(This is the fourth part of Russell's trip report. Links to the previous three posts are below - Ed.)
While there are plenty of other mid-sized theme parks in England that we could have visited (Chessington World of Adventures, Drayton Manor, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and Flamingoland), they either didn’t fit into our schedule or were too far from our planned route to visit feasibly. However, there are plenty of other themed attractions in England that aren’t classified as theme parks that we did visit.
Many of these attractions we chose to visit because they were included as part of our Merlin Annual Passes, while a few others were part of the London Pass we purchased to visit a number of the classic tourist attractions in the city. One of the themed attractions we strongly considered was the Harry Potter Experience at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, but the similarity to what Universal has created in Orlando and Hollywood along with the price ($70/person for a basic ticket) made a visit less appealing for this trip – though we did still make it to Kings Cross to see Platform 9¾.
When we started exploring the idea of purchasing Merlin Annual Passes for our visits to Legoland Windsor, Alton Towers, and Thorpe Park, I was surprised to see how many other themed attractions the passes would cover. One of the more interesting attractions we visited was Warwick Castle. Located near Birmingham, Warwick Castle is a medieval structure dating back to the time of William the Conqueror in 1068.
However, unlike many historical sites, Warwick Castle has a number of entertainment elements that you might see at a theme park, which have obviously sprouted from Merlin’s management of the property. It's a bit like being at a renaissance festival with different shows and presentations occurring throughout the day to supplement the more traditional museum-style exhibits and self-guided tour of the grounds. There were two main shows available. The first one we watched were a trebuchet presentation that demonstrated how the castle would defend itself from a pending attack using the classic medieval weapon.
The other main show we saw at Warwick Castle was called The Falconer’s Quest. We’ve seen dozens of bird shows at theme parks around North America, including ones that exclusively feature birds of prey (Dollywood’s Wings of America). Falconer’s Quest takes place in the same field area where the trebuchet demonstration takes place, with the creek providing a convenient target for dive-bombing maneuvers. The Falconer’s Quest features numerous birds of prey (owls, hawks, falcons, eagles, and condors) that fly over, around, and through the audience.
I was most impressed by the Peregrine Falcon, which I’ve seen before but never in free flight demonstrating its speed and its place as fastest animal on Earth.
The sheer size of the performance space is what makes this show unique along with the diversity of birds that fill the sky, including an American Bald Eagle.
Warwick Castle also features smaller demonstration areas around the grounds devoted to archery and cavalry.
There’s also a lovely peacock garden and a labyrinth themed around different eras of British History from the Druids all the way up to WWI, with a tie-in to the Horrible Histories tv show. There’s easily enough to see and do at Warwick Castle to fill a half day or more, particularly if you’re interested in some of the upcharge experiences like the dungeon attraction and archery range. There are a couple of food trucks and snack stands (although the brewery cart never opened during our Sunday morning visit), but I’d generally recommend planning to eat elsewhere either before or after your visit. Warwick Castle may be a bit “corporatized”, but it’s still a worthwhile experience if you’re in the Midlands and are looking to immerse yourself in Medieval times.
During our stay in the Birmingham area, we considered other Merlin operated attractions including the National Sea Life Centre and Cadbury World, but one attraction caught the eye of our teenager, The Bear Grylls Adventure. Located near the city’s convention center (NEC) and airport, The Bear Grylls Adventure is packed with various individual attractions themed around the British adventurer. Guests can choose from a wide variety of individual attractions including axe throwing, archery, air rifle, high ropes, shark dive, indoor skydiving, climbing wall, and escape rooms. Unfortunately, Merlin annual passholders can only access certain attractions without an upcharge, and must make reservations in advance. From our experience, it also seemed that Merlin significantly limited the number of reservations available to passholders compared to guests paying for each individual attraction.
Ultimately, we were only able to make reservations for the high ropes and a single slot for the archery when we booked approximately 2 weeks in advance. However, when we arrived, the facility did not seem very crowded, and when Zach went to his archery session, he was the only person participating, so the staff allowed me to shoot with him. I’m not sure if we had attempted to make reservations earlier if there would have been more availability, but it was a bit frustrating that Merlin passholders are not given more reservation flexibility, particularly on a day when the facility was not very crowded.
We did enjoy the high ropes, billed as the highest and most extreme course in Europe, archery, and the assault course (an indoor obstacle course included with any individual attraction ticket), but were frustrated by Merlin’s reservation system.
The Merlin reservations system is also why we didn’t visit Cadbury World, because we didn’t want to be locked in to a time slot, and when we found ourselves near the factory and attempted to book an entry time, it was “sold out” for the day. Cadbury World is a new member of the Merlin family, and it is not covered by any Merlin pass, but reservations for paid entrance were quite limited.
Luckily when we returned to London for the second half of our trip, we had already pre-reserved most of the Merlin-operated attractions. We did attempt to squeeze in a visit to the Sea Life Aquarium and Shrek’s Adventure when we found ourselves near those attractions with some extra time, but there was no availability (either for passholders or standard admission tickets). We did find most of the tourist attractions quite busy while we were in London, so it did make sense why we were unable to secure last minute reservations to those Merlin attractions. However, we did visit three of Merlin’s attractions in London, starting with Madame Tussaud’s.
The chain of wax museums went through an expansion in the 2010’s that proved to be too much too fast as many of the new locations have since closed, like the one nearest to us in Washington DC. However, the original location in London is still going strong with lifelike celebrity figures spanning all corners of pop culture and history.
The one aspect of the attraction that I found annoying was that guests’ flow through the attraction is rigidly managed. I somewhat understand why they do this given the space constraints (there isn’t room in the building for a giant atrium with each attraction/gallery housed in a separate wing), but it was annoying that when we reached the 4D theater that we had to sit around and wait for the next showing in a crowded lobby instead of being able to explore other parts of the museum waited. In addition to dozens of wax-ified celebrities and historical figures, Madame Tussaud’s has an omnimover attraction called the Spirit of London where guests board black cabs for a tour of the city and its history.
There is also the aforementioned 4D theater with planetarium-style seating and screen to allow the Marvel Universe animated film to be projected around the theater (including the ceiling). As well, they offer specific wax figure galleries dedicated to Kong: Skull Island, Alien,
Marvel, and Star Wars
that are pretty accurate depictions of those movie sets and characters. I probably would not have been quite as annoyed with the way we were forced to flow through the museum had it not been so crowded (aside from our visit to the Tower of London on Good Friday, which our Beefeater noted was always the busiest day of the year, this was the most crowded attraction we experienced during our trip). Also, due to needing to pre-reserve our Merlin attractions, we had not given ourselves quite enough time at Madame Tussaud’s before needing to be at our next attraction. Nonetheless, I did enjoy our time here, and if you’re going to visit any Madame Tussaud’s in the world, it should be the original here in London.
Speaking of our next attraction, we quickly briskly made our way through Madame Tussaud’s gift shop and hustled ourselves via the Tube to the London Dungeons, another Merlin-operated attraction. It’s hard to get an understanding of what this attraction is based on the descriptions on the website, and most reviews have a hard time describing what this experience is. It doesn’t help that photography and videography are not allowed inside. Somewhat like Madame Tussaud’s, guests are grouped and pulsed through the experience based on their reservation and arrival times. The people who you are grouped with at the start stay with you throughout the experience, so if you have a large group, it’s important that you stay together. The London Dungeon is like an elaborate scare maze crossed with a theme park. There are a series of scenes that play out throughout the experience presenting various parts of English history and lore. From Medieval torture to the Great Fire to Jack the Ripper – the mostly bleak scenes are played out by various actors throughout the experience. Some actors are better than others, and some material is better than others. Along the way, some scenes include special theatrical effects, lighting, and even some traditional theme park ride systems like a miniature log flume and compact drop tower. There’s even a mirror maze that staff can reconfigure, which is used as a de facto waiting room between scenes (they pull a mirror in front of the exit and entrance doors until the next scene is ready, causing guests to aimless wander the maze with no way out). I really appreciated the way they incorporated different effects and systems typically seen in theme parks in this experience, and most of the actors we had were excellent, though I wish I wasn’t selected as the “volunteer” so many times (“let’s pick on the American” must have been the marching orders for the day). However, I felt that the overall attraction was a bit too long. I lost count after we went through more than 10 different scenes, and since the experience is reliant upon human actors, it can be a bit annoying when the scene you’re in is done but the next one is still occupied by the preceding group, forcing you to wait in a crowded hallway or uncomfortable room. It is definitely worth carving out some time to experience, and any fan of theme parks will instantly appreciate the work that goes into making the London Dungeon work.
The last Merlin attraction we visited during our trip was the London Eye.
This giant Ferris wheel, originally opened on New Year’s Eve on 1999 and called the Millennium Wheel, was only meant to be a temporary attraction. However, the attraction has become an icon of the city, so much so that other cities have been erecting their own Ferris wheels hoping for similar impacts to tourism. The London Eye towers 443 feet above the River Thames and offers amazing views of the city.
The ride takes about 30 minutes to complete a full circuit, and we managed to time our ride right at sunset. I think I still prefer the High Roller in Las Vegas and its bar car offering unlimited drinks during your half-hour ride, but seeing London from one of the tallest structures in the city is a must-do.
Considering we visited Legoland, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Warwick Castle, Bear Grylls Adventure, Madame Tussaud’s, London Dungeon, and the London Eye all with our Merlin annual passes, we more than paid for them over the cost for each of the attractions individually. Despite a few issues we had securing reservations, it was totally worth paying for the passes.
There were also some other places we visited that I would also consider themed attractions that were not included in our Merlin passes. After we left Legoland Windsor on the first day of our trip, we drove to North London to take a tour of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
We would return here later in our trip to see a soccer match but wanted to do the stadium tour and Dare Skywalk, which would not have fit into our schedule on the day of the match.
This stadium is one of the newest stadiums in Europe and is designed with a retractable pitch so the club can host special events, concerts, and NFL games. Unlike most stadium tours we’ve taken in the US, this tour is self-guided, though guests are given an audio guide to provide further details about certain areas of the stadium.
For more adventurous guests, you can add the Dare Skywalk to your stadium tour. After walking through all the public areas of the stadium, guests are outfitted with safety gear and shoes to make a walk along a steep exterior ramp to the stadium’s roof. Once you reach the top, guests clip into a safety line and are led on a narrow walkway that suspends them over the south end of the field, where the club’s golden cockerel is perched. We were fortunate to be led onto the Dare Skywalk by Jason, one of the experience managers, who was an amazing and enthusiastic guide.
When you’ve reached the end of the skywalk, guests are given time to take photos (your guide holds phones during the climb and when on the skywalk for obvious safety reasons). After you’ve taken in the view, guests who need an even bigger thrill can do The Edge, which is a controlled rappel down the side of the stadium. I’ve done freefalls before, so The Edge was not too intimidating, but for those with acrophobia, leaning over a platform 130 feet above the ground is probably pretty perilous.
Most of the Premier League stadium tours in London (including Wembley Stadium) are included in the London Pass, including the Dare Skywalk, but not The Edge. Obviously, you’re probably going to want to tour the stadium of your favorite Premier League team, but even if you’re not a fan of soccer, touring a Premier League stadium is a must.
With the London Pass we also visited the London Bridge Experience, which is similar to the London Dungeon. Like the Dungeon, guests are grouped together and progress through multiple rooms featuring solo actors playing out scenes. This experience had a decidedly more haunted vibe, and even included a final section that was more like a Halloween maze. However, the London Bridge Experience did not have any traditional theme park ride systems like the Dungeon but did use plenty of special effects. There was a bit of overlap in the scenes depicted between the two attractions, so if you do decide to do both, be prepared for some repetition. If you have to choose one, I’d probably recommend the Dungeon unless you prefer a scarier experience, in which case I’d recommend the London Bridge Experience. I also thought there were better food options near the London Bridge Experience and the attraction was closer to the Tube. Ultimately, I don’t think you could go wrong with either experience, because they’re both very solid attractions.
As we always do, we packed a ton of activities into our vacation. In addition to all of the theme parks and other themed attractions, we went to the Tottenham/Brighton match, saw "Back to the Future: The Musical" on the West End, and visited many traditional tourist sites in London. However, there’s still plenty we weren’t able to experience, including the coasters that weren’t operating or are under construction. While we probably won’t make it back to England in the immediate future, we absolutely will need to come back and see more of what this lovely country has to offer.
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Previously from Russell:
Discounted admission tickets:
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