Ed. – if it’s August, it must be Halloween in Central Florida. Today we’re running articles on Walt Disney World’s Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, along with this one on Universal Orlando Resort’s Halloween Horror Nights and Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream.
Hello, tender lumplings everywhere! If you believe that life’s no fun without a good scare, chances are you’re a big fan of Halloween. Luckily for you, Florida is one of the best places to enjoy the Halloween season, and I’m not just saying that because literally anything is better than back home in Canada, where all the kids have to wear parkas over their costumes. (If you look at my childhood photo album, you might assume every year I was a skier. I was a fairy princess, curse you!) In fact, two of the biggest Halloween events happen less than an hour away from each other… Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-o-Scream, and Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights
As such, I thought it was time we sat down around the campfire, you and I, turned flashlights on under our chins, and had a talk about the pros and cons of each event. For the last seven years for our anniversary, my husband and I have gone to Howl-O-Scream every Friday night, and Halloween Horror Nights every Sunday night, and over the years we’ve learned a lot through trial and error that I thought I could share to help make your visit to either park as smooth as possible. Don’t think of this as “Halloween Horror Nights vs Howl-O-Scream TWO PARKS ENTER ONE PARK… wait, how would that even work… ?” but more of a general guide to the pros and cons of each event from someone who has experienced most of them and lived to tell the tale.
… or did I?! “There was a Dora writin’ articles ’round these parts, but… she’s been dead for nigh-on 40 years.” WooooOOoOOoo!
Both Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream are seperately ticketed events, which means that even if you have a ticket for Busch Gardens or Universal Orlando, you cannot stay for the event unless you purchase a ticket for it. On its own, Halloween Horror Nights is definitely the more expensive event. General admission is a whopping $95.99, though you can add the event on to a Universal Orlando ticket for anywhere from $41.99 to $72.99, depending on the day of the week. The caveat for this, of course, is that there are discounts available everywhere, from promotions with Coca-Cola and fast food, to hotel stay discounts, so doing a little digging online means you should never be paying full price. If you plan on going more than once, the Rush of Fear and Frequent Fear tickets, which are valid for multiple nights and come with Express for an additional fee, are easily the way to go. We purchase Frequent Fear with Express every year and can attest that it’s a great value. Universal warns that these options can actually sell out, so don’t dither around too much before making up your mind.
One potentially useful bit of information you might find is to keep any e-mailed confirmation receipts if you order your tickets online. Even if you lose your event ticket, as long as you have the original e-mail with order information and the credit card used to purchase it, Universal Studios should be able to reissue you a new one. (Yes, I’m speaking from experience here.) This is not, however, guaranteed, so make sure you call in advance if you have a problem.
If you plan on visiting a lot, however, then Busch Gardens’ secret ticket option might be for you (no fedora or complicated handshake required, though strongly encouraged). Howl-O-Scream offers an unadvertised pass option only available if you ask for it at the ticket windows at the park on the day of the event itself called Recurring Nightmare. Typically priced at $89.00 plus tax per person, this allows unlimited visits during every Thursday and Friday night of the event, making it a fantastic value if you want to go multiple times throughout the month.
While this will vary from year to year at Halloween Horror Nights depending on the popularity of any properties Universal might be lauding, the lines for most of the houses can and most likely will run anywhere from 45 minutes to hours. Despite what it may look like, many houses are set farther back from the main park areas, and it isn’t uncommon for lines to double back multiple times before you finally get your chance to be threatened by zombies. Even if you don’t mind not having access to a bathroom for a long time or being on your feet for that long, the problem is that when the wait times are high, you run the risk of simply not being able to make it through every house before the evening is up. This can be mitigated somewhat by having a plan of attack, such as knowing where all the house exits will let you out, but it still means that if you only have one night at the event, you should seriously consider picking up an Express Pass. While Express lines can still be a good half hour long or more, this can be the only way you see everything Halloween Horror Nights has to offer. Make sure you check out the wait times first… you don’t want to use your Express unless you have to for a particular house, potentially allowing you to go through it twice if you go through immediately when a house opens and save your Express for later in the evening!
At Howl-O-Scream in Busch Gardens, however, it’s a different story… somewhat. They can be remarkably better at crowd control when it comes to their lines. Lines tend to move quickly, which means wait times for the houses are never particularly egregious, especially once they’ve all opened up and people are moving through past the initial opening glut of people waiting. Howl-O-Scream’s actual crowd level can be difficult to predict, though in general the nights that offer discounts, such as the Freaky Preview on September 26 and 27, and the low “bring a friend” price on October 2, 3, and 4 are likely to be jammed. A general rule of thumb is that if Howl-O-Scream starts the night busy, it’s only going to get busier as the night goes on, so scope the crowds early and judge whether you need a Front Line Fear pass, which grants you front-of-the-line access to six of the houses of your choosing. Though if you don’t mind showing up earlier, I have an even better option for you…
I’ve already mentioned how important an Express Pass could be to your Halloween Horror Nights experience, but just in case, I’ll say it again. An Express Pass could be very important to your Halloween Horror Nights experience. Underline that, print it out, tape it to the face of a loved one. Alternately, if you’re in a group of close to ten people, the RIP Tour might be a good choice… although it starts at $1299.00 (no, not a typo) for a private group. This not only guarantees you’ll get through all the houses, but it grants front-of-the-line access to two attractions of your choice. Want to see how Halloween Horror Nights is pulled off? Consider a Behind the Screams Tour, which offers a lights-on walkthrough with photos permitted for three houses, plus an informational walking tour of the event.
As for Howl-O-Scream? Well… here’s a secret for you. While they offer touring packages, which can be useful for large groups, by far the best value is the Fright Feast, which gets you a buffet dinner (tacos, pasta, salad, fish, desserts, etc) and an early showing of one of the event’s performances of FIENDS. Now, I hear you. “But Dora,” you opine, “I don’t really need a buffet, and I hate entertainment!” Shhh, baby, shhh. Dora tell. See, the important part of the Fright Feast is the little wristband you’re going to get. Not only will you get let out into the park a half hour before the general public, that wrist-band also grants you front-of-the-line access and unlimited express to all houses until 8:30 PM. That’s more than enough time to get through every single house, freeing up the rest of the evening to do whatever you want. As an added bonus, Fright Feast is just $26.00 per person, while a Front Line Fear pass is $45.00, so, boom! Just saved you $20.00, Boo. Just be warned… while you can still buy Fright Feast tickets at the door before the event begins, they can sell out in advance, so if you plan on making this part of your evening, you’ll want to buy your tickets online for the date you’ll be attending to guarantee seating.
Howl-o-Scream also offers an additional, very special House called The Experiment, which operates under a seperate fee of $50.00 for the first person, and an additional $10.00 for each other guest. While actors guide you through, you’ll be faced with everything from roaches to snakes, needles to the simple fear of the dark, and if at any point you refuse to participate, the experience stops, and you must leave the House. Just be aware that The Experiment is by appointment only, and can often fill up quickly, so book online in advance if you have your heart set on being forced to touch bugs while strangers laugh at your blubbering.
After you’ve spent a few hours getting chased around by people with chainsaws, few things are as relaxing as a roller-coaster or three. Both Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream keep several of their respective theme park’s rides running during the event, so if you’re using it as an excuse to visit the parks when you otherwise wouldn’t, you’ll have the opportunity to experience some year-round attractions too. Halloween Horror Nights might offer the biggest variety, with attractions like Despicable Me and Transformers: The Ride – 3D running in addition to thrill rides like The Mummy and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (you know about the secret song list, right?), though on-site hotel guests should be warned that their free express will not be accepted during the Halloween Horror Nights event. Sorry. Likewise, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley is closed at night for the event, but most of the clubs at CityWalk host their own parties after, so who needs Dementors anyway? (Much like Apu and the Kwik-E-Mart, I doooooo.)
Conversely, the available attractions at Busch Gardens during Howl-O-Scream are essentially all thrill rides, including triple-launch coaster Cheetah Hunt, you-couldn’t-get-me-on-that-with-a-crowbar Sheikra and its 200 foot 90 degree drop, and, allegedly, hopefully, the currently-in-soft-opening Falcon’s Fury. If you want to bracket your pants-wetting monster terror with some pants-wetting coaster terror, Howl-O-Scream clearly has you covered on both counts. Besides, roller-coasters after dark? Totally boss. During the event, the Marrakesh Theater is also transformed into a club with a DJ and a full liquor bar, making it the perfect place to hang out and relax… especially if you want to catch a special performance of the Sliderz, Howl-O-Scream’s rowdiest and most recogniseable crew.
Both parks tend to have their own stage shows, as well. Halloween Horror Nights’ most well known is Bill and Ted’s Halloween Adventure, which is an often raunchy, satirical show featuring dance numbers, jokes, and more covering the last year’s events in pop (and political) culture. Howl-O-Scream’s headliner is FIENDS, a similar song-and-dance type show centering around Doctor Freakenstein and his assistant Igor (as well as a bevy of good looking nurses of both genders) and a few monstrous guests. Each show is included with your ticket and runs throughout the night.
Do you know what Universal Studios has a lot of? Money. Like, a lot of it. This means that in addition to the secret money bin they like to swim around in that they think I don’t know about, they’re able to purchase license agreements to build their houses based on popular media. This means that each year they draw huge crowds who flock to see some of their favourite films, games, and TV shows brought to life, and let me tell you something, the year they decide to make something based on The Grudge or The Ring is the year I likely have to be drug into the park kicking and screaming, and I ain’t even kidding. Additionally, while any special effects artist will tell you that you can do amazing things with a little latex and some corn syrup, there’s no denying that a lot of money can buy you some seriously amazing props, costumes, and set pieces, and as a result, Halloween Horror Nights is nearly always a stunner. For this, the 24th year of the event, you can expect to see The Walking Dead, Alien vs Predator, From Dusk Til Dawn, and more, in addition to several original houses.
While Busch Gardens doesn’t purchase the name-branded properties, however, that doesn’t mean it’s any slouch when it comes to design and passion. Quite the opposite, actually, since not working within the boundaries of a preexisting concept allows desginers to get extremely creative. In the past, we’ve had a deranged sorority house, a 3D circus, a vampire casino, a ‘Nawlins style bayou complete with fog and moving trees, and tripping and dropping your eight dollar drink two steps after buying it… although I may be confusing that one with real life. For 2014, the theme is “Cursed,” which apparently means Slender Man’s cousins begin crawling out of the walls after you. You can expect this visual theme to be carried throughout the park in decoration and certain areas, but the Houses are typically all centered around their own themes. This year, Howl-O-Scream is also debuting Zombie Containment Unit, which claims to be an “interactive zombie experience”, so all of you who have those “Official Zombie Task Force” stickers I keep seeing on your cars should be right at home.
If you’re like me, you only have a certain amount of tolerance for being surrounded by a heaving throng of excitable partiers, and in which case, Halloween Horror Nights is most likely going to cause you to start doing your best Tina Belcher impression. Because of its location in Orlando, which itself is sort of party central, Halloween Horror Nights tends to attract big crowds nightly… and the sort of people who attend are usually there to party hard. Alcohol is readily available virtually everywhere, and with most visitors being in their late teens or older, it means Halloween Horror Nights can get pretty rowdy and pretty loud, which might be a concern if you’re bringing young kids. There is rarely a night when the park isn’t busy, and more importantly, there is literally a time of the month during October the locals call “Hell Week“, which is when the local schools give the kids Friday off, and wait times can double to hours or more for everything. Though it’s typically during the middle or second-to-last week of the event, check the off times for local school districts to be sure. Grab your loved ones tight, take them by the hand so you don’t lose them, and use those suckers as human meat shields to push your way through the throng.
Conversely, while Busch Gardens is located in a city, its location is near a lot of residential areas rather than being off by itself, making it extremely easy to get to for locals. As a result, nearly everyone who lives nearby (such as yours truly) has a pass, and so does everyone in their family, which means that Busch Gardens winds up as the place all the local kids go to hang out. During Howl-O-Scream, you’ll see a lot more kids, and while alcohol is still available throughout the park, it’s nowhere near as prevalent as at Halloween Horror Nights, especially with the places where you can purchase liquor and spirits being limited to a few locations. Bad news for snobs like me who turn their noses up at anything other than a good rum and Coke, perhaps, but great news for families who want their whole group to feel safe and enjoy themselves regardless of age.
Boundaries, Good Manners, And Final Advice
One of the important things to remember at both events is that none of the actors are actually allowed to touch you at all. They can get in your face to the point where it looks like an Eskimo kiss is imminent, but they will never lay hands on you. Of course, this means that agreement also goes both ways. You are never permitted to lay hands on an actor, and it’s grounds for immediate expulsion from the park. No sort of mask or costume is allowed at either event. Flash photography and video recording inside the Houses are also off limits at both parks unless you have specific permission. Taking a selfie with Puke Bot, my beloved vomiting robotic friend usually found somewhere in one of the Howl-O-Scream Houses (love you, Pukey!) is not worth the repercussions. If you need a breather, at Halloween Horror Nights the sidewalks typically offer respite since most actors keep to the streets, and most shops and restaurants will be likewise “safe” from any bugaboos. You don’t have to worry about being followed into the bathrooms either, though those lines are probably scary enough on their own! Ladies, can we all agree to pee just a little more expediently this year?
If you already have a ticket for Universal Studios, as opposed to a ticket for just the event itself, you can wait inside the park after it closes for the event to begin. While almost everyone does this, so there are still going to be a lot of people, this allows you to bypass the big line that’ll be forming outside the park, and you can head straight for the first houses that open up as soon as the event begins. (Howl-O-Scream will also allow you to wait in a special area inside the park if you already have a ticket to that night’s event and a ticket to Busch Gardens itself.) There are a few specific areas you’re allowed to wait in, and easily one of the most popular is the area in and around Finnegan’s Bar and Grill. While this is a great option if you want to grab some noms and some drank before things kick off, it gets insanely busy, so if you don’t have a reservation and don’t want to wait a long time for a table, you probably won’t actually be able to get inside the restaurant itself. Me? I’ve had my reservations booked on Open Table for this year’s event since June. Just look for the girl starting arguments with bewildered strangers over who the best pony is if you want to say hello.
All of this might seem like a lot of information, and a lot of it is even common sense, but sometimes the scariest things about these events can simply be being unprepared. Wherever you go, whatever you do, and whoever you meet… be excellent to one another.