Live Active Cultures

Whoever coined the cliché "the more the merrier" never visited Orlando's haunted attractions. Last week, I praised Uni-versal's 20th anniversary Halloween Horror Nights, and while I stand by my assessment, it's impossible to ignore the negative impact of the overwhelming crowds that Universal pulls to its popular party. The phrase "safety in numbers" is aptly illuminated by the conga-line shuffle through Universal's spooky mazes: While you might get the occasional startle, you're more likely to "ooh" at the elaborate sets than "argh" in genuine terror. An ultra-expensive "R.I.P." guided tour will wipe out the waiting, but it can't grant the breathing room necessary to feel real fear.

That's why this week I drove 90 minutes to Tampa to take in Busch Garden's Howl-O-Scream haunt. It doesn't have the legacy or budget of Universal's blowout, but on paper Busch puts on a competitive event. Both HHN and HOS feature similar numbers of haunted houses, open-air scare zones and shows, and tickets are priced the same ($75 at the gate or as low as $40 with online discounts). Each has its own icon character: Murderous rocker Sylvie and her faux-punk band, My X, are Howl-O-Scream's answer to HHN's Fear.

When it comes to the centerpiece haunted houses, if your priority is stunning scenery and innovative effects, your money is better spent in Orlando. But several of HOS' mazes have clever concepts, such as Nightshade Toy Factory: Son of Nightshade (with possessed plushies) and Delta Epsilon Delta: Extreme Rush (aka DEDer, with drag-queen sorority Satanists). Other HOS houses recycle familiar themes with bloody bite, like Death Row Vengeance: No Escape (beware the firing squad) and Deconstruction: The Doctor Is Out of Control (hospital + horror + humor = gory goodness). Many of them felt longer than Universal's average maze time. Still, compared to HHN's elaborately designed labyrinths, the best houses at HOS look like backyard productions, and the least (Taste of Blood: A Different Vein, Trapped in the Walls: Ghostchasers) are little more than pitch-black plywood and store-bought props.

Busch doesn't out-design the competition, but it battles back in other ways. The "Blood Relations" show (scripted by former Universal creative J. Michael Roddy) covers much of the same satirical pop-culture ground as this year's underwhelming "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure," but does so with live singing and less pretension (if less deft dancing). Rides at Busch Gardens include three world-class roller coasters that have the advantage of actually working (unlike Universal's Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit). And the well-trained HOS staff was consistently courteous outside the haunts and unremittingly aggressive within (to eardrum-rupturing extremes).

Crucial to my experience is what HOS didn't have: crushing crowds. While attendance will surely increase as Oct. 31 approaches, last Thursday the park was practically empty. I took in every house and scare zone, plus one show and four coasters — all before 10 p.m. It helped having the early entry and limited front-of-the-line privileges that accompany the Fright Feast package: at $25 with a decent buffet dinner, it's a much better deal than Universal's Express passes. Even without the package, I wouldn't have waited more than five minutes for anything.

Such eerie intimacy and isolation is the evil intent behind Alone, the high-concept headliner of HOS and the best reason for Orlando haunt fans to trek west. The twist to the tour of Master Alexander Daedalus' Minotaur Storage is that you explore this warehouse of creepy curios solo, without sacrificial strangers to shield you. Inside, you'll find the best effects Busch has to offer; I don't want to spoil any surprises, but there are a handful of "how'd they do that?" head-scratchers, including a classic horror-movie optical illusion that I thought could only be created in-camera. The unusually intricate architecture includes false doors, rearranging walls and other disorienting dead ends. Best of all are the actors, who go beyond basic booing to create interactive characters: the big bloody bottle-sucking baby, blindly groping butchers and chatty curators were particularly memorable. I'm too jaded to get genuinely scared, but being surrounded by shrieking psychos with no apparent exit should have scaredy-cats screaming "goldfish!" (the S&M-style safe word you'll want to remember).

Alone is a must-do experiment for all fright fanatics, but there's a catch: Availability is limited and by appointment only, and it costs $25 in advance on top of admission ($35 at the event). Up to four guests can go together for that rate, but only solo survivors get the souvenir T-shirt ("I did it Alone") and bravery bragging rights. That might make it worth the price, because this is what haunt connoisseurs will be talking about all season long. If Universal could weld Busch's concept with their scenic and storytelling prowess, they'd have a killer cash cow even I'd be willing to wait in line for. Until that happens, you'll have to take the 150-mile round-trip down I-4, because two is company, three's a crowd, and Alone is awfully intense.

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