The Experiment at Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-o-Scream gives Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights a run for its money

The Experiment at Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-o-Scream gives Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights a run for its money
Seth Kubersky

In my entertainment career, I’ve been called “stage manager,” “manatee wrangler” and “cat herder.” But after last weekend, you can simply call me “Test Subject No. 178,” another victim – um, volunteer – in Busch Gardens Tampa’s sinister new Experiment.

Since attending the media preview of Universal Orlando Resorts’ Halloween Horror Nights XXIII that I shared in last week’s issue, I’ve spent five more evenings there, experiencing each offered attraction multiple times. With screen-perfect puppets and a stunning transformation scene, American Werewolf in London is easily HHN’s best movie-inspired maze since 2007’s The Thing: Assimilation, and earns a place in my personal all-time Top 10. Cabin in the Woods, another film-inspired house, captures its batshit psycho source perfectly, La Llorona’s creepy Catholic kitsch is llovely, and the Walking Dead-themed scare zones are even better than the walker-infested haunted house, despite many meh masks. The Rocky Horror Picture Show tribute show has returned with a talented lead cast and tighter backing vocals, while the latest Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure show improves on 2012’s by savagely skewering the Disney/Lucasfilm evil empire, but it suffers from a surfeit of Taylor Swift and deficit of stunts and structure. Despite some duds (Havoc: Derailed goes off track with repetitive characters and uninspired environments, and disorienting 3-D glasses can’t compensate for under-designed stretches in Afterlife’s psychedelic prison), 2013’s HHN is the strongest in several years.

But Universal’s domination of Halloween in Orlando doesn’t mean there isn’t competition in Central Florida’s scare market, as Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-o-Scream has been demonstrating since 2000. Busch’s midbudget mise-en-scène resembles a neighborhood haunt writ large, and can’t directly compete with Universal in awe-inspiring sets or high-tech effects. On the other hand, HoS’s haunts are longer and far gorier (Blood Asylum is literally littered with phony guts), and Busch’s scareactors are more enthusiastic and interactive (though I fear for their larynxes without Universal’s prerecorded lines). The all-new Death Water Bayou is Busch’s first to feature a truly HHN-quality facade, and contains imaginative Nawlins-inspired environments and vicious voodoo-flavored scares; The Basement (which adapts sets from last year’s Alone) has a deliciously hammy cast of redneck cannibals with some of the humor this year’s HHN sorely lacks. And experiencing all the houses and roller coasters without ever waiting more than 15 minutes (as I did last Saturday at Busch Gardens) isn’t likely at HHN.

Unfortunately, Howl-o-Scream’s Achilles’ heel is overfamiliarity. Five of the seven mazes are recycled from 2012 with minor modifications, like the vampire casino that’s now overrun with unintentionally hilarious werewolves. The sole show is a rehashed naughty-nurses monster mash, and the park’s endless pathways are mostly barren of scare zones or even special lighting.

But one undeniably original extra-cost experience ameliorates the déjà vu, and may almost be worth the drive all by itself. The Experiment is an intimate, appointment-only interactive adventure for you and up to three friends ($50 for first person, $10 each additional) who want to test their tolerance for terror. The park’s King Tut’s Tomb exhibit has been transformed into a white-tiled research lab where participants are subjected to a series of stresses. To begin, a severe “scientist” (all the actors did a great job of keeping a straight face, even if I couldn’t always) assigns each subject a number and explains that failure to follow all instructions will result in termination of the test and forfeiture of the fee.

After applying a heart-monitoring bandage, you enter the initial test chamber and your Experiment commences. Without spoiling too much, over the next quarter-hour you’re asked to reach into bug-filled boxes, allow fiends to scream centimeters from your face, and risk electric shock. The most compelling scenario involves a restrained patient, poison-filled syringes and a tasteless but titillating recap of the Milgram experiment. I hesitated and was branded a “hippie,” while my companion quickly complied and was approvingly dubbed a sociopath.

The climax comes in a nauseatingly nasty bathroom where you must do the worst thing imaginable in order to escape, followed by a chaotic if conventional chase-out coda; it was the closest I ever want to come to living out a Saw film. While I found The Experiment more theatrical than terrifying, at $20 apiece it’s worth doing with three brave buddies. Busch’s event as a whole might not be in HHN’s league, but on this count, it’s Universal’s turn to play catch-up.