Alton Towers reopen for the season - and launch its new addition, the Alton Towers Dungeon.Last weekend saw
Parent company Merlin Entertainments - the second largest themed attraction company in the world - built their empire more on their midway attractions than on fully-fledged theme parks. Madame Tussauds, Sea Life Centre and the Dungeons have become established brands around the world, offering bite-sized experiences in accessible locations.
Unsurprisingly, the Alton Towers Dungeon follows largely the same format as its predecessors. An experience more akin to a promenade theatre production than typical theme park attraction, it features a string of five short scenes highlighting gruesome moments and characters from British history. Each one is led by an actor, and typically features audience interaction and sensory effects. Most have some element of pantomimishly dark humour to them, though a couple are genuinely sinister. (The park recommend a minimum age of 10, which feels about right to me given the nature of a couple stronger moments, but hardier kids under that will probably be fine.)
If you've visited one of the Dungeons elsewhere, this no doubt sounds familiar. Each reuses not only the same format, but recycles many of the same show scenes. While some are straight copies - moments featuring macabre plague doctors, rigged court trials and expert torturers are brand favourites - some invert an otherwise familiar concept.
Once you've got a basic structure to a scene - intro from a bawdy landlady followed by a plunge into darkness and 4D cinema style physical effects, for example - it's easy to swap out the story to create a (superficially, at least) unique experience. Without spoiling anything, that method has been applied here to give this version its own spin.
Although many visitors to the park have likely experienced one of the Dungeons elsewhere - both Blackpool and York are within easy traveling distance - it's this tailoring to local legend that might tempt them to make a visit regardless. The park's history and heritage are inescapable (the Dungeon is tucked away in the shadow of the real-life castle that sits at the heart of the park) and attractions here are at their strongest when they draw on that for inspiration - Hex and the recent Wicker Man as prime examples. The Alton Towers Dungeon seeks to inherit a sense of authenticity from those surroundings - and when it works, it really works, using that shortcut to fire the imagination in a vital way.
There's also a short indoor boat ride thrown into the deal too; a re-theming of the old Charlie and the Chocolate ride, now featuring a mix of projection and basic animatronics to take you down the "dark river" that leads to the main chunk of the tour. As well containing some of the whole experience's most graphic imagery, it's been well-incorporated to create the feeling of drifting far away from the safety of the park.
The stars of the show however are undoubtedly the actors. Merlin consistently demonstrate their expertise in this field, and making this an upcharge attraction has allowed them to invest in performers who engage and surprise throughout. There's a fine balance in creating moments that elicit both laughs and chills without descending too far in either direction - but even at this early stage of the season, that was well achieved.
Clocking in at 75 minutes, it's slightly shorter than other Dungeons - but that choice feels appropriate, given how it eats up a chunk of your day in the theme park. (Park hours here are often just 10am-5pm.)
Due to its location at the back of the park, it seems unlikely it'll ever be offered as an option outside of park hours. Which is a real shame - for all the promotion of Alton Towers as a resort rather than just a park, there's a lack of things to do after park close, and the Dungeon could have filled that gap nicely.
It's a high-quality experience, but the question for most will be if it's worth the additional cost - whether you've been to other Dungeons or not. £5 in advance (or £7.50 on the day) is undoubtedly good value for such an actor-driven attraction, but in a park already full of more than a day's worth of entertainment, it might seem an unnecessary expense. But it would make for a solid option on a second day, or for repeat visitors. I'm hopeful they'll refresh and swap out scenes in future years as they do at other Dungeons - I'd love an excuse to return.Tweet
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