Dark Ride at Thorpe Park 2016

It has been in the rumour mill for a while that Merlin would be making a big investment in a dark ride at one of their attractions in 2016. The rumour cited Thorpe Park as the probably location for this attraction, and that it would cost upwards of £30million. Cynical as I am, I stated over and over that we will NEVER see something like this at Thorpe and if the thing DID materialise, it would more likely be at Chessington or Alton Towers.

As it goes I’ve had to eat my words as last week official plans were posted for a dark ride with a budget of around £30million at…dun dun dun…Thorpe Park. Firstly, let me say I never thought I would see the day that Merlin would start investing in dark rides, let alone at Thorpe Park of all places. I still can’t actually quite believe it even though the plans have been posted and this is all but under construction with trees and such being hacked down in the old Ranger County area and the poor old carousel having just done its final turn this season. It is happening. I’m going to keep repeating that until I can get to grips with it. It is happening. And I’m scared.

I know it sounds silly but if you’re an enthusiast in the UK you tend to have this kind of love-to-hate relationship with the Merlin attractions. Personally I think I’m a bit more lenient with my criticism of their stuff and the way they do things, but this project worries me, for reasons I am about to outline here.

Firstly, the dreaded IP. I’ve spoken about my loathe of Merlin’s obsession with IPs previously on this blog and once again this dark ride project has been cited to have one. This is irritating for a number of reasons. It takes a big chunk of that budget. Somewhere like Disney doesn’t have to pay for their IPs obviously, and the other attractions that have ‘good’ IPs such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal had a much larger budget. £30million isn’t lots to spend on a dark ride alone, let alone hacking off a good portion of that to hand over to the BBC or Lionsgate or whoever. So there’s that, and then there’s the other issue with Merlin IPs in that they for some reason have a knack of choosing old/tired franchises OR ones with a short life expectancy. Something like Potter had already established itself as legendary in the Western cultural psyche, it will no doubt go down in the history as some of the greatest stories ever told of our generation and because of that reason its permanent existence in a theme park setting has a long and healthy life ahead of itself. In comparison, Merlin’s recent choice of the Angry Birds franchise for Thorpe Park is an Internet fad that has been all but forgotten about. It has no iconic characters (do they even have names?) and has long been out of the top ten apps list. Initial rumours pointed to a Dr. Who IP, which is something I could deal with. It’s been a staple of British TV for decades, has recognisable and loved characters, a good soundtrack and a wealth of storylines to draw from. I was comfortable with this idea for the most part (not sure how Dr. Who fits in with the overall feel of the park, but since they added Angry Birds I suppose any consideration for that has gone out of the window). 

Timeless British classic or flavour of the month blockbuster?
So all was fine with the plan until this bombshell dropped. The Hunger Games. The hum around the IP suddenly sounded a lot like a big movie franchise about to release it’s third installment, sort of around the same time as marketing would begin for this new attraction. I LOATHE movie themes outside of a movie park setting (although Saw weirdly works, it’s an anomoly in my opinion though). Also, The Hunger Games?! The bloody Hunger Games? What are they thinking? You can’t just go ahead and build something permanent, in a theme park, spend literally millions of pounds on something that is the flavour of the week. I am in no doubt that they are very good films and do very well at the box office, but film franchises have to be memorable and recognisable otherwise they’re just awkward. Anybody been on the Studio Backlot Tour at Walt Disney Studios in Paris? Remember the scene that is London after it has been attacked by dragons? Recognise it? No, neither do I. Apparently that’s a scene from Reign of Fire, a Disney live-action thing that flopped massively , and now there is a permanent reminder of that failure plonked right in the middle of one of their theme parks. I truly hope they go with Dr. Who as I have a feeling The Hunger Games could easily suffer the same fate of not being recognisable in a few years time.

Now we move on to the technology. Little has been confirmed about what sort of dark ride system is to be expected, but what we do know is that it will sit on a proportionately large area of land, hinting at a traditional travelling ride system as opposed to something like Sub-Terra at Alton Towers. And so there are two viable options being rumoured: a trackless system similar to the new Ratatouille ride at Walt Disney Studios or the motion based 3D dark ride system pioneered by Oceaneering International that is used in The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. For these systems to work the ride needs to have impressive scenery and effects combined a good narrative flow emulated by the ride system. 

Good scenery and ride technology is not enough, it needs to mesh!
Rides like Ratatouille and Spiderman pull this off extremely effectively. However, there are examples of where this doesn’t quite mesh properly, such as Thor’s Hammer at Tusenfryd in Norway. The ride boasts above average scenery, a great ride system and a fairly solid storyline. The problem is the three do not mesh together effectively and what we are left with is an awkward and expensive ride that doesn’t make a lot of sense and is in no way thrilling. The reason things like Ratatouille and Spiderman work is because they lose you in the worlds they create and you are convinced for those few minutes that you are right there in the middle of the action. If this is not done convincingly you might as well be riding another crappy simulator that didn’t cost millions because the effect is pretty much the same at more than half the cost. Given the budget of this proposal compared with the likes of the industry leaders I really do not see Merlin pulling this off effectively.

Finally, another rumour floating around is that this attraction could be actor lead. I’m sure that we’re all in agreement that we’re willing to suspend our disbelief for something like Fright Nights because the setting is in such high octane scare mode. The same with Sub Terra, the only time the actors are really effective is when things are moving so quickly we don’t have time to turn around and go actually, this is a bit naff. It just has the potential to be so so awkward. Imagine, an actor lead attraction with the kind of clientele Thorpe attracts. I know this is them trying to change their target audience but let’s face it, it’ll be a few years before they’re on the right track. For the moment it’ll be chavs yelling abuse for ‘banter’ because, guess what, it’s more entertaining to heckle the actor than it is to play along.

The Sub-Terra actors work because of the high-octane setting
And breathe. I know that sounds a bit ranty and like I hate everything Merlin are doing with this project but I feel that with dark rides especially the notion should be go big or go home. Dark rides of a smaller calibre just don’t work anymore, and when the technology is available to make something truly breathtaking then why go half-baked. I really truly hope that Merlin prove me wrong but a £30million budget and a mistake of a proposed IP mixed with the frugal Merlin way of doing theming means I’m holding my breath on this one. That’s not to say it won’t be better than a carousel, a kiddies pirate ship and an empty-for-most-of-the-year arena of course!



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