I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! is an unlikely choice – but one that proves surprisingly fertile ground from which to create an immersive experience. In the long-running reality TV game show, celebrities are sent to the Australian jungle to complete challenges and have a generally less-than-comfortable time. The attraction delivers a short-but-intense recapitulation, taking the basic format of a walkthrough maze like you'd find at a Halloween event. Except, along the way, we tackle challenges (inspired by the Bushtucker Trials from the show) and interact with actors, in-character as supposed contestants from prior seasons.
It's economically designed, squeezing a lengthy attraction into a part-conversion of the old Ranger County Stage – and fittingly taking the space that has previously been used for various Fright Nights mazes. But it's a trickier design than the standard Halloween maze. Targeted at younger guests as well as adults, extended darkness wouldn't be feasible. A properly-lit walkthrough raises the challenge of a fully-themed environment – which I'm A Celeb... impressively delivers. From somewhat limited resources, the attraction creates a surprisingly convincing jungle environment.
It'd be a shame to spoil the experience by totally revealing the trials faced along the way – but for fans of the show, there are lots of familiar moments. Needless to say you'll have to answer some trivia, stick your hands in unpleasant places, and come into contact with (dried) insects at least once. (The re-imagining of the Celebrity Cyclone is huge fun, even if you do stay dry.)
Hurtling from one challenge to the next, an invigorating sense of energy arises from the pandemonium – an energy that such attractions often lose in the need to tightly control and standardise the experience. It does genuinely set the attraction apart from most else I've experienced.
It's also surprisingly physical, and it's in this that the experience is at its strongest. There are no get-outs; you genuinely have to push, clamber, crawl and slide your way through. Designed for mass-throughput, theme parks can so often become ultimately passive experiences, yet I'm A Celeb... delivers some moments of genuine euphoria.
Unfortunately, when it came to the execution of the trials themselves, the attraction probably wasn't quite ready for a launch event – some effects failed to work, and sound levels at points made instructions incomprehensible. Little problems still to be ironed out on a passive ride might go unnoticed, but in something such as this – where guests need to comprehend and interact with the effects – it becomes a bigger problem.
I'm hesitant to labour this point. No doubt it's all part of the teething process and the park will undoubtedly make tweaks in response to guest feedback. But it will be vital to keep things working. On my second time through, a couple of the key effects – buttons that needed to be pushed – had broken. A game-based environment relies on its participants ability to achieve goals. If those goals are unachievable, the experience doesn't just become a passive one – but outright frustrating.
While the performances were of mixed standards, one imagines they too will largely settle over time. It's worth praising Thorpe simply for committing to an attraction that gives so much actor contact outside of Halloween. And where the work is strong, it's very strong, with many of the actors bringing genuinely considered and engaging characters to interactions. (A shame to see a few traces of the lazy ironic-misogyny schtick I'd hoped we left in the funfairs and on the piers, though.)
Particular note to actors Graham Hope and Lauren Moss who really shone through, creating relationships with guests in ways that enhanced the experience. In an up-close environment like this, fleshing out the stories and idiosyncrasies of characters pays dividends – and crucially takes us further into the world of I'm A Celebrity..., as any attraction based on an intellectual property should do. Humour is generally deployed well, with nods to unknown celebrities and the slight ridiculousness of the whole experience. When it works, there's a unique voice shining through here – not an attempt to emulate Disney, Universal et al, but one that is distinctively Merlin. It's honestly exciting to see.
At the media launch, the majority of guests were adults, many with children. It's part of a wider gear shift at the park, broadening appeal to audiences beyond its traditional demographic, but largely absent were the larger groups of teenagers that tend to fill the park on an average day. It'll be interesting to see how the experience differs with those visitors in play.
Ultimately, it's inspiring to see Thorpe go after something creatively ambitious like this. I came out somewhat bemused by the experience, and with reservations as regards its execution, yet impressed by the audacity of the attempt. I'm curious to see how it fits into the ecology of the park as time goes on. It has a suspiciously short queue area, and the park's last attempt at a season-round live maze (SAW Alive) lasted only a few seasons. But I'm A Celebrity adds a shot of sorely needed variety to a steel-heavy park, and serves as a promising prelude to 2016's as-yet-unannounced dark ride.
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