Friday, October 28, 2011

Howl-O-Frustration, Scream of Despair. A Farce in Three Parts.

This, as promised, is the most critical review I have ever writtenThank you for your patience; I know it is late in coming. In the interest of covering all the bases to figure out what the hell went so wrong, I spent the last several days on the phone playing phone tag, doing research on the internet, and venting to my family while trying to reach a resolution of some kind, even if it is less than ideal. You'll see what I mean soon.

So it's also a long review. I'm splitting the posts into parts to spare your weary eyes and also to retain my sanity while rehashing all the crap I went through during this debacle and have had to wade through in the days since, so this is the Part the First, which basically sets up all the afore-mentioned crap. We don't really wade in it until the next installment.

I also just received my review copy of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventures, and I'll be announcing our giveaway winners in-between these posts, so those folks won't be kept waiting in suspense. 

And I (truly, honestly!), have some short, positive reviews coming up soon. Promise.

By the time this whole thing is done, hell, who knows, I might have to resort to posting rainbows, unicorns and kittens for a while just to reach blog equilibrium.

Thanks for your support,


Part I: It Begins

Last weekend, on Saturday, October 22nd, I took a van loaded with excited teenagers across the state to attend Howl-O-Scream. I was on my own; The Engineer was away globe-trotting for two weeks to exciting places like Kuala Lampur and Bangalore, doing thrilling things like flying for 24 hours straight into a 12-hour time difference and falling, exhausted, into a hotel bed every night after working 11 hour days! I had decided, after very little internal debate, not to join him on that adventure.

To those of you wondering just how much of a masochist I am, juggling everything on my own with the 16 year-old Rhino for two weeks (during soccer tryouts! While on medication!) and then choosing to add to the stress by chauffeuring an entire group of teens across the state on a beautiful Saturday afternoon--these are all great guys, and honestly it's no trouble.

Friends of our sons, they're cool, smart kids, and if I could adopt them all, I would, because they are already our second family anyway. But  their parents, who are also good people, would object to that, so we just do stuff like have movie nights, sleepovers and outings like these instead.

So! Four of us tumbled into the van and headed for Tampa, about a 2 1/2 hour drive. Once there, we'd pick up The Owl, his girlfriend and his best friend at USF (go Bulls!), and divide up into two different vehicles (because some of us might not last the whole night and want to leave early, and once you leave Howl-O-Scream, there is no re-entry).

How did we choose Howl-O-Scream? Halloween Horror Nights, at Universal, is actually closer, by a good hour, to where we live. The Engineer and I had been to both Busch Garden's Howl-O-Scream and Universal's Halloween Horror Nights before.

We liked HOS better. In past experiences, the Haunted Houses were just as good as HHN and the lines were not too long (about 30-45 minutes each), there were roaming performers all over the place (not just in scare zones), some of them wearing ghilie suits or shrouded in simulated fog that hid them completely until they jumped out and scared you. As an added bonus, the rides were open, too. We'd taken the Rhino and the Owl to HOS last year and we all enjoyed it.

In fact, we grew up, the Engineer and I, only a few miles from Busch Gardens, and we both had strong ties to the park, especially me. We had both worked there as teens, as had our siblings. The Engineer worked on the now defunct boat ride during the summer season, and I worked in the games area in Timbuktu, smiling and sweating and handing out big stuffed animals. I chose to stay on and continue working after the season while I attended USF like the Owl is now. My Mom, a skilled Administrative Assistant, also spent years working in the zoo department for the Busch Gardens veterinarian.

But this was all back when the park was owned by Busch Entertainment Corporation, a subsidiary of Anheuser Busch. Back then there was a working brewery at the park, and if you were legal you could stop by the Hospitality House for a few free samples of their beer. Today, the park is owned by Sea World Parks & Entertainment, which is in turn owned by the Blackstone Group.

If you aren't familiar with the Blackstone Group (which I wasn't, before I looked them up), they are an investment firm whose CEO is Steven Schwarzman, a name you might know.

Remember him? He's the guy who, as reported by the New York Times, "referred to President Obama’s plans to raise taxes on the private equity industry in the following manner: “It’s war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Mr. Schwarzman did not explain how the genocide of 3 million Polish Jews was comparable to large companies having to pay higher taxes."

So, yeah, BG has changed quite a bit since Blackstone took over. More on that later.

HOS is held on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from late September until the weekend before Halloween. Thursdays, HOS goes until 1:00 in the morning, Friday and Saturday nights it lasts until 2:00 am.

And HOS costs--well, that depends. The price for you to attend HOS for could range anywhere from $24.99 all the way to $179.99. For one night.

For instance, on Thursdays, you can buy a four-pack (online and advance purchase only) and attend for only 24.99 each. This is a great option for starving college students, or anyone on a budget, if you live in Tampa. You can also get promo codes from local businesses if you live in Tampa, to bring the price down. Naturally, you pay more for front-of-the-line access, VIP tours, and private tours. You pay less than full (or promo, or passholder) price per night if you go for the whole weekend, BUT more than the Thursday night package rate. More for Fright Feast. Less if you buy tickets online in advance. I'm not sure how they came up with all these pricing packages; figuring it out is like playing a game of Fizbin.

Why, for example, are advance ticket purchases less when there are no limits on attendance and no HOS benefit to having your tickets ahead of time?

Anyway! When you buy the basic HOS admission ticket (77.99 at the gate, 52.99 advanced online purchase! 42.99 with the promo codes! 32.99 with passholder discount!), HOS begins at 7:30 pm.

This is important because, although an HOS ticket says you can use it to get into the park at 5:00, the early admission is not actually valid for any HOS stuff. While you can get in line for the regular Busch Gardens attractions and rides, none of the Haunted Houses are available until you hit that 7:30 mark.

Even with the premium packages that give you front-of-the-line access, you can't get into the Haunted Houses early. The ONLY option for getting into any of the Haunted Houses before 7:30 is the Fright Feast (add $25 onto your purchase price! Add $22.50 if you are a pass holder!) dinner option, and even then you only get a half-hour head start into them.

So HOS  lasts from 7:30 until 2:00 on Saturdays, when we went. That will be important later. We all had basic tickets (with the passholder discount! bought in advance online!).

Our group left USF in its little two-car convey in plenty of time to get to HOS before 7:30, which is a good thing, because although BG is less than 3 miles away from USF, we waited in twenty minutes of traffic just to get into the park. That was no one's fault, of course, although, as it was the 2nd to last weekend of HOS, I'm surprised there were no police directing traffic. We were excited and in high spirits as we drove in...and in...and in, to park in an Adventure Island remote parking lot (1.4 miles away from Busch Gardens).

Which astonished me. Here HOS was just starting, and we were parked waaaaaaay far away. I've never parked that far away, even attending BG all day, even on their most crowded days. When I worked there, they had remote parking lots, for when crowds were highest, like 4th of July weekend. But even then it was common knowledge that the park capacity for safety was, if I remember correctly, ~23,000(?), and the park wouldn't let anyone else in if they reached that level of attendance, for fire safety reasons, so that's as far away as it got.* Busch Gardens has added rides since then, of course, but not much acreage to the park, so I was amazed they were expecting this many people just for tonight's HOS.

After all, we'd chosen this Saturday deliberately. Most locals and college students went on Thursdays because it cost less. We couldn't go on Thursday, because the kids had school the next day. We couldn't go Friday, because leaving after school would have gotten us there too late for the start of HOS. So that left Saturdays, and since USF was having its homecoming game this weekend, we figured that would draw people away from HOS this Saturday. Where were all these crowds coming from?

The line for a tram was long (walking would make us late to get into the park, and we'd also gotten separated in traffic and didn't want to take off walking before the rest of the group caught up to us). It went quickly in the beginning, as several trams were running and lined up waiting for us, but then the line would stop, because each tram had a long way to go, and they hadn't staggered their departures. So between the traffic and the parking situation, our reunited group of seven ended up on two different trams anyway.

We meandered through several parking lots and across various roads to the park. In the last parking lot before we got off the tram, as we waited for those ahead of us to clear out, 'zombies' attempted to push through barriers to get to us, which helped set the mood for the night.

Our party met up again just inside the entrance to Busch Gardens (Cell phones are a MUST for coordinating at times like these), excited to (finally!) head off and experience Howl-O-Scream for ourselves.

NightShade Toy Company 

When we got inside, it was wall-to-wall people already, carrying us along in a river of bodies past zombies and set pieces--we saw one wall where bushes were creatively co-mingled with a hidden zombie covered in foliage--until we got to a bottleneck in front of the Nightshade Toy Company. Since we'd seen it last year and the line was long already, which we put down to it being close to the entrance of the park, we headed to the next house to begin our night of horrors.

At this point, we are still in great humor, and we even saw some zombies as we passed the building that will be holding the ice show by the front of the park.

Death Row Vengeance

The line for the next HH was long, too, but as we hadn't been in Death Row Zone (though it was a repeat house, too), we got in, figuring it must be good with all those people waiting already. We waited about 45 minutes or so, and it actually was a great haunted house, with a novel ending that scared us more than anything that had come before it.

And that's when things took a decided turn for the worse.

And this is where I stop, as it is 7 PM already!

*Note: All of the park officials I spoke to told me that it is now policy not to release what the capacity of the park is at all, or to release how many attendees are present during the day, or on any given night of HOS, although they do track all of them by the bar codes on their tickets. I was assured that if they had reached park capacity for HOS that night, the park would have closed down, though I was also told that procedures for doing so were proprietary information that they would not disclose, either. 

1 comment:

Daners said...

Very accurate beginning, and it seems promising so far. Too bad I know what comes next.

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