How SeaWorld San Diego can grow and improve Howl-O-Scream over the next decade

How SeaWorld San Diego can grow and improve Howl-O-Scream over the next decade

SeaWorld San Diego tossed the first punch with the new Howl-O-Scream in a bloody battle royale against Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, Knott’s Scary Farm and Six Flags’ Fright Fest that is certain to ramp up the fight for theme park Halloween haunt supremacy in Southern California.

The inaugural Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego kicked off on Friday, Sept. 17 with three haunted houses, six scare zones and a live show. Howl-O-Scream will run on 24 select nights through Oct. 31 at the San Diego marine park.

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SEE ALSO: Everything you need to know about Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego

A foggy tunnel of lights during opening night of Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo by Brady MacDonald, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Most Halloween theme park event coverage tends to take the approach of ranking the haunted mazes, scare zones and live shows — largely because there is so much to cover in one night. That’s not the case with Howl-O-Scream in its first year at SeaWorld San Diego — because there’s not a lot there just yet.

So instead of judging the first 24 nights of the inaugural year, I’m going to take a look at what the future could hold for the West Coast version of Howl-O-Scream, the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead and how SeaWorld can grow the event over the next years and decades.

Introducing Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego in 2021 makes perfect sense. Coming out of the extended coronavirus closures, major theme parks in the United States are wisely stepping back to reexamine their operations with an eye toward improving what’s working, fixing what’s busted and adding what’s missing.

An after-hours, separate admission nighttime haunted event seems like a no-brainer for SeaWorld — in large part because there is no other theme park competition in the San Diego marketplace that can compete with a gory and gruesome new fright fest.

Howl-O-Scream also appeals to the teen and young adult demographic that SeaWorld San Diego appears to be going after with the addition of a string of new roller coasters — with more on the way.

SEE ALSO: Knott’s Scary Farm brings back winning mazes with a mixed bag of new entertainment

The local haunted event benchmarks in Southern California have been long established — Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Scary Farm at Knott’s Berry Farm, Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor and Oogie Boogie Bash at Disneyland. All but Disneyland take a gory and scary approach to Halloween that brings out die-hard haunt aficionados.

That seasoned haunt crowd won’t be very impressed with Howl-O-Scream 2021 — but that’s a limited way of viewing the first year of SeaWorld’s new haunted event. Curious haunt fans will come out no matter what and kick the tires of Howl-O-Scream — in part to say “I was there when it all started.”

SeaWorld knows exactly what kind of bloody, cut-throat battle they are getting themselves into — and it’s not for the faint of heart. Sister-park Busch Gardens Tampa has been staging Howl-O-Scream for more than two decades — going head-to-severed head with haunt powerhouse Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando. Howl-O-Scream is now hitting Horror Nights from two sides in Florida with SeaWorld Orlando joining the bloody fray this year as well.

At SeaWorld San Diego, Howl-O-Scream’s opening night was a solid start with plenty of room for improvement in the coming weeks, years and decades.

Rather than jump right into the mazes and scare zones, let’s start with what was working well — the fantastic live show and the elevated food and beverage program.

  • “Vampire Circus” during opening night of Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo by Brady MacDonald, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • “Vampire Circus” during opening night of Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo by Brady MacDonald, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • “Vampire Circus” during opening night of Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo by Brady MacDonald, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • “Vampire Circus” during opening night of Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo by Brady MacDonald, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • “Vampire Circus” during opening night of Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo by Brady MacDonald, Orange County Register/SCNG)



“Vampire Circus” is the best Halloween show I’ve ever seen during a haunted event at a Southern California theme park — better than anything Horror Nights, Scary Farm and Fright Fest have to offer.

It should come as no surprise that SeaWorld can pull off a cirque-style performance — they’ve been doing it for years with their Cirque de le Mer waterfront shows.

“Vampire Circus” combines jaw-dropping classic cirque acts like a dance trapeze, acrobatic strongman duo, cane handbalancing and the Wheel of Death with just enough horror-themed clown humor in between to keep the audience entranced during the 30-minute show in SeaWorld’s Nautilus Theater.

The cirque show was so good that it was nearly worth the price of admission — which starts at $45, reasonable compared to haunt events at other Southern California theme parks.

SEE ALSO: SeaWorld San Diego pushes back Emperor roller coaster opening to 2022

Most reviews of haunted events don’t focus on the food and drinks — but SeaWorld’s menu of savory bites, sugary desserts and horrific cocktails outshines your typical theme park fare.

The highlights included a Bloody Lucy Slider with oozy red cheese inside an inch-thick beef patty, Brain Bites with a blood-red filling topped with marinara sauce, to-die-for Nightmare Mac & Cheese with ghastly green noodles and Creepy Cannolis bursting with guacamole-green sweet filling. Food prices range from $6 to $8.

SeaWorld has set up themed bars selling craft beer and horror-themed cocktails at the exit of each haunted maze. The rum-based Bloodshot pina colada dripping with bloody grenadine comes with an eyeball floating on top. Cocktails run $13 apiece.

A small stage underneath the unopened Sky Tower will host live bands throughout Howl-O-Scream — with the Beta7 ska-punk headlining on opening night. The one thing missing? A cocktail bar to fuel the dance floor and keep the party going.

Mixing alcohol and monsters is always tricky business — with the scareactors in danger of getting punched by intoxicated visitors.

Pairing the themed bars with DJ music allows SeaWorld to create a dance club vibe and steal a page from the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor playbook — which turns every evening into a party in order to compensate for its limited number of mazes and scare zones.

Howl-O-Scream faces a similar dilemma starting out — not enough to do with only three underdeveloped haunted mazes and six fledgling scare zones. Pitching Howl-O-Scream as a hip Halloween party helps hide some of the faults as SeaWorld San Diego gets into the haunt business — and the high-margin alcohol sales should also help finance future growth of the new event.

SEE ALSO: Mesmer haunted maze brings hypnotic terror to Knott’s Scary Farm

The one thing SeaWorld will always lack compared to theme parks like Knott’s and Universal are themed spaces where monsters can prowl scare zones. One of my lasting memories of the first Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego will always be how empty and lonely the park was after dark. Only three roller coasters were open: Electric Eel, Manta and Journey to Atlantis.

SeaWorld opted to spread the scare zones throughout the park — in part to draw visitors to the three operating rides and three haunted mazes. That meant visitors often had to walk past shuttered shops, unopened restaurants and darkened attractions as they traveled throughout the darkened park. The scare zones were an attempt to stitch together the experience — to varying degrees of success.

La Llorona scare zone during opening night of Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo by Brady MacDonald, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Howl-O-Scream’s best scare zone had a low-key vibe. La Llorona turns the Latin American urban legend about a woman who drowns her children after her husband leaves her for a younger woman into an eerie atmospheric scare zone. A La Llorona scareactor in a white veil wanders under a massive moss-covered tree with terrific show lighting while black-veiled mothers push empty black baby carriages in search of their lost children.

The Sirens was the scariest of the scare zones with undead sailors creeping up behind visitors distracted by mermaids charming passersby with alluring voices and come-hither appeals.

Deadly Toys was the most interactive scare zone with misplaced and unloved toys looking for visitors to take them home and play with them.

A werewolf scareactor seemingly trapped in a cage during opening night of Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo by Brady MacDonald, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Hauntings had two of the best scareactors of the evening — a werewolf seemingly trapped in a real SeaWorld animal cage and an ivy-covered stilt-walker that emerges from the trunk of a tree.

First Fright was a mixed bag of a scare zone near the front entrance while the Graveyard seemed like a toss-away idea in need of some work.

SEE ALSO: Halloween Horror Nights return with ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ and more new mazes for 2021

Howl-O-Scream’s haunted mazes remain a work-in-progress that should improve with each successive year. It makes sense that SeaWorld only started with three mazes — better to begin small and do the best you can than to overreach and spread yourself thin.

Unfortunately, the three inaugural Howl-O-Scream mazes are still incredibly underdeveloped — particularly by the standards haunt fans have come to expect with Horror Nights, Scary Farm, Fright Fest and Dark Harbor.

The best of the bunch was Nightmare Experiment, which is set inside a sleep clinic where a government-run medical experiment has gone horribly wrong. Nightmare Experiment had the best set dressing and backstory of the three mazes and some solid scream scares.

Simon’s Slaughterhouse takes place inside a meat processing plant that has been taken over by a butcher and his murderous crew. The well-worn maze concept is filled with all the expected screeching buzzsaws, slashing knives and earlier victims hanging on meat hooks. The highlight: Chainsaw-wielding scareactors that should be given free-reign of the maze rather than remain stuck in one room all night.

The lowlight was Death Water Bayou that was just a notch or two above a home haunt level. There were some good jump scares, but just as many missed opportunities. All three mazes suffered from the same problem — a lack of scareactors. A “we’re hiring” Howl-O-Scream sign at the front gate admitted as much.

SEE ALSO: Why Knott’s Scary Farm retired ‘The Hanging’ after a decades-long run

As with any new event, SeaWorld has a punch list of things to work on with Howl-O-Scream — which should be considered a success and the high bar to exceed in future years.

Pulling together three new mazes in a debut year is a massive undertaking and it’s not surprising that the set decor was threadbare in places. That should improve in subsequent seasons as SeaWorld San Diego builds on the existing mazes and stockpiles animatronics and theming that can be reused in future mazes.

Fortunately, SeaWorld can count on its East Coast sister parks for guidance and expertise. Death Water Bayou should improve by leaps and bounds in the coming years — with the workhorse haunted house a mainstay at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay since 2013. The same goes for Simon’s Slaughterhouse which appeared in the Tampa Howl-O-Scream lineup in 2018 and 2019.

SeaWorld knows hardcore haunters will judge Howl-O-Scream against the standard bearers in Los Angeles and Orange counties. But SeaWorld also knows they have the San Diego market all to themselves where they will compete with independent mazes and home haunts — which even the relatively anemic effort of the inaugural Howl-O-Scream easily tops. SeaWorld is counting on picking off the local enthusiasts who want a large-scale haunt but don’t want to be bothered with the hour-plus road trip up the 5 Freeway.

SEE ALSO: Gore-ing 20’s scare zone brings ‘dead decadence’ to Knott’s Scary Farm

The financial rewards for SeaWorld San Diego could be enormous with Universal Orlando officials calling the wildly successful Halloween Horror Nights the “thirteen month” for the extra revenue the after-hours tickets provide.

SeaWorld would be smart to take the long view and strive to match Fright Fest’s maze quantity and quality within five years and reach the Scary Farm level within a decade before deciding if they have the fortitude and resources to take on the king of the hill in Horror Nights — as the trio of Howl-O-Screams are now doing in Florida.

Expect a bloody battle that should only benefit haunters in it for the long fight. Consider Howl-O-Scream 2021 the first punch thrown in a neck-slashing, intestines-spilling, bile-spewing brawl for San Diego haunt supremacy.

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