Miami can breathe easier. The zombie apocalypse has relocated — at least for now — to the north.
The undead are stars of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 22 and Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream in Tampa, where they have plenty of grotesque company in vampires, clowns, gargoyles, serial killers and radioactive Elvises.
Universal has the biggest draw with a house based on AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead. From the station wagon outside that bears a message for poor Sophia, to the hospital, department store and barn scenes inside, the production does not disappoint.
The house and surrounding area are crawling with walkers who lurch and growl relentlessly. The ebb and flow of undead traffic is enough to make a fan want to stay put and watch the drama, but Halloween Horror Nights features six other houses this year as well as a new twist on the traditional “scare zones.”
Namely, there aren’t any.
“There’s no boundaries, there’s no scare zones, there’s no escape,” said Lora Wallace, a show director.
Where fearsome characters were confined to specific areas in the past, this year they roam with no limits — five legions of them.
“You’re waiting in line for the house and they scare you,” said Kyle Link, a longtime attendee from New Smyrna Beach. “We’ve always wanted that.”
Added his wife, Lisa: “If only they could go in the bathrooms.”
(For the record, Wallace didn’t rule out that possibility.)
If there’s no escape from marauding monsters, there’s also no getting away from branded horror. This year, four houses at Universal Orlando bear recognizable names: The Walking Dead; Silent Hill, based on the movie and video game series; Penn & Teller New(kd) Las Vegas, from the magicians; and Alice Cooper — Welcome To My Nightmare, based on the rocker’s music.
With the exception of Walking Dead, most of these houses are more interesting than truly terrifying. Penn & Teller’s is fun, with an interactive twist (that rope that says do not pull? Pull it). A post-nuclear Elvis impersonator prompted shrieks and laughs.
The Alice Cooper-themed house might be most appreciated by his fans; same goes for Silent Hill, though the falling ash, smoky odor and variety of creatures are creepy.
House of Horrors pays tribute in black and white to classic Universal creations including Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster; it’s an almost nostalgic throwback. More elaborate (and modern) is Dead End, a decrepit old house haunted not by actual events but by neighborhood lore.
The most gorgeous of the lot is Gothic, a cathedral under renovation that is packed with hostile gargoyles. The scenes are so pretty that it’s easy to get lost in the detail — which is exactly when one of the statues will appear and freak you out. This house should come with a special word of warning: Look up.
For Kyle Helvig, a 40-year-old truck driver from Minnesota who has attended Halloween Horror Nights every year since 2002, Gothic was the standout in part because it didn’t borrow from any established franchise.
“A lot of the truest Halloween Horror Nights fans, they like originality,” he said.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, however, borrows heavily — and hilariously — from pop culture. The stage show is a worthwhile diversion for its Siri-and- Zooey Deschanel exchange alone: (Siri, frustrated: “I hope there is a zombie apocalypse and you’re in Miami.”)
In its 22nd year, Halloween Horror Nights is the juggernaut, churning out a new set of scares every year. Spooky music, lots of fog and a sense of uncertainty contribute to an overall feeling of trepidation.
The general mood at Busch Gardens in Tampa, on the other hand, is: Time to party! Most of the park’s roller coasters operate during the event and DJs keep music going. Even demented clowns were dancing by the end on a recent night.
Howl-O-Scream, celebrating its 13th year, seems more family-friendly. There were pre-teens in attendance opening weekend at Busch Gardens, where a general warning says that the event “contains intense adult content such as violence, gore and blood.” Halloween Horror Nights is not recommended for kids under 13.
During opening weekend, zombies waited for crowds to get off the tram. There was an impressive array of other wandering hordes, including undertakers, camouflaged bushes and people who looked completely normal but for the ghastly props that occasionally jumped to life.
“What we tried to do this year is put as much on the street as usual so guests can experience it as they walk through,” said Scott Swenson, director of creative services at Busch Gardens. “They are sort of lurking in the shadows all over the place.”
Howl-O-Scream keeps some houses around from year to year, with tweaks; two are new: Blood Asylum and Circus of Superstition 3-D.
In the gory Blood Asylum, a serial killer runs loose through an asylum for the criminally mad, with disturbing results. The floor vibrates in one section where a man is being electrocuted; bloody entrails make an appearance.
More visually appealing, at least from the outside, is Circus of Superstition 3-D. Colorful Christmas lights give the entry a festive feel, but inside, 13 superstitions await. Many are not too bad — who has ever had a nightmare over open umbrellas? — but the room full of clowns makes up for the less inspired areas.
In the middle of the pack of returning houses are Ultimate Gamble: Condemned, a run-down, vampire-infested casino that is navigable by the light of one flashlight per group and Nightshade Toy Factory: Mutation, full of toys that have been contaminated with nuclear waste.
Zombie Mortuary provides a fantastic narrative with ample moments of real fear. Zombies lurk, but even just the sets (including a mourning room and crematory) are scary on their own.
Nevermore, based on the work of gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, was a standout (especially for this bookworm). The house has been updated in its second year, and it’s better than the Poe-themed offering that Universal had last year. One suffocating room actually feels like it’s closing in.
Howl-O-Scream also offers an individual experience called Alone, which costs $50 above the admission price for one person. We didn’t try it, but Anthony Armenia, an editorial associate for Orlando Attractions Magazine, went through it twice and described Alone as “intense.”
“Just having no one in front or behind you definitely gets your nerves going and blood pumping,” said Armenia, 17, of Tampa.
If the idea of spending an extra $50 is too frightening a proposition, rest assured. There are plenty of scares available for the price of admission.