With no changing of leaves or dropping of temperatures, Floridians have to make do when it comes to getting their fall fix. We find fall in pumpkin iced coffees and cinnamon brooms and, perhaps most iconically and importantly, our brilliant—and growing—lineup of theme park Halloween events. Between Halloween Horror Nights’s 30th anniversary and not one but two Howl-O-Scream offerings in the state, there are more options than ever. How do you prioritize? How do you make time for everything?
Last week, I had the opportunity to head out to Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream. Though I’m a tried and true Horror Nights enthusiast, this Tampa-based event is one you do not want to miss, whether you’re a local or in town for the week. This event is similar to Universal’s offering, but it’s the differences that make this event shine, from a massive park layout to unique scare actor locations to world-class night rides.
Still, there is only so much time to get out to these renowned events before they’re gone for the year. That’s why I’m here with the must-dos of Howl-O-Scream 2021.
Obviously. I’m not a stranger to Halloween events. I know how houses work, know the places actors hide and the tricks up the sleeves. Nevertheless, some of these houses got to me.
This year’s new houses (Witch of the Woods, The Forgotten, Cell Block Zombies) definitely delivered. Vampire-themed The Forgotten is perhaps the least scary house at the event, but its use of neon lights and music made for a fun, chaotic experience that didn’t take itself too seriously. Returning houses Death Water Bayou: Blood Moon and The Residence also wowed this year. (As a quick tip, The Residence gathered quite a line by the middle of the evening, so if this house is on your list I suggest hitting it first.) I was surprised by the breadth of decor, staffing, and care that went into each of these houses, each as strong and unique as the last.
Hidden Scare Zones
The fun thing about this must-do is that you don’t have much of a choice in whether you do it or not. The one critique I have in Howl-O-Scream is its lower staffing in scare zones. While these areas were beautifully themed in both scenery and costume design, mixing low staffing with the wider walkways at Busch Gardens can make for a less claustrophobic (see: less scary) experience in scare zones compared to larger competitors.
However, Busch Gardens makes up for this limitation with its hidden scare zones. Because yeah, walking through the Deadly Toys scare zone is freak, but walking down a pathway to Tigris and hearing shaking in the bushes? That will get under your skin. Sometimes these hidden scares are as simple as a giggle from the bushes. You wonder if that giggle was someone else on the midway, or if you’re just hearing things. But sometimes, creatures will emerge from Busch Gardens Tampa’s dense tree cover to scare, scream at, or chase unsuspecting guests. This shows that Busch Gardens understands their limitations, but works with them. They adapt to their given budget to make sure no guest will leave the park unfazed.
One element of roller coasters that I can’t get enough of is their versatility between day and night rides. Daytime rides are great, but there’s something about a night ride on your favorite coaster. There’s also something about a normally so-so coaster made outstanding by the black of night. If you’re heading out to Howl-O-Scream this year, make sure you score night rides on the best roller coaster lineup in the state.
Though Busch Gardens does offer later hours in the summer months, the park typically closes at five or six. Night rides are rare in the fall, and can pack you with as much adrenaline as a chainsaw at the end of a haunted house. Take Cheetah Hunt, a good ride, but far from my favorite in the park. While its drawn-out layout is quite mild during the day, those launches and whippy Intamin turns feel far faster and more intense when the sun goes down. Bolliger and Mabillard classics like Kumba, Montu, and even SheiKra deliver a heck of a night ride with little to no line. The best night ride in my opinion, however, isn’t a coaster at all.
Falcon’s Fury, an Intamin drop tower that faces riders straight down before an over 300-foot dive toward the ground, is a must-do after dark, especially with the Deadly Toys scare zone directly below. Obviously come to this event for the scares, but don’t count out the ride lineup when planning out your evening.
Honorable mentions for things to do include the Blood Bar (try the Swamp Water if you're a fan of a Long Island iced tea), the Fiends show, and Crash Test Zombies, where you can play bumper cars alongside ghoulish friends. Howl-O-Scream is often seen as a competitor, if not runner-up to Halloween Horror Nights down I-4, but it has and always will be more than that. Howl-O-Scream offers a calmer park experience with little to no intellectual properties, just original houses and stories to tell. Between its stellar ride lineup, well-themed houses, and spooks around every corner (all starting at just 42 bucks a night), Howl-O-Scream Tampa 2021 is easily a Florida must-do.