"2017's Fright Nights ushered in some big changes, including the arrival of two new mazes (with the AMC's Walking Dead franchise replacing Lionsgate's excellent Cabin in the Woods and less impressive My Bloody Valentine and Blair Witch Project attractions), and the event starting for the first time in September. We visited during opening weekend in September, and it's fair to say that the earlier opening hadn't deterred the crowds - the park was not quiet!
On this point, it's worth saying that Thorpe Park must get better at dealing with crowds of this scale. We were lucky to only queue 50 minutes at the park entrance to collect our tickets; with only 6 out of the 8 ticket booths staffed, and every guest being funneled through mandatory bag and security checks, it was a painful start to the day.
Just as shocking as the queue to get in was this year's Fastrack price list, where the "Feared Five" maze queue jump had increased in price by a gob-smacking 47% to £44 (£8.75 / maze). Long time readers of this website's Fright Nights reviews will know that on busy days, Fastrack is nigh-on essential to experiencing all of the Halloween attractions in one day. The upside to the increased pricing was that there did seem to be fewer Fastracks in circulation, which meant that unlike in previous years, those who had shelled out really did get a fast pass to the fun, without much waiting around. But what a difference 10 years makes - 2007's event had 3 maze fastback priced at a mere tenner (or £3.33 / maze). Add the £7 parking and the increased fees for Standard Annual Pass holders (£5 -£20 depending on time booked) and we have an already expensive event getting even more so.
The park had also dialled down some of its extra upcharge events this year - last year saw Face It Alone "solo" experiences and Zombie Scare Academy sessions staged, with hotel guests also getting an extra show in the form of "Campfire Stories". Not so this year, where the only upcharge attractions returning were the Behind the Scenes tours (two mazes for £40) and Containment, the park's semi-permanent "escape room" attraction (£10). Clearly the park is experimenting with the range of upcharge attractions; we think they definitely have a place (especially for Annual Pass holders / frequent guests) so hope that next year will see an expanded offering once again.
Also dialled down were on-park roaming actors (we didn't see any this year, aside from maze actors moving in to / out from their mazes). And whilst park audio did have a distinctive Halloween flavour, the majority of it was recycled from prior year's- 2014's "The Director" could still be heard ringing out on certain rides (Colossus, for one).
In better news, the park really did look good this year. It was quite clear that extra effort had gone into making the place look spectacular at night, with special lighting effects and smoke machines placed across the thoroughfares of the park. There could still be far more Halloween themeing around the place (Alton Towers continues to show Thorpe how this is done), but props to the park for making significant improvements here. The smoke and lighting effects around Tidal Wave deserve special mention, creating a really
So, now we turn to the maze reviews. Our standing SAW Alive review continues to reside in the Park Guide, and we didn't get a run through this year on Containment, which included new puzzles intertwined into essentially the same storyline as before. Check out last year's review for more.
The Big Top
(Located in a tent next to Rush)
The Big Top was last year's success story, and I have no hesitation in stating that once again this maze is the jewel in the Fright Nights crown. It's coherently themed, very intense, solidly built and filled with interesting, lively characters that do their best to unnerve. If anything, the maze actually built on the success of last year with a new layout and improved scenes. Even the safety spiel is a cut above all the other mazes; a creepy pre-recorded voice (in character) comes loudly over the speakers in the batching zone - a marked improvement from the usual staff members barking at groups in hoarse voices for the 1,000th time that day.
The clairvoyance scene at the start remains, but the actress has been replaced by a clever video projection that allows for an early jump scare. The fun house strobe scene that follows also remains, but the strobe intensity has been seriously amplified, with one single blinding flash every second or so - utterly disorienting. And this time there's more in the "soft play" fun house section. There are large human sized jack in the boxes. There's a creepy dressing room scene. The music also has a large part to play in creating the "mad house" feeling; thumping circus beats from IMAScore compliment the fun perfectly. And of course, the chainsaw finale is back; once again guaranteeing a good run out of the exit.
In my 14 years of attending Fright Nights, there are only 3 mazes that really stand out to me as truly first class. The Asylum is one of them. Experiment 10 is another. And this year's The Big Top is the third. Long may it remain a part of the Fright Nights lineup.
(Located at the old Canada Creek Railway entrance)
This maze, an extended walk around the back of Logger's Leap, had thankfully improved. Last year's debut was somewhat underwhelming, with large sections of the experience devoid of any actors or atmosphere; it was simply too long. This year's physical layout remained the same, but had more actors in the attraction, and a much welcomed additional scene in between the fire-breathing Creek Railway train and the pitch-black tunnel; the abandoned house of the train conductor. This section was actually one of the highlights of the maze; a solidly built set packed with detail (entrails hanging everywhere...) and plenty of places for actors to hide. It borrowed well from previous mazes The Passing and Experiment 10, with an uneasy "crawl" out of the conductor's house...!
The tunnel section at the end was also better this year; it felt longer and actors were using flash lights to great effect to pop up in front of terrified guests - very jumpy. There still isn't much of a finale to speak of in this attraction, and it's still a pretty uneven experience overall (the house and the tunnel are effective; the rest less so), but for the most part this is an improved, if not essential Fright Nights attraction.
Walking Dead: Living Nightmare
(Located at the back of the X building)
And so to the first of the new-for-2017 attractions, the Walking Dead: Living Nightmare. Occupying the space previously taken by Cabin in the Woods, it's fair to say it's completely unrecognisable - the park have done an absolutely stellar job with themeing this attraction.
Gone is the Cabin multi-choice route format, replaced by a more traditional linear journey through. The experience starts by meeting Negan (the leader of a group of survivors) and his barbed-wire covered baseball bat Lucille - an opportunity for a well timed photo at the very point a member of the group is about to get “smashed”. From here it's all typical zombie fare. The tour starts with an abandoned hospital, with an effective scare from a patient hiding underneath the bed and grabbing legs, There's a neat "back alley" scene, with human hands swiftly reaching out through the walls to touch unsuspecting guests. The Department Store area with real mannequins and "fake" actor mannequins is cleverly done. Of course, there's the opportunity to see the "Don't Open: Dead Inside" bolted doors made famous by the TV show. And the best set piece of the attraction comes in the form of a lifelike American school bus that contains a mixture of both dead passengers and undead passengers - some of the best scares in the maze are to be found here.
The ending however is a little weak, with a character holding groups back before letting a zombie loose to run at them out of the exit. A surprise clown wielding a noisy chainsaw (Big Top) actually makes people run for their lives. A pre-planned & well signposted zombie escape doesn't quite have the same impact. However, this doesn't take much away from what is a very high standard attraction indeed. I'm keen to re-visit Living Nightmare in 2018; here's hoping the park is able to amplify the scares even more next time.
Walking Dead: Sanctum
(Located to the right of The Swarm)
The second attraction this year with a zombie-theme, Walking Dead: Sanctum is an outdoor free flow maze that sits on an until-now unused slab of land next to The Swarm. It's great to see Thorpe experiment with new locations for Fright Nights attractions, especially given that space is at a premium in the park. And the entrance to their new maze is impressive; a tall, imposing shipping container structure with "SANCTUM" in bold capital letters across the front.
Unfortunately, the experience itself is a bit limp. Guests, following in the footsteps of "survivors", experience first-hand how to stay alive when faced with the threat of the dreaded "walkers". Or something like that. The maze itself operates more like a scare zone; the spaces are pretty well dressed, but pretty wide open, meaning minimal chance for scares - and most of the characters we met were babbling folksy American at us; not especially intimidating. There was a nice scene partway through with a edgy-looking girl who showed us how to cook body parts, but this more elicited groans of "eww" than it did any screams or shrieks.
Overall, Sanctum felt a missed opportunity. There is clearly a decent budget there, but the environment wasn't well set up to deliver scares - attractions in the open air are really hard to get right (it took the park a few years to make Blair Witch work, and arguably Platform 15 is still a work in progress...). Let's hope there's some new ideas here next year.
(Located in the Angry Birds 4D Cinema)
Finally, the third new attraction for 2017 was a 15 minute Halloween film - "Final Cut" - in the Angry Birds 4D Cinema. It's been 5 years since the park made use of this space (Barry & Stuart were the last inhabitants; Circus of Horrors before that), and we're all for it given how easily these sorts of shows can gobble up the crowds. However, this presentation was embarrassing - containing nothing more than a VT of the Fright Nights Press Night (featuring "stars" from shows such as Love Island), a selection of clips from The Walking Dead, an advert for the 100th episode of The Walking Dead, and then an advert for Fright Nights. It wasn't in 3D, there were no effects. The Walking Dead scenes, out of context, didn't make much sense. So we walked out feeling duped, that the park had essentially dressed up a 15 minute advert as a new-for-2017 experience. One wonders whether the park had to agree to it to secure The Walking Dead IP from AMC. Poor.
The Bottom Line
This year's Fright Nights should be remembered as the year that The Big Top really established itself as one of the best attractions in the history of the event, as well as the year that the park stepped up the lighting and presentation of the rides after dark. These touches make all the difference, and we continue to encourage the park to invest in park-wide themeing to really give the event some presence. It should also be remembered as the year that Fastrack pricing really did become prohibitive, as well as the year the new AMC zombie IP took over, with mixed success. All 3 Walking Dead attractions could be improved upon - so here's to building on these foundations next year."