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UK Theme Park Round-Up - October Review and November 2014 Preview

Studio 13 at Thorpe Park

October and November are the most popular, most crazy, and most intense time of year to visit the UK's theme parks thanks to their world-class Halloween events, and no doubt us park-goers made the most of the mild weather and longer dark nights to squeeze in as many thrills as possible.

However, this October brought a bigger surprise than “bumps in the night” and rides in the dark to the UK theme park scene in the form of the unexpected release of a planning application for a brand new ride launching in 2016? Oh yes.

Thorpe Park

The “Island Like No Other” hit capacity on several dates this year, as their Halloween events proved to be extremely popular. A bout of unseasonally warm weather seemed to work well with Thorpe Park rolling out more Fright Nights marketing than ever before, to draw thousands of thrill-seekers through their turnstiles this October.

In fact, the event was so popular that Annual Pass tickets for Fright Nights sold out completely in advance over Halloween weekend (October 30 until November 1). Annual Pass tickets for Fright Nights are not required for those lucky enough to hold a Premium or VIP Merlin Pass, but are required for Standard Merlin Passholders and Thorpe Park Annual Passholders.

In previous years, the Annual Pass tickets for Fright Nights were £5, but this year Thorpe Park decided to change its pricing, offering tickets for £5 before October 1, which then increased to £10 per ticket. This would mean that the park's management could monitor numbers better and improve the Fright Nights experience as they would know the number of guests inside the park. Despite the lower price incentive for Passholders, this did not leave much flexibility for those wanting to go to Fright Nights but needing more time to decide a date, to benefit from the lower price.

Fright Nights took place from October 10-12, 17-19 of October, and October 24 - November 3, conveniently lining up with Halloween and half term week. The park was open from 10am until 10pm, giving parkgoers a full 12 hours to enjoy the park and its wonderfully scary attractions.

Thorpe Park’s 2013 Fright Nights partnership with Lionsgate continued for 2014, with four out of five of the live-action horror walk-through attractions available at the park all based on Lionsgate movies. The line-up of mazes included My Bloody Valentine, Cabin in The Woods, SAW: Alive, The Blair Witch Project, and Thorpe’s own take on a maze, Studio 13: The Motel - which is brand new for 2014.

Studio 13 replaced the Asylum, Thorpe Park’s longest standing (and arguably most iconic) Fright Nights attraction. The Asylum maze ran for 9 seasons, before finishing its time in the park at the end of 2013. It boasted a famous ending that drew crowds at the exit - guests being chased out of the maze by a guy with a chainsaw. Interestingly, Thorpe Park chose to keep this ending for Studio 13 - well, with the layout of the maze, it works perfectly. The park even went as far as renaming the BBQ dining outlet next to Studio 13, usually known as “BBQ Bar & Grill”, to “Backlot BBQ” - exclusively to tie in with the movie studios theme of the park and Studio 13 next door.

It was great to see the return of Reserve ‘n’ Ride, Thorpe Park’s trial paperless Fastrack system, for a select few Fright Nights dates. Reserve ‘n’ Ride operates in a similar way to Disney’s FastPass+ system; allowing park guests to book a slot at one of Thorpe Park’s attractions using their smartphone, before heading to the ride later on in the day to enjoy little or no wait. Over Fright Nights, Reserve ‘n’ Ride wasn’t available on any rides but was offered on the 4 live action horror mazes (as Blair Witch Project is technically a scare zone).

Based on how many dates Reserve ‘n’ Ride was available this year, and the attractions it was trialling on, it is looking very likely Reserve ‘n’ Ride will be making a large appearance next year. The question is - will this remain exclusive to Thorpe Park, or will other Merlin theme parks be embracing the virtual queuing smartphone booking experience also? We shall have to wait and see.

2014 at Thorpe Park also featured possibly the most intense Fright Nights experience ever created. Thorpe Park’s brand new “Extra Cut” experience even made the news, the media drawn to its extreme and unique nature.

The “Extra Cut” was available to be booked by guests staying at Thorpe Park’s onsite Thorpe Shark Hotel. It involved “kidnapping”, being chased by cannibals, and having to navigate your way around the park in the dead of night, taking place from 11pm - 2am. Spaces were advance book only, and cost £125 per person. A strict age restriction applied to the “Extra Cut”, and it was not open to guests under the age of 18 - certainly not for the faint of heart.

As if Thorpe Park’s Fright Night experiences couldn’t get any more chilling, those guests wanting to scare themselves silly could book a “Night Terror” add-on to their stay at the Shark Hotel. Between 11pm and 2am, a “Night Terror” character would appear in the corner of their room. Simple, yet terrifying.

Fright Nights at Thorpe Park.

The most exciting news this month came when the plans Thorpe Park has submitted for its brand new upcoming attraction were released. Little to nothing is known about the new ride, but if the plans are anything to go by, it looks most likely park guests can expect an immersive (and possibly interactive) dark ride experience.

It is believed that Thorpe Park’s 2016 attraction will be the most expensive investment of any Merlin park, and has got enthusiasts speculating over what this new ride will be, and the experience that it will entail. Interactive “dark” ride technology does not come cheap, although suppliers have been working to cut the costs.

Thorpe Park’s Mid-Term Development Plan, released in 2010, showed the next 2 major rollercoasters planned for 2012 and 2015 consecutively. The Swarm of course, was the park's 2012 coaster, yet towards the end of 2013 with still no mention of the next coaster, fears about a potential delay of the 2015 rollercoaster began to develop - especially after Angry Birds Land was announced for 2014. An enclosed or “dark” attraction was never included on these plans.

It’s fair to say that, just like the announcement of Angry Birds Land - Thorpe Park’s last new addition to the park, this brand new “indoor” 2016 attraction feels a little out of the blue - considering the next major rollercoaster was scheduled for 2015. Its long been felt by fans that the attraction missing from Thorpe Park’s line-up is a dark ride, and it is the only big theme park in the UK to not have any sort of dark ride experience (excluding ‘X’, the indoor rollercoaster). It would make sense that Thorpe Park hasn't felt a dark ride would have been a necessary addition to the park, given that in recent years, all its marketing has been aimed at the teenage/thrill-seeker demographic.

Dark rides are often considered to be more family-oriented attractions (although they don't necessarily have to be), and take place inside a show building, enabling engineers and creatives to control and theme every part of the ride environment; allowing for a completely immersive experience. In particular, the dark rides over at Disney and Universal such as the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, are world renowned.

Whilst dark rides remain a vastly popular attraction in theme parks all over the world, they aren’t always capable of pulling off the same white-knuckle, raw thrills as larger steel coasters. However, with a recent change in target audience to families, a dark ride at Thorpe Park would be a well-thought and welcome addition to the park’s already world-class attraction line-up.

Based on the proposed plans (and the design of the attraction’s front and side elevations), guests can expect a decrepit warehouse-style ride building, with an outside (partially covered) queue line and chain link fences. Wrought iron gates form the entrance to the queue, which boasts both Fastrack and Single Rider queue options, in addition to the main queue itself. A pre-show section and retail area are also included in the plans.

It’s worth mentioning that these plans aren’t set in stone, and themes or features can change towards the opening date. Thorpe Park may even find an “IP”, an intellectual property, for the ride at a later date, just like with SAW: The Ride, and we cannot expect the theme or design of the building to not change.

A plaza area and large theming feature will be at the front of the attraction. But, the footprint of a large and centrally-located new ride does not come without consequence. As this new attraction is so large, it will result in the removal of the Arena and Chief Ranger’s Carousel - one of their longest standing attractions, situated at the heart of Thorpe Park since 1994.

Long term visitors of Thorpe Park will be sad to see the Chief Ranger’s Carousel go - a tad ironic as families are their new target audience, but removal must be necessary due to the footprint of the proposed attraction. Chief Ranger’s Carousel is a huge piece of Thorpe Park history, boasting tributes to 1990s Thorpe Park attractions.

The removal of Chief Ranger’s Carousel would mean that Mr Monkey’s Banana Ride is the last standing attraction of Ranger County, an iconic part of '90s Thorpe Park, featuring rides from well-loved Ranger County characters - Mr Rabbit, Miss Hippo, Mr Monkey, and of course, the Chief Ranger himself. Possibly why the Chief Ranger’s Carousel is most nostalgic is because it features not only carousel horses but seats based on Thorpe’s extinct attractions. Guests can still sit on a boat from Mr Rabbit’s Tropical Travels, or the old Flying Fish rollercoaster train, and even ride in an old Wicked Witches Haunt vehicle, Thorpe Park’s last dark ride, in a small but wonderfully preserved nod to the Thorpe Park of yesteryear.

It would be nice to see a piece of Chief Ranger’s Carousel kept somewhere in the park, the same way Thorpe Park added an old ride car from Miss Hippo’s Fungle Safari to the Nemesis Inferno Gift Shop this year, in a tribute to the extinct attraction that was once next door.

Whilst all we have to go by at this stage is an enclosed building, a roller coaster does not look likely. Unless it is on the scale of a family coaster, it’s not unreasonable to assume Thorpe’s next roller coaster will be a large one, like The Swarm or Stealth, adding to the park's impressive skyline of twisted steel.

Even if this does turn out to be an indoor rollercoaster, it won’t be in either of the two proposed locations for Thorpe Park's next coaster outlined in the Mid Term Development Plan - the site where the Shark Hotel now sits, or the most likely location, the island next to Swarm Island.

Interestingly, a Single Rider queue is visible on the plans, which is something that Thorpe Park only just finished phasing out a few years ago, the last being Stealth’s. Stealth’s Single Rider queue is actually still there, as this was not removed but turned into a Disabled Access entrance.

Merlin’s other major British theme park, Alton Towers, features multiple Single Rider queues all over the park, with one available for each major roller coaster. In response to the criticism of their Single Rider queue removal, Thorpe Park have stood by the fact that the Single Rider queues were not understood by guests (i.e., guests were using them and still wanting to ride together) and subsequently were not efficient in filling seats and saving guests using the Single Rider queue valuable park time.

Nothing is set in stone, but considering the above, it is certainly interesting to see the potential return of a Single Rider queue at Thorpe Park, after they appeared to be quite against them in recent years.

Chessington World of Adventures

“Britain’s Wildest Adventure” hosted their own Halloween events during October. Dubbed Howl’o’ween, Chessington’s Halloween celebrations remained much more family friendly than the likes of its sister parks, Thorpe Park and Alton Towers.

Chessington’s very popular Zoo Days will be returning this November, after the main theme park has closed for the season. Zoo Days will be available for animal lovers everywhere this winter season every weekend and school holiday until the 8th of March 2015.

Chessington isteasing an upcoming exciting addition to the park for 2015. On the park's website, visitors are advised that “something exciting is coming in 2015”. They can then enter their email address and details to be the first to know. There is a live countdown to their new surprise which is ticking down to the 18th of March 2015, the day Chessington re-opens for their 2015 season. What exactly is their new surprise for 2015? A new animal exhibit, a new land, or even a new attraction to look forward to? Only time will tell, but we will certainly be keeping our eyes peeled.

Alton Towers

Despite seemingly toning down their Halloween events this year and focusing more on a balanced experience for families and younger guests, Alton Towers vamped up the scares this Scarefest by introducing the Ultimate Sleepover. This offered budding guests the chance to spend the night inside the iconic Towers, in dorms made up with camp-beds in different parts of the building. With “scares” promised to un-nerve guests between 8pm and 3am set in what is widely regarded to be one of the most haunted places in the UK, this night was not for the faint of heart.

Both Thorpe Park and Alton Towers have taken the step this year in introducing overnight on-site sleepovers, boasting immersive environments and intense, frightening experiences, where guests won’t know what is coming next - taking it one step further for those looking for a more full-on, terrifying, and custom experience than the famous Fright Nights and Scarefest mazes.

Alton Towers’ was open for Scarefest each day from 10am until 9pm, and attractions for Scarefest 2014 included 2 live-action mazes - The Sanctuary and Terror of the Towers, and 2 walk-through scare zones for younger guests - Zombies! Scare Zone, and Scary Tales Scare Zone. Both live-action mazes were available for an additional fee.

The Fireworks at Alton Towers

Finally, the Towers will be preparing for its most famous event of the year, the Fireworks, which will be taking place from the November 7-9. Last year, guests were treated to a full tribute of Alton Tower’s major coasters, and a celebration through lasers, water effects and fireworks of the character and individuality of each ride. It will certainly be interesting to see the display in store for Fireworks visitors this year, who will also undoubtedly be making the most of having one last chance to ride Nemesis, Air, Oblivion and The Smiler in the dark in 2014.

Alton Towers will close for the year on November 9.

So, the 2014 season may be ending on a wonderfully high note with rides in the dark, frightful Halloween events, and spectacular fireworks shows, but with the parks closing, the winter is never easy. However, it already looks like we have 2 new theme park developments to look forward to over the winter, and to keep our closed season spirits high.


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