What Goes "Bump" in the Night
By day, “Ubanga-Banga” at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay resembles a traditional dodgem attraction: Rock ’n’ roll music blares as guests grin while dodging and dashing their bumper cars inside the ride’s oversized shoebox-like structure.
Yet, each autumn as night falls over the park’s “Howl-O-Scream” event, “Ubanga-Banga” transforms into its sinister sister.
“We go that extra mile to put monsters and creatures in other parts of the park that you wouldn’t expect,” says John Prast, Busch Gardens entertainment show manager.
During the Halloween season, the quintessential bumper car attraction goes awry as costumed “scare actors” ride alongside guests, adding a fright element without the expense of creating a full haunted house. Prast calls the park’s audition process “very physical,” which, in part, includes a floor exercise.
“We put them in Olympic swimming pool-sized lanes, where they travel back and forth, acting out characters, like a freshly bitten vampire. The goal is to see how the prospective performers act in various conditions and how willing are they to think outside the box,” Prast says. The winners are selected to be part of “Ubanga-Banga” after dark where their improvising skills are put to good use.
The nightly cast of 20 are trained in safe operation of the ride and taught a proper interval. While some performers will drive bumper cars, others are mingling in the queue and posing for selfies in the plaza in front of the ride. After two ride cycles, the actors will rotate positions so no performer is riding for an extended period of time. When the ride ends and all vehicles come to a safe stop, the actors will exit with riders, effectively pulling guests out of the ride area. Prast says the “Pied Piper” effect increases capacity by reducing the wait time to reload.
Converting “Ubanga-Banga” into a haunted venue each evening takes less than five minutes. Technicians turn on theatrical lighting, power up a fog machine, and swap pop music for haunted tracks—it takes longer for each performer to have face paint applied by professional makeup artists inside Busch Gardens’ sprawling rehearsal studio.
Yet, surprisingly, visitors during the extra-ticketed event won’t find the attraction included in a list of scares.
“Not putting that on the map is the most fun for me,” says Prast. The quiet tactic creates an element of surprise and delight. “‘Howl-O-Scream’ is not just about a scare, but something that is different and leaves a strong impact on the guest,” Prast says.