Halloween Haunt: a Kings Dominion favorite is back

WP_20140926_18_41_42_ProI have not written about theme park related things for quite awhile.  I do so now as I have a personal connection and am excited to share it with you.

For a decade, I have taken my oldest son to the haunt events at Kings Dominion and, for a lot of that time, to a similar event in near by Busch Gardens Williamsburg.  For at least half of that decade, he has wanted to work as a ‘scare actor’ at Kings Dominion. Well, this year, he got his chance.  He is a Zombie in the Zombie High maze, which is already one of the favorite mazes at the park.  To my delight, he is really good at immersing himself in the part.  It is a long, tiring and dirty job, but, he loves it. WP_20140927_20_38_09_Pro

Enough boasting, lets talk about what they are doing.

This year, they five ‘scare zones’  and eight mazes.  The best mazes include Cornstalkers, Zombie High and Club Blood.  Cornstalkers is a maze made out of corn husks, bales of hey and other similar items. Most of the actors blend into the environment and are difficult to see until it is too late. They really get into character and are very enthusiastic.  Zombie High takes place in a high school setting where zombiism has broken out due to a lab experiment gone wrong. Student zombies are seen in various states and you never know where they are waiting.  The theming is excellent and the atmosphere is foreboding. Club Blood takes place in a vampire themed night club. Scantily clad ladies and beefcake vampire dudes fill the building. As with the other mazes, you never know where they are.  The exit is, perhaps, the most hair raising…if you catch it right.WP_20140927_20_28_06_Pro (2) 1

The first night we went, the park was deserted. The Virginia State Fair opened the same night and it is just down the road. I suspect that, a slew of local high school football games and other events took away from the crowd.  As such, we got way more scares than we did the next night we went.

The following night, a Saturday, the park was packed.  Long lines were everywhere. We only went through Zombie High, mainly for my son. Again, he and his co-scare actors, were on their game and we got some good scares and laughs.  The park was letting too many through at one time, which did detract from the experience.

We decided to go through the ‘scare zones’ that we did not hit up the night before. We also spent a lot of time in the ‘Clever Brothers’ zone, themed to a circus.  That was fantastic. I had as much fun watching the others getting scared as I did going through the mazes.WP_20140926_21_41_47_Pro

I anticipate this weekend’s visit to be even better as the actors know what to do and will be more comfortable.

If you are in the area, go out there and give it try.  And, hit up Zombie High, but don’t eat the meatloaf!

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Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream: Much improved

IMAG1221Boy, what a difference a week can make.  Last week, we paid a visit to Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Howl-O-Scream event. It was beyond lame and lackluster.  There were few scares and was generally a waste of time. However, I am happy to report that the park seems to have gotten the kinks worked out and it showed.

More decorations, more ‘scare-actors’, more scares and, better, they put the scare zone back in the area by the wildlife preserves.  The werewolves are back and the overall atmosphere was much more macabre than last time.

Perhaps the most improved maze/haunted house was Bitten. It was our favorite last week, but it was much better this time since they managed to scare my wife multiple times as well other guests. “Deadline” was much better as well. There were more Scare-actors than last week and they were doing a much better job at scaring guests.

The two shows we got in, ‘Fiends’ and ‘Night Beats’ were fantastic. ‘Fiends’ is a more IMG-20120921-00953 - Copyadult oriented show, featuring scantily clad nurses as well as eye candy for the ladies.  Sexual innuendo abounds, there is also plenty of song and dance and comedy. The ‘story’ is a spoof of the Frankenstein story. While the singing is about what you might expect at a theme park, the choreography was pretty decent. Ditto for ‘Night Beats’. ‘Night Beats’ features a live band and it appeared that the actors were actually singing whereas the performers in ‘Fiends’ were not.  Either way, the dance and comedy bits were worth putting up with the IMAG1225singing.  Again, Ulrich the host in Night Beats was funny and his interaction with the audience was spot on. 

The roaming hordes were larger and we actually saw them several times.  They still do not adequately make up for the loss of the scare zones, but they were-like the rest of Howl-O-Scream-much improved.

Overall, it appears that the park took its criticism-and there was plenty-to heart, listened to customers and began to fix the issues.  One employee told us that they doubled the number of Scare-actors and horde performers and ‘worked the kinks out’.  Glad to see that they did. While they still are not as good as their competition in Richmond, they are vastly improved over the opening weekend and we will return for a third visit.

Busch Gardens disappoints with Howl-O-Scream

Halloween. A time when people WANT to be scared. In the United States, it is traditional to start seeking out venues to PAY to be scared, usually starting toward the end of September.  Amusement parks around the country gear up for this time of year by replacing normal attractions with those of a more macabre tone. My two local parks, Cedar Fair’s Kings Dominion and Sea World’s Busch Gardens Williamsburg are two parks that generally go all out for October.

Clown HordeBusch Gardens Williamsburg (here out to be called BGW) slants toward a more family friendly environment while Kings Dominion warns parents not bring small ones after 6pm and, in fact, shuts down it’s kiddie area (Planet Snoopy.)

At a ‘passholder appreciation’ event recently, the GM for BGW promised that this years Howl-O-Scream would be the best yet. Scarier, a new maze, scare hordes instead of scare zones would cover the entire park and leave no stone unturned. A new show in the Oktoberfest area would replace last years bawdy and very adult themed ‘Fiends’ show, which was being moved to a smaller venue (Abbey Stone Theater) and better signage warning parents about the nature of that show. This years event sounded great. In addition, the whole thing started earlier than last years Howl-O-Scream and the first night allowed pass-holders to bring a friend for free.  Wonderful.

Problem is that they failed miserably.

BGW is my favorite park, I need to say that right away. I love them. They are consistently a great place to take your family. Good food, great atmosphere, spectacular rollercoasters (but not enough of them) and the place is just gorgeous. They do a terrific job during the season.

Halloween events, however, are the weak spot and this year, oh my.  I don’t know if they just don’t have enough people or if it was just first night jitters, but it seemed amateurish and more like a dress rehearsal than the real thing.

Many of the mazes, where you go to get scared, were light on fright, weakly themed and poorly covered by ‘scarachters’, the cast members who dress up to scare. In fact one maze, Fear Fair, which is supposed to look like a county fair, had just four such scarachters. IMAG1183

The newest maze, made up of thousands of plants and trees, was supposed to be the scariest. We waited just over an hour to get into the maze.  My wife was startled twice, but only because she was diverted by another guest. Too many people were let through at once, which spoils the scare for most in the group, especially if you are near the end of the group.  In one case, in the Thirteen maze, the whole thing just stopped. Standing in one of these things, for five or more minutes, with nothing happening, really ruins the experience. Add in non-functioning effects and you just get bored.

For a major theme park to have this many problems during a highly publicized event is not good. Yes, I realize that nothing is perfect, but when you drive hours to such a place and pay good, hard earned money, you do expect something close to smooth and somewhat what was advertised, not what was delivered during the opening night. The park is a fifty minute drive for us and we have season passes, so we will go back and try it again, but what about the family who drove two, three or four hours to there, spent $64.95 a person to get in, plus whatever the food costs are…I’d be pretty mad and would want a refund.

Perhaps the worse part about it are the hours.  Most of the mazes open at 6pm, but the whole park closes at 10pm. That gives you just four hours to do it all.  We spent over an hour waiting in line for ONE maze.  Imagine if you had to endure that, plus thirty to forty minutes for two or three others. That gives you little time to do anything else. When asked about changing the hours, the GM shrugged his shoulders and said something about the family nature of the park and that no time change was planned.

While this park has never had a spectacular Halloween event, at least when compared to, say, Kings Dominion, they have done much better in the past-like last year’s event. It is very disappointing that they failed to pull this off in such spectacular fashion.

I will write a follow up to this after we go back, so, stay tuned!