Old Ghosts, New Tricks at Thorpe Park
At a time when filmmakers can scare us senseless with psychotic artificial intelligence (AI) dolls, virtual reality (VR) can transport us into paranormal realms, and special effects easily trick the eye, it’s a challenge to reinvent an old ghost train for modern audiences—but Thorpe Park Resort in Chertsey, England, has made ambitious updates to impress today’s visitors.
In 2016, Thorpe Park teamed up with illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown to create a reality-bending, immersive journey on board Derren Brown’s Ghost Train. The attraction combined psychology and showmanship with VR headsets, illusions, physical transit, live actors, walk-throughs, and special effects. The action took place in a Victorian warehouse where a vintage train carriage hung from chains.
However, Thorpe Park needed to stay up to date in a changing market, so it was decided the Ghost Train needed a makeover. “We’re always looking for something new and compelling,” says Neil Poulter, divisional director at Thorpe Park Resort.
The scale, complexity, and experience length of the indoor attraction meant the revamp was a huge task for the team behind it. Ghost Train lasts 17-20 minutes, requiring designers to create an experience that captures audience attention for much longer than a traditional theme park ride.
Originally, the Ghost Train revolved around a virtual reality experience, with guests wearing VR headsets most of the time. Now, Thorpe Park has put its actors center stage, revamped the storyline and theatrical sets, and dropped the VR.
“We knew we did actor-led experiences really well,” Poulter explains. “We have so much knowledge across Merlin Entertainments through our Dungeons brand. And we've got a fantastic in-house entertainment team here at Thorpe Park. We’ve done particularly well with our Fright Nights Halloween event.”
The park has honed its actors’ spine-chilling skills with scare zones, live shows, and scare mazes—including a new one for 2023 called Stitches. “Bringing that expertise into the full operational season with Ghost Train made sense,” he says.
Live actors interacting with guests can keep the experience fresh every time. “With the VR headsets, there were times when technical issues might impact the guests’ experience,” he says.
Thorpe Park’s team wanted improved reliability and throughput. Now, Ghost Train is a more streamlined operation. “We can open it consistently on time to our guests, and 100% of them get the same experience,” Poulter says.
“We always use consumer insights and feedback when we make decisions around products,” he adds. “When you work with any intellectual property, you can’t be as agile around the changes you might want to make. It felt like there was a good opportunity for us to have our own attraction. By creating a new story and retheming elements of the experience, we could deliver the guests a next-generation attraction without the significant capital outlay of a new project.”
The team has created a local legend for the storyline. In the depths of the shabby Thorpe Junction railway station, guests meet station master Angelus Mortis. He explains that a Victorian sect, the Believers, once met in the now-abandoned Chapel Station—and were never seen again.
"They believed in life after death and held a seance to raise the dead. But they raised Death, and that's when it all goes wrong," explains Kieron Smith, Ghost Train's artistic director and writer. Angleus Mortis then asks if those assembled are brave enough to take the last train.
A Pepper’s Ghost illusion, audio-visual effects, and a nerve-jangling jump scare bring the spooky story to life in the pre-show.
Guests then head to a dark and dingy Platform 13 where a scruffy tube train awaits them instead of the suspended Victorian carriage. Passengers soon find themselves trapped with possessed train guards. They make it to Chapel Station and a crypt where Angelus Mortis—the Angel of Death—reveals himself.
People escape onto the train, only to realize that faceless nuns are lurking. “We redesigned the end of the trains to fit them in hidden compartments, and they’re a big hit,” Smith says. UV lighting also reveals startling messages inside the train.
After guests exit the train, there's a final scare in the (fake) gift shop. Due to the intense nature of the experience, Thorpe Park advises riders to be aged 13 or over.
The park team has ramped up the theatricality and storytelling to create drama, atmosphere, and tension within the existing building.
“The theming team did an incredible job reimagining it so that it feels like a completely different space,” according to Poulter. “The realism of it all is very different to a lot of theme park rides,” Smith says.
Modifications have also been made to Ghost Train to address technical issues and guest flow backup. Team members can now funnel people through a waiting room if the experience doesn’t proceed according to plan. “We made that a lost property room,” Smith says of the helpful addition.
To ensure a strong story delivery, Smith thought carefully about where to position actors in the cigar-shaped tube train for maximum effect. “Also, we shortened the train journey from four minutes to two and a half minutes. With VR, it’s fine—you can sit there and look at everything. But for a live performance, you need it to be quicker.”
The team has made it easier for actors to perform consistently. “In theme parks, you’re working with different casts. Guests meet about 10 characters in the attraction, but we’re rehearsing 35 at the beginning,” Smith says.
He believes operators must consider cast comfort, spread out the dialogue and interactions, and give variety to performers and guests. When reinventing attractions, Smith believes parks must keep things simple while maintaining high standards. “You’ve got to ask, ‘Can this be done seven days a week, every 10 minutes, or whatever it is?”
With the new Mack Rides coaster Hyperia—formerly known as Project Exodus—on the horizon, there was concern that people might wait until 2024 to visit Thorpe Park. Relaunching Ghost Train was part of the park’s strategy to prevent a fallow period.
“A year out from such a big project, it was important for us to have something compelling to get people to visit Thorpe Park,” Poulter says. “New news and new reasons to visit are important. We’re seeing good responses to Ghost Train. On launch day, guests thought it was a vast improvement from what we had before. It’s reignited the love of Ghost Train at Thorpe Park.”