Thorpe Park has kicked off its annual Halloween Fright Nights events for the 2010 season, with an array of attractions designed to send chills down the spines of guests. Are the horror mazes and scare zones really as terrifying as the park's marketing department would have us believe? Theme Park Tourist attended the opening weekend to find out.
Frights Nights has been running at Thorpe Park since 2002, and this year's event is the biggest yet. With the park placing a growing focus on permanent horror-themed attractions (including the addition of the year-round SAW Alive Horror Maze for the 2010 season), it's clear that the events have proven hugely popular with its thrill-seeking target audience. The heavy crowds streaming through the gates as we arrived were further evidence of this.
This year's Fright Nights events feature four temporary horror mazes, all of which are returning from previous years. The permanent SAW Alive maze is also in operation, with the sole new addition being the Dead End Terror Zone. This differs from the mazes in that guests can stroll through it freely, rather than traversing it in fixed groups.
Unlike sister park Alton Towers, Thorpe Park does not charge extra for entry into any of its Halloween attractions. All four mazes and the scare zone are included in the price of admission, which can be low as £20 if taking advantage of the park's 2-for-1 offer. For an extra £15, guests can buy a Fastrack pass which allows them to skip the queues for all four mazes. We're not fans of these paid-for queue jumping schemes, particularly for Halloween events where the build-up and atmosphere in the queue often adds to the experience immeasurably.
Thorpe Park isn't blessed with the most naturally atmospheric setting, and it's therefore a little surprising that almost no attempt has been made to dress the park up for Halloween. While pumpkins and white-sheeted ghosts might not be appropriate for a park which features the Saw movies as one of its major licenses, we were hoping for more than a few eerie lights and some piped-in music. There is no sense of a coherent theme as guests wander between the disparate Fright Nights attractions, while little attempt has been made to disguise the makeshift nature of their locations. Ironically, the permanent Saw area has by far the creepiest atmosphere, with the lakeside setting appearing particularly foreboding in the dead of night.
Despite this, there is an electric atmosphere at Fright Nights. Although "the nation's thrill capital" does suffer from some anti-social behaviour issues (smoking in prohibited areas, dropping litter and line-jumping are standard fare), we saw little to suggest that the armies of "event safety" stewards were really needed. In fact, our tiny group of two (and just one for the really scary attractions) was welcomed with open arms into groups of excited teenagers for each of the horror mazes.
With UK theme parks only operating during the warmer months of the year, there are limited opportunities to enjoy rides in the dark. One of the best features of Fright Nights is the chance to do just that, with all of Thorpe Park's major rollercoasters (SAW - The Ride, Nemesis Inferno, Stealth and Colossus) operating until 10pm. The change of lighting makes a huge difference to the ride experience, and the longer hours mean that there isn't as much pressure to cram in as many rides as possible during daylight hours.
Unlike Alton Towers, Thorpe Park doesn't have the asset of a real gothic mansion in which to set a horror maze. Guests are asked to suspend disbelief, though, and step into the corridors of the Hellgate "mansion" (in reality, the rear of the X:\No Way Out ride building). While the exterior theming isn't exactly convincing, once inside the building a booming voiceover and some strategically-placed props do at least provide some context for what is to come.
You're unlikely to mistake the interior of a warehouse for a haunted mansion, and despite the best efforts of Thorpe Park's designers we did feel at times as though we were in a medieval-themed Laser Quest. A few elements did stand out - in particular, a revolving tunnel which reduced our group to a stumbling, staggering mess. And although there were plenty of the standard "jump-out" scares, some of the actors did mix it up a little - with one lady in our group reacting badly to being accused of being possessed by a ghoul who was tugging at her hair.
Ultimately, it's difficult to be scared by "spirits" that have clearly taken a wrong turn off the M25. Perhaps Hellgate's inhabitants should consider moving on next year.
Fun rating: 3/5 Scare rating: 2/5
Located towards the back of Thorpe Park, The Asylum sees guests attempting to escape from a disorienting maze packed with deranged mental patients. The park's marketing promises that guests will encounter "dead ends", and after walking headlong into several mirrors we can vouch for its accuracy. The intensive use of strobe lighting makes finding the route ahead challenging, and one lady in our group summed up The Asylum by saying "if you weren't epileptic when you went in, you were when you came out."
Nonetheless, it is the lighting and audio that combine to make The Asylum by far the scariest maze at Fright Nights 2010. Keeping track of scare actors (convincingly decked out in strait jackets) amidst the dizzying strobe effects and screaming sirens is almost impossible, which allows them to scare the same group more than once.
Although it fails to score full marks due to the lack of any real backstory or build-up, The Asylum achieved something none of the other mazes at Fright Nights 2010 managed - making us feel as though we were really in a horror movie. We won't spoil the excellent ending - but the number of people who keep running long after bursting through the exit doors should be a giveaway that it's a cracker.
Fun rating: 4/5 Scare rating: 4/5
Tucked away inside the Thorpe Park's arena, Se7en invites guests to "repent" as they face the horror of the seven deadly sins. The maze's dark corridors link seven distinct set-pieces, each designed to represent a specific sin. Although the link to the film of the same name was commented on by several guests, no real plot ties the scenes together.
The setup for Se7en allows for some visually stunning rooms, even if we did have difficulty keeping track of which sin was which. The gluttony room stands out as the clear highlight - if you don't eat dinner before passing through it, you're unlikely to feel hungry for some time afterwards.
Despite some inventive elements, Se7en still defaults to the standard "shock" scares that are omnipresent throughout Thorpe Park's mazes. If anything, the actions of the scare actors actually detracted from the overall experience (none were present in the gluttony room when we went through the maze). If the first few rooms can be upgraded, though, we'd love to see an improved version return next year.
Fun rating: 3/5 Scare rating: 3/5
The Curse is set in a "wrecked ship" that has washed ashore in the Amity Cove area of Thorpe Park. In reality, it is set inside a marquee located in a dried-up swimming pool, but the park bravely attempts to disguise this by describing it as a decades-old crime scene.
The backstory of The Curse sees guests exploring the ship, and hoping to avoid a watery grave. To anyone who fails to read the blurb, however, it may just seem as though they are wandering through a darkened tent. While the maritime theme does come across in places (and is at least consistent with the rest of Amity Cove), it is not exploited in any real way other than in one effective "drowning" scene.
The Curse is the shortest maze at Fright Nights 2010, and in our opinion the weakest by some distance. The idea is solid, but without any backstory or context the scares seem random and no real atmosphere or tension prevails.
Fun rating: 2/5 Scare rating: 2/5
SAW Alive Horror Maze
We've already reviewed SAW Alive in-depth following its opening back in March, finding it to be an interesting experiment in year-round horror attractions that fails to take advantage of the potential in the SAW license. As with all horror mazes, the experience varies depending on the precise locations of the scare actors when passing through it, and on the enthusiasm and skill of the actors.
Having been through SAW Alive several times throughout 2010, we're pleased to say that our Fright Nights experience of it was the best to date. This was largely due to the greater number of scare actors on patrol, although there were also some inventive new elements (such as a threat that Jigsaw would abduct one of our group somewhere in the maze - we won't spoil it by telling you if this really happened).
Despite the improvements, SAW Alive still suffers from failing to include guests in the plot in any real way. At no point did we feel like evil genius Jigsaw was really playing a game with us - if he was, wouldn't the scare actors be asking us for help instead of tormenting us? If the attraction is to remain in place for the 2011 season, we hope that it undergoes a radical overhaul - if not, a large proportion of guests are likely to give it a wide berth.
Fun rating: 2/5 Scare rating: 3/5
Dead End Terror Zone
Tucked away in a small area next to Zodiac, the Dead End Terror Zone is something of an experiment for Thorpe Park. Unlike the horror mazes, which see guests march through in strictly organised groups, guests can wander through the scare zone any time they like. Inside, they'll find a selection of old props from Thorpe Park rides past and present, along with a handful of scare actors dressed as the living dead.
The Dead End Terror Zone is billed as a "ride graveyard", but those hoping to see abandoned rides or disused rollercoaster trains will be disappointed. While hardcore Thorpe Park fans (ourselves included) will be delighted to see some collectors-item props and signs strewn around, there is actually remarkably little inside the scare zone's walls. Viewed in daylight, it is almost comical - but in the dark, with fog effects being used extensively, the items do look a little creepy.
We'd much rather have seen an all-new horror maze added for Fright Nights 2010, but the Dead End Terror Zone does provide some harmless extra fun at minimal cost to the park. Inevitably, guests' experience will vary dramatically depending on when they pass through it. We'd recommend waiting until the end of the night, when the park is at its darkest and there are fewer crowds to spoil the surprises. For younger guests who may find the horror mazes too scary, though, Dead End presents a tamer option when tackled just after dusk.
Fun rating: 3/5 Scare rating: 1/5
We're always wary of reviewing Halloween events, given that the experience of the attractions within them varies so greatly depending on the number and quality of scare actors in action on any given night. Even taking that into account, we can't help being a little disappointed with the quality of the horror mazes at Fright Nights 2010. Three - Hellgate, The Curse and SAW Alive - are broadly indistinguishable once inside. Even the stronger Se7en and The Asylum suffer from a dearth of backstory which reduces the impact of the scares within. Next year, we'd rather the number of mazes was cut down to allow a greater emphasis on quality over quantity.
The lack of effort put into dressing up Thorpe Park for the occasion also detracts from the overall guest experience at Fright Nights 2010. Part of the fun of attending a Halloween event is usually seeing a theme park in a way that is distinct from a standard visit, but this is sadly lacking this year. The opportunity to ride Thorpe Park's coasters at night offsets this somewhat, but not completely.
Despite these drawbacks, Fright Nights offers outstanding value for money. For roughly the same price as a standard single-day ticket, guests can benefit from extended park hours, five extra attractions and a fantastic atmosphere. For anyone with even a slight interest in horror films and theme parks, it's an event not to be missed.
Did you you attend Fright Nights 2010? What did you think of this year's horror mazes and scare zones? Let us know using the comments section below.