makes me happy because it’s a gorgeous space. This year they had a couple of (amazing!!!) live singers and several more folks in costume. I didn’t want to interrupt the actors’ work, but here are some shots of the Gin Joint decor, which I loved:


gin joint 4



Upstairs they also had the gelato, coffee, and fortune tellers like last year in “The Readers’ Clearing”. They upgraded that space with …well…look:


When you leave you get to keep your mask and you get a book of poetry written by Scott Swenson. The book is the second volume, so it is new for this year. Women get roses:


I particularly liked that they alter your mask depending on what quests you do and how you interact with the actors. I interacted with the dentist and the seductress. I hope they add more to the mask alteration and really go nuts with it next year. That would be cool – and majorly appeal to my love of wearable, fluid, performance art.

If you require glasses to see I highly recommend that you wear contacts when you go here because of the mask. I thought I could get away with having my glasses under the mask, but I wouldn’t do that again. Because after surgery I now require progressive lenses which can’t be done in contact lenses easily I’ll just wear my single vision contacts and bring a magnifying glass to be able to read with next year. :D (I am still learning how to interact with the world after my eye surgery.)

Tickets are $100 plus a $5 service fee. Our tickets were complimentary, but even if I weren’t a writer I would have paid to go see this show. Arrive about an hour early so that you can properly eat, drink, and interact with the actors in The Arrival. The cost includes the food – and the food is extremely good. If you show up just before your arrival time I feel that you will probably not get all that you should be getting out of the experience. This is a high end elegant night out and every year they keep setting the bar higher and higher. This is where I am seeing true innovation and creativity thrive.

Since Tampa may be my future home I am very happy that the arts are thriving in Tampa and elevating the city’s history and capabilities. I feel that too many people just go to the theme parks in Orlando and fail to look just an hour southwest at the city of Tampa. Tampa has so much to offer, is always the place I have my most memorable vacation days at, and The Vault of Souls is solid proof of that.

You really should…DO THIS ONE!

2015, Guest Post, Theater, Theme Parks, Virginia

Williamsburg, Virginia Holiday Attractions: Busch Gardens Christmas Town “Gloria!” 2015 Review

Hark to this. Image ©2012 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.
Hark to this. Image ©2012 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.

This is a guest post by Kara Dennison.

Full disclosure before we begin: I was a Christmas pageant kid. Largely because at my old church there were maybe five children total. I was Mary every year for several years, until I hit the preteen years and graduated to being the angel because apparently that’s how Christmas pageants work. The point is, I did the whole dang “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown” thing. And I was aware “Gloria!” was a big deal show (big enough that I didn’t go last year because the line went on forever), but did I want to stand in line for a Christmas pageant?

Listen up, though. This show is ridiculously pretty, the music is extremely good, and the staging is (sorry) glorious. Yeah, it’s a Christmas pageant — but it’s like the best ever high-end Christmas pageant.

The first thing of note: the scrim. No, seriously. They make extensive use of it, and it’s very cleverly handled. This is performed at the Abbey Stone Theatre in Killarney, which is a much smaller and more intimate performance space than, say, the Globe. But they make up for their lack of fly space and pyrotechnics by using the scrim and back screen to project set pieces and special effects, with the actors between the two in a way that integrates them into the imagery very cleanly and artistically. The costumes are essentially what you’d expect them to be, save for our lead angel (see above), who’s straight out of Jesus Christ Superstar and looks amazing.

What’s most interesting is that yes, they are doing a Nativity play jukebox musical using Christmas carols. And they are ramping it up. But they seem to know what they’re meant to ramp up and don’t fix what ain’t broke. There’s a full band down front performing all the music live (and sit near the band if you can, because it’s very fun to watch them), there’s a decidedly more modern tone to some segments and orchestrations, but all things considered, it is very traditional.

The singers, incidentally, are astounding — some of the best I’ve heard in the park. The soloists especially in the choral numbers are just mind-blowing, and I’m glad they took the time to put credits with photos outside the Abbey Stone. And the aforementioned band is top-notch, too. We were sitting rather close to them, so I can’t vouch for how good they sound at the far ends of the theatre, but they were good and loud and strong from where we were sitting.

Honestly, my only issue with it was probably only an issue on the night: there seemed to be some set pieces that were moving and thumping oddly as they were being slid on and off the stage. I’m not sure if that was an error on the night or if there’s something that needs looking into. Fortunately nothing came crashing down, but it seemed odd in a production that was otherwise well put together.

I mean, yeah, I appreciate “Gloria!” might not be everyone’s jam. But even if you’re not of a terribly religious bent, give it a go, because it is a beautiful show managed extremely well and sung with a hell of a lot of heart. And no, seriously. Look at that angel. Look. Tell me you would not wear that suit to a party.

2015, Theater, Theme Parks, Virginia

Williamsburg, Virginia Holiday Attractions: Busch Gardens Christmas Town “Scrooge No More” 2015 Review

Image ©2014 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.
Scrooge on one of his better days. Image ©2014 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.

This is a guest post by Kara Dennison.

Question: how many ways can one tell the story of A Christmas Carol? Answer: all of them. It’s one that never gets tired of being rewritten or remade or reimagined because it is, at its heart, the most basic and essential of holiday messages: don’t be a jerk on Christmas.

Okay, it’s more than that. But the fact remains, it is the most solid non-religiously-tied story of the season, and with a park that has its own tiny England, you really can’t do without a staging of it at Christmas.

“Scrooge No More” was Christmas Town’s new show in 2014, put on by the same people behind “Monster Stomp at Ripper Row” — and it shows. Off-the-wall costumes, creative use of all parts of the stage, heavily thought out lighting design, and a highly stylized aesthetic are all present again, although not as gory or edgy as its Howl-O-Scream counterpart. “Scrooge” is infinitely more family-friendly, though it does get its creepy on at plenty of points throughout.

It’s worth noting that “Scrooge” isn’t a jukebox musical of the typical theme park variety. Nor, for the record, was it borrowing at all from the Leslie Bricusse musical. This is all new music, ranging across a variety of styles. The music is cute and engaging overall and moves the story along, but it isn’t truly the central or most fascinating thing about the show.

Visually, as you’d expect from its pedigree, “Scrooge No More” is serious eye candy. Heavy use is made of clever lighting and video projection to move the story along, even in the “real life” scenes. Scrooge’s chamber has a distinctly Lemony Snicket feel to it (as does Scrooge himself) before Marley’s appearance in chains kicks off his night of weird dreams. The various ghosts (all played by ensemble members) are heralded with a variety of projected effects, bringing a surreal, dream-like quality to the whole production. Much of it is reminiscent of the techniques used by the UK theatrical troupe 1927: Marley’s chains are augmented by a “web” of animated ones projected behind him, scenes build themselves up from animated pieces, and the Ghost of Christmas Present appears to us first as a giant CG nutcracker.

(This is to say nothing of the time travel effects between the ghosts’ scenarios, which… well, let’s just say someone loves the Twelfth Doctor as much as I do and has no problems being extremely blatant with it.)

The final segment with the ghosts is downright eerie, veering slightly more toward its “Monster Stomp” roots. Between Crowley-esque imagery and a frighteningly realized, larger-than-life Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I found myself sinking down in my seat to hide. It’s grim, but not gruesome: a good chilling Christmas ghost story, lightened immediately by Scrooge’s reformation.

Also worth noting are the ensemble players who took part in a light pre-show, specifically the gentleman performing antics with an unruly spotlight and doing a bit of juggling. It was a pleasant, fun atmosphere from the beginning, and the right one to get families jazzed for the show to come.

“Scrooge No More” is sheer spectacle at its core, somehow managing to blend the merry Victorian aesthetic just outside the theatre’s doors with the dark, unsettling undercurrent of “Monster Stomp.” A Christmas Carol is the ultimate vehicle for this pairing, of course, and it’s exciting to watch. While you might not necessarily leave humming any of the music, you will definitely still be talking about the visual spectacle for days after.

2015, Attractions, Florida, General, Halloween, Haunted Attractions, Theater, interview

Interview: Tampa, Florida’s Vault of Souls Creative Director talks about what it’s like to wrangle ghosts in the roaring 20s

I had the opportunity to go to Tampa, Florida to attend and review The Vault of Souls 2 weekends ago. This “elegant night out” consisting of food, drink, and interactive theater firmly rooted in Tampa’s local history is possibly the most ambitious project I’ve seen for the Halloween season this year – or ever. Naturally, I had a few questions:

Oni: Hiya Scott! So how did Vault of Souls come about? Is this a collaborative project, or are you running the whole show?

Scott: The Vault of Souls started in December of 2014 when Susannah Smith with The Wilson Company contacted me to create a Halloween event for adults that would utilize their events pavilion, The Vault, and the surrounding environments. We toured the spaces and developed a story that would feature the wonderful history of this gem in Downtown Tampa. Any project of this magnitude requires a “village” to bring it to life…or “after-life” as the case may be. The incredible staff at The Vault and The Wilson Company stepped up to the plate to do things completely above and beyond expectations.

Our Technical Director, Jason Atwell and his company AAG created and refined the many worlds of the experience. Spellbound Stitches created the costumes and Dawn Harlan designed the make-up. The cast created rich characters that can truly interact with guests throughout the night to create a personal and detailed experience. But the real champion and visionary who was brave enough and insightful enough to support this endeavor is Caroline Wilson. She is at the helm of The Wilson Company and has allowed us to build the perfect creative environment.

Flapper costumes by
Flapper costumes by Spellbound Stitches

Oni: I am sure you have a lot of elements of the show that you are proud of. If you could pick just one thing what would you say is your biggest achievement while developing this show?

Scott: Its really hard to pick a specific element, so I would have to say the communal and totally interactive nature of the event. The guests affect the growth and path of the story. People spend as much as 3 hours in the Ritual, masked and silent, exploring the details and making the plot connections. Then they come back to the world of the living and sit in either The Gin Joint or The Readers Clearing and discuss their adventure. This sense of communal pretending is by far the most interesting element of the entire project for me.

Oni: The thing that that I noticed is that the food served at the event was really good. Who do we have to thank for that? Is there a kitchen in the building? How hard is that to coordinate?

Scott: In the on-going attempt to bring attention to Downtown Tampa and specifically the Franklin Street Corridor, the catering is provided by Spain, a local restaurant blocks from The Vault. They are WONDERFUL to work with and have a totally professional team of culinary experts and hosts.

Oni: How did you go about picking the actors for the event? Were they all originally scare actors, or did you spread a wider net?

Scott: About 60% of the actors came from a haunt industry background and 40% from the local theatre community. We held several auditions for actors, dancers, singers, variety artists, Tarot readers and musicians. Auditions started in June of this year and continued, on and off, until 2 weeks before opening.

Oni: Vault of Souls is linked to Tampa history, which is something that I particularly love about it. Is Lucy or any of the other characters based on a real person?

Scott: There are a few actual names that appear in the “mythology” of the event. For example, James A. Griffin’s name appears on several communications from The Exchange National Bank. This was the name of the actual bank president when it opened in 1923. The characters themselves are more based on people who could have existed in the 1920’s vs. those who actually did. The character of Wisteria, who resides in The Arrival, for instance, represents the huge popularity growth of “Mystics” during the early 1920’s.

Oni: I loved your book of companion poetry that was available at the event. When you write, how does your writing process generally work?

Scott: Thank you so much! When writing the poetry for “souls”, I tried to get a sense of the character and their surroundings and then “get out of the way”. I tried to let the poems develop without too much guidance. With that collection, the more I tried to force the writing, the worse it got. Some character details actually emerged during the writing process…sometimes they even took me off guard.

Oni: What advice do you have for the kids out there who would love to grow up to do what you do?

Scott: Do it…Don’t worry about “who will pay me” or “I’ll never get anything produced” Find a way to make it work. I have learned just as much about haunting from home haunters as I have from industry professionals. This doesn’t mean that just by wanting it to happen it will. I have studied theatre and story-telling and anything else that struck my interest for YEARS! Realize the “wanting” and “doing” are 2 different things. Take responsibility for your own future. Find ways to work with great teams of people. Learn from them. Make mistakes. LEARN FROM THEM! Take artistic risks but make sure the application is 100% safe! Be a storyteller!

Oni: What do you have planned for the future? Will there be a second installment of Vault of Souls?

Scott: As a freelancer, the future is always in flux…The success of The Vault of Souls has given the team a great deal to think about. Although there is no final decision regarding the future, we have proved that there is an eager audience for this style of interactive environmental performance art in Tampa. We hope that this will inspire growth and new opportunities.

Tickets are on sale now for The Vault of Souls. Up to six people may enter at once. General admission is $100 per person. Learn more and buy tickets here. Read my review here.

2015, Halloween, Haunted Attractions, Oni Haunts, Theater, Theme Parks

Williamsburg, Virginia Haunted Attractions: Busch Gardens Howl O Scream Unearthed – Interview with Scarlett

OniHaunts web series brings you this special report: Kara Dennison interviews Scarlett:

First I had my Assistant and Community Manager Kara Dennison interview Tom Baker at (Re)Generation Who ( Now I had her interview a demon. Follow her blog at

Read all of the haunted attraction reviews here:

I’m Oni Hartstein. I run the big Doctor Who Convention and Intervention, the kick ass artist makerspace ( – both in Maryland.

I travel a lot. is my blog of weird things that I like. One of the main things that I like are haunted attractions. Every year Harknell and I cover over 3000 miles to find, review, and spotlight the best haunted attractions, bizarre theater experiences, and offbeat travel destinations. We love our job.

These videos are a companion to the blog, so make sure you subscribe over there, too.



Video Editing: Stephen Baker

Video Shooting: William Chrapcynski

Equipment Used
in Car: Sony AS15 Action Cam w/Skeleton Frame and Suction Mount
On Foot: Sony AS15 Action Cam w/AKA LU1 lcd screen Adapter