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Review: Scarefest event 2011 at Alton Towers

Scarefest 2011 scarecrow

Friendly monsters, murderous serial killers and a troupe of psychotic clowns are all in residence at Alton Towers for its annual Halloween celebrations. Scarefest 2011 features a diverse range of family-friendly and adult-oriented attractions, designed to cater for chill-seekers of every age group. Does this year’s event live up to the high standards set in previous years?

Scarefest has built an impressive reputation, and once again attracted huge crowds to its opening weekend. As always, Alton Towers has dressed up for the occasion, with decorations scattered liberally around the park and moody green uplighting used to illuminate its central gothic mansion. The entrance way to the park, Towers Street, forms an impressive visual spectacle for those starting their day of Halloween fun.

Towers Street looks as impressive as ever for Scarefest 2011.

Scarefest 2011’s line-up features a mixture of free and paid-for temporary attractions. Included with the price of admission are the returning Terror of the Towers: What Lies Within horror maze, the all-new ZOMBIES! Scare Zone, Thirteen After Dark (a Halloween makeover for the park’s newest rollercoaster), plus an array of children’s shows and entertainment. Two further horror mazes – The Boiler House and Carnival of Screams – require a separate entry fee of £6-7 each, or £12 for a combined ticket. Both return from previous years, although they are now hosted inside the park itself for the first time.

All of the horror mazes are squarely aimed at adults and older teens, with none being suitable for children. However, kids and adults alike can benefit from Alton Towers’ extended opening hours during Scarefest 2011, with the majority of the park’s most popular attractions remaining open until 9pm.

All dressed up

We’ll go out on a limb and say that no other theme park in the world offers a better setting for a Halloween event than Alton Towers. While the abandoned gothic mansion that towers over the park plays little more than a cosmetic role for the rest of the year, during Scarefest it becomes a sinister presence that genuinely appears as though it could be home to a ghoul or two. Added to that, the park has miles of pathways, many of which are hugged closely by surrounding gloomy woodland.

Pumpkin sellers have done a roaring trade this Halloween season at Alton Towers.

On top of its natural assets, Alton Towers goes all-out to get into the Halloween spirit, with seemingly hundreds of pumpkins and other decorations deployed to ensure that the park looks the part. While it looks as good as ever, we did miss the little touches and in-jokes that made previous Scarefest events special. The skeletons that used to adorn the drop zone of the Oblivion rollercoaster are missing, as are their friends who took a spin on the Congo River Rapids last year.

Late opening

Nemesis is a very different beast in the dark.

Given that a ticket for Scarefest costs the same price as admission to Alton Towers on any other day, it’s worth attending just to take advantage of the late opening hours. The opportunity to ride some of the UK’s best rollercoasters (including Nemesis, Air, Oblivion and Rita) in the dark is fairly rare, while the additional time in the park means that you won’t have to rush around quite as much as on a normal visit.

Thirteen After Dark

Having made its debut at the 2010 events, Thirteen After Dark returns for Scarefest 2011. While it is not a true horror maze, the attraction sees a number of scare actors lurking around the queue line for the Thirteen rollercoaster to add to the atmosphere of the Dark Forest area.

Thirteen's wraiths hover menacingly around the queue during After Dark.

While we found that the coaster, which opened last year, is not as scary as claimed by Alton Towers, it is still a solid family ride. This makes it a strange fit for a horror attraction, as some of the park’s younger guests are likely to be scared off by the creatures lurking in the darkness.

Still creepy...Thirteen's mystery girl is back for Scarefest 2011.

As in 2010, only a handful of scare actors are employed on Thirteen After Dark. They portray characters that are recognisable from Alton Towers’ original marketing campaign for the ride, including shrouded “wraiths” and a lost-looking girl dressed in white. While their presence lifts the boredom in Thirteen’s otherwise lacklustre waiting area, we found them to be too heavily clustered around the queue’s entrance. Once inside, we faced a 30-minute wait without a single actor in attendance.

Terror of the Towers: What Lies Within

Back for a fifth year running, Terror of the Towers: What Lies Within is hosted inside the mansion that lends Alton Towers its name. It’s a stunning setting for a horror maze, with guests queuing in a courtyard area that is well maintained, yet still retains an air of abandonment. To avoid waiting too long, though, we advise arriving at least 20 minutes before the maze opens to the public at noon.

Alton Towers' mansion is put to good use in Terror of the Towers.

Once inside the Towers, guests are formed into groups of around ten and asked to place their hands on each other’s shoulders throughout. Their tour of the mansion begins with a brief introductory video, which explains that a number of unfriendly residents have been disturbed by recent restoration work.

The maze itself is very similar to previous years, featuring limited theming and an impressive number of scare actors. Though the lack of storyline means that it still fails to fully capitalise on Alton Towers’ rich history, it is still a thrill to march through a genuine unoccupied mansion. In our case, the experience was amplified enormously by the presence of one particularly terrified member of our party, who was quickly spotted and preyed upon by the merciless scare actors.

Restoration work has gone awry at Alton Towers...for the fifth year running.

Once again, the best feature of Terror of the Towers is its length (despite being free, it is much longer than the two paid-for horror mazes). It also features a suitably disturbing finale, although we’d like to have seen a few additions or changes to keep things fresh. Despite this, the enthusiastic actors and terrified screams emanating from our group’s weakest member make this the stand-out attraction of Scarefest 2011.

Scare rating: 4/5
Fun rating: 4/5

ZOMBIES! Scare Zone

We have to admit, we didn’t have high hopes for the ZOMBIES! Scare Zone when it was announced as the only brand new attraction for older guests at Scarefest 2011. The appalling Dead End Terror Zone at Thorpe Park’s Fright Nights 2010 was our only previous experience of a scare zone built by Alton Towers’ owner Merlin, and it didn’t set the bar high.

Rough day?

It was a pleasant surprise to find that the new addition is actually an entertaining walkthrough, even if it isn’t a long experience. Smashed-up cars and an abandoned bus line the route, and while there aren’t exactly hoardes of zombies flooding the area, there are enough to keep guests on their toes. The scare zone also offers very different experiences in the light (it opens at 5pm) and in the dark, as you can see in the video below:

We did have one complaint: the quality of the zombies is extremely variable. Alton Towers’ make-up department seemed to have run out of fake wounds after dressing the first few actors, leaving us to confuse the rest with guests in fancy dress. The actors themselves are also a mixed bunch, with some throwing themselves into the role of the undead with gusto, and others barely making an effort to shuffle convincingly.

Scare rating: 2/5
Fun rating: 4/5

The Boiler House

First introduced in 2008, The Boiler House returns again for Scarefest 2011 as one of the two upcharge horror mazes. In previous years, it was located in the grounds of the Alton Towers Hotel (beyond the walls of the theme park itself), but this year it is housed in the X-Sector tent that used to hold the Black Hole rollercoaster.

The Black Hole tent is finally being put to good use during the Scarefest events.

The plot once again centres around the Hamble Twins, a pair of twisted serial killers who have supposedly broken free from prison and returned to the site of their previous murders. Unless you stop to read the posters dotted around Alton Towers, though, you may miss this backstory. The news van that was parked next to the queue line for past versions of The Boiler House is nowhere to be found – and the build-up and anticipation for the maze is seriously diminished as a result.

Whereas last year’s iteration (a masterpiece, in our view) began with a security guard sweeping guests to safety before being murdered himself, this year’s starts in the basement of the titular boiler house. A deranged madman explains to each group that he has stolen Victor Hamble’s mask, thus preventing him from making further killings (no prizes for guessing what happens next). This made little sense to us. There was every reason for a security guard to be on-site to keep unwanted guests away from the crime scene last year, but why is this strange man here? There’s only one explanation – to fill in guests on the backstory that was previously told by the newsreel playing in the queue.

The Hamble twins have lost their edge in 2011.

From there on, 2011’s Boiler House plays out like an inferior re-make of the 2010 version. The ceiling of the tent is clearly visible, removing any sense that you might actually be in a real industrial building. Potential victims of the twins still run past, screaming, although their presence is never really explained. The twins themselves lurk in dark corners, although without the potential murder weapons seen last year (at least when we saw them). The ending is an anti-climax, borrowing the cages and strobe lights from the end of Terror of the Towers, but without the same level of impact.

Sadly, it’s probably time to lock the Hamble twins up for good. Scarefest needs a fresh horror maze next year, instead of yet another slasher sequel that fails to live up to its predecessors.

Scare rating: 3/5
Fun rating: 2.5/5

Carnival of Screams

Introduced for the first time last year, Carnivals of Screams is designed to play on a common fear for many: that clowns are all secretly evil monsters. While we share this suspicion, we found the 2010 version to be severely lacking in scares and too short for a paid-for attraction. We were hopeful that this year’s version would be an improvement, and it does fit better visually into the X-Sector area than we expected. During daylight hours, the garish circus tents stand out a little too much; at night, the surrounding rides create the impression of a twisted funfair.

Carnival of Screams looks surprisingly at home in X-Sector at night.

Sadly, our initial hopes of a superior version of Carnival of Screams were soon dashed. There’s the thinnest of introductions (you’re visiting a circus!), and then groups are sent off into the maze itself. The scenery remains broadly the same, and there are still some neat set-pieces – particularly the hall of mirrors (we chuckled at one clown’s whispered taunt of “silly boy” as the leader of group clattered directly into his own reflection).

Sadly, the exterior of the maze is a lot more interesting than the interior.

In 2010, the evil clowns did appear to have some actual circus-training and played some impressive tricks in places. This year, they have been reduced to standard growls and jumps and might as well be zombies, vampires or any other scare maze inhabitants. The maze is over all too quickly, and lacks any kind of a finale. While we found last year’s King Kong-style giant ape a bit hokey, it did at least have people exiting with a smile on their face. This year, reactions were along the lines of “was that it?”. Let’s hope its third time lucky for Carnival of Screams in 2012.

Scare rating: 2/5
Fun rating: 2/5

Children’s attractions

Unlike the Halloween events at many other theme parks, Alton Towers caters for guests of all ages at Scarefest. This year sees an expanded line-up of family-friendly attractions and shows, and we were impressed with the breadth of entertainment on offer (particularly as it is all included with the price of admission).

Skelvin dishes out some spooky stories in Franklyn's Freaky Farm.

Franklyn’s Freaky Farm receives top-billing, with the entire Old MacDonald’s Farmyard area being given a Halloween makeover. Skelvin’s Spooky Storytime is hosted here, with kids gathering to listen to an array of not-too-scary stories. Nearby, Franklyn’s Freaky Friends hosts an array of snakes, bugs and other creatures, with regular talks throughout the day. Ever wanted to hold a cockroach? Now’s your chance! Phil’s Feathered Friends, a fascinating group of birds of prey, are on show nearby. They will perform in a special show on weekdays only at 2pm throughout October.

For novelty monsters, they've really got some moves.

Completing the family line-up is Patch’s Trick-or-Treat Party, a lively dance show which is a big improvement on last year’s Trick-or-Treat Doors. It features Skelvin, Patch, Phil and Franklyn, the Scarefest mascots. The gang also appear at meet-and-greets throughout the day, and as they were frequently mobbed by kids we again found ourselves wondering why Alton Towers doesn’t introduce a permanent set of walkabout characters.

Our thoughts

We were left with mixed feelings following Scarefest 2011. Alton Towers is as atmospheric as ever during Halloween, and the attractions that are included with admission are arguably better than ever. In particular, families are well catered for, and the ZOMBIES! Scare Zone offers a nice stepping-stone between the kiddie entertainment offerings and the harder-edged horror mazes.

The ZOMBIES! Scare Zone is a welcome addition to Scarefest's line-up.

Having said that, the quality of the paid-for horror mazes has taken an alarming dip over the last couple of years. Whereas Scarefest 2009 had the sprawling (and brilliant) Field of 1000 Screams alongside the excellent Boiler House, now we have two mazes that are much more limited in scope crammed into a section of the park in which they don’t really belong. The previous location close to the Alton Towers Hotel may have been a bit low-rent, but it helped foster the illusion for guests that they just might be waiting outside an abandoned boiler house or evil carnival.

Scarefest is still the best Halloween celebration in the UK, but with Thorpe Park’s Fright Nights having upped its game in 2011 it will have to do more next year to retain that crown. Nevertheless, the event still offers something for everyone: don’t miss it.

Did you you attend Scarefest 2011? What did you think of the event? Let us know using the comments section below.


There are 2 comments.

I thought the carnival was a very big let down but disagree with you about the boiler house but they are thinking about having a permanent scare maze

WOW! i went scarefest last year(2011) and i went onto 'terror of the towers' for my first time, and i have to say the actors were brill! i have never been so scared in my life! and they never came out of charcter! it really was a scary but so good! and i cant wait to go again this year.. BRING IT ON!

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