Prepare to be scared

Let’s face it, Floridians are spoiled. We enjoy year-round proximity to about a half-dozen entertaining theme parks and we all take it for granted. But every October we all get excited over a special treat when Busch Gardens and Universal Studios deck themselves out for a full-on Halloween terror fest. The following is a review of Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream and Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights.


A gigantic disc jockey booth operated by a zombie, crawling with gyrating, scantily clad, nymph-like dead girls makes a big first impression on guests attending Howl-O-Scream 2007. Men on stilts in scary makeup will sneak up behind you and try to scare you as neon lights and throbbing techno bass fires you up for the fun and frightening night to come.

There’s no shortage of attractive young actresses carrying out an increasingly popular Halloween tradition – the revealing costume. It isn’t clear what a sexy nurse with hot pink hair has to do with a holiday based on a pagan tradition in which the dead supposedly walk the night, but guests can get their picture taken with two of those hot-looking health professionals and nobody seems inclined to complain.

In every bush and dark corner of the park, someone is waiting in costume or camouflage for an unsuspecting tourist to startle. There are five areas of concentrated terror, called “scare zones,” where the actors are dressed according to a theme, such as mummies or zombies. Busch Gardens spared no expense on costumes and sets, so the overall effect is quite impressive. Everywhere you turn there’s something cool to look at, like a man with no legs heckling guests or a 9-foot mummy that looks like a statue until he jumps out and screams at you.

There are six haunted houses set up throughout the park. Each one is rated according to scariness on a scale of three to five skulls. The three-skull haunted house was pretty tame, but the five-skull one will have you holding on tightly to the person in front of you. The hallways of the five-skull house induce claustrophobia. There are sheets and ropes hanging from the ceiling to block your vision. In some places the path is pitch black and every couple of feet some abomination pops out of the wall and screams at you.

In addition to the special Halloween setup, the park’s roller coasters run all night. Riding Sheikra in the dark is an awesome experience – especially now that the floor of the coaster has been removed. If you can arrange it, have a public relations representative show you around the park and take you straight to the front of every line. If you’re not a privileged member of the media, don’t despair. You can buy a V.I.P. pass and avoid packing into line with the rest of the hoi polloi and shuffling along for an hour and a half like cattle.

After the thrill of riding Sheikra, the ‘Fiends’ show at Stanleyville Theatre will seem rather dull. There were cute girls in tight costumes and some very skilled dancers, but the humor was sophomoric and the music selection was lame. The show (and Howl-O-Scream in general) was geared toward people in their early teens, a judgment reflected in the hordes of high school kids roaming the park and making out. But despite being planned for a youthful audience, Howl-O-Scream was a great time.

Halloween Horror Nights:

Evoking images of Halloween’s cinematic past, Universal Studios Orlando has unearthed the ghosts of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees and the Hewitt Family filling its cinematic streets and back lots with screams and sanitary nightmares.

Scarier than the traffic on Interstate 4 and the anticipation of lines filled with slightly overweight, increasingly drunk and smelly guests, Halloween Horror Nights, now in its seventeenth season, transforms the family-friendly environs of a theme park into a “PG-13” exhibition meant to play on its guests’ deepest fears.

Playing on the theme of a twisted clown, Universal developed a Carnival atmosphere and included five houses featuring well-known movie characters from the Thing to Mary Shaw.

Though the thought of facing a Freddy impersonator in a dark hallway while surrounded by screaming post-teens and their macho boyfriends may seem the carnival’s climax, the best house is the one that dangerously teeters on cliché.

“Jack’s Funhouse in Clown-o-Vision” may be one of the best haunted houses this side of the Mississippi. Patrons are greeted at the mouth of the beast by a park employee handing out glasses, which, once donned, cut off all peripheral vision and add a multi-colored halo to everything in sight. Inside the Funhouse, guests are barraged by neon colors. With the glasses on, images painted on the walls pop out like the magic eyes of yore.

In the last obstacle – with flashing lights, preteen screams and no way to tell where someone might jump from next – guests must confront any claustrophobic tendencies creeping into their subconscious before exiting into the relative sanity of the park.

This is not to take away from the cinema-themed houses, as they, too, offer guests a fright. Even if one is not easily scared, the amount of detail exhibited in the movie quality sets of “Dead Silence: The Curse of Mary Shaw” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Flesh Wounds” may cause congested theme park traffic as people stop to admire the detail.

Jason and Freddy, not to be outdone, had amazingly detailed sets as well. Guests enter 1428 Elm St. after passing through a hypnotic display of flashing lights that engender the feeling of actually entering the movie screen.

Similarly, “Friday the 13th: Camp Blood” brings guests to Camp Crystal Lake where Jason terrorizes the camp counselors. Guests are sprayed with water as a gore-filled scene unfolds in front of them. On first contact, the spritz feels like blood, but on further inspection it’s neither blood nor reclaimed.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is anything but excellent, and unless one likes tired jokes and has just discovered the pleasure inherent in using expletives, it should be avoided.

Otherwise, with discounts for Florida residents, its relative proximity to campus and the overall quality of the presentation, Halloween Horror Nights is worth the drive.