The past two decades have been rough for regional theme parks in the UK. Having enjoyed a boom in attendance during the 1980s (when theme parks sprang up all over the country, seeking to replicate the success of Alton Towers), many have since struggled with declining attendances as improved transport links have made visits to larger parks much easier to make.
Pleasurewood Hills is a perfect example. From the age of six years old, I would visit the park every year. This was the late 1980s - what many fans would consider to be the park's golden years - and annual attendance was pushing on 600,000, a very healthy number. While the park lacked major rides, it had several excellent shows, a pretty setting and no fewer than three popular walkabout characters in Woody the Bear, Clarence the Cat and Ronnie the Raccoon.
As the 1990s drew on, though, poor Woody had to look on as his home fell into a gradual process of decline. By 2000, years of cost-cutting had left the park in a state of disrepair, with flaky paint and barely-themed rides strewn haphazardly across its grounds. Clarence and Ronnie had long since been retired, and it seemed inevitable that the park would eventually close and be replaced by a housing development - a fate that the similarly-sized Camelot recently suffered.
Starting the turnaround
Yet, somehow, Pleasurewood Hills has struggled on. After years of barely-disguised asset-stripping by the previous owners, it was acquired by French firm HIG Capital in 2011. During the last two years, a number of new minor attractions have been added along with the Jolly Roger drop tower, increasing capacity and improving value for money for guests. The park's food outlets have been improved, and just about everything has received a new lick of paint.
The turnaround plans have proven to be successful, with the park turning its first profit in almost a decade in 2012 - a year in which the Olympics and terrible weather led many other theme parks to make a loss. This was partly due to a new policy of not opening on off-peak days, during which it had previously shed money and offered a terrible guest experience, with shuttered food outlets and out-of-action attractions.
With 2013 marking Pleasurewood Hills' 30th anniversary, management have decided to step up the recovery programme a notch. While they recognise that the peak attendance figures of the 1980s are gone forever - competition from the likes of Thorpe Park and Alton Towers is simply too strong - they are aiming to bring back the park's glory years, in a quite literal sense. Ronnie and Clarence are back, rejoining their old pal Woody. The pedalo boats will soon return to the park's lake, complete with their original paint scheme. The aim is to remind people of why they loved the park during the 1980s, with the hope that they'll bring their children with them to experience the same sense of fun.
Just looking at the park's new flat ride, Moby Dick, offers a sense of the direction Pleasurewood Hills is moving in. Whereas such rides were previously simply dumped anywhere they would fit, it sits in nicely-themed and landscaped surroundings, and itself has had a complete repaint.
Two elements lie at the centre of the park's ambitions for 2013. One is an expanded Halloween event, which will feature a budget some ten times higher than those of previous years. The second - and most important to the park's future - is a major new dark ride: Hobs Pit.
Creating the "pit"
Regional theme parks are not exactly renowned for producing stunning dark rides. Budget limitations mean that creating an experience to rival those offered by the likes of Disney and Universal is out of the question. Pleasurewood Hills, though, armed with a meagre half a million pounds, aimed to develop a ride that wouldn't look out of place at one of its larger UK rivals.
The Hobs Pit project was largely conceived and developed in-house. We realised the extent to which the attraction was a "homemade" affair when we arrived at the media event and saw Sean Alexander, the park's resident magician, mingling with the crowd. We assumed he was simply there to enjoy the show - but we soon discovered that he had in fact been responsible for helping to develop the ride's overarching storyline and many of its special effects.
The budget did stretch far enough to bring in some outside expertise, though. Rob Ostir, a Hollywood special effects expert, was hired to further develop Alexander's initial ideas and make them robust enough for use in a theme park attraction. And Corey Burton, a voiceover artist with many Disney credits to his name, brings the central characters to life. AtmosFEAR, a specialist in producing horror mazes, has worked with Pleasurewood Hills to develop the attraction's scares.
As AtmosFEAR's involvement suggests, Hobs Pit is designed to cater for an older audience. Its plot revolves around an abandoned mine, populated with ghoulish miners and the malevolent central character, Hob himself. A combination of live actors, video footage and physical special effects are used to try and produce a reaction from riders.
The Pleasurewood Hills team's enthusiasm for the Hobs Pit project is infectious. Speaking with them about the ride, it is almost impossible not to wish for them to succeed. With British dark rides, though, there is a very fine line between a quaint, quirky experience, and an embarrassingly bad one. John Wardley's creations at Chessington, particularly Bubbleworks, sit on the right side of this line. Pleasurewood Hills' own Tales of the Coast boat ride sits firmly on the wrong side. Where would Hobs Pit sit?
From fairytales to horror
The Fantasy Fairytale dark ride had been in operation at Pleasurewood Hills for many years. Aimed squarely at young children, it was beginning to age badly, and was finally shuttered in 2012. The park, though, saw an opportunity to reuse the ride system for a radically different attraction. While its platform has been relocated, Hobs Pit largely follows the same route as the former kiddie ride.
The ride building's impressively-themed exterior has replaced the facade of a shop that has been closed for several years. The addition of Hobs Pit, along with the relocation of the park's carousel, has revived an area of Pleasurewood Hills that had long been neglected.
The effort expended on Hobs Pit's external appearance is encouraging, and guests will swiftly be drawn into its indoor queue line. There, they are ideally placed to see guests exiting the "mine", many of them screaming and laughing.
Wait times are likely to be tolerable, with Pleasurewood Hills aiming for a throughput of around 1,000 guests per day - not bad in a park where 1000 guests in total is a solid attendance on a Saturday.
Heading into the pit
On reaching the front of the queue, guests are guided into the mineshaft by a creepy "miner". The initial walkthrough section is little more than a stroll through a darkened tunnel, guided by further miners along the route, although you will have to push your way through a narrowed section at one point.
Things pick up, though, when guests reach a locked door, with a "key" tucked into an alcove alongside it. A scene then plays out which we won't spoil for you, but is suitably gruesome. It was at this point that we realised that Pleasurewood Hills wasn't going to hold back with the blood-and-guts elements of its new addition.
With the door now open, riders enter the loading area. There, they board individual "mine carts" which can hold up to four riders (two rows of two each). While this limits capacity, it adds to the feeling of isolation when passing through the mine itself.
The plot of Hobs Pit is simplistic: essentially, you are trapped in a mine with the ghostly Hob, and need to escape. It is told through a series of set-pieces, and some genuinely unique special effects. While the well-worn Pepper's Ghost effect is used to bring Hob to life, Alexander and Ostir have also produced some original efforts, such as unfortunate miners being smashed into the walls next to riders.
Pleasurewood Hills were keen to stress that we experienced "version 1.0" of Hobs Pit, which is set to receive a range of enhancements over the coming months. Indeed, several effects were not in working order when we passed them, but should be up-and-running over the next few weeks. Similarly, the scare actors (who feature in the ride itself, as well as the walkthrough section) are a little inexperienced, and are likely to improve their "performances" over time.
Although some sections of the ride are a little sparse, we were impressed by the overall quality of the effects, some of which are truly gruesome. The mix of video elements and physical contraptions works well, and Hobs Pit doesn't come across as a low-cost ride.
One minor flaw will need fixing, though: the black plastic sheets that separate the scenes. These hit riders in the face, and managed to whip Natalie's glasses right off and into the seat behind! Using doors that are opened by the ride car (as in traditional ghost trains) might be a more sensible option.
Pleasurewood Hills is aiming to replicate its "glory years" during the 2013 season. In our view, however, Hobs Pit far surpasses anything that the park has tried before in terms of ambition. Even in the 1980s, the park was little more than a collection of flat rides scattered across grassland. A full-blown, effects-laden dark ride certainly wasn't on the menu.
Hobs Pit can't hope to compete with rides such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, given that it was built using a fraction of a percent of the budget of Universal's masterpiece. Still, Pleasurewood Hills has hit its target of building a ride that wouldn't look out of place at Alton Towers or Thorpe Park. For us at least, it offers a superior experience to Nemesis Sub-Terra or the Saw Alive Horror Maze, for example. It's proof that a regional park can build a unique attraction without breaking the bank.
Is Hobs Pit enough to save Pleasurewood Hills from the fate of Camelot and the American Adventure? On its own, no. But a Pleasurewood Hills with four or five well-themed, original rides of this style would be a formidable proposition. Let's just hope that dreadful boat ride is next in line for the same treatment.
Hobs Pit will open to the public on June 2, 2013.