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HOWLING AND SCREAMING AT THE CURSE

October 7, 2014

Pouring rain, drifting fog and a crowd full of zombies, clowns, and man-eating plants couldn’t stop me from having fun. Howl-O-Scream just reeks of that giggly atmosphere all under the guise of a CURSED theme. Scary? Kinda. Instead of dwelling on that never-ending debate on “Which Florida event is scarier? Howl-O-Scream or Halloween Horror Nights?” (see my old response here) I’ll focus on the bottom line—I had a lot of fun. Here’s why.

Howl-O-Scream Entrance

With a lower budget and no ties to movies (compared to its eastern neighbor), Howl-O-Scream has instead been getting more creative recently and I’m really liking the shift. Looking back, most of the ideas seem silly and simple—but this is what memories are made of! Armed with two free tickets (not a bribe—I WON them from a Wiregrass contest. Thank you!) BF Shoes entered HOS during the 2nd Friday of its 2014 CURSED year.

TIMING AFFECTS EVERYTHING

What’s scarier than a snarling clown? Waiting in long lines!! To max out your HOS fun it’s best to go when there’s less crowds. Seriously—nothing but good comes out of that. The further away from Halloween you go the less crowded it will be (Unless it’s the very first weekend which tends to be a ‘preview/insanely-low-priced-admission’ weekend bringing in as much crowds as Christmas eve mall shopping) THERE’S MORE SURPRISES = With less people In front of you, the element of surprise won’t be ruined because everyone in front got scared first. FEAR IN NUMBERS = Sometimes I’d lose the person in front of me. AHHHH it felt like it was just me against a haunted house full of scares. SHORTER LINES = self explanatory. This goes for both the houses and the rides. Not only did we go the 2nd weekend of HOS 2014, but heavy rains kept out more crowds yet by our 9pm entrance it was clear skies. Despite the late entry we were STILL able to visit every house, watch the show, and take it easy all without buying the Quick Queue.

HOWL-O-SCREAM HOUSES
OoOoO so what scared me out there? Although the commercials were eerie, the actual CURSED area consisted of a mountain of old electronics watched over by gremlins wearing tights. (Gremlins do like electronics right?) But what does that have to do with a curse?

The Cursed Icon

It looks like a Gremlin on a mountain of old electronics to me.

There’s enough descriptions of the houses peppering the internet so instead I’ll mention anything that stood out to me. If a review isn’t mentioned it’s not because the house was bad—every single house made me leap a few times—but some houses had that extra OOMPH.

ZOMBIE CONTAINMENT UNIT 15 – simply and surprisingly fun. This new addition isn’t really a house but a warehouse containing zombies you have to shoot. After being split into groups of four, we were each handed a futuristic, plastic toy gun and released into the warehouse where you could render the charging zombies immobile for a few seconds if you shot at the light on their chest. Through the sirens, smoke, and crates it wasn’t complete chaos as the fences directed us through the undead reaching from both sides. Even though it wasn’t difficult- you could probably have walked the entire maze without ever firing and still be okay—there was something insanely fun about pretending to be part of the interaction and fighting back. I still felt fear whenever I came face to face with a zombie yet raced through like an action hero unfazed by my surroundings.

ZCU 15

Entrance to the new, interactive house: Zombie Containment Unit 15

DEADFALL – This is the second and final ‘new’ house. The majority takes place in a Victorian-esque garden. Most of those you’ll meet are the creepy, happily psychotic variety. Notably, I got startled from several large plants—really—Little Shop of Horrors anyone?

DEATH WATER BAYOU (escaping the Cajun curses), BLOOD ASYLUM (a psychotic killer loose in an asylum) and THE BASEMENT (killing and grinding up humans to make meaty meals) were good but not show-stopping. Both Blood Asylum and The Basement contained too many obviously fake body parts and blood it was almost distracting however I enjoyed tiny moments of The Basement more. The Basement contained a cool trick of forcing a guy into a stew amidst gluttonous chomping of human meat; the result turned my stomach into a vegetarian for the duration of the house.

THE EXPERIMENT is this year’s go-alone house. We held onto our money and skipped this upcharge.

ZOMBIE MORTUARY – From death to vengeance this was a mostly typical zombie paradise but there were a couple really good surprises resulting from the scares appearing over a doorway or at my legs.

CIRCUS OF SUPERSTITION – 3D glasses? I almost groaned aloud because past 3D houses in my HOS experience have been a waste of creativity. This ended up being one of my favorites not only because it used the disorienting aspect of the glasses well but the 3D effects blended well with the circus theme. Real clowns hiding among mannequins were a blurred together. My biggest and best scare came from this house—I won’t ruin the surprise but let’s just say it leapfrogged at me…

FIENDS (SHOW)
Normally I get some good LOLs from this HOS staple ripping on pop culture but this year it seemed every joke between the potty-minded Igor and Dr. Freakenstein only captured mild “hehes.” Perhaps it’s because the longest running joke there revolved around selfies. (I have nothing against the act but the multiple mentions of it bordered annoying) This time around Igor is looking for love. Once again the dancing was well done and straddled a thin border between contemporary and sexy. The naughty nurses in their pink wigs and bras stole many photo ops. When did this show totally get rid of its talented singers? Ah well, it wasn’t a deal-breaker but all the ‘singers’ lip-syncing while holding a mic seemed silly.

My tickets

Thanks for the tickets Shops at Wiregrass

THE SCAREZONES/ROAMING HORDES
Due to the threat of rain, most scare zones were devoid of scareactors but still spewed fog, eerie music, and flashing lights. However, the roaming hordes were in full swing ensuring you may run into the crazies even while waiting to buy ice cream. The best ones were perfectly disguised as bushes. Another particular group used an ice cream cart in a funny way…

GO WHILE THERE’S TIME
When you throw in the dance club by the entrance, scattered DJs, and plenty of thrill rides Howl-O-Scream delivers a lot for your admission. Now for a tiny scaredy-cat-Pyra confession… Although the scares chased me I handled it much better this time. The last time I entered a Halloween theme park event with BF Shoes we weren’t even in the ‘talking’ stage. Now not only did I have a human shield permanently attached to me, but I had someone to throw as bait if I wanted to run the other way… haha jk.

I apologize for the lack of good photos… it’s soooo hard to really capture the essence of this event.

ENTERING A WORLD OF CHOCOLATE

September 26, 2014

Living near Orlando produces a few #FirstWorldProblems like… “Seriously? Another murder-themed restaurant?” or at the same time, “I won’t go there. That’s soooo touristy.” Both thoughts were fighting each other as I purchased admission to the World of Chocolate.

Among worldly sculptures

Touristy? Perhaps. Orlando is flooded with places trying to grab every dollar from visitors who want a break from Disney. This has resulted in more mini-golf and over-priced restaurants than wanted. But we were stuck in Orlando for my Dad’s birthday and we wanted to bring him somewhere that tied learning with fun. Although it hasn’t been open long, half-off admission to the museum through websites like LivingSocial and Groupon eased our wallets.

WOC EntranceThe World of Chocolate is located slightly away from all the International Drive action. I was dismayed at most cars in the lot visiting the neighboring buffet instead. I disliked empty entertainment venues. That fear literally melted away as soon as the doors opened and both my eyes and nose were treated to… chocolate! Rows of brightly colored gourmet treats were waiting patiently to be chosen and devoured while that unmistakable aroma lingered in the air. Handfuls of people were relaxing at the little Café while consuming the treats or waiting for the next tour.

After watching a short video following Cacao Beans from its beginnings to harvesting, our energetic guide David continued the history lesson leading up to the ‘discovery’ of the chocolate bar. A jungle-themed room, canvases, and European furniture assisted in the story. We tasted how the first Chocolate drinks must’ve tasted—blech—it was very watery with a strong Chili kick.

Chocolate sculptures

[Left] Taj Mahal in ‘white chocolate [Top right] The first sculpture– Aztec culture [Bottom right] Ramses in chocolate

A larger room housed landmarks from around the world: Taj Mahal, Big Ben, Barack Obama and more—all captured as large, Chocolate sculptures. David told us special lights had even been installed to prevent the room temperature from rising and melting everything. I didn’t notice a temperature difference at all. Although the sculptures had been left out past the point of eating it safely, I still drooled at the sight and the smell. Cravings aside, the sculptures were already impressive especially when you realize the difficulties of molding such delicate food.

One of the chocolate samples

One of my favorites from the samples

A short walk past molding equipment brought us to another tour highlight—the sampling area! Tour Guide David emphasized us savoring and not merely chomping. Although the samples were tiny… wow… they were packed with creamy flavor! My favorites were the Dolfin Chocolat infused with Earl Gray tea (I was surprised to enjoy the Lavender hints) and the Santander Wild Blackberry which featured a good contrast of slightly bitter Berries. Another room was a gallery containing Chocolate wrappers and smaller sculptures from brands around the world—but we flew through this area.

Paying the full-price admission (around $16) is higher than the tour’s worth. I believe the worth and price of the World of Chocolate breaks evens at $10 or less per person. Food-factory related tours are often free with the guides teaching about the how-tos or the ‘insider info’ one can’t easily find from an online search; a good portion of WOC’s tour is a verbal history lesson which is why I feel its admission cost goes more towards the gallery-related exhibits. I understand it’s difficult to have a food tour not focused on a specific brand (like Hershey’s or Yuengling) but like in a wine-tasting I would’ve wanted my guide telling me what ‘notes’ to expect during each tasting.

David was still an excellent guide especially in creating entertainment with the limited material a place like this gives. My family took great photos out of the experience. Even the small chocolate cakes we purchased from the Café were good reflections of the tour—full flavored with extra dimensions from an infusion of fun.

Chocolates at the CafeWorld of Chocolate Museum and Cafe

11701 International Drive
Orlando, FL 32821
(407) 778-4871

A RETURN JOURNEY TO THE EAST

September 20, 2014

I’ll admit I wasn’t very kind in reviewing Journey to the East Banquet during my last visit. Back then although this ‘celebration of Asian culture’ was still in its toddler years, the overwhelming covers of Top-40 pop songs didn’t allow me to view ‘cultural performances’ as the event boldly proclaimed.

JE - Sign

Fast forward to last weekend—the University of South Florida was hosting its 7th annual Journey to the East Banquet. As a USF Asian organization alumni (specifically from the Association of Filipino Students) I felt compelled to show some support. This Banquet was the final celebration to a week full of JE events celebrating Asian culture.

And now I’ll admit—I was blown away. Dare I say jealous too? The theme this year revolved around Elements and Change. Although there were still hints of the old JE, all elements had evolved. We could only dream of something this grand when I was still a USF student helping to organize events.

Lo Mein and Fried Rice

Not the best photo I’ve taken I’m sorry. But here’s the Lo Mein and Fried Rice

The lights within the Student Center’s Ballroom were dimmed allowing the flickering from tea candles (battery powered to avoid the school’s fire hazards) to cast shadows around the tea pots serving as centerpieces. Rather than the Ballroom’s cluster of wall lights projecting distracting glare, a very large poster was placed over the lights with the words “Journey to the East” in cut out. The result served as a background for many group photos while being both artistic and imposing.

As with other JE events, free admission and food were a draw. Instead of the pasts’ stampede to the buffet line, volunteer student servers dropped both drinks and food to each table. I nibbled on the lukewarm Fried Rice and Lo Mein while wondering out loud the discipline of these servers. During my USF years as soon as the performances began the volunteers would mysteriously disappear—but these guys were professional throughout.

JE - Folk

Philippine Performance Arts Company

Ah yes—the talent is what makes the Banquet. Among the variety of entertainment celebrating Asian culture were brightly colored Filipino Folk dancers waving their flower arcs, a Lion Dance that weaved its way around the room before settling on stage, Judo demonstrations, and even a rap in the Chinese language. Scattered between performances were entertaining videos strong audio following the inception of Journey to the East and all the organizations involved.

JE - Performers

[Left to right] Lion Dance… Joe Lin rapping in Chinese… Din Tao Drum performance

Although a handful of performances weren’t explicitly cultural (does having Asian performers count?) I’ll give them passes. The two dance groups kept up high-energy moves while the singer Sabrina Santos belted out powerful vocals. Out of all the performances perhaps the only questionable one was the ending headliner, a budding singer named Albert Posis. Although talented in vocals and guitar he was just a stranger wooing a crowd full of students who were more excited at seeing their friends perform.

Final Boss Dance Crew capped off the USF performances

Final Boss Dance Crew capped off the USF performances

I’ll admit my expectations going in were rather low but that’s not why I was greatly impressed and entertained the whole time. This Banquet was better planned than other events I’ve attended organized by older adults. Perhaps next time I’d just suggest more interactive elements—who wants their name written in Chinese Calligraphy? Or their photo next to costumed entertainers?—but nahhh this is a free event after all totally run by volunteers and donations. I’m proud of the current leaders of the USF Asian organization and (in some way) I’m also wishful this JE event became this good because of the bases left by my generation.

SHADE AND A SHOW AT BUSCH GARDENS TAMPA

August 26, 2014

Florida’s humidity was sapping my energy as I trudged through Busch Gardens Tampa feeling like I was really on a safari… aka… barely any shade. Instead of melting in the heat like a fallen Cherry Popsicle, I decided to take advantage of the attractions where shade always guaranteed… the shows! Due to time restraints I wasn’t able to watch ALL staged shows.

UNTAPPED: BURN THE FLOOR

Show - Untapped 1

Untapped - Guitarists

The guitarists on the 2nd floor balcony stage

Ballroom dancers perform spicy and exotic moves with a hint of sexy at the Pantopia Grill—the only dining area in the park to have a stage (you don’t need to eat to watch). I watched in jealousy at the sassy yet graceful way each dancer performed to styles mostly rooted in Latin or Swing… I wanted to do that! Although most dances involved the group moving together, there were still many moments when each of the cast of international dancers was able to show off their personal styles. As each set continued, my dance-dumb self recognized the building blocks of many ballroom moves, but the dancers threw in plenty of tricks to show why they were the professionals. At one point, two guys actually leapt onto the dining tables and competed in a Latin-inspired “Tap Dance” battle within the crowd.

All music was sang by the powerful vocals of two, talented singers. A second-floor stage also featured three men plucking guitar strings throughout. Although it looked visually nice, I’m not sure they were needed because with the accompanying soundtrack I couldn’t tell if they were really playing or not.

OPENING NIGHT: CRITTERS

Be prepared to watch scores of creatures—furry and feathered—as they blur the line between acting and just being themselves. While barely anybody gets stage time longer than 30 seconds, that just means the appearances of mini horses, macaws, and even emus keep coming and coming. While most tricks involve a moving animal moving and activating a switch, there’s some actual tricks such as a Broadway-singing bird, a hide-and-seek dog, and a trio of birds whose tails actually scrape the heads of audience members as they fly above.

Show - Critters - Dogs

 

The story begins with the animals rebelling against the former host of their show. Two stage hands view this an opportunity to take the spotlight—but first they have to prove themselves. A similar “Critters” show ended years ago and close observers will notice several of the old tricks revamped under the new spotlight. And just like the old show—unnecessary singing. Okay, the first song was actually cute because the old host is trying to sing it while the animals prank him—but the song itself isn’t memorable. The remaining songs seem to come out of nowhere and thus become borderline annoying. While the actors can really sing—unfortunately their songs add no memories.

ICEPLORATIONS

At the urging of their Grandfather, a very “plugged in” child joins their Grandpa in his world travels and learns there is much exciting entertainment to be found in nature. Through whimsical sets and large projected backgrounds, I was transported to the Serengeti, the Great Barrier Reef, the Artic and the Rainforest. As the name of the show hints, the centerpiece is the ice-covered stage where at times up to twenty performers danced with half of them skimming the ice in tight choreography—yet a mid-ice collision never occurred.

Show - Iceplorations

Besides ice skating tricks there’s also jumping meerkats, a dragonfly zipping through the air, and monkeys on a trampoline all making appearances. Of course these aren’t real animals—although there are a few animal actors—but very elaborate costumes donned by acrobatic dancers.

By the time you started to appreciate an act, it was on to the next set. Iceplorations could easily stretch into an hour but with the time given the show quickly crammed a lot into a little time.

SOUNDSATIONAL

Riding on acapella’s popularity following movies like “Pitch Perfect” or television contest “The Sing-Off” this show follows an acapella singing competition between an all-boy and all-girl group. While the singers and the songs are hits, the show itself isn’t memorable. I believe most of the audience was more entertained by having an excuse to sit for half an hour in the shade with a fan. Busch Gardens already inserts singing into all its shows (see above) so we know the park is filled with singers—but this is the only show unaccompanied by other tricks.

Show - Soundsational

I was mildly amused by the little ways the actors would make their characters their own even if it wasn’t important to the story—like a girl getting her hair caught in a twirling umbrella or the awkward-seeming nerd on the guy’s team tripping during a dance. Each singer was talented, however in the final song they all sang to a soundtrack which defeated the purpose of this whole show.

KINETIX

Show - Twin HoopsThis summer-only show energized the audience over the big Gwazi field on a great multi-tiered outdoor stage. The only problem with this arrangement was the lack of seat elevation. If there’s a tall person who sits in front of you, you won’t see lower action onstage. Yet you are still bound to see something because every foot of the stage is covered with a performer—most notably the live rock band blasting out music from the top stages. Naturally there’s singing and the songs are all current Top-40 hits such as Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” to Kesha’s “Timber.” Everything is further pumped up by the group of tightly choreographed hip-hop dancers.

But the singing and dancing is only to uplift Kinetix’s main focus – all the crazy stunts. Ample time is given to a very daring balancing act, unique hula hoop tricks (and believe me I’ve seen a lot of hula hoop tricks) and even an almost seductive female duo on a single, twirling suspended hoop. The final act was a bit of organized chaos as the choreographers tried to see how much varied action they could fit on one stage but it was a good way to once more see the previous performers show off one more time while a troupe of fun-loving guys trampolined off the cityscape in the background.

Show - Kinetix Finale

Kinetix has only one performance a day in the late evening. Afterwards, guests only have to turn in their seats to see the Park’s night time fireworks.

PAUSING FROM THE ROLLER COASTERS

At first Busch Gardens’ choice of shows seem strange against an area where the relationship between man and animal is the first theme—but there’s only so many nature-hugging, animal tricks shows you can create. As a result, Busch Gardens has a good show line-up that still has hits or misses. The most obvious mistake is attempting to insert singing wherever possible—please don’t try to be a Disney—Busch Gardens has its own charm! Experience the talent of Busch Entertainment next time you visit… you’ll also get some welcomed shade and a chance to sit.

Please excuse the quality of my photos– flash photography is not permitted in the indoor shows and my little point-and-shoot was rebelling.

Follow this Pyra’s Experiences on Twitter (@Pyra_Danny) or Instagram (@pyra_experiences)
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