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Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream

Howl-O-Scream Busch Gardens Tampa

A young woman's face is filled with terror at Busch Garden's Howl-O-Scream

“The Dark Side of Busch Gardens” takes its cue from Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, but the scares in Tampa are as real as the ones in Orlando. Both parks have three major elements: Haunted houses to explore, scary rides to enjoy (coasters mainly), and zombies walking the park, especially in areas thick with machine-made fog.

Of the three, haunted houses draw the most people, though they’re not all “haunted” because that implies ghosts, and they’re not all “houses” because that suggests the place where Mom and Dad live. Visitors enter each “scary building” single file; and, depending on their constitution, walk slowly to take it all in, or fast to get through as quickly as possible.

Howl-O-Scream has six explorable haunted houses included in admission, plus one called “Alone” that, for an additional fee, guests can plod through … well, alone. As the name implies, there is no winding stream of tourists walking single file in front or in back of you. You can’t hope that the supernatural creatures target a screaming teenager just ahead or the little kid (maybe your own) shadowing your butt.

Busch Gardens spent a lot of time and money designing each house, but everyone knows it’s fake. No costumed character actually drinks blood or eats brains. To scare guests, the theme parks have only one fearsome tool in their arsenal: The element of surprise. If something jumps at you unexpectedly, you scream – and lots and lots of things jump at you. (If you don’t scream, the person beside you does, and the zombies focus on the screamers.)

Howl-O-Scream has the element of surprise nailed. Each haunted house has rooms, and in each room, a zombie/monster/vampire yells at you or slams something loud against the wall or, most often, jumps in your face from behind a prop or through an unseen opening in the wall. (They never touch guests, however.)

In most cases, anticipation is worse than the reality. If you walk from room to room knowing something will jump at you, you start to fear the expectation. In one house, a creepy doctor’s waiting room has six characters, and you know one or two isn’t fake – but which ones? You size up each figure; look for mannequin hands; identify the woman in the corner that looks a bit more human; and you step sideways to avoid her. And suddenly, a picture on the wall falls away and a head pops out inches from your face.

People visit Orlando to have their emotions manipulated. Howl-O-Scream delivers the manipulation.

Howl-O-Scream runs from 7:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through October, ending its run on Oct. 29. On Thursdays, it wraps up at 1 a.m. Busch Gardens is about 1.5 hours from the Orlando theme parks and, beyond the time for travel, is a fairly easy drive if you avoid rush hours.

Prices for Howl-O-Scream vary widely depending on day of the week, time of the month, and state of residence. It’s cheaper to book online, however, through the Howl-O-Scream website. The website also includes an overview of the haunted house themes.

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