"Thorpe Park completely overhauled their Halloween offering for 2013, ditching the majority of their established mazes and instead partnering with Lionsgate films (of SAW: The Ride fame) for a whole new roster of live action horror entertainment! You have to hand it to the Park - effort is clearly being made the refresh and rejuvenate their event, which could easily feel stale after 12 years of operation.
So what was new? Well, only the Asylum survived the cull (which is great news - Asylum's always been the favourite!), and in replacement of 2012's The Passing, Experiment 10 and The Curse came Lionsgate film-inspired mazes My Bloody Valentine, Cabin in the Woods and the Blair Witch Project. Previous all-season maze SAW Alive (which we've reviewed in the Park Guide) also returned for Fright Nights, making a total of 5 mazes on offer. And in addition to all of the above, Thorpe Park this year trialled some new offerings, including the chance to take on the "rib cage" (food eating) challenge in the hope of winning an Annual Pass (extra £10), brave the mazes alone when the Park had closed (extra £15) and camp "overnight" 'til 2am in the Blair Witch wooded area (extra £145). Whilst this website didn't try out these extras, the Park must be applauded for improving on the attractions available to guests!
As with previous recent years, very little themeing outside of the maze attractions was on display, with the new "night at the horror movies"-inspired entrance being the only effort of note. As said in previous years, other Parks do themeing very well to create a special atmosphere all day long, rather than just when the Halloween attractions open (c.f. Disney, Port Aventura, Europa Park, Alton Towers etc...) - so it's disappointing to see this at Thorpe, which last had Park-wide themeing in 2009. However, the Park had implemented a new Park-wide soundtrack on a "spooky film director" theme this year which mitigated this a little and helped to get guests in the Halloween mood. It's nice to see the Park using their Park-wide linked sound system to good effect!
Value-for-money had also slightly improved this year, with the Park re-establishing the standard 10pm closing time (up from 9pm the year prior), and reducing its 4-maze Fastrack by 50p to £18.50. Entrance costs remained similar to 2012 at £46.30. Unlike last year's The Passing, none of the mazes in 2013 were upcharge attractions - which was also pleasing to see. There was however no show, which was a downgrade on 2011/2012 with Barry & Stuart in the 4D Theatre.
With 3 all-new attractions on offer in this year's "horror movie takeover", let's take a detailed look at how they stacked up:
The Cabin in the Woods
(Located at the back of the X building)
The Cabin in the Woods was the most innovate new offering for this year's event. Unlike all previous Thorpe Park mazes of all, Cabin in the Woods was a "free flow" maze, meaning that guests were not asked to move in a big conga line of 8, but instead asked to walk through with their group, but not attached to their group. This was a risk that paid off. It enabled the Park to be creative from the very first scene, where guests were presented with a well themed room with 4 brown doors, and told to choose one. Cabin in the Woods is the Park's first maze where guests can make choices, with their experience differing depending on the choices made!
This is a great, innovate new twist on the tried-and-tested maze format. It also provides a huge deal of re-ridability, as it is quite possible that every experience will be different. And what of the maze itself? It was a well presented and varied attraction, with different monsters and scares in each part of the attraction. Particular kudos should go to the "mask" room, with a black-clothed white-masked actor holding another white mask on their hand, standing in a black room with white masks painted everywhere. I couldn't tell whether there were one, two or no actors messing with the group here - highly inventive! Other rooms included a forest-scene, a hospital scene with blood everywhere, and a circus scene with clowns making high-pitched screeching sounds with balloons. Actors were plentiful (moreso than any other maze) and provided great entertainment and a few scares.
Cabin in the Woods is a great addition to the lineup, and is inventive in the same way that Experiment 10 was when it opened in 2011. The maze itself is still quite linear (doors 1 and 2 lead guests back to the main entrance room, and doors 3 and 4 merge together into the same onward route before long), so I would love to see this return next year with even more choice and variation. It was also the case that the effects were also temperamental, with the central secret "control room" (as seen in the film!), which supposedly operated other parts of the maze, being often completely inert - a bit of a disappointment for those that found it. The Cabin was not by any means the scariest live action horror attraction that Merlin have ever created, but it was a large improvement on 2012's The Passing, and a huge amount of fun.
My Bloody Valentine
(Located in shipping containers in the Arena)
My Bloody Valentine was billed as the Park's 5 star attraction for this year's event, supposedly the scariest of all the attractions for 2013. Many have subsequently reported this maze (housed in the ex-Experiment 10 building) to be a disappointment, particularly compared to what stood before it - but my experience was conversely impressive. Gone were the solitary confinement cupboards from Experiment 10, but in was realistic mine-shaft themeing and a intimidating threat in the form of Harry Warden, the murderous miner from the film. The maze was nicely set up by a tour guide telling the group that Harry had long since died, so everyone's safety was assured - only for Harry and his pickaxe to appear from the corner and chase everyone into the main maze itself.
The maze worked because of the ever-building anticipation that an actor was about to jump out at you, and the many places the maze afforded actors to hide and conceal themselves. Here, less was more as the lack of audio actually served to heighten the tension. The old solitary confinement cupboards particularly produced a labyrinth of passageways (most that resulted in dead-ends) for guests to find themselves confused by. There were some nice scenes replicated from the film, including the hospital and forest, and towards the end of the maze there was again a nervous anticipation, when walking alone through the exit, that Harry Warden would suddenly reappear. True to expectation - the finale involved Harry appearing from nowhere, turning his headlight on into guests eyes, and running at them, banging his pickaxe against the walls.
My Bloody Valentine was a good effort from the Park. It's perhaps a little short, and is not deserving of being the only 5-star attraction in the Park (Cabin or Asylum could both have rivalled it). And looking back, apart from the attraction of the Lionsgate IP, I would take 2011's exceptional Experiment 10 over it. But it was a well-themed and storyline-led maze that produced genuine unease in a way that Cabin in the Woods failed to.
(Located in the building next to Nemesis Inferno)
The Asylum more than held up against the new upstarts at this years event. For 10 years now it has been producing the most solidly intense and frantic experience at Thorpe's Fright Nights, which is likely why the organisers chose to keep this maze above all others going into this season. The combination of wailing sirens, constant strobe flashes, hazy smoke everywhere, and unhinged actor "patients" is a tried and tested formula that is never anything less than disorientating and frenetic.
My visit through the Asylum was one of the better ones I've had in its many years of operation. The actors were excellent, with perhaps the highest number of actors I've seen climbing all over the mesh walls and themeing this year. One actor dropped down from the sky in front of our group upside down like a bat, blocking us with his shoulders and arms. Another hung from the rafters using his arms like a monkey, and pretended to walk on our heads as we went past. The maze has also improved this year in its ending, which traditionally has featured a man running at groups brandishing a chainsaw. This has been changed for 2013 with a new "bathroom" scene, where numerous shower curtains and lavatories litter the exit path - giving chainsaw man plenty of new places to hide to spring his surprise. This works really effectively, and absolutely adds to the tension and finale.
My only criticism this year is that there could have been far more smoke in the maze, and the sirens could have been much louder. It seems as if the audio has been really scaled back this year, which is a shame because it previously created so much of the urgency and panic for guests.
Blair Witch Project Scare Zone
(Located at the old Canada Creek Railway entrance)
Traditionally, Thorpe Park have found it quite hard to get a "scare zone" right. The very first Fright Nights experimented with one in Ranger County, but this was later pulled. 2010 saw the dreadful "Dead End Terror Zone" and (sensibly) this didn't reappear for 2011. So good on the Park for trying again for 2013 with the Blair Witch Project Scare Zone. This was a relatively long walk in the dark through some unused land at the Park, behind Nemesis Inferno and along the old Canada Creek Railway track. The walkthrough benefitted from being covered by trees, so had a far more realistic "woodland" feel to it than any effort inside the main Park would have had.
In sum, it wasn't bad. The walkthrough suffered from both a lack of actors (I encountered only 3) and the fact it was completely straight - so the layout didn't lend itself to scares. That said, I had two great scares during my go, one using a flashlight to great effect and seemingly appearing from nowhere, and the other hiding in a bush and using the whole bush as a prop, shouting and shaking violently as I walked past. Strangely unnerving! The ending was weak - a budget shed with budget themeing and an actress attempting to be creepy - and the first half of the attraction felt more like a walk in the Park than anything remotely intimidating. I'd love to see this return next year with a bigger acting budget and a little more imagination put into it - Alton Towers' "Zombies! Scare Zone" walkthrough still trumps it by quite a margin.
You're Next Roaming Actors
This was pretty poor. In a bid to push Lionsgate's new Halloween film "You're Next", where the murderers are all wearing animal heads, the Park came "alive" after 4pm with actors roaming around "terrorising" guests. The arrival of the You're Next actors was heralded by the entire Park sound system playing "Perfect Day" by U2 - the film's signature soundtrack - which was a nice touch. But the actors costumes were utterly unconvincing, featuring generic outfits with elasticated animal masks (of the sort you could find in a pound store).
The actors did a good job in trying to engage the audience and make the queues for the mazes a little more bearable, but the effort was doomed from the start due to the clearly low budget it had been afforded. The idea of having on-Park actors is a great one, but only if there is enough cash behind it to make them look good!
The Bottom Line
The quality of the mazes overall this year, both in terms of originality, themeing and scares, was noticeably higher than I think it's ever been at Thorpe Park since Fright Nights started. The Park now have 4 high-quality attractions (including SAW Alive), and a good (if under-developed) idea in Blair Witch - this is really great to see. The partnership (and IP) with Lionsgate bore fruit, and it's clear that the re-boot of this year's Fright Nights was a success. That said, the UK is still way behind the US in terms of budget and production on Halloween events, so the Park's Marketing Director's (Jason Wills) claims that there would be "no need to go to Florida this year" for these sorts of attractions rang a bit hollow. How to improve? Park-wide themeing with a stronger overarching theme; tweak the maze attractions to ramp up the intensity further (bigger, longer, more immersive); upgrade the Park-wide actors; reinstate the Halloween show (Circus of Horrors need to be given a call!). But these would be improvements on a pretty solid base - 2013's Fright Nights prove that Thorpe's still got it."
The Park put out a press release before this year's event, detailing just what goes into creating the Fright Nights experience. It quite eye-opening to see the level of effort the Park put into staging the whole operation, which involves:
- Over 200 scare actors
- 500 grizzly props – including severed fingers and limbs
- Over 5,000 metres of pathways flanked by one-way mirrors, hidden walls and doors
- A wardrobe of over 300 costumes
- 30 gas masks
- 20 doctor’s gowns
- 350 sticks of theatrical make up
- 500 pints of fake blood
- 10,000 litres of black paint (for the maze walls etc.)
- 50 strobe lights and special effect lighting
- 40 fog machines
- 20 air cannons
- A creative team of over 100 people working over 2,000 hours!