"Happy birthday Fright Nights, which this year turned the ripe old age of 15. The event has grown hugely in the last 15 years - looking back through our reviews of the last 13 are testament to that - and the public's desire for a big Halloween event shows no sign of dissipating; our visit in early October saw a packed Park, with ride queues all over an hour and some mazes double that again.
As we've said before, under these conditions the only way to guarantee entry to all of the Fright Nights attractions is to put your hand in your pocket, and once again the Park increased the price of the 5-maze Fastrack by 20% to £30 (£6 / maze). Whilst we wouldn't mind this hike if the overall volume of Fastrack sold was proportionally reduced (meaning a better experience for both Fastrackers; fewer people in the Fastrack queue - and "regular" guests; a quicker moving standby queue), this wasn't in evidence on our visit; as an example, the Platform 15 Fastrack queue was snaking out of the entrance and stood at 60 minutes, with the regular queue at around 75. Even with the "Feared Five" Fastrack, we were only just able to fit all 5 mazes in before the Park closed at 10pm.
And unfortunately for us, the queueing issues were compounded by Derren Brown's Ghost Train, which gave us a three hour wait due to numerous breakdowns, and the Fastrack and Disabled queues being batched in at a 1:1 ratio vs. the regular queue. This site is a big fan of the Ghost Train, but on any metric it's had a poor opening season for reliability - it completely collapsed with both the operations and the crowds on this visit.
No-one can levy that the Park doesn't put on enough Halloween attractions to please said crowds though, and this year saw the biggest line-up yet. The 5 free mazes were complimented by Containment, a timed escape attraction back for a second year (£10), along with Behind the Scenes Tours of the mazes (£20), Face It Alone after-hours maze experiences (£20) and the Zombie Scare Academy, which offered workshops with the Fright Nights cast on "zombie techniques" and "zombie makeup" (£50). A further show, "Campfire Stories", was also put on for guests of the Thorpe Shark Hotel.
It's pleasing as always to see some on-Park themeing around the Bridge and Dome area, and there was again Fright Nights ride audio, although some of it had been recycled from previous years - "The Director" made a re-appearance on many rides, despite the Park-wide "movie studio" theme from 2013 - 2015 having been abandoned. As this website has said before - the more the Park can do to make the whole place feel like a cohesive special event (audio, themeing, entertainers, etc.), the better. Other Parks (Europa Park, Universal, even Merlin's Alton Towers) still do this so much better. Getting the public to vote on Facebook which past Thorpe maze each weekend's roaming actors would be "resurrected" from was a nice touch though - I enjoyed seeing the inhabitants of 2011's brilliant Experiment 10 back once again.
So, on with the maze-by-maze reviews. Note that the standing SAW Alive review remains in the Park Guide; needless to say I had another solid run through on this attraction, although it struck me that the maze could perhaps benefit from brighter lighting - there is a huge amount of gory detail in there, and much of it is missed in the dark!
The Big Top
(Located in a tent next to Rush)
I have to start with The Big Top - the maze for which I wrote probably the most damning Fright Nights review this site has ever published last year:
- "Not scary. Not even that entertaining."
- "No attempt at story, very little themeing, and very few actors."
- "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."
It is, then, fantastic to see v2 of the attraction return in such spectacular style. Easily the best maze of 2016, The Big Top this year moved location to a single tent next to Rush and Zodiac and was all the better for it. The maze felt so much more substantial (no more sheets masquerading as walls), and this time had no outdoor sections to break up the tension. There was an abundance of circus-based themeing inside, and the maze was filled with a good number of excitable actors, who together with the infectiously loud "twisted circus" music blaring throughout, created a completely madcap experience.
Particular scenes of note were the spooky introductory fortune-teller, who this year had been rigged up with a microphone so everyone could hear, the extensive soft-play area in the middle filled with strobes (disorienting and fun; we got lost at least twice), and the much-loved chainsaw finale, which had an especially high impact thanks to the narrow, long corridor to be chased out of!
The Big Top was not the scariest maze in the Fright Nights lineup by far, but it was a colossal amount of fun. Emerging from the exit grinning from ear to ear, it bettered last year's effort in every single way.
(Located at the old Canada Creek Railway entrance)
The only completely new-for-2016 maze was Platform 15, a neat tie in for Fright Nights' 15th birthday, and pitched as the Park's longest maze ever, starting at the old CCR station (to the left of Blair Witch), and winding around the back of Logger's Leap with the exit situated to the right of Samurai. The attraction replaced My Bloody Valentine, which although originally good was no great loss by its third year of operation, and marks the Park's second full-length outdoor walkthrough attraction.
Unfortunately, it wasn't very good. An introduction by a "Creek Tours" tour guide fell flat as most of the group couldn't hear her - a microphone was required. A long walk down the size of Logger's Leap then followed, with the group halted to witness the old Canada Creek Railway train blast fire out of its chimney. This effect was cool, but we were too far away for it to be startling or scary. We approached the (previously beautiful) train to find that it had been graffitied and filled with spooky props (think skeletons, pumpkins etc). There was real potential to make more of the train as a prop, but there were few actors to be seen, so we continued to walk.
A long section of nothingness followed - the trouble with having such a long outdoor maze is that it's easy for the atmosphere to be lost - until we eventually encountered a tunnel. Instructed by an actor to create a conga line, we walked through the long pitch black tent for what seemed like an eternity, until we met a final actor who told us all we were going to summon the dead with a seance. A loud wailing was heard, and strobes then lit up a decaying "conductor" corpse hanging from the ceiling. The actor hurried us all out of the tunnel, but there was little to hurry from - the effect was unimpressive.
I'm a big fan of using the usually off-limits areas the Park has to offer something new for Halloween - and this route has so much potential - but Platform 15 didn't deliver. Probably the worst word one can use to describe a horror attraction - it was boring. There needs to be fewer dead spots, more actors, and a better use of that huge train prop. Better attractions are frantic (Big Top) and jumpy (Blair Witch) - but this was unfortunately neither. A shame.
The Cabin in the Woods
(Located at the back of the X building)
I have always had a soft spot for Cabin in the Woods, and it returned as brilliant as ever for its fourth outing. Being one of the original "free flow" mazes (i.e. where guests don't have to form a conga line), with multiple different routes through to the end, gives Cabin an edge - there's a re-rideability that other attractions struggle to match.
This year I had many fantastic jump scares, including a "hillbilly" in the woodland scene sticking his hand out in front of my face through the trees in the scenery, and two "doctor" actors leering at me from both sides in the hospital corridor; I turned away from one only to walk right into the second... and nearly fell over! The excellent cast had to somewhat compensate for the set that was alas beginning to show age - the rotating tunnel didn't rotate, and some rooms were looking a little worse for wear. Pushing the bright red buttons in the "control room" was also seemingly inconsequential; were these effects (already) broken?
Nonetheless, Cabin in the Woods has consistently been one of the better Fright Nights experiences, and this year was no exception.
Blair Witch Project
(Located at the old Canada Creek Railway entrance)
Last year, this website wrote that "Blair Witch seems to get better every year". And pleasingly once again the attraction managed to better itself - 2016 was the best run through I've ever had on this maze. The dense foliage from 2015 returned, meaning a genuinely claustrophobic walk along the route, and allowing the actors (we saw around 10 - a decent cast - during our visit) many places to hide and provide the jump scares the film(s) are known for. Due to the dead silence, only broken by the rustling of trees and occasional screams from riders on Nemesis Inferno, Blair Witch manages to create anticipation like no other Fright Nights attraction. The shed finale, once again filled with smoke and two well-hidden actors wielding flashlights, was a fitting climax - I jumped a good three times in this section alone, and was spooked enough to be chased right out of the end. So much for the "weak ending" I wrote about in 2013; this was really very good. Platform 15 could learn a lot here.
(Located in shipping containers behind Depth Charge)
Finally, a word on Containment - the upcharge "escape room" attraction that returned for a second year. We really enjoyed Containment in 2015, and were looking forward to seeing the changes that had been made.
Unfortunately the issues last year were still largely present - we still queued for over 30 minutes despite turning up on time for our slot, and there was no control over awarding the "winning" or "losing" wristbands. The attendants at the exit simply took the group's word as to whether they had completed all 4 puzzles successfully or not; there was no way of tracking the groups performance through the attraction.
That said, the puzzles had all changed for this year, and this time the theme was much simpler - guests had to solve puzzles all relating to certain fears in order to unlock the antidote to the virus; sometimes aided, sometimes hindered, by the excellent cast. Room 1 was fear of the dark, room 2 was fear of time, room 3 was fear of dentists, and room 4 was fear of blood. And as with last year, our group managed to pass the first 3 rooms, but failed on the fourth!
Hopefully we will have success someday. But despite failing once again, Containment remained an enjoyable attraction that offers something genuinely different to the mazes, and at 20 minutes long, just about manages to be worth the £10 asking price.
The Bottom Line
For me, Fright Nights 2016 ranked favourably compared to Thorpe's previous Halloween events. With a greater choice of attractions than ever before, coupled with the clear improvements made to Big Top, and the return of roaming actors (this time by public vote), the Park showed themselves in a great light for their birthday year. It was a shame that Platform 15 ended up a wasted opportunity, but that said the maze it replaced (2015's shortened My Bloody Valentine) wasn't missed either.
Fright Nights isn't cheap - a day out with Fastrack is now easily over £100 - but it is certainly a huge amount of fun. Here's to another 15 years of scares!"