Derren Brown’s Ghost Train, one of the UK’s most anticipated attractions of 2016 has finally opened at Thorpe Park, Surrey. Boasting some serious technologies and hardware from the likes of Intamin, Figment, HTC and Simworx, this is the collaborative brainchild of Merlin’s Magic Makers and the man himself, Derren Brown…
Thorpe Park has been longing for a solid dark ride (ghost train) ever since the fantastic Wicked Witches Haunt burnt down over 10 years ago. It was a classic. Considered to be one of The Tussauds Group’s best efforts; it is sorely missed by enthusiasts and theme park goers alike.
But now, a new wave of tech-heavy dark rides has become available at a more affordable price-point, making these classic styles somewhat unfashionable. But is Derren Brown’s Ghost Train really the answer?
It’s obvious that Merlin is on the hunt to secure some of the most popular intellectual properties in an effort to get people through their doors. We have Saw: The Ride, Angry Birds Land and now Derren Brown’s Ghost Train and I doubt it will stop there. Nick Varney maintains a, “can I sell it” type attitude in the attractions business world. If it doesn’t have a USP or a gimmick, Merlin will rarely consider it. We are starved of good classic rides, and I feel that Derren Brown’s Ghost Train falls victim of being too clever for it’s own good.
Right from the off, the typical Merlin shenanigans start. When walking to the ride, you are presented with what looks like an unfinished building. While the overall quality of the actual themed part of the façade looks great, and in fact, some of Merlin’s best work, the exposed warehouse cleverly painted to the colours of the neighbouring X: No Way Out building, is in full public view. I don’t know who they’re trying to fool with these money saving tactics, but it certainly brought my high expectations down a few notches when I saw this.
When entering the queue line, you’ll notice just how compact this cattle-pen is. The overall visual quality here is very nice, but on closer inspection the attention to detail is lacking. None of the wood has been sanded. It’s very rough and will cause splinters if you’re not careful. There are a few nails sticking out here and there, and some of the chicken wire isn’t properly cut, leaving some nasty sharp edges. One thing I will say, it’s nice to see that most of the queue is undercover. We get a lot of rain in the UK, so this is a welcome feature. Towards the middle of the queue line there are two photo opportunities. The general feeling amongst the public here is very much a “do I really have to”, but I see why Merlin has done this. Unlike a roller coaster, there really isn’t anywhere else in this type of attraction to fit an on-ride photo opportunity, so fair play to them. My biggest hate in this queue-line however is the speakers that they use. While I’m glad to see the end of those awfully hollow-sounding Bose speakers, switching to a company like EV does not fill me with joy at all. They do have a big spread, and they sure do fill a space reasonably well, but they are just awful. They are very mid-frequency heavy. Mid heavy speakers tend to tire your ears very quickly as it takes your ears and brain more energy to process this range. Also, the only speakers to be found are all fixed to the main building, meaning that they have to play these things seriously loud to reach the back of the queue. During my queue experience, I was not the only person complaining about the volume and the quality of the sound system… Merlin’s decisions really boggle my mind sometimes. I mean, why pay IMA Score vast amounts of money to produce such a stunning soundtrack, only to let it down by your hardware? In the future, I’d like to see a high quality full-range dynamic PA speaker such as Meyer Sound or Tannoy, but this is just wishful hoping.
Getting closer to the main façade, there are some obvious corners cut. One thing that made me laugh is the fact that they actually glued mock-up adverts on the outside building, which appear to be made out of paper. Yes, paper… While detail is nice, it’s already ripping and is looking rather ropey due to the recent damp conditions here in London. Also, things such as not bothering to paint the exposed brickwork behind the broken windowpanes. It’s not much, but it really needed that final push to make this façade look amazing. But like I said previously, Derren Brown’s Ghost Train is definitely some of Merlin’s best work to date.
Once admitted into the batching area, you have an opportunity to store your bags and loose items if you so please. I highly recommend you do due to the nature of this attraction.
As the anticipation builds, a host steps out from the dark and finally lets you into the first room. Wow. Just wow. It’s actually very good and I was pleasantly surprised. With a good mix of physical effects and a projection-mapped video of Derren Brown explaining what’s about the happen to set the tone, the setup was brilliant. I wouldn’t say the projection mapping is the best I’ve ever seen, far from it, but for a peppers ghost effect, it’s certainly acceptable. The interactive lighting and the overall dark ambience were absolutely spot-on. The smells were of the familiar Dale Air aromas used during their Fright Night events, and it actually worked really well. The speakers in this room however are again terrible, and there are a couple of undesired artefacts in the audio production.
Once Derren Brown’s spiel has finished, a door opens for us to walk through. Up the stairs we go and all-of-a-sudden, the quality doesn’t feel as nice as it did in the last scene. There is no audio, no sound effects or anything to continue from the last room. The room is silent, bright, square and flat. You’re made to wait here until you are called upon to enter the main show building. It felt uninspired, disjointed and to an extent, a mood killer.
The main show building looks really impressive. The “suspended train” illusion also looks stunning upon first look, but you’re instantly overwhelmed by the smells of rubber. If you look down over the bridge, the coal on the floor is actually made of bits of black rubber and it is the predominant smell you get. This takes you away from the experience and there is no effort made here to disguise this. A simple Dale Air aroma such as “Train Smoke” or “Coal Soot”, locally placed would work a treat here.
Again, like the holding room before, this huge warehouse was silent. Guests are made to wait awkwardly while listening for further instruction from the ride hosts. Derren Brown’s Ghost Train claims to be a 13-minute experience, but at least 4 of those minutes are wasted with waiting about due to extremely poor guest flow. What’s even worse is the fact that from here, it is totally apparent that there is no real organisation practises implemented into this ride. When you are invited to board the “Victorian train”, it is a complete free-for-all mess, and you’re expected to get seated, adjust your HTC Vive headsets and “built in” Sennheiser headphones all in the space of about 20 seconds. This could easily be remedied by having different coloured upholstery on either side of the train, and allocating each guest a side and colour before they board the train (free consultation right there). You’d also include this in the script, which would make boarding on the second train much more straightforward. We’ll touch on that more in a bit…
Walking through the Victorian train to board the modern interior of a London tube train, is a blatant tactical effort to throw people off, but ultimately this goes over people’s heads. This first illusion goes mostly unnoticed. Nobody is bothered by the “spectacle” and it doesn’t make sense or add even any sort of value to the story at all. It’s just a little bit “cool”, I guess?
After entering and scrambling for your seat, you are told (shouted at) to quickly place the headset on. That is if you can find a headset that isn’t already broken after just two weeks worth of public operation. The headsets are extremely heavy. They hurt your nose, the lenses are greasy from other riders and they feel really cheap, especially seeing that the sound equipment is simply a broken-up headphone without the headband, stuffed inside two little pockets on the side where your ears go. Everything screams budget cuts. It’s embarrassing, especially knowing that this attraction cost in excess of £24 million. It really is amazing to see how quickly money can be swallowed up, and its evident here that this has happened, leaving no room for the finer details or better equipment.
After attempting to mount the headset, the ride then jumps into action regardless of whether it’s on properly or not. At this point, I found the VR rather impressive. Figment, at least for this half of the ride have done a fantastic job. Good graphics, not too pixelated, and a good blend of live action mixed with CGI. I also found Intamin’s input rather impressive too. The main carriage runs on large steel tracks with Linear Synchronous Motors (LSM) powering the rolling movement of the train back and forth. It feels exactly like how the London Jubilee Line tube train would feel. It’s mind-blowing how accurate Intamin got this to feel. I felt very little input from Simworx on this half of the ride, but what was there felt pretty accurate and well synchronised too.
Once the train sequence had ended, the forced participation then started. The actors tried their best, but Merlin always forgets the crowd that they are dealing with. The British. We are ones who prefer to opt-in to having fun, but we don’t respond well when we are told have fun. We take a very passive approach to entertainment, which is why our theatre business is a booming one. We are a shy nation. We’d rather sit down and watch from a distance than to be shouted at to “get a move on” and be involved. I get what Derren Brown’s Ghost Train is supposed to achieve, it’s a great idea, but the forced participation just doesn’t wash with the British general public. We’re too ridged in our attitude. This is something better suited to the American market.
Upon stepping out the Victorian-train-that’s-actually-a-London-tube-train, you’re not given much time to appreciate the fact that the train has “changed”. You actually see the exterior of tube train this time around, but you’re so occupied with being shouted at and hurried along that barely anybody notices. Again, it’s another illusion that unfortunately goes over people’s heads and it’s all down to the pacing, visual cues and flow of the attraction.
Onto the next room and the theming and set dressing is actually of a very high standard. Not too much in terms of tech compared to what we have just experienced, but enough to please the senses. I could smell Dale Air’s “Coal Gas” aroma or something similar, and felt that it was well suited. The sound in here felt a bit better compared to elsewhere, but I think the main contributing factor to that was the fact that essentially, it’s just a big empty tin box that can reverberate bass off the corners of the wall pretty well, making their cheap EV systems sound better. A nice happy accident. The only big gripe about this room is that it is so big. You feel swallowed up as you’re made to huddle together, being forced to face towards an obvious jump scare hotspot. There’s a whole massive room full of empty space, wasted opportunity and ill thought out show sequences. We were told to put our hands over our mouths several times as the show went on, but nobody responded. Again, us Brits do not respond very well to being told what to do. After all the forced shouty bits, a half-scale fibreglass train comes hurtling towards the crowd in an attempt to scare people. This scene felt totally irrelevant to the story that we were told in the train with the VR headsets on. If this is about a gas leak, then why has a train just crashed into me? I don’t get it… It didn’t add anything other than to try and push a done-to-death gimmick upon its guests.
The doors open and we board the train once again. My coloured upholstery system that I mentioned previously would work a treat here as trying to scramble on to find a seat was an almost impossible feat. Nobody sat in the same seat as before, which made boarding overly complicated. It was a complete mess and staff clearly looked like they were struggling. The VR this time to me was horrible. The graphics looked like a cheap £3.99 mobile phone (cell phone) app that you’d find on any mobile app store. It instantly forces you out of the moment and again and the relevance of this story felt completely detached from the first VR story and the live action scene previous. I thought I was trying to escape because of the fracking and the gas leaks? Why have I suddenly gone from that, to a train hurtling towards me, to now being a couple hundred feet in the air with a monster trying to shake the train to spill me out? What’s going on? I really don’t get it. Extremely sloppy, incoherent story telling. Also, a massive gripe here is the fact that as the VR is playing, staff run around the carriage grabbing peoples legs in a further attempt to scare you. I can see a lot of religious parties having an issue with this, especially since there is no warning at the start of the ride that this is going to happen. Very poor and insensitive showmanship going on.
Intamin again, spot on and Simworx had their time to shine and did it extremely well. The motions were well timed, very well detailed and felt properly executed. This is certainly a quality I’ve never felt from Simworx before and I must say that it was a pleasure to really see what they could do. Amazing work from them and I can’t wait to see what else they surprise us with.
After all the shouty bits, the touchy bits and the moving bits, the VR ended abruptly. Half the people didn’t know when to take the headsets off until staff members verbally told people to take them off. This is a clear sign that people were expecting more. Upon being made to leave the train, the publics general consensus for Derren Brown’s Ghost Train contains phrases such as; “Was that it”, “That was rubbish” and “I waited two hours”.
You then pass through the luggage area to pick up your belongings and off you trot into the shop, which to me is a much better treat than the actual Derren Brown Ghost Train experience…
It’s clear to see that Thorpe Park did try extremely hard to make this thing something special, but they have missed the mark by quite some miles. I believe and have always maintained that VR is not suited to a big scale attraction, nor is it suited to big amusement parks. VR is about 5 years too early to even be used in a commercial environment as the tech and software just doesn’t marry well, but on the same token, it’s 5 years too late as this technology is readily available for consumer use. Especially now that you can purchase a HTC Vive, Playstation VR, Oculus Rift or even turn your iPhones and Androids into a fully blown virtual reality experience right in your own living room. It’s just all a bit redundant in such big scale environments. Where I see VR working best is in Family Entertainment Centres where a good flexible space could take advantage of new media packages every 6 months. In a static, linear environment such as Derren Brown’s Ghost train, the experience is going to wear thin extremely fast. The re-rideablity is at an absolute minimal, despite having 12 “different” ride experiences. I’ve done it a few times now and these so called “different” ride experiences are pretty much the same. It’s just a different character telling a variant of the same story. This aspect is totally over-sold and people will soon twig that this is the case. This ride has no longevity built into it, and it’s a real shame as this had the potential of being absolutely world class.
Derren Brown’s Ghost Train for me is a bust. It’s left me feeling that the money could have been better spent on a big, gimmick-free roller coaster. What a shame.
Out of 10, I give it a 4.