"2018 was Thorpe Park's biggest Fright Nights yet, if not in the length of the run (the experiment of pulling forward the opening weekend to September last year clearly wasn't a success...), but in the number of Halloween attractions the Park ran - an astonishing 7 mazes, 2 "walkabout" actor areas, 1 short movie, and the continuation of the upcharge "escape room" Containment, first debuted in 2016. This makes Thorpe the clear leader amongst the Merlin group in terms of attraction volume - Alton Towers put on 5 mazes plus some walkabout actors - and Thorpe sits only 1 maze behind Tulley's Farm's Shocktoberfest, which this year put on 8 plus a live show from the excellent Circus of Horrors (remember them?). So, clearly a big push to put on the "best ever" Fright Nights, but was it a case of quantity over quality?
It was pleasing to see Park-wide theming again this year, with the spooky tableaux on both sides of the entrance bridge (which was also nicely lit up with rotating lights upon nightfall), and body bags hanging outside SAW and SAW Alive. Park lighting was alas not as refined as previous years, with mostly white floodlights throwing harsh bright light onto proceedings. Park-wide audio changes were patchy - the coherence of the years of "The Director" was long gone, although I enjoyed the ghoulish "fear has taken over the island" voiceover on the Flying Fish. And the Park continued with its strategy of going light-touch on extra upcharge experiences; 2015's / 2016's "Face It Alone" didn't feature, and neither did the £20 "behind the scenes" maze tours.
We visited on possibly the busiest day of the year - the Saturday nearest to Halloween - and the Park was predictably busy (although not at capacity; in previous years it certainly has been). We saw a few operational clangers; by the afternoon the coffee machines across the park had run out of milk, and the queue to get any drinks or food at Fins in the Dome (I had a suitably gross-looking "Terminus Burger") was 15 minutes long - there was only one member of staff on the tills. That said, although still slow, the Park had hugely streamlined the security check process, with the old entrance ticket booths now doubling up as security stations. And for the first time this year, tickets, fastrack, and car parking could be bought on mobile, with no need to queue to collect physical vouchers - a huge improvement.
Speaking of fastrack, it would be remiss of me not to have a now-annual discussion on pricing. For the first time, the Park did away with a single "fastrack all mazes" ticket, opting instead for 2 separate 3 maze fastracks (for some reason, the 7th maze, Blair Witch, was not included) at £28 each; a cost of £9.33 per maze. This was a 7% increase per maze on last year (which itself saw a nearly 50% hike on 2016), but what really hurt the wallet was the fact there were now 2 more mazes to fastrack; meaning an outlay of around £65 if you wanted to queue jump them all including Blair Witch. Add to this the £8 car parking (if bought online; £10 if bought on the day and £15 at the barriers...) and the £5 - £20 Annual Pass event surcharge, and this was easily the most expensive Fright Nights yet. On the positive side, the aggressive pricing did seem to reduce fastrack demand a little, meaning the frustratingly long fastrack maze queues of prior years did not re-emerge this year. But it has been the case for a long time now that if you want to experience everything at Fright Nights, you have to dig deep for fastrack.
On with the maze reviews. SAW Alive remains covered in the Park Guide - our run this year was as consistent as ever, with the highlight being the crazed guy banging chains around halfway through the maze - and we unfortunately didn't find space for Containment, the Park's successful upcharge escape room attraction, which had this year held its price at a tenner.
Big Top Showtime / Terror at Amity High
(Located in the Dome / Stealth Plaza)
Let's get this out of the way first: last year I stated, of The Big Top, "long may it remain a part of the Fright Nights lineup". And this year the Park pulled it from the lineup. Quite why is a mystery, because it was a standout attraction and really, nothing this year came close. Adding insult to injury, therefore, is the decision to still bring some of the characters from The Big Top out this year for a watered down version: hourly shows in the Dome.
The "shows" were nothing more than the Circus actors roaming around the congregated guests, congregating at the stage for the ringleader to say a few words, and then being let loose on the crowds again. I particularly enjoyed the clown waltzing with just a dress for a partner, the gothic-looking guy with a cane that pushed it into people's faces at every opportunity, and the mime with no respect for personal space. But ultimately, this was a 10 minute diversion and a shadow of the former maze attraction. Props at least for re-using IMAscore's fantastic soundtrack of last year though - great to hear it blaring out of the Dome.
The Terror at Amity High was more understated, with a collection of 4-5 actors roaming around the Stealth plaza interacting with guests. We saw an undead Prom King and Queen, a zombie American football player, and a crazy cheerleader, and all were working the crowd well - the football player was especially creepy!
Thorpe Park has had roaming actors before (remember 2011's 10th Anniversary birthday cake?) and this website has always been a fan; whilst it shouldn't be oversold, it's good to see the Park formalise it more into defined experiences / set pieces.
(Located in the Angry Birds 4D Cinema)
Despite not actually being in 4D (the projection was 2D with some borrowed effects - seats tilting back and forth, water squirting - from the Angry Birds 4D attraction), this was a far better effort than last year's AMC so-bad-it-was-offensive Final Cut.
A selection of 3 low-budget short movies (most taken from the BloodyCuts.co.uk back catalogue) screened with a small introduction by an enthusiastic staff member before each, this was pitched just right. And there were some genuinely unnerving scenes throughout: I loved the increasing suspense built up in Dare, and the modern take on a haunted house in Don't Go Down to Wildor. And the third and final movie, He Dies At The End by Damian McCarthy, was a classic less-is-more psychological thriller about a man, working late in an office on his own, that really got the audience on edge.
Despite being a markedly lower budget use of Thorpe's 4D Cinema (I still loved the days of the Barry & Stuart, or the Circus of Horrors shows), this was a hit.
(Located in the I'm a Celebrity building)
Vulcan Peak was, along with Dead Creek Woods and to a certain extent Do or Die, the big new pull for this year's Fright Nights. And it was great to see the Park use the I'm a Celebrity attraction building for the maze; the first time a Fright Nights attraction has been housed there since 2014's Studio 13. The setting was January 1921, and Vulcan Tours are boasting of a whole 10 months of tours into the jungle without incident. I particularly enjoyed the audio in the queueline, featuring a typical olde-BBC announcer: "“Who craves adventure? You do! Vulcan Peak Tours, departing daily.”
The start is fairly underwhelming; a short and quiet video of our tour guide (on screens where Ant and Dec usually feature) using the same shock seats as used in the I'm a Celeb attraction. Next we are told to don hoods (although no explanation for why!), and the majority of the maze is spent in darkness, walking along with only a guide rope on the left hand side for company. The rope rose and fell, making guests stretch up and squat down, and along the way, I had my ankles grabbed, a growling man in my ear, and the floor beneath me vibrate. This was initially disorientating, but not especially scary - I felt much the same way as I did in 2012's hooded maze, The Passing.
The hoods come off when the group reach the I'm a Celebrity "Chamber of Horrors" gunk tanks, and from here it's a walk through the Celebrity attraction, with a little more cargo netting hanging from above, and an excellent "inflatable walls" section, where we really had to push out way through to get to the end (indeed, the girl in front of us lost her shoe in all the chaos).
Vulcan Peak was not a bad experience (although it had been significantly tweaked since its badly-reviewed debut 4 weeks prior, where the maze was a fully hooded one), but it also wasn't an especially scary one. There was some potential here, but the Park needs to push the hooded concept further to really frighten people.
Walking Dead: Do or Die
(Located next to Zodiac)
Walking Dead: Do or Die is a re-skinned version of last year's Walking Dead: Sanctum, and the name is not the only thing to have changed; the attraction feels much more like a haunted walkthrough rather than just a scare zone now, thanks to tighter sets and clearer storytelling. The opening, now staged on board a bus, is particularly strong, with an actor warning guests "not to trust the safe house" before promptly getting bumped off by a second actor who bursts in rather violently. There are now more indoor scenes using shipping containers - the first we encountered was filled with pig carcasses and body bags. And there was a surprise appearance of an actor (of rather advanced years!) brandishing a chainsaw halfway through the maze; a trick usually reserved for the ending.
That said, the maze didn't flow especially well with the constant switching between shipping containers and outdoor sections. And the outdoor sections themselves were still - as last year - relatively sparsely themed. Black curtains were used to partition off different sections, which felt insubstantial. But we enjoyed a lively cast, including one actor who rolled underneath one of the said curtains to produce a second scare, which certainly helped compensate for the more basic set up.
The decision to move last year's Sanctum from it's out-of-the-way location next to Swarm to a higher-footfall area next to Colossus, Rush and Zodiac (the same spot as last year's The Big Top) gave the maze a much higher profile. But whilst it significantly improved on last year, there's some work to do before it becomes unmissable.
Walking Dead: Living Nightmare
(Located at the back of the X building)
The second year for Walking Dead: Living Nightmare, and it delivered much the same experience as in its debut outing. This is still the most immersive themed attraction that Thorpe has to offer with huge amounts of detail throughout, and the introduction speech from Negan and his accomplice had been markedly improved by equipping these actors with a radio microphone (note to Park bosses: why can't every maze have this?).
Some parts were weaker this year than last; we didn't get a zombie hiding under the hospital bed in the first scene trying to grab our legs, and the corridor halfway through with the hands protruding from both walls was far less unnerving without the hands. The strobe section has too much ambient light for it to be disorienting (The Big Top and The Asylum could help out here). And the maze still doesn't have a proper ending; this year we had an actor gather us around for a "you must escape" pep talk and sent us on our way through a corridor of hanging cloths... which led to the exit. And that was it. Living Nightmare has perhaps the highest potential at Thorpe, but on our run this year it didn't make full use of it.
(Located at the old Canada Creek Railway entrance)
The third year for Platform 15, where it cemented itself as a reliably solid attraction in the Fright Nights lineup. Particularly strong this year was the haunting introduction: "the year is 1897, there's a wedding; the bride and groom are on a train, which mysteriously crashes... but did the conductor sabotage it?" Unfortunately, with the exception of the skeletal bridge and groom figures sat on the still-impressive pyrotechnic Canada Creek Railway train, there wasn't much continuity of the story.
The maze still suffers from extended long periods of walking al fresco all around the back of Logger's Leap, but what was effective this year was the loud sudden vibrating of the corrugated wall on the left hand side of the initial stretch, sounding just like a train on the tracks and generating an effective jump scare. Also effective was the jumpy actor in the house halfway through the maze, rolling through the hole in the wall to scare twice.
There was some light humour this year from the actor standing before the tunnel, who boomed out to his audience: "welcome to the middle of the maze!" And the tunnel itself was markedly shorter this year, and lighter too, meaning the "flashlight" scares of previous years were less impactful. The maze does now have a better ending, with a crazed figure (perhaps the conductor?) hiding in a room featuring strong red flashing strobes, running at guests with a hammer.
Blair Witch Project
(Located to the left of the I'm a Celebrity building)
After a year's hiatus, Blair Witch was back to haunt Fright Nights, and pleasingly it lived up to its former glories. The Park had built on its successes of 2016 with the route seeing guests navigating some dense foliage in darkness once again, and the storyline was even stronger with the house from Burkittsville being seen at both the start and the end of maze, reflecting the never-ending-wandering-to-nowhere-vibe of the movie. I had some great character interactions on my run, including a girl who followed me 200m down the woods to present me with a leaf: "take this to protect you", and another lost girl with a broken radio frantically asking guests "it's still 1999, right?!".
Other highlights included the scare actor crouching low to shock people in a low-ceiling building midway through the maze - scares are always scarier when you're ducking - and the finale shed, with actors making use of the abundant smoke to produce very effective scares with flashlights. The soundtrack was also authentic. In fact, the only criticisms I had of Blair Witch this year were that a) at around half the length of 2016's maze, it was too short, and b) the queueline was so close to Vulcan Peak that all you could hear was Vulcan Peak audio in the queueline - and both of these complaints relating to the increased density of mazes on Park.
Dead Creek Woods
(Located at the old Canada Creek Railway entrance)
Dead Creek Woods was essentially the other half (the first half) of 2016's old Blair Witch maze routing, departing from the same entry point as 2016's maze but finishing to the left of this year's new Blair Witch entrance. It was, by some margin, the weakest maze of 2018.
I could forgive Blair Witch this year being shorter when the quality was still high, but Dead Creek Woods was ultimately incoherent and devoid of effective scares - and just as short. The concept was fine; it started with a girl giving us a low-key introduction to the virus that was in the water ("we must escape!"), but the execution was poor. One scene was just a lot of urinals and bidets scattered on the floor. Artificial "stone arches" with black flaps had been erected to define sections of the maze, but looked out of place in the woodland. Even worse was the giant canvas, clearly stretched over theatrical rigging with professional lighting mounted above it, featuring a zombie scene - laughably out of place. And the tunnel towards the end of the maze was, unlike Platform 15's, too short and filled with light - although the zombie at the end of it still tried hard to produce a scare.
Ultimately the actors - few though they were - in Dead Creek Woods had too little to work with. It is hard to build effective outdoor mazes (look at early Platform 15, or Sanctum for evidence), but this felt ill-conceived and rushed. Not good.
The Bottom Line
Whilst there were pockets of brilliance in 2018's Fright Nights - Blair Witch's return, and the bigger focus on roaming Park actors - it really was a case of quantity over quality this year. This author would far rather return to the days of 2011, featuring 4 high quality mazes and a live show, than the mixed-bag offering this year. It may make for better marketing claims, and almost certainly generates higher fastrack sales, but having 7 mazes at Fright Nights this year did not make for a better overall experience when the quality of execution was so variable. We had fun, make no mistake, but 2018 was not a vintage year for Fright Nights."