"Thorpe Park's Fright Nights event shows no sign of waning in popularity, with the Park again investing in 2 new attractions again this year, and seeing ever-increasing visitor numbers. Indeed, on the opening weekend of 2015 (we visited on the Saturday), the Park was clearly struggling to cope with demand: there were queues of over an hour to buy / collect entrance tickets at the gates (with only 2/3rds of the booths staffed), and Fastrack packages (prices held at £5/maze or "Director's Cut" package at 5 for £25) were sold out just halfway through the day.
It's fantastic to see Thorpe's event, now in its 14th year, doing so well - but on our visit the Park were ill-prepared for the crowds, making what should have been a fantastic event a sometimes tiresome one. To get everything done in a day, maze fastrack (an additional £25 on the £59.99 entrance price) is almost mandatory, and even then you need to be prepared to queue for up to 30 minutes in the "quicker" lines, which still felt slow. This leaves little time to go on any of Thorpe's rides in the dark - although on the day we visited, there were so many rides down (the Park had an availability nightmare with Colossus, Swarm, Samurai, Vortex, X, Logger's Leap, Tidal Wave, Rumba Rapids, Depth Charge, Rocky Express and I'm a Celebrity all broken down or unavailable by the end of the day), opportunity to do this was limited too.
So, not Thorpe's finest hour from an operations point of view - which is a shame given that this sort of stuff (ticketing, ride maintenance, queue management) is not exactly new to them; Fright Nights are always busy (although increasingly so), and the Park should be better prepared.
On a more positive note, we found much to commend the Park for in the Fright Nights attractions themselves - read more on these below. Thorpe also had 2 new headliners this year - The Big Top, which resided on Neptune's Beach, and Containment - a new "escape room" concept, situated just behind Depth Charge. The Big Top set the theme for this year's event - the Park taken over by the twisted Figaro Bros. carnival. We loved the efforts that had gone into the Halloween themeing by the Bush BBQ (think pumpkins, scarecrows and tombstones), although lamented (as ever) that it wasn't more widely spread around the Park. We enjoyed the tweaks to ride & area music, with old maze The Asylum's theme brought back in some queuelines, and neat voiceovers from The Big Top's Figaro Bros. ringmaster most notably playing over the Colossus and Detonator platforms. And the roving actors were if anything even more visible this year, with a variety of groups of characters roaming around entertaining / harassing (delete as appropriate) the guests. Great to see!
As always, we tried all of the Park's seasonal attractions, which are reviewed in detail below. Our standing SAW Alive review remains in the Park Guide, although special mention must be made this year to a particularly enthusiastic crew, including a girl who climbed up the cages in the second room and made us walk through her legs!
(Located in shipping containers behind Depth Charge)
New for 2015 was Containment - an upcharge "escape room" attraction, pitting visitors against tricky puzzles across 4 themed rooms to escape the virus and find an antidote. Costing £10 (£8 for Annual Passes), the attraction started with a hard-to-hear video pre-show involving a scientist describing the futile efforts of Timothy Crown, a medic trying to find a cure for the devastating disease, threatening to wipe out the world population. As he failed, our duty was to go forth and complete the task. Each room could be "escaped" by finding the 4-digit code to be entered into keypads by the doors. Those who succeeded in finding all 4 codes would "survive". Those who didn't would not, and would be presented with a red wristband, which supposedly would meant these unlucky guests would attract even greater (unwanted?) attention from the Park's roaming actors...
We really enjoyed Containment. Entertaining more than scary, the puzzles were varied and interesting, and the actors placed in each of the rooms often provided some dark comedy whilst our group of 10 searched for clues. I won't spoil the surprise for anyone yet to experience it, but the puzzles involved roman numerals, clocks, syringes and light pulls in the 4 well-themed rooms. The sense of satisfaction when successfully getting a code right and moving on was palpable in our group; Containment offered something genuinely different in the Fright Nights lineup.
There were negatives. Whilst we had ample time to crack the code in the first 3 rooms (and did so successfully), we were rushed through the final room, being kicked out having only had 2 minutes of our allotted 5. The unhelpful "deranged patient" in this final room clattered around a lot, but unlike the actors in the other rooms, offered few clues to help us. And when being duly presented with our red "failure" wristbands at the end, the Park attendant admitted that no-one had yet managed to get to the end of the attraction successfully.
£10 is a lot to ask for a 20 minute upcharge attraction, the last upcharge Fright Nights attraction having been The Passing in 2012, at £3. The Park were also not great at handling the throughputs, despite all guests having timed tickets - we had to wait 30 mins, despite turning up on time for our slot! And the red wristbands worn afterwards had little to no effect on the roaming actors - we weren't "picked on" at all. In short - Containment is a novel idea, and a breath of fresh air - but could do with a little more thought operationally.
More next year, please, although new puzzles are required!
The Big Top
(Located in tents on Neptune's Beach)
The Big Top was the second new attraction for Fright Nights 2015, and the Park chose to lead with it in its marketing for the event - the maze's star characters the Figaro Bros. ringmaster, clowns, and "big baby" featuring strongly in advertising. And it looked spectacular from the outside; residing on Neptune's Beach, the three circus tents lit up in carnival colours at night was a fantastic sight. There was also an abundance of props decorating the area, from ticket booths to coconut shys to wooden cut-outs for guests to poke their heads through. Easily Thorpe's best externally-themed maze since the very start of the event back in 2002! The massive clown's face set piece that guests walk under into the third tent was a particular highlight; check it out in the photos below.
What a shame, then, that this quality didn't extend to the inside of the attraction. The Big Top turned out to be decidedly poorly executed, with very little to see in each of the three tents that we walked through. The first tent featured a clairvoyant scene, but the actor here didn't interact with us at all, and just pointed at us to walk through a series of black-felt-walled corridors and subsequently out of the tent. Feeling somewhat cheated (Where was the story? Where was the themeing?! What was the point?!), we walked into tent 2, which featured a strobe mirror maze blaring a loud circus tune. We saw 2 clown actors in here, who simply stumbled around and laughed manically. The strobes were too fast, and gave off too much sustained light, to provide a decent jumpy experience akin to Asylum in its heyday, and the mirror "maze" was not really a maze - it was a pretty straight walk from one side of the tent to the other. Not scary. Not even that entertaining.
Then it was back out again and across to the final tent, with another couple of actors at the entrance ushering us in - but not exactly attempting to scare. This tent was supposedly a "Fun House", although the themeing again was fairly sparse (albeit the best attempt so far), and somewhat ruined by the bright yellow poles of the tent still visible to the sides. As we walked through yet more unsubstantial black-felt-corridors, we came to a large jack-in-the-box structure, which lit up, presumably for an actor to jump out of. No such actor appeared. And towards the end of the maze, we encountered a clown with a chainsaw; a nice reference to the finales of Asylum and last year's Studio 13. Except this clown's chainsaw wasn't working. He still ran at us, boldly attempting to use his voice to create the chainsaw revving noises that might actually have scared us...!
Clearly we had a bad run through on The Big Top. All mazes have good days and bad days, but this was a really poor show. Even if, say, the clairvoyant had given us more of a performance in the first tent, and we had got thoroughly lost in more of a jumpy strobe/mirror maze in the second tent, and we had actually been run at in the last tent by a clown with a live, working chainsaw... it still wouldn't have been very good. There was no attempt at story, very little themeing, and very few actors - the whole attraction felt rushed. Going back outside into the night air after every tent also served to destroy any atmosphere that the maze could have created; the illusion is broken every time.
The Big Top looks gorgeous from the outside, but delivers very little on the inside. I don't say this lightly, but from our visit, it's a strong contender for most disappointing Fright Nights attraction in the 14 year history of the event. Let's hope there's both more thought and more money put into it, if it is to return next year.
The Cabin in the Woods
(Located at the back of the X building)
Having already reviewed Cabin in the Woods twice before (see 2013 and 2014), there's little need to re-tread the same ground again here - suffice to say that Cabin remains a stand-out maze in Thorpe's lineup, due to its variety, inventiveness, and length. We had another great trip through this year, with a more substantial "woodland" room than in previous years, and better use of windows and perspex sheets by the actors to appear / disappear behind for scares. If there are criticisms then it would be that given the wealth of source material, the maze plays it quite safe in terms of characters - there are too many scientists, and not enough of the weird and wonderful creatures that feature in the movie (favourites including the werewolf, merman and ballerina!). And it would be good to have the tunnel working again - the effect is somewhat lost when it's static.
My Bloody Valentine
(Located in shipping containers by Zodiac)
With WC16 being built over in the old Arena site, My Bloody Valentine had taken residence by Zodiac, where this year's Island Beats stage was situated. Unfortunately, the new location had prompted a bit of a redesign, with the first hospital scene removed completely due to a lack of space. This had the dual effect of making an already-short maze even shorter, and stripping out one of the only pieces of real themeing the maze had - the rest is mostly poorly-lit "tunnel" and "woodland" sets. There was also very little storyline to this year's maze, in contrast to previous years' excellent setups. MBV remains a jumpier maze than its siblings though, with some effective scares coming from miners with pickaxes hiding in the old "containment" cupboards of 2011's superb Experiment 10. It's just hard to shake the feeling that after 3 years, My Bloody Valentine is a little deflated - much like the once-claustrophobic inflatable corridor, located halfway through the maze, was on our run!
Blair Witch Project
(Located at the old Canada Creek Railway entrance)
As with Cabin and MBV, Blair Witch Project returned for a 3rd year, again offering a completely different "outdoors" experience to the rest of the lineup on Park. And pleasingly, Blair Witch seems to get better every year. Previously the poor cousin to the headline Lionsgate attractions, this year the extra foliage along the route, and clever placement of actors within it, helped to propel Blair Witch right up there with the rest. More than any other maze, there is an unnerving feeling of anticipation when going through this haunt; the normal rustling of trees and bushes suddenly become nerve-wracking! Alas, downsides include the Nemesis Inferno lighting spilling over into the maze somewhat, preventing it from being truly dark and foreboding, and the ending - whilst well executed - still taking place in nothing more than a large garden shed. But the concept remains a good one, and we're enjoying seeing Blair Witch - unlike Bloody Valentine - get better with age.
The Bottom Line
Fright Nights 2015 generated mixed feeling this time around. It was a great year for Containment, Cabin in the Woods, Saw Alive, roaming actors and Park audio. But it was a bad - sometimes very bad - year for The Big Top, My Bloody Valentine, and overall Park operations. To be fair, we visited on a particularly busy Saturday, but Parks need to be able to cope with the crowds. There is also the sense that this is the 3rd year for Thorpe's Lionsgate-tie in, and whilst the IPs are still relevant, some of the mazes themselves are starting to lack freshness.
In all, we had a good time, but couldn't shake the feeling that there were too many aspects to our visit that needed a lot more polish."