Howl-O-Scream: 20 Fun Facts About Busch Gardens' Annual Halloween Event

Catch up on all things Howl-O-Scream in honor of its 20th anniversary
Anna Dominguez
Black and white hand silhouette through a glass door.

Spooky season is upon us once more. That means vampires, witches, and ghouls are all coming out to play. If you’re looking for some fearsome fun, you will want to visit Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Halloween event, Howl-O-Scream.

For years now, Busch Gardens has shown guests a scary good time during the months of September and October. In fact, 2019 marks the event’s 20-year anniversary. In honor of these 20 years of fear, here are 20 fun facts about Howl-O-Scream.

Two jack-o-lanterns lit up

1. Where It All Began

The idea for Howl-O-Scream came from a much tamer place. Prior to its debut, Busch Gardens hosted another Halloween themed event, 1999’s Spooky Safari. This was a kid-friendly event featuring hayrides, face painting, and fun Halloween shows. The scares were kept to a minimum as the park wanted to maintain a family-friendly audience. Nonetheless, this kid-centered event was the inspiration for what we now know as Howl-O-Scream.

2. Debut To the World

With the success of Spooky Safari, Busch Gardens looked to really break into the Halloween event market. Thus, Howl-O-Scream officially began in September of 2000. This put Busch Gardens in direct competition with Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando, which first began in 1991.

3. Short, Sweet, and to the Point

It took time to perfect the event into the fright fest it is now. The first Howl-O-Scream only ran for 10 nights in September and October of 2000, making it the shortest Howl-O-Scream in the event’s history. It was also the smallest, only featuring two haunted houses, one haunted trail, a haunted safari ride, and a single park-wide scare zone.

4. All the Scares, But Hold the Gore

Although Howl-O-Scream was now competing with Halloween Horror Nights, you did not find the same guts and gore in Busch Gardens that you did in Universal Studios. This was due to the park’s early effort to maintain the event’s family-friendly status. With a family-focus, Howl-O-Scream avoided showcasing blood and gore in its early years. This would all change as the event focus shifted to teens and young adults. As the years went on, Howl-O-Scream became scarier and gorier.

Two people with light-up scary face masks

5. Family-Focused

Speaking of Howl-O-Scream’s early family-friendly status, the event did hold on to a piece of the kid-centered spirit of its predecessor Spooky Safari. A “Monster Free Zone” was offered for kids to enjoy during the daytime park hours, prior to Howl-O-Scream beginning. Face painting, hayrides, and arts and crafts were offered. This zone could be found in the Land of Dragons section of the park, now know as the Sesame Street Safari Fun area. The “Monster Free Zone” did not last long however. It was only offered in 2000 and 2001.

6. Hidden Scares

When it comes to scaring guests, Busch Gardens likes to be creative. Scare zones have been a staple of Howl-O-Scream from the very beginning. These zones are outdoor areas featuring costumed actors waiting to scare guests that walk through them. Nowadays, these zones are announced ahead of time and included on event maps. That was not the case in 2001. For the first and only time, scare zones were completely hidden from the public. 2001’s Howl-O-Scream featured three of these surprise scare zones.

7. Event Icons Galore

Even Halloween events need a good mascot! Throughout its 20 year run, Howl-O-Scream has featured a slew of event icons. These icons act as the face of the event and match that year’s theme. There have been over 30 major and minor icons highlighted in Howl-O-Scream’s history. Some years have even featured more than one event icon at a time. In fact, 2013 holds the record for most event icons at 13.

8. Haunted Houses Everywhere You Look

The main attractions at Howl-O-Scream are all the haunted houses. People looking for old favorites and new haunts alike. The record for most haunted houses in a single season is eight. This has only happened three times so far, with eight houses being showcased in 2010, 2013, and 2014.

Welcome mat in front of a blue door reading "Haunted. Come right in."

9. Big Scares, Mini Zones

It can be scary to go through all the scare zones in Howl-O-Scream but it must be done to get through the park! You can, however, take comfort in knowing you just have to make it through and then you’re safe for a bit. Scare actors are restricted to their specific areas to maintain the theme, so they cannot follow you far out of the scare zone. Howl-O-Scream 2007 took away that comfort by introducing “mini zones.”

The “mini zones” were five free-roaming zones not listed on the event website. They were considered a park-wide haunt, as actors were not limited to one section of the Busch Gardens. These costumed characters were able to interact with guests anywhere in the park. The success of this scare tactic went on to inspire the “Roaming Hordes” park-wide scare zone included in the 2008, 2009, and 2011 installments of Howl-O-Scream.

10. Frights Aren't Just in October

2008 saw Howl-O-Scream’s first use of teaser websites to promote the event. Prior to this, the event would only be announced and promoted on the official Busch Gardens website. Teaser websites were used, typically beginning in June, to drop clues regarding the year’s theme. It was a more interactive way to create buzz around Howl-O-Scream. The websites would be consistently updated until the theme was revealed and early ticket sales began. The promotional effort was effective, and is still employed today.

11. No Zones? No Problem

Scare zones are an effective way to spook guests, but they can be considered predictable because their themes and locations are announced beforehand. In 2011, Busch Gardens found a way around that. For the first time in its history, Howl-O-Scream had no set scare zones. Instead, there were over 20 roaming zombie hordes all over the park. The idea was to provide guests with the feeling that they were not safe anywhere. At any moment you could encounter a zombified version of a cheerleader, clown, doctor, the list goes on!

Close-up of a person's hands holding onto the ground

12. Scare Zones All Around

From no scare zones, we now go up to the most scare zones in Howl-O-Scream history. That honor is bestowed upon the most current season, Howl-O-Scream 2019. Typically you will encounter six or seven scare zones. But in 2019 gear up to experience nine scare zones, all with their own brand of terror.

13. Hurricane Jeanne Rains on the Parade

The Halloween festivities were not all fun in games when it came to Howl-O-Scream 2004. That year was host to one of the most destructive hurricane seasons Florida has experienced. Busch Gardens was not spared, although the damage done was minor. Hurricane Jeanne destroyed the building where one of the main haunted houses of the year was to be set up, and damaged several props. The continuous wave of hurricanes delayed Howl-O-Scream for the first and only time, until early October of 2004.

14. Focus on the Story

Blood, gore, and scary costumes are all sure-fire ways to frighten people, but how long can an entire event rely solely on that? Busch Gardens didn’t wait to find out. Starting in 2003, there was a new focus on the themes and stories behind the haunted houses. This was the first year Howl-O-Scream brought back haunted houses from the previous year. In fact, all but one of the houses from 2002 made a repeat appearance in 2003’s event, building on their stories.

15. Sequels: The Horror Returns

Howl-O-Scream has two methods to further the stories of their haunted houses. One is to revamp the maze and props, making tweaks here and there to continue the story. The other is to provide guests with an entirely new experience, a new chapter of the story so to speak. Enter sequel houses. As of 2019, 17 haunted houses have sequel houses, three of which are part of a house trilogy. The first sequel house came in 2003. Escape From Insanity: Residents’ Revenge followed up 2002’s Escape From Insanity.

Blurry photo of sequence of woman screaming

16. Howl-O-Scream Favorites

Howl-O-Scream has featured over 60 different haunted houses in its 20 years, but there are some clear favorites. Once Busch Gardens decided to focus on expanding themes, they began to build on the stories of their past haunted houses. This led to repeat appearances for certain houses through the years. The haunted house that has been featured the most is Death Water Bayou. Including it’s sequel house Death Water Bayou: Wrath of the Queen, this house has been a part of Howl-O-Scream for seven years. Zombie Mortuary comes in at a close second with six appearances.

17. The Longest Scare

From humble beginnings, to nation-wide success, Howl-O-Scream has established itself as one of Florida’s premier Halloween experiences. What began as a small, 10-night foray into the world of horror has become nearly a month-long adventure. The longest Howl-O-Scream is awarded to the 2019 season, with 22 dates ranging from September to early November. On average, Howl-O-Scream usually only lasts about 19 days.

18. Monkey See, Monkey Do

While Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has found great success with its rendition of Howl-O-Scream, it was not the first park to launch the Halloween-themed event. That honor goes to Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia. Howl-O-Scream was first launched in Williamsburg in September of 1998, making Tampa Bay the second Busch Gardens location to begin the event.

19. Celebrities For the Inaugural Season

The first Howl-O-Scream was truly a test run for all Howl-O-Screams to come. It tested haunted houses, scare zones, and even the shows included in the event. The 2000 event was the first and only year that included celebrity appearances for the Howl-O-Scream shows. Butch Patrick from the TV show “The Munsters,” and the mentalist The Amazing Kreskin both had their own shows during the first Howl-O-Scream. From 2001 on, these celebrity shows were replaced by solely park-produced shows.

20. Working on a Much Larger Scale

The inaugural Howl-O-Scream was small by all accounts, especially in comparison to what the event looks like now. In the year 2000, the event depended on a team of 70 actors known as the “Creature Crew.” Today Busch Gardens employs over 800 actors and special effects people to bring Howl-O-Scream to life.

Picture of a house at dusk, surrounded by fog

Black and white hand silhouette through a glass door.
Howl-O-Scream: 20 Fun Facts About Busch Gardens' Annual Halloween Event
Catch up on all things Howl-O-Scream in honor of its 20th anniversary
Anna Dominguez