Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida and HowlOScream at Busch Gardens in Tampa are the two big Central Florida scare events.
Many people view these events as being very similar and take the attitude of “see one or the other.” I suppose that’s good advice if you have limited time and can’t get to both Tampa and Orlando.
But if you have the time, and especially if you’re a big horror fan, I recommend seeing both because, while they have their similarities, they’ll also quite different in some important ways.
House themes: This year, Halloween Horror Nights is all about tying its houses into big pop culture names and media, like Alice Cooper, Penn & Teller, the Walking Dead, and Silent Hill. Universal has done many movie tie-ins in the past, too.
You won’t find these tie-ins at HowlOScream, although you might find a link to something recognizable, like the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Last year, both Universal and Busch featured Poe-themed houses, and Busch’s version is making a comeback. This leads into the next point…
Originals vs. repeats: Halloween Horror Nights generally features new houses every year, although it has done some repeats for special occasions. For example, for the event’s 20th anniversary, the Hallow’d Past house features rooms from prior favorites.
Halloween Horror Nights also creates its own franchises. For example, there have been several Psychoscareapy-themed houses, and the Saws and Steam scarezone become a house the following year.
Meanwhile, HowlOScream always features a mixture of old and new houses, although the repeats often get a new twist. For example, this year the vampire casino from 2011 is becoming an abandoned building, and the long-lived Nightshade Toy Factory is now the site of a radiation leak.
Sets vs. old-school scares: Since Universal’s roots are as a movie company, it’s really no surprise that the park sinks a lot of money and effort into its set design. Its houses feature elaborate props and special effects that you can only fully appreciate if you take one of the lights-on tours.
While the set design is impressive, it always makes me sad to see how people destroy the props over the course of the season. I recommend visiting Halloween Horror Nights early in the year because of the lower crowds, but also because you get to see the houses in pristine condition.
Also, some of the elaborate scenes have a long reset time, so it’s easy to miss some of the best special effects if you only go through such houses once.
While HowlOScream has some impressive effects, it’s very much focused on old-school scares. The scareactors are very much in your face, popping out unexpectedly, screaming, and generally terrorizing you any way they can.
I love both events, and I’m glad they both have their differences because that gives me the best of both worlds. I don’t see it as an “either/or” proposition. Instead, I enjoy both of them, and I recommend going to both parks if you want the full Central Florida Halloween experience.
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