I had the privilege of checking out both HoS at SW Orlando and San Diego. I already wrote a full review for SD's event that I just posted, but I will make some comparisons and contrasts that stood out for me.
-The houses in SD have more generic themes (Slaughterhouse, Asylum, Spooky Swamp), but make up for them by having some unique scares, great detail, and some good scenic in all of them. They had a really good scare in Nightmare Experiment (SD) where some dummy lowers down towards you while a loud sound a strobe light goes off. Simon's had some good scares above your head which I didn't expect. Deathwater (SD) also made great use of the Wild Arctic queue line by having a large "outdoor" section that gave the feeling you were outside in a graveyard and a large swamp. While Orlando's had a greater variety of themes in their houses (An Arctic research facility, pirates, a hotel, and a swamp), the details and scares were great as well. I just felt like the scenic felt a bit more "spread out" in its detail as the had one more house than SD's as I felt like SD utilized their assets very well to make their theming "work" for those houses.
-I didn't see Monster Stomp in person, but from what I could see on YT and after seeing Vampire Circus (SD) in person, I think Vampire Circus was the better show. Cooler stunts and all.
-I do think SWO had better scarezones atmosphere, but I liked the scareactors in SD more. The entrance is pretty great for Orlando's and I loved the ambiance of the pirate scare zone. San Diego also had some cool scarezones with their Toy and La Llorona scarezones. Their La Llorona wasn't outright scary, but it was very unsettling and creepy.
-This is neither a pro nor a con for me, but I noticed Orlando's was more "mature" and risque in tone. SD's was definitely gory in the houses, but everywhere else it felt slightly adolescent in tone. Just compare the Sirens from Orlando to the Sirens in SD's pirate scarezone or the DJ at the entrance playing music. I also noticed there were a LOT of kids at SD's event. Again, this didn't make or break either events for me, just an interesting observation.
-SD's event also had lots of bars everywhere as they want that booze money but there weren't any themed bars. I'm kind of "meh" about this but I guess SD could definitely use a couple of these.
-Neither events use the entire park for the event. SD probably uses the most of its park layout for the event, but Orlando's event is a lot bigger in footprint. To give you an idea, Orlando's closes 11 on non peak nights while SD's closes at 10. SD's footprint for the event is much smaller but also has more rides open for the event as they all happen to be within this. Orlando's only has Mako open while SD's has Atlantis, Manta, and Electric Eel open.
Overall, I actually enjoyed San Diego's event more, but just by a hair. I think the event has a slight edge with the "quality over quantity" approach and having a better show. I also felt like the scenic in SD's was a bit stronger with some more interesting scares in Simon's and Nightmare. I do think Orlando has an edge with one more house and having some better scenic for their scarezones (Pirate zone and the entrance with the bridge stand out for me), but I enjoyed the scareactors more in SD. I enjoyed SWO's HoS and they had great scareactors, but it was clear that a good number of them were rejected from HHN. It also helped that SD had more rides open than Orlando (Although Mako is amazing).
I hope to go to both next year again, but I thought it would be fun to compare the two.
I just called SW to confirm and according to the woman on the ticket line the service free still applies even if buying over the phone or at the gate. Really want to visit this weekend but don't know if it's worth paying $50+ for a smaller event.
There's no service fee at the gate (AFAIK), because it's just "buy a ticket", but you may have to stand in a long line to do it. I know hen I went there were signs everywhere advertising the "buy your ticket online" option trying to get people off the ticket line. The service fee is (mostly) because when you buy online their ticket sales are through a third party's software/system.
We were there last Saturday and stayed at the Renaissance. It was an easy walk to the event. We went to the main gate and notice all these teenagers in homecoming attire and got out of line to find the HOS gate. OPPS! In my opinion the scarezones were better than HHN. Actually got scares. I wasnt prepared for them to jump out of the bushes. Along with the fog I couldn't distingush a guest from an actor. The sliders got me every time. The houses were alright. Got the best scares in Beneath the Ice and Vines. And! I got to ride Mako for the first time. Rode in the front row and the moon looked killer. This coaster has to be in my top 5. Monster stomp was alright. We hit up 3 bars. One by Captain's Revenge which served me a non frozen hurricane and I wish I got something else because it was terrible. Longshore Tavern our drinks were better and finished the night at Siren's last call. Siren's we were there for last call and guests were dancing. Good times had by all. The event was fun and plan to go back again.