Psychopathic serial killers, murderous clowns and a cuddly skeleton were all in attendance as Alton Towers began its annual Scarefest Halloween celebrations this weekend. Previous years' events have proven hugely popular, providing just the right blend of chills and thrills. Does the 2010 event have the ingredients to repeat that success?
Our first Scarefest experience came last year, when we found the spooky setting in the grounds of Alton Towers' gothic mansion to be the perfect place to spend Halloween. We joined the huge crowds streaming into the opening day of Scarefest 2010 with high expectations, hoping that the park would improve upon 2009's already excellent line-up of temporary attractions. The first signs were promising, with a stunning makeover for Towers Street greeting guests as they emerged through the entrance.
Scarefest 2010 features an expanded line-up, including three dedicated horror mazes, two Halloween overlays for permanent rides (Skelvin's Haunted Adventure and Thirteen After Dark) plus an array of smaller attractions aimed at younger kids. Two of the horror mazes - The Boiler House and Carnival of Screams - require a separate entry fee of £6-7 each depending on the day of entry, with combined tickets available for between £10 and £12. All of the other attractions, including the Terror of the Towers: What Lies Within horror maze, are included with a standard admission ticket.
None of the horror mazes are suitable for children, with Skelvin's Haunted Adventure and Thirteen After Dark providing slightly less intense scares. Kids and adults alike can also benefit from the park's extended opening hours during the events, with the majority of Alton Towers' biggest attractions remaining open until 9pm.
Dressing up for Halloween
Few parks are blessed with a setting that is as well suited to Halloween as Alton Towers. The abandoned gothic mansion that lends the park its name provides the perfect centrepiece for the Scarefest celebrations, and the park has also begun to make use of its many acres of gloomy woodland with the new Dark Forest area that opened earlier in 2010.
Despite these natural assets (and in contrast to sister park Thorpe Park), Alton Towers has invested heavily in Halloween decorations and eerie lighting. On top of the standard pumpkins and scarecrows, a number of other neat touches add to the excellent atmosphere. The skeletons lining the the signature drop on the Oblivion rollercoaster and taking a spin on the Congo River Rapids attraction are a perfect example of this attention to detail.
As we stressed in our review of the 2009 event, it's worth attending Scarefest just to take advantage of the late opening hours. The park itself looks fantastic, but the opportunity to ride headline attractions such as Nemesis, Air, Oblivion and Rita in the dark is the real bonus. In every case, the ride experience is altered by the dim lighting, and the extra hours mean that you won't need to sprint in order to cram in your favourite attractions.
Skelvin's Haunted Adventure
As in 2009, interactive haunted house ride Duel has received a Halloween makeover. This year, it takes its name from friendly skeleton Skelvin, who hovers outside the attraction to greet guests. Inside, though, it is almost identical to last year's Duel: Live!. This means that the ride's laser guns are switched off, and scare actors are dotted around its circuit to provide unexpected, mild scares.
Alton Towers rates Skelvin's Haunted Adventure at "3 pumpkins out of 5" on the fright scale, which we feel is probably about right. While actors in period costumes do jump out in several places as ride cars approach, they are more friendly than menacing. Even an unscheduled break-down didn't cause too much distress for our own overgrown child, TPT's Natalie.
As with Duel: Live!, the surprisingly long course of Skelvin's Haunted Adventure seems a little sparsely populated without the distraction of the gun game. We'd also like to have seen more involvement from Skelvin and his friends, who only appear in a pre-show instructional video. Overall, though, Skelvin's Haunted Adventure does a good job of adding new interest to an existing attraction for the Halloween period - and riding it is a great way of building up to the more intense horror mazes.
Scare rating: 3/5
Fun rating: 3/5
Thirteen After Dark
Alton Towers billed its new rollercoaster, Thirteen, as the scariest rollercoaster in the world when it opened earlier in 2010. In our review, we found that it failed to live up to this billing, but we were pleased to see the park building on the ride's theme with a special Scarefest attraction.
Though not a true horror maze, Thirteen After Dark sees a number of scare actors lurking in and around the coaster's queue line. Many of these are recognisable from Alton Towers' original marketing campaign for the ride, including the creepy girl seen in the first teaser ads and shrouded "wraith" characters.
The presence of the actors lifts Thirteen's barely-themed queue line out of the doldrums and makes it a genuinely tense and exciting experience. We were left wishing that it could always be this good, even if the scare actors were a little too heavily clustered around the early part of the queue line.
Although Thirteen as a coaster is an improved experience in the dark, it's still not the horror experience that Alton Towers' marketing department would have us believe. A young boy in the queue in front of us had a hard time believing this, to the point where he nearly left the queue in tears at the last second. After seeing his delighted face at the end of the ride, we still can't help wondering why the park has tried to fit an adult theme to what is clearly a solid family coaster.
Terror of the Towers: What Lies Within
Returning for a fourth straight year, Terror of the Towers: What Lies Within is located close to Hex within the Alton Towers mansion itself. As the only horror maze included with admission, it is extremely popular and wait times of well over an hour are commonplace. We advise getting in line at least fifteen minutes prior to its noon opening time, which will give you enough time to admire the genuinely unsettling exterior of the Towers as you wait.
As with most other horror mazes, guests proceed through Terror of the Towers in groups of around ten. Once inside, a short video explains the maze's backstory, which has been updated since last year's "lost explorer" plot. Unfortunately, though we got the basic message that evil forces lurk in the mansion's depths, our not-too-bright group marched off into the maze before the pre-show finished.
The maze itself has seen some minor updates compared to last year's effort, with an improved opening section featuring some moderately convincing theming and seemingly larger number of scare actors. It retains some key flaws - most notably, a weak storyline that fails to capitalise on Alton Towers' rich history - but overall, we think it's an improvement.
The two strongest features of Terror of the Towers are its length (the longest of Scarefest 2010's three mazes) and a genuinely disturbing end section. Those who suffer from even mild clautrophobia should take note of the warnings surrounding the attraction and avoid it (our own Natalie opted to skip it this year) - the end section is so intense that it sent the gaggle of macho teenage boys leading our group scrambling to the back at one point. That was worthy of an extra mark in our eyes.
Scare rating: 4/5
Fun rating: 4/5
The Boiler House
Located in the grounds of the Alton Towers hotel (beyond the walls of the theme park itself), The Boiler House was first introduced in 2008. Its storyline has evolved since then, with fictional serial killers the Hamble twins introduced in 2009 and becoming the maze's central villains. The twins (one of whom is now a girl, Elsie), were responsible for a series of gruesome murders at the Boiler House a decade ago and are now on the loose.
The backstory to the Boiler House is explained through an abandoned news van which sits alongside its queue, running "live" coverage from the the fictional "Alton News 24" channel. Key events within the maze itself are given context by the news stories, adding immeasurably to the experience.
As in last year's Boiler House, utter chaos breaks out once inside. In a rarity for a horror maze, scare actors are required to, well, act - moving the plot along and being terrorised themselves by the ghastly Hamble twins. Guests are required to duck, crouch, sprint and even push as they fight to get out - and many continue sprinting long after bursting through the exit. We recommend trying to find a spot at the back of the group if possible - you'll be able to get a longer look at the key moments, as well as a greater feeling of danger during the chase scenes.
Alton Towers appears to have listened to feedback, and has lengthened The Boiler House after 2009's exciting-but-short version (although its ending fails to hit the heights of last year's Field of 1000 Screams maze). With a strong storyline and genuinely creepy bad-guys, you'll feel as though you've stumbled into a 1970s slasher movie. Arrive late, enjoy the atmosphere, and hope like hell that you make it out alive.
Scare rating: 5/5
Fun rating: 4.5/5
Carnival of Screams
Carnival of Screams is the only all-new horror maze at Scarefest 2010, replacing the much-loved Field of 1000 Screams. In place of zombies, it uses another staple of horror films - demented clowns. Coulrophobia sufferers will want to avoid this one.
Unlike The Boiler House, Carnival of Screams has only the thinnest of plots. The circus is in town - but the murderous troupe are out to kill rather than entertain. You'll have to read the Scarefest leaflet to ascertain that, though, as there is no pre-show or build-up of any kind before entering the maze.
While the exterior theming of Carnival of Screams is a little weak (there's no big top here, just something resembling a wedding marquee), things improve once inside with some great scenery. There are some strong set-pieces, and the scare actors are a talented bunch. However, with no real plot to speak of it suffers from the same problems as the mazes at Thorpe Park's Fright Nights - there are some random scares, but nothing to tie them together.
We don't want to be too hard on Carnival of Screams - Alton Towers is at least trying something different, and we love the idea of an evil circus troupe. We also understand why an indoor maze might make more sense than the outdoor Field of Screams, even if we do suspect cost-cutting played a role in the switch. With its lack of story and an ending that is more funny than scary, though, we hope to see a much-improved version rolled out next year.
Scare rating: 3/5
Fun rating: 3/5
Alton Towers does a good job of catering to all age groups with its Scarefest events. In addition to Skelvin's Haunted Adventure (which is not suitable for very small children), the park also provides a number of other Scarefest attractions aimed at kids. The main free attraction for younger guests is Trick or Treat Doors, which sees a trio of friendly witches dishing out sweets and bad jokes. It's bearable for parents to watch, and kids seemed to love it.
Skelvin and the gang
Unlike many theme parks which cater to families, Alton Towers doesn't have a "mascot" character to meet-and-greet guests. That's not the case during Scarefest, though, with Skelvin (a friendly skeleton), Patch (a pumpkin), Franklin (a Frankenstein's monster-style creature) and Phil (a mummy) all making frequent appearances around the park.
After witnessing the characters being swamped on several occasions, we have to wonder whether Alton Towers should reconsider its policy on walkabout characters. In the meantime, though, Skelvin and the gang are becoming an integral part of Scarefest events.
We weren't sure if Alton Towers could top last year's excellent Scarefest event, but we think they've pulled it off. With the mansion at its heart, the park remains a truly unique setting for a Halloween celebration. Add in an increased number of attractions, extensive decorations and a spooky atmosphere and the park is onto a winner.
There are some downsides to the 2010 event. Firstly, the paid-for horror mazes are more expensive than last year, and unjustifiably so considering that the large and presumably expensive-to-construct Field of 1000 Screams is no longer in place. Secondly, while The Boiler House and Terror of the Towers have improved since last year, Carnival of Screams fails to meet the same standards.
Despite these drawbacks, Scarefest 2010 offers something for everyone. If you're looking for somewhere to celebrate Halloween this year, Alton Towers should be number one on your list.
More pictures from the event can be found in Theme Park Tourist's Scarefest 2010 Gallery.
Did you you attend Scarefest 2010? What did you think of the event? Let us know using the comments section below.