Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Reveals All-New Haunted House, Two New Scare Zones and More for This Year’s Howl-O-Scream Event
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has revealed the full line-up for this year’s Howl-O-Scream, set to awaken guests' innermost fears and make them scream to the extreme with the ultimate parkwide terror – including an all-new haunted house, two new scare zones, and all-new interactive entertainment offerings. Six spine-chilling scare zones, five hair-raising haunted houses and four elaborate entertainment productions will have guests screaming at the top of their lungs.
- This year, new terrors hailing from the afterlife and iconic frights will make even the bravest souls whimper in fear. Fan-favorite haunted houses such as Stranglewood Estate, Witch of the Woods and The Residence: Home for the Holidays will return, as well as infamous scare zones including The Junkyard, Beyond the Veil, The Shortcut and Ravens Mill.
- All-New – D.H. Baggum's Circus of Fear – Come one, come all, to the most terrifying show you've ever seen. D.H. Baggum brings you all his monstrosities that are sure to make your spine tingle and your blood run cold!
- Reimagined – The Forgotten: Uprising – Be Brave. Be Fearless. Survive the Night. Rise up against the vampires before they take back the city and kill every human in their way.
- Big Ed's Demolition Derby – Step into the twisted and adrenaline-fueled world of Big Ed's Demolition Derby. He has pulled together some of the roughest, toughest, and meanest baddies from all over Howl-O-Scream and brought them here to compete— but there's always room for some surprise guests. Step up and see how long you can survive and navigate this automotive nightmare.
- Sin City Zombies – On the outskirts of the Vegas strip lies a rundown motel, home to some of the best entertainers to ever live and overrun by zombies who run rampant. Try your luck and hope your number wins because this is one town you don't want to lose in.
Eerie Entertainment and Sinister Spectacles:
- Performing live at the Festival Fields stage, guests will be mesmerized with the all-new Rock the Grave , an explosive, high-energy live stage show that merges the worlds of alternative and classic rock and pop hits into an unforgettable experience.
- Rising from the grave, this year's Howl-O-Scream sees the return of the high-energy and pulse-pounding live musical performances by The Rolling Bones at Dragon Fire Grill, the death-defying acts and stunts from Cirque X-Scream at the Stanleyville Theater.
- This year, Howl-O-Scream fans can take their turn behind the mic at the all-new "Scare-E-Oke" experience at Gwazi Plaza. Guests can select their song of choice and take a memorable photo of their experience.
- At the Coke Canopy, guests can dance the night away until the clock strikes twelve in the all-new Raveyard featuring an electrifying atmosphere with music and specialty cocktails.
Evil Upgrades Provide the Best Way to Experience Howl-O-Scream:
- For the most avid Howl-O-Scream fans, Front Line Fear passes are the best way to access all five haunted houses. For extreme fans, a Front Line Fear Extreme pass provides access to all haunted houses in addition to providing front-of-line access to Busch Gardens' roller coasters including Iron Gwazi. Front Line Fear passes start at $69.
- To step further into the darkness, an Ultimate VIP Tour grants admission, unlimited front-of-line access to haunted houses and rides, a complimentary meal at Dragon Fire Grill, private complimentary beverage locations and free preferred parking.
- A daytime Behind-The-Scenes tour is also available for guests interested in learning more about what it takes to create Tampa Bay's most terrifying Halloween event.
- Now through August 20th, guests can save up to 65% on admission tickets and with the limited-time Monster Sale offer. And with an Unlimited Admission Ticket, starting as low as $104.99, guests can scream their way through every Howl-O-Scream night.
- To purchase tickets and evil upgrades such as Front Line Fear passes, exclusive tours and many other experiences at this year's Howl-O-Scream, visit HowlOScream.com .
Howl-O-Scream is a separately ticketed event, taking place on select nights September 8th through October 31st after 7:00 p.m.
Complete Guide to Howl-O- Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
While we await details on 2024’s haunt, please enjoy the details from 2023’s Howl-O-Scream festivities!
Here at Orlando Informer , we work hard to provide you with accurate and up-to-date information. On this guide page, you can find all the information you need to navigate Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
If you are looking for haunted happenings in Orlando rather than Tampa, you can check out the details for Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld Orlando here . Although the event name is the same at both parks, there will be distinct differences between the two experiences. Some of these differences are event-specific, and others are differences from the parks themselves and the atmospheres they create.
Skip to: Overview | When to visit Howl-O-Scream | Cost of Howl-O-Scream | Tickets
What is Howl-O-Scream?
Howl-O-Scream is an after-hours Halloween event, complete with haunted houses, scare zones, and festive experiences throughout the park. It has already had a successful two-decade run in the Halloween business, and there’s no end in sight. This annual, seasonal event started at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in 1999. That same year, Busch Gardens Tampa hosted “Spooky Safari,” a milder scare experience for families with older children. They abandoned the idea the next year and joined Williamsburg in hosting Howl-O-Scream in 2000. The success of this event developed a reputation over the next ten years, and in 2013, SeaWorld San Antonio joined the Howl-O-Scream crew. The newest installation of this successful scare event at SeaWorld Orlando joined the line-up in 2021. The specifics of Howl-O-Scream vary from park to park and year to year, but Howl-O-Scream typically features 5-10 haunted houses and 3-5 scare zones.
It should be noted that costumes are not permitted at any of the events.
Howl-O-Scream 2023 at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Haunted Houses:
D.H. Baggum’s Circus of Fear – *NEW* Step right up and prepare to be enthralled as you step into the big top. Ringmaster D.H. Baggum takes center stage to show off a spectacle of bone-chilling acts.
Stranglewood Estate – *RETURNING* Step into this mysterious, once-lively home, now haunted by the ghosts of the past. If only walls could talk…
The Residence: Home for the Holidays – *RETURNING* This family couldn’t wait to get into the yuletide spirit and spread some holiday fear.
Witch of the Woods — *RETURNING* You’ve heard the stories of the haunted forest for years. In this all-new maze, you’ll have to do your best to evade capture and ritual sacrifice.
The Forgotten: Uprising – *REVAMPED* In this reimagined haunted house, guests will run for their lives from a band of starving vampires. If they don’t escape, they are doomed to be part of the Forgotten army – forever.
Howl-O-Scream 2023 at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Scare Zones:
Sin City Zombies – *NEW* Take a high-stakes gamble by visiting the outskirts of the world-renowned Las Vegas strip, recently overrun by the undead and hungry for flesh. Ready to press your luck?
Big Ed’s Demolition Derby – *NEW* Enter an arena of chaos where Big Ed and his fellow baddies from all over Howl-O-Scream have come together to compete in his demolition derby and try to survive in this automotive battle royale.
Ravens Mill – *RETURNING* Find what horrors of the Midwest lie in this field of corn. From the looks of these scarecrows, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore…
Beyond the Veil – *RETURNING* Enter a wondrous forest where a fleet of mythical creatures is following in your footsteps. We don’t think that this fantasy will be like your typical bedtime story.
The Junkyard — *RETURNING* Car parts and scraps seem to come to life in this junkyard. Make sure you don’t get caught in the metal!
Howl-O-Scream 2023 at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Shows and Attractions:
Rock the Grave – Become spellbound with this fusion of alternative, pop, and classic rock tunes paired with enchanting special effects, making for a chilling and unforgettable visit to the graveyard.
Cirque X-Scream – You’ll be holding your breath on the edge of your seat watching these incredible acts that include trampoline tricks and aerial performances.
The Rolling Bones – This bone-chilling band takes the stage at Dragon Fire Grill with epic covers of classic rock anthems.
Scare-E-Oke – Unleash your inner performer amidst an atmosphere of eerie delight when you take the stage at Gwazi Plaza.
Serengeti Flyer – Soar toward the sky on Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s newest attraction, Serengeti Flyer! The attraction’s dueling arms achieve a maximum height of 135 feet and reach 68 miles per hour at its peak.
Iron Gwazi – The fears continue at Howl-O-Scream with the Iron Gwazi. This coaster offers speeds of 76mph, two inversions, and a 200-foot drop.
Cobras Curse – Rise 70 feet in the air and meet the eyes of the snake king before you plummet down a winding track.
Kumba – One of the top-rated coasters in the world, Kumba puts guests through a diving loop that gives a feeling of complete weightlessness for 3 seconds.
Montu – Named after an Egyptian God with a hawk’s head, this coaster reaches heights of 150 feet and speeds of 60 mph. Hang on!
Scorpion – Boasting a classic (but these days, rare) 360-degree loop, Scorpion takes guests on a short but sweet spin.
SheiKra – One of the biggest, baddest roller coasters in the game. With speeds of 70 miles an hour and a 90-degree drop, SheiKra will show you why the rides at Howl-O-Scream Busch Gardens are just as thrilling as the haunted houses.
Cheetah Hunt – Mimic the challenges of a cheetah hunt. With three launches and the longest track on-site, Cheetah Hunt will make you appreciate the majestic animals it’s named after.
Tigris – This ride highlights the power and strength of Tigers. It will take you forward, backward, upside down, and back again!
Where can I get tickets for Howl-O-Scream Busch Gardens Tampa Bay?
You can get your discounted tickets for Howl-O-Scream online here .
Is Howl-O-Scream appropriate for children?
Although it is just a recommendation, Busch Gardens strongly suggests no one under the age of 13 attends Howl-O-Scream events. This is not an “enforceable” policy, but keep in mind that if you bring a younger guest and they decide the event isn’t to their liking, tickets are non-refundable. The scare factor isn’t the only thing to keep in mind when deciding whether or not this is for your family. The atmosphere of the event itself is adult-oriented, and adults act accordingly.
If you are interested in more kid-friendly Halloween options, check out Busch Garden’s Spooktacular. This event is included with park admission to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and provides children with a unique opportunity to dress up, meet some familiar (and some spooky) characters, and trick-or-treat in a friendly setting. Spooktacular takes place during regular park hours on select dates, from September 8 – October 31.
When should I visit Howl-O-Scream?
Howl-O-Scream 2023 dates in a nutshell:
September 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30 October 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31
There’s a lot to consider when deciding when to go to an event like this. So for starters, when can you even go? In September, Howl-O-Scream will be available on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights beginning on the 8 th . In October, Thursday nights also become available. If you’re concerned about crowds, we suggest going in September before the Halloween season is in full gear. Of course, the earlier in the year you go, the hotter it is more likely to be. Predictably, Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest and most expensive nights of the events, but Thursdays and Sundays end an hour earlier. So what to do? We’ve outlined some pros and cons of each night for you here:
Thursday & Sunday night pros: Typically, these nights entertain lower crowd numbers, and there’s less of a “party” atmosphere for those wanting a milder experience. Ticket prices are also a few dollars cheaper.
Thursday & Sunday night cons: Thursdays don’t become available until October, and the event lasts only until midnight.
Friday & Saturday night pros: These nights typically fit better with traditional work schedules, and the party goes ’til 1:00 am.
Friday & Saturday night cons: These nights are typically the busier nights, with crowds increasing up to Halloween (especially since Halloween falls during the weekend this year). Ticket prices are also slightly higher.
How much does it cost to attend Howl-O-Scream?
One of the most appealing things about Howl-O-Scream is that it is truly affordable fun. Prices will vary through the season, but they started at just $38.99 and didn’t exceed $48.99 for the 2022 season. These prices mean that tickets provide a great option for a unique date (or a parent’s night out) for the same price of movie tickets and a bucket of popcorn. You can purchase tickets here .
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Howl-O-Scream At Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Returns With All-new Haunted House, Scare Zones And More
Guests can officially start warming up their vocal cords (it’s called Howl-O-Scream for a reason). Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is slated to awaken guests’ innermost fears and make them scream to the extreme with the ultimate park-wide terror, including an all-new haunted house, two new scare zones and all-new interactive entertainment offerings. Six spine-chilling scare zones, five hair-raising haunted houses and four elaborate entertainment productions will have guests screaming at the top of their lungs.
This year, new terrors hailing from the afterlife and iconic frights will make even the bravest souls whimper in fear. Fan-favorite haunted houses such as Stranglewood Estate, Witch of the Woods and The Residence: Home for the Holidays will return, as well as infamous scare zones such as The Junkyard, Beyond the Veil, The Shortcut and Raven’s Mill.
In the all-new D.H. Baggum’s Circus of Fear, D.H. Baggum brings you all his monstrosities that are sure to make your spine tingle and your blood run cold.
Or step into the twisted and adrenaline-fueled world of Big Ed’s Demolition Derby. He has pulled together some of the roughest, toughest and meanest baddies from all over Howl-O-Scream and brought them there to compete. Step up and see how long you can survive and navigate this automotive nightmare.
Sin City Zombies brings you to the outskirts of the Las Vegas strip and a rundown motel, home to some of the best entertainers to ever live and overrun by zombies who run rampant. Try your luck and hope your number wins because this is one town you don’t want to lose in.
Performing live at the Festival Fields stage, guests will be mesmerized with the all-new Rock the Grave, an explosive, high-energy, live stage show that merges the worlds of alternative and classic rock and pop hits into an unforgettable experience. This year’s Howl-O-Scream sees the return of pulse-pounding musical performances by The Rolling Bones at Dragon Fire Grill and the death-defying acts and stunts from Cirque X-Scream at the Stanleyville Theater.
Howl-O-Scream fans can take their turn behind the mic at the all-new ‘Scare-E-Oke’ experience at Gwazi Plaza. Guests can select their song of choice and take a memorable photo of their experience. At the Coke Canopy, guests can dance the night away until the clock strikes 12 in the all-new Raveyard, featuring an electrifying atmosphere with music and specialty cocktails.
Howl-O-Scream is a separately ticketed event, taking place on select nights from Friday, September 8 through Tuesday, October 31 after 7 p.m. Parental discretion is strongly advised as Howl-O-Scream contains graphic and mature content that may not be suitable for children. Costumes are not allowed.
For the most avid Howl-O-Scream fans, Front Line Fear passes are the best way to access all five haunted houses. For extreme fans, a Front Line Fear Extreme pass provides access to all haunted houses in addition to providing front-of-line access to Busch Gardens’ roller coasters, including Iron Gwazi and Serengeti Flyer. Front Line Fear passes start at $69.
To step further into the darkness, the Ultimate VIP Tour grants admission, unlimited front-of-line access to haunted houses and rides, a complimentary meal at Dragon Fire Grill, private complimentary beverage locations and free preferred parking. A daytime behind-the-scenes tour is also available for guests interested in learning more about what it takes to create Tampa Bay’s most terrifying Halloween event.
To purchase tickets and evil upgrades such as Front Line Fear passes, exclusive tours and many other experiences at this year’s Howl-O-Scream, guests can visit www.howloscream.com . And to stay up to date, guests can follow Howl-O-Scream on Instagram , TikTok , Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) .
Howl-O-Scream returns to Busch Gardens with 3 new haunted houses
Howl-O-Scream is officially back at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and is sure to give visitors a fright.
This year Busch Gardens is featuring three new haunted houses: Inferno, Death Water Bayou, and Nevermore Chapter 2.
Nevermore Chapter 2 is a continuation of last year's Nevermore, based on Virginia native Edgar Allen Poe.
"Our interpretation is, what if we explored a house where Edgar Allen Poe grew up?" said Matthew Edwards, the manager of events at Busch Gardens.
Nevermore Chapter 2 brings literature to life and is guaranteed to give you a scare, along with an English lesson.
"It's a little more reality-based but there's a lot of really fun easter eggs for people that are familiar with Edgar Allen Poe's work," continued Edwards.
Also debuting this year is Inferno, a hellish trip into the underworld.
Along with Death Water Bayou, a swampy scared filled with the ghosts and ghouls of Mardi Gras.
"If you're used the area of the park that's more circus or clowned themed, this year is a dark Mardi Gras festival," explained Edwards.
But other Howl-O-Scream favorites, like the Killarney Diner, are returning for another year.
"Something weird has been going on, there's a new blue plate special, and turns out [the diner] has been overrun by zombies," Edwards explained.
And fighting experiences aren't only found inside the haunted houses. Busch gardens says visitors be surrounded by terror, with surprises around every corner.
"Our terror-tories are through the park so it's fun you never know where the scares are gonna end up when you're walking through," said Cassady Watson, a spokesperson for Busch Gardens.
This year's Howl-O-Scream features three new terror-tories, including a Marie Antionette inspired section filled with headless ladies in France.
Other new terror-tories this year include Gordon Gardens in Italy and Scary Tale Road in Rhinefield.
Returning terror-tories this year are Meat Market, Ripper Row, and Roaming Hack Pack.
And don't forget about your favorite fall snacks.
"We have themed cocktails, fall appetizers, pumpkin everything," said Busch Gardens President, Kevin Lembke. "Get your pumpkin pretzels, get your beer, and get scared."
Howl-O-Scream kicks off Friday, Septmeber 9, and continues through Halloween night. The event is offered on select nights starting at 6 p.m. and you can find a full list of dates here .
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What to expect at Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens this year
- Sharon Kennedy Wynne Times staff
Howl-O-Scream returns in all its gory glory starting Friday at Busch Gardens. Unlike last year, where scares were limited to open-air fright zones and outdoor mazes to maintain social distancing, haunted houses are back.
Also returning are the roving hordes of creeps who jump out of the bushes or sidle up for a fright. Last year, the elaborate monsters were kept at a greater distance.
At Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando , clear vinyl in haunted houses separates guests and scare actors as a precaution against the transmission of COVID-19. Busch Gardens said it will not be using such barriers.
The park has improved the air circulation in its houses, said event manager John Prast, who is in his fifth year helming the horror show. All the performers will be wearing face masks when indoors and guests will be “encouraged” to do so, he said.
Scare actors have always kept a bit of a distance from guests for safety, operating on a “3-3-3 rule,” Prast said. They are instructed to stay three feet away, scare the guest for no more than three seconds and take no more than three steps toward a guest to startle them.
“Maintaining a proper safe distance whether it’s in our scare zones or our haunted houses has always been the case,” Prast said.
There will be five haunted houses, three of them new, and eight scare zones spread across the park with themes like a voodoo bayou and a section devoted to mythical legends like Bigfoot and Mothman .
Prast said they focused more on the roving scare zones this year, so you won’t find monsters sitting next to you on a roller coaster.
Elaborate costumes set the tone under the careful eye of Loren Bracewell, who has overseen costuming at every Howl-O-Scream since it started 22 years ago. For the new haunted house, The Forgotten, Bracewell said he dug into the history of vampires.
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“It’s a goth-themed vampire lair with a wide spectrum of costuming,” Bracewell said, “from different modern vampires to Old World vampires.”
“When you think of modern you of modern gothic punk and for old timey vampires you think more Victorian, and that’s the feel throughout,” Bracewell said. “Since they’ve been around forever, we blend styles.”
The new Witch of the Woods house has “very earthy” costumes with a rough-hewn nature to it, using lots of wood and leaves.
And speaking of woods, Prast said the house will use the natural geography of a wooded section of the park near the Bird Gardens and the Garden Gate Cafe. Between the scares found in the entrance and exit and the house, it will have the longest pathway of any of the event’s haunted mazes.
The comic Fiends stage show is returning and there are themed food and drinks such as the Blood Bar, where you can find a vampire pouring a bloody shot.
Tickets are $31-$45 depending on the night. There are numerous packages and upgrades available, including a new behind-the-scenes tour for $29.99 that lets you learn what goes into the scares and see a haunted house with the lights on.
For a schedule and tickets, see HowlOScreamTampa.com .
Howl-O-Scream is intended for a mature audience, with images of violence, gore and blood. No costumes are allowed.
For the little ones, Busch Gardens will have Sesame Street Kids’ Weekends kicking off Oct. 2. It runs Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 31 with trick-or-treating, a not-too-spooky Halloween show for families and special Sesame Street character interactions.
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Review: Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Howl-O-Scream 2023
Hold on tight for a screaming good time as we take a deep dive into Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream 2023 with an in-depth review of all of the Virginia park’s latest daytime and nighttime offerings.
Central Florida theme park fans are undoubtedly familiar with Busch Gardens Tampa’s impressive lineup of thrill rides, and the spooky seasonal events known as Howl-O-Scream held both there and at SeaWorld Orlando. But those Florida parks have a less-attended younger sibling several hours up the Atlantic coast that is also worthy of attention. I recently revisited Busch Gardens Williamsburg – where I briefly worked at a tour guide/bartender on the long-defunct brewery tour – during their annual Halloween festivities, and returned with this lovingly critical analysis at the Virginia park’s daytime operations, as well as its unique take on Howl-O-Scream 2023.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Introduction and Overview
Busch Gardens Williamsburg (previously known as “Busch Gardens The Old Country” and “Busch Gardens Europe”, BGW for short) is a year-round regional theme park located in Williamsburg, Virginia, about 10 miles southeast of the Colonial Williamsburg historic attractions. Originally opened in 1975, it offered immersive areas themed to different European countries nearly a decade before Epcot did, but the primary emphasis at BGW is more about thrilling attractions rather than anthropological authenticity.
That’s not to say that BGW’s aesthetics pale in comparison to its southern cousins; if fact, quite the opposite. As the sign out front proudly proclaims, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has been named “the world’s most beautiful park” by the National Amusement Park Historical Association for over 30 consecutive years, and with very good reason.
Set across 440 sprawling acres – nearly four times the size of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom – the park is seamlessly integrated into its wooded surroundings, utilizing the natural topography better than any park I’ve visited outside Efteling in the Netherlands. The vast swathes of landscaping are all carefully maintained without being overly manicured, and the intimately-scaled building facades feel faithful to their themes without overwhelming the park’s natural beauty.
Of course, BGW’s abundant “blessing of size” is accompanied by issues of accessibility, and can challenge your endurance even if you are able-bodied – I took over 16,00 steps during my day, even with using in-park transportation whenever possible. Several major thoroughfares ascend steep hills, and one demands scaling a long set of stairs. Be sure to download the Busch Gardens app in advance and plot your route on the GPS-enabled digital map, because the pathways are even more serpentine than SeaWorld’s, and wayfinding signage is sometimes sparse or confusing.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Admissions and Arrival
Unlike Central Florida’s marquee Halloween events, Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is included in all forms of admission, including the reasonably-priced annual passes. I received a limited-time email offer for deeply discounted tickets, which included all-day (and night) unlimited dining at select restaurants for well under $100 per person.
As at any theme park, you’ll want to purchase your tickets in advance online or through the app; guest service kiosks are available, but everything is geared towards mobile ticketing. You’ll also want to bring a credit card or tap-to-pay device, because all of the park’s vendors and restaurants have gone cashless, with ATMs for converting dollars to debit cards available at the entrance.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg is easily accessible from the town’s tourist district by car, but it is not walkable and there are no good public transportation options. Standard parking costs $30 per day – the same as Disney and Universal – but at least trams are available to the various surface lots.
Ride share services (Uber or Lyft) are probably your best bet if you don’t have your own vehicle, but be aware that rates to and from the park fluctuate wildly, especially around park closing. Also be aware that the passengers are dropped off in the France parking lot, but pickups are from the England lot, which is in the opposite direction from the park exit; there’s no signage directing rideshare users, and employees at the turnstiles didn’t make it clear.
Operating hours in Williamsburg are shorter than Central Florida visitors may be accustomed to, with a 10 a.m. opening and 11 p.m. closing on the Saturday I attended during the peak of Halloween season. The good news is I was able to arrive shortly after opening and see everything I wanted to at a relatively relaxed pace, without feeling the need to rush around from rope drop until the bitter end.
However, it must be noted that I visited during a drenching downpour that lasted from late afternoon until the evening Howl-o-Scream activities began at 6 p.m. The rainy weather certainly depressed daytime attendance, and although some notable crowds came out after dark, the day-long deluge delivered delightfully short queues for any roller coaster fans willing to get spritzed. [Your mileage may vary on busier days in better weather; more on that later.]
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Roller Coasters
While I love to stop and smell the rain-soaked roses, I really came to catch up with BGW’s world-class line-up of 10 roller coasters, which arguably outdoes collections at SeaWorld Orlando or Universal Orlando. They range from a Zierer kiddie coaster (Grover’s Alpine Express) and best-in-class B&M diving and inverted rides (Griffon & Alpengeist), to terrifying novelties like the Tempesto Premier Sky Rocket.
Naturally, my first destination upon arriving was DarKoaster , the indoor Intamin straddle coaster that repurposed the former Curse of DarKastle dark ride in May this year. The new attraction certainly looks like an E-Ticket from the exterior, with a Hogwarts-meets-Ghost Hunters vibe in the brief but detailed interior queue. It does seem like there’s a backstory that could be better developed beyond an easily-overlooked historical plaque, but the closest thing to a preshow is an intermittently animated portrait of the antagonist King Ludwig. (The previous ride’s preshow was also disabled, a running theme throughout BGW.)
Once finally at the boarding station, the snowmobile-style seats proved to be less liberating than Hagrid’s motorbikes, though not as constrictive as Tron’s lightcycles. Riders are thrust through the darkened show building with four vigorous launches, twisting and turning two circuits around the track past blacklight props and simple projections.
Despite the modest 36 mph top speed and lack of big drops, I actually found DarKoaster more physically thrilling than I anticipated, but the special effects and theming were a bit disappointing. Much more disappointing were the ride’s operations, as a wait time posted on the app as five minutes (and as 15 minutes at the entrance) ended up being 25. I timed an average dispatch cycle of nearly 100 seconds between 10-seat trains, equaling a total of under 400 riders per hour, all for an experience that lasts a little over one minute.
Unless throughput can be radically improved, I think the park would have been much better served repurposing the DarKastle building for an all-ages interactive dark ride continuing the original story, and leaving the role of heavily themed family coaster to Verbolten . Because right around the corner, they’ve already got a decade-old custom Zierer that pulls off some of the same tricks as Universal’s Mummy and Hagrid rides.
From the sculpted sportscar ride vehicles, to the wonderfully cheesy lighting effects in the gravity building, to the spectacular final 88 foot plunge down the river, Verbolten is so good that I forgive it for sitting atop the grave of my beloved Big Bad Wolf. The only thing I didn’t love was the poor condition of the tourist office queue, and the lackadaisical pace of dispatches (a recurring refrain throughout the day).
I also got my first ride on InvadR , a compact GCI wooden coaster that shakes, rattles, and rolls in mostly the right ways. The ruined French Canadian fort facade promises a level of storytelling the barely-themed track can’t deliver. But even without any show scenes or effects, InvadR still offers an enjoyable (if not quite repeatable) ride.
Of course, I had to get one final ride on the Loch Ness Monster before it closes on Oct. 31, but my rattled back is very happy that Nessie is receiving a much-needed refurbishment and partial retracking. The 1978 Arrow’s double loops will still interlock when she returns in 2024, and the creature herself will be heard and even seen in a couple spots; I’m dampering my dreams for a submarine animatronic, but am hoping her cameo inside the cave packs a punch.
While it’s smart to get most of the coasters out of the way before the nighttime Howl-o-Scream activities start, I’m very glad I saved my first ride on Pantheon until after dark. At 73 mph, this Intamin claimed the title of world’s fastest multi-launch coaster, and its signature sequence – an intentional rollback backwards into a 180-foot spike, followed by flying over towering tophat – took my breath away like few elements can.
If Pantheon only had a modicum of theming, instead of being plopped atop a barren field with a cattle-pen queue, it could rival Universal’s VelociCoaster as my all-time favorite extreme coaster. At least operations here were more efficient than at nearly any other attraction, so I didn’t have to stand in line too long.
Finally, for my final ride of the night, I reunited with an old friend of mine, and foe of Fabio. The addition of Pantheon and Tempesto may have overshadowed Apollo’s Chariot, but don’t overlook this aging but still-potent B&M out-and-back hyper if you love big drops and lots of airtime.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Family Rides & Animal Encounters
These mammoth coasters may be BGW’s major draw, but its the robust roster of flat rides and family thrill that make this park so well balanced. From vintage bumper cars and spinning swings, to the frightening Finnegans Flyer giant Screamin’ Swings, there’s an outdoor attraction here for every taste.
In warmer seasons, the park operates two water attractions: Roman Rapids, an average outdoor whitewater raft ride; and Escape From Pompeii , a partially-indoors shoot-the-chutes with impressive pyrotechnic effects.
Perhaps my favorite all-ages ride there is the Busch Gardens Railway, a scenic 20-minute journey around the park’s perimeter aboard an authentic steam locomotive, with three stations to hop on and off at.
It works as both essential sole-saving transportation, and scenic entertainment, especially when decorated for the seasons. There’s a prerecorded narration to give you the lay of the land, and even a bit of a vertiginous thrill when crossing the narrow trestle high above the river, followed by a close encounter with InvadR’s track.
There may not be any animatronic Indigenous Americans to look at along the way, but this train trip feels more like an authentic wilderness rail expedition than anything in a Disney park.
Although not as elaborate as the habitats in Busch Gardens Tampa, Williamsburg’s animal exhibits are hidden gems that shouldn’t be missed. You can enter the Clydesdale stables (no, they aren’t the same horses who pulled the Budweiser wagon) in the Scotland area, and take a photo while petting one of the gentle giants without being obligated to purchase the the print.
On a steep path behind Ireland, you’ll find a glen where wolves roam, as well as an aviary filled will majestic bald eagles. If you are a nature lover, its well worth attending one or more of the animal keeper talks held each day.
Sadly, the list of all-ages indoor rides is basically non-existent. While there are a number of indoor shows (see below), there are zero dark rides, simulators, walk-through exhibits, or other diversions that don’t involve being in the elements. The absence of indoor attractions is especially acute in inclement weather, but will also increasingly become a factor during the sunnier seasons as climate change accelerates.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Dining & Shopping
Without any indoor attractions to enjoy, I found myself spending much more time than usual exploring the restaurants and retail at BGW, which fortunately rank among the best found in any regional park. First and foremost, you’ll want to plan your day around lunch or dinner at the Festhaus, a ginormous German eatery that outdoes Tampa’s incarnation (now know as the Dragon Fire Grill) and even rivals Epcot’s Biergarten for sheer scale.
Better yet, the food here is very good, with hearty sausages and sauerkraut, moist roasted chicken, and towering chocolate cakes. Portions are huge, and spice brown mustard (essential for the corned beef) is kept behind the cash register.
For a second meal, I made my way to Italy, where Marco Polo’s Marketplace serves a range of international cuisine.
The Italian sampler here was nearly as good as I remembered from years ago; the beef-and-spinach stuffed cannelloni are still very tasty, and the spaghetti is fine, but the chicken parmesan tends to be chewy.
I can’t recommend the stir fry station’s soggy veggies or salty meats, which aspire to Panda Express standards, but fall short, but the fried dumpling make a decent snack.
My favorite meal at any Busch Gardens has always been the barbeque, and although I never made it to Trapper’s Smokehouse on this trip, I’m tempted to plan a return just for their 10-hour brisket. And I wish I could rave about the hand-rolled German pretzels that I thought were included included in my dining deal, but it turns out (contrary to the website’s fine print) that only the disgusting-looking pizza and sausage pretzels are eligible, not plain.
As for shopping, you’ll find your typical “I Survived” T-Shirts and souvenirs, but BGW also stocks an impressive variety of imports from the represented nations and other above-and-beyond items, once again recalling Epcot’s amenities.
Shop interiors and exteriors are also themed with care, and a handful – like the enchanted boutiques in Ireland – rival the Wizarding World for cozy charm.
By the way, there isn’t as much appealing event-specific merchandise at BGW’s Howl-O-Scream as compared to some other Halloween events, but there are two intriguing offerings.
If you want to intensify your experience a glowing skull will sync to the scares with lights and fog; or if you’re a scaredy cat, the illuminated spider promises to ward the weirdoes away (the ones employed by the park, at least).
There are, however, a couple glaring issues with the shopping and dining experience at Busch Gardens Tampa. Like all other parks in the SeaWorld family, BGW tacks a 5% surcharge onto every purchase to cover unspecified costs, rather than transparently posting prices up front. Also note that state and local taxes total 10% which is added on after the surcharge.
At Busch Gardens Williamsburg in particular, although dining and retail locations appeared to be adequately staffed (unlike many attractions) they were often frustratingly inefficient. For example, at the colorful candy and coffee shop near the park’s entrance, I witnessed one lone employee attempt to take and make Starbucks orders for a long queue of guests, while nearly half a dozen others stood around watching.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Halloween Spooktacular
Before the evening frights begin, BGW features kid-friendly Halloween events during the daytime in Sesame Street Forest of Fun, a cul de sac crammed with pint-sized diversions.
In an area behind the land normally reserved for staff, they set up a waist-high maze of hay bales, as well as a dance stage and photo ops (which were rained out during our visit).
A word of warning: while children nine and under are permitted to dress up for the weekend costume contest, don’t wear anything costume-adjacent if you are an adult. I witnessed a pair of parents denied entry to the park for wearing Steampunk-inspired outfits that would be consider permissible “bounding” by most other parks.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream 2023 Live Entertainment
If you like celebrating the Halloween season with singing and dancing, you’re in luck at BGW’s Howl-O-Scream, because they’ve got not one, but four live productions this season. And while the haunts don’t open until the evening, Howl-O-Scream’s shows take over the park all day long, displacing the major venues’ regular scheduled programing. That means you can enjoy all the Howl-O-Scream live entertainment before sunset, leaving you free to focus all night on the mazes and zones.
Know going in that these shows might not have access to Disney’s or Universal’s libraries of intellectual properties, but they all embellish their public domain premises with unexpectedly solid production values, and uniformly talented performers. (This park is living proof that my alma matter William & Mary is still turning out hard-working triple-threat thespians.)
Another unique element of BGW’s Howl-O-Scream shows is that several double as dinner theater. The Festhaus is home to Phantoms of the Festhaus, an energetic American Idol spoof that pits undead dopplegangers of Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and other pop idols against each other in a sing-off. The cast includes a sinister rapping emcee and a ghoulish troupe of backup dancers, all atop a double-sided stage with glowing staircases. The show’s musical selections weren’t to my personal taste, but it is well paced and had a campy vibe that certainly works well with the season.
The double-sided stage in the center of the huge hall means it’s fairly easy to grab a last-minute seat on a communal bench just before showtime. Better yet, buy some brats or a beer a settle in!
Marco Polo’s Marketplace also offers entertainment in the form of Skeletones, a singing show on Italy’s San Marco stage. This is your basic karaoke cabaret, with a quintet of singers running through abbreviated renditions of “The Monster Mash,” “The Time Warp,” and similar Halloween tunes.
Rain restricted the dancing during the performance I watched, but even with more movement this is essentially a landlocked cruise ship show.
Inside England’s Globe Theater (which was once home to a 4-D film) you’ll find the most ambitious and uneven of the Howl-O-Scream shows, Monster Stomp on Ripper Row. Tip: don’t enter the venue too early if you prefer sitting in the back, because the rear rows aren’t opened until the front half is full.
Utilizing a large cast on an even larger stage, with high-tech lighting and projection mapping – including a clever silhouette effect to open the show – you’d think this would be a home run. But despite sharing a concept and several elements with the excellent Monster Stomp show at SeaWorld Orlando’s Howl-O-Scream, BGW’s version vacillates between goofy and ghoulish without ever settling on a consistent tone for its head-scratching musical selections or anachronistic production design.
There are some stand-out sequences that make the show worth seeing, like a quartet of male dancers doing modern-style floor work, and a routine with black-light skeletons. But despite eliciting a rapturous audience response, I’d consider BGW’s Monster Stomp to be a pale shadow of the one we have in Florida.
Finally, Jack’s Back is a Jack-o-lantern inspired dance party in Ireland. It was rained out during my visit, but I got a glimpse of the customized costume and mask made for BGW’s iconic character when the cast came out for a make-good meet-and-greet.
Bottom line: whether you are attending during Howl-O-Scream or not, live shows should be your top priority after tackling your must-do coaster, so check showtimes in the app and schedule your itinerary around them.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream 2023 Haunted Houses and Scare Zones
At last we arrive at Howl-O-Scream’s raison d’etre: the haunted mazes and scare zones, or “Terror-Tories” as Busch Gardens Williamsburg brands them. There are five houses this year, and although only one is listed as “all-new,” the others are revamped versions of long-running themes, some of which I’ve experienced at Floridian events.
Budgets and resources are obviously far more restricted here, as compared to Florida’s theme park haunts. But it’s also evident a lot of creativity and enthusiasm went into these walk-throughs, which straddle the line between a backyard community haunt and a professional production. Don’t look for high-dollar animatronic effects or cinema-worthy scenery, but in the absence of production soundstages, BGW does a clever job of adapting their natural resources and redundant ride areas to create indoor/outdoor experiences. Most crucially, the performers I encountered were often more interactive and expressive than most found at the bigger haunts; rather than repeating mechanical jump-scares, they work to target and unnerve individual guests … or maybe that’s just me?
Nevermore: Chapter 3 is the latest in a long line of Edgar Allen Poe mazes, but I appreciated that this one included recognizable vignettes from my favorite stories, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “Cask of Amontillado”. Housed inside a barnlike structure, it has some of the event’s more elaborate set designs and lighting, and the cast excelled at being creepy – especially the one woman who silently stalked me through the maze, then suddenly disappeared.
Witch of the Woods: Scorched takes the already-spooky woods behind Germany and amps them up with cackling cannibals and vengeful villagers. This one reminded me a bit of Sir Henry’s Trail or Petrified Forest, but with more graphic gore in its Wicker Man-esque setpieces.
Death Water Bayou: Full Moon was perhaps my favorite haunt at BGW for its New Orleans aesthetic recalling Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and Dr. Facillier’s “other side.” Large tents and outdoor scenes alternate through the Roman Rapids ride queue, containing some terrifically trippy glow-in-the dark imagery.
Lost Mines: The Descent repurposes the park’s old mineral-panning sluice and other antique props for a fairly freaky recreation of a radioactive mining camp. There’s some solid scenic work and scares here, but I spent the whole time staring up through the open ceiling at the underside of Escape From Pompeii, the boat ride beneath which this maze was built.
I started in the back of the park immediately after the mazes opened at 6 p.m., and managed to see four of the five houses in under three hours before the standby queues became uncomfortably long. (The fifth house I missed was KILLarney DIEner: Infested .) A better plan would probably be to experience the houses closest to the front first at 6 p.m., and work your way to the rear of the park.
If arriving later on a busy night, be prepared to wait or consider investing in the costly Quick Queue passes. I was able to get through my first few houses without waiting, and sometimes had a private show. But once the mazes’ queue began to grow, I noticed attendees sending large waves of several dozen guests into the house, then stopping the line entirely for many minutes at a time, rather than steadily pulsing though small groups.
Finally, you won’t need to wait in any lines to experience the park’s five Terror-Tories, which make up for their minimal scenery with eager improvisational actors. They mostly rate only moderately high on the shock value scale, but these aren’t the glorified selfie stations some Florida scarezones have become. Rather, they provide entertaining opportunities for intimate one-on-one interactions, or just eavesdropping on the cast kibbitzing in character amongst themselves.
The new Mardi Gras themed Fest-Evil in Italy is infested with revenant revelers who really seem to enjoy their jobs.
Gorgon Gardens takes a mythological approach that’s both grotesque and gorgeous, thanks to an imposing Medusa sculpture and an especially striking color palate.
Watch out for the mutated nursery rhyme characters near France along Scary Tale Road , and the brutal butchers in New France’s Meat Market .
Finally, I especially loved the Sweeny Todd easter eggs in the Whitechapel-based Ripper Row around the park’s exit.
They say “you can’t go back home again,” but returning to Busch Gardens Williamsburg after so many years was mostly a very positive experience. The park boasts a nearly unmatched combination of top-shelf attractions and untrampled natural beauty, giving it potential to punch far above its weight and compare favorably as regional park against its internationally-known rivals.
What I feel is holding BGW back from achieving its full potential is the second-class guest experience, which is driven by arbitrary and inconsistently enforced policies that are often out of step with industry norms. For example, my strapless prescription eyeglasses (which have survived countless Mosasaurus rolls) and ponchos were prohibited from even the family coasters, but raincoats and sunglasses perched atop heads were permitted. Compound that with an absence of greeters monitoring guests entering ride queues, and poorly programmed air-gate cycles that add unnecessary delay into coaster dispatch cycles, and you end up with demoralized ride operators and slow-moving queues full of bored guests who begin vandalizing the scenery.
Similar evidence abounds that those in charge of setting policy aren’t spending enough time inside the park as either an average guest or frontline employee. After only one day at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, here’s my list of low-hanging fruit that could help make the park into a true destination, without costing $100 million:
- Update the website and app with clearer disclosure of park policies and procedures, make sure those policies are enforced reasonably and with regularity, and remove aggravating restrictions that don’t have a good rationale.
- Improve consistency of in-park communication with guests via additional wayfinding signage, better informed employees, and more timely wait time and closure info in the app.
- Streamline operating procedures, adjust staffing levels, and reinventive employees to improve throughput at attractions and point-of-sale locations.
- Have an accessibility consultant reengineer walkways and queues that exceed standard wheelchair grade, or force handicapped guests to squeeze up a narrow exit – and partner with an organization like IBCCES on an standardized accommodations program for non-apparent disabilities.
- Add some low-cost temporary indoor attractions (starting with a museum celebrating the upcoming 50th anniversary) inside Ireland’s unused show buildings. Longer-term, invest in some simulators (bring back Questor!) or dark rides that all ages can enjoy in all weather.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg will always have a special place in my heart, and my Howl-O-Scream 2023 visit gave me hope that the park will be even better the next time I hop aboard a $50 Frontier flight to Norfolk. While I may offer some sharp constructive criticism of the park’s management, I still enthusiastically suggest pay a visit if you’re anywhere in the Tidewater area.
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Busch Gardens hasn’t been the same since the park was sold, but I was pleasantly surprised with Howl-o-Scream, returning for the first time since 2019. Tip: go on a Thursday night! The park is empty. Walked onto all coasters and haunted houses.
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