Less than four months after its grand reopening, Dreamland Margate have thrown open the gates to their highly ambitious Halloween event. Is ‘Screamland’ the success story the heritage amusement park aimed for, or their worst nightmare?
By Dan Wright Friday 16 October 2015
The sky is miserable and dull in colour and the rain cascades down in an unwelcoming manner. The car park is relatively empty and there’s more personality in the puddles than the atmosphere. Ahead lies the towering intimidating fence that protects the perimeter of Margate’s beating heart that right now, looks cold and barren.
Despite the bleakness of the surroundings, dedicated thrill seekers climb into the sky on the newly restored Scenic Railway’s carriages, splashing a small addition of colour onto the canvas. Their screams of joy and delight break the repetitive noise of rain falling to the earth, a statement that no matter what hard times have been thrown at Dreamland, the plucky little amusement heritage park has pulled through them all.
Screamland is Dreamland Margate’s first Halloween event, the highlight of its already expansive events calendar that has been dreamt up and implemented by the talented and passionate individuals behind the whole project. Promising a variety of entertainment around the park and other spooky surprises, it sounded like an opportunity not to be missed.
Upon passing through the turnaround structure of the Scenic and into Dreamland’s entrance plaza, Chris Thomas’ specially composed soundtrack evokes the atmosphere that lies ahead inside the Pleasure Park. As with all theme parks in the country at Halloween, it simply wouldn’t be that time of the year in October without scattered bales of hay and pumpkins topping them. Dreamland is no different, with a large but in no way intrusive collection of bales scattered throughout regular intervals around the park.
Once inside, an astonishing atmosphere takes hold of each and every guest. The nostalgia and classic feel that Dreamland uniquely holds over any other park is gone, replaced by an eerie and misty scene. As the preview is only open to select members of the press and the annual membership holders, the total amount of guests for the evening was never going to be in the quadruple figures, but this actually adds to the experience rather than detracting from it.
The first credit needing to be given to Dreamland is regarding the amount of actors present. The park promised 60 actors for the event, which when you consider for the size of the park, is an overwhelming number.
Many of the actors reside inside the mazes (more on those later), but there’s a generous collection of them roaming around the park itself. The highlight of the show undisputedly goes to Punchinello, a simple and effective twist on the park’s resident puppet, Mr Punch.
Everything about bringing this character to life was delivered flawlessly, from his constant method of creeping around the park, to the makeup and vocal acting, and even determining the correct levels of scares to apply to individual guests.
Each and every roaming actor around the park did a superb job of spreading themselves around; at no point did any one area of the park feel isolated away from their presence. Small children attending the event were dealt with in a manner applied so not to give them inevitable nightmares, whilst your typical teenage gatherings were reduced to screams and amusing attempts to put as much distance between themselves and the actors as possible.
The main efforts of Screamland are siphoned into the scare mazes. With various teasers posted onto Dreamland’s social media platforms in the weeks leading to the event, the theming and set design looked promising, particularly for a park that had only just reopened and had never attempted an event on such a scale previously.
Arguably the two mazes putting the term ‘scare’ into the scare mazes are ‘The Final Cut’ and ‘Dead & Breakfast’, both situated outside the park on Hall by the Sea Road. The latter maze cannot be accessed without traversing the first one, combining both mazes to offer a mammoth scare experience with a brief pause in between.
SPOILER ALERT. The following reviews contain spoilers and images of the maze interiors. If you wish to remain surprised (and rightfully so as this is how the mazes are best experienced), then please continue scrolling.
The Final Cut
Centered around stepping into the silver screen of the Horrorwood Picture House, we were invited to face a collection of frighteningly famous faces from the movies of yesteryear. After an introduction from a crazed ticket vendor, we’re showered in popcorn thrown by a concession seller. Sadly we aren’t tempted into making a purchase due to his inability to keep his stand cobweb free, and are then ushered into an encounter with the cinema usher.
Here we learn that the director is awaiting our arrival into the movies, before being escorted into the dreaded Screen 1 to meet our already seated (and deceased) audience. Behind the screen is the pathway into the movies, an effect done brilliantly by hiding two large inflatable walls behind a projected screen that attempt to suffocate guests making the journey.
Once on the other side the real scares begin, coming face to face through a variety of scenes with monsters and evil egos such as the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein’s bride, a mummy and Count Dracula.
In the traditional form of scare mazes, there are many elements of walking through the lengthy corridors with actors popping through windows, curtains and out of coffins to scare you. What Dreamland have added into their mazes, however, dramatically adds to this experience. Frequent pauses in rooms to allow actors to interact with guests for a minute or two emphasises the effort that has been invested into the event, and particularly the quality of acting that the actors plough into their characters.
At the end of The Final Cut is the ability for a brief pause, before jumping straight back into another scare maze in the form of the next attraction.
Dead & Breakfast
After another safety briefing, we’ve been instructed to make our way into the ‘Better Days’ bed and breakfast hotel, ringing the bell to attract the attention of our receptionist ‘Fag Ash Lil’, complete with a small but effective cigarette prop. Set during the air raids of World War II, the majority of the hotel has been bombed but at least one room has been saved for us.
The first few corridors capture an authentic and eerie feeling, complete with cobwebs and deranged residents. Upon arriving in our room, we soon find it occupied by one particular resident who informs us of the creepy men with gas masks who only come out at night. Cue the removal of the lights and one of these gas masked men appearing at the window. The next few corridors are occupied by these actors, comparable to those found in Thorpe Park’s offering in the form of My Bloody Valentine, albeit with less aggression and brute scares.
An encounter with another hotel resident leads to the discovery of us being in the wrong area of the hotel, forced into using a small service elevator to escape into the kitchen. The elevator itself feels more like a small kitchen cupboard until the floor vibrations begin, paired with audio effects to give the impression of changing height levels. This effect was slightly eliminated when one of the fellow journalists on the first run through accidentally knocked one of the doors partially open, but was redeemed on the second run through.
After emerging from the lift we find ourselves in a cluttered and bloody kitchen, complete with vile odours and a rowdy chef covered in blood brandishing a large meat cleaver. After sizing us up for tasting, he oddly gave us ten seconds to escape before he began the process of cooking us, leading into a room where guests are made to walk around in circles (or a square in this case) until another actor is able to open the next door. On our press run through this was done almost immediately, whereas the second passage later on in a more intimate run through was dragged out.
The climax to the maze involves being escorted into a bomb shelter. Once seated on either side of the room, the lights are taken out and total darkness consumes us. Irregular intervals see the lights briefly restored, with actors appearing in different positions around us or in our faces . When the lights return at the end of this sequence, the actors are gone and we ascend out of the maze back to street level and outside.
Being able to do both the mazes in a press run through and as a pair gives two very different experiences. The actors show no sign of improvisation, sticking very strictly to their lines which makes repeat run throughs not as enjoyable. The actors who are free from dialogue and designed for jump scares also feel scripted, with their movements and actions in the second run through feeling more predictable and repeated. The quality of their performances however are exceptional, with each character brought to life in a believable and very animated manner. The mazes and price schemes are directed at only experiencing the mazes on one occasion, and it is this occasion that the actors will always deliver full effort into their roles.
The set designs are sensational. Each of the main rooms in both these mazes appear to have been meticulously thought about and applied, from the wallpaper patterns to the props in the concessionary room. The movie screen room in The Final Cut as well as the reception in Dead & Breakfast are of standards that simply can’t be found in this country, leaving some of the big players’ products notably from last year looking like home made efforts on a driveway.
Back in the pleasure park are two further mazes in the form of Abramacabre and Festino’s Forgotten Fun House. The former takes Dreamland’s already present mirror maze and tarts it up with a fascinating plot and makes a great twist of it. After being given a safety briefing in the entrance of the maze (which also serves as the exit, slightly dampening the tension when seeing guests emerge from the attraction), we are introduced to Deady McGee. The actor portraying the role is exceptional, delivering the story of an old Victorian magician who was famous for producing cute and fluffy white rabbits from hats. On his last attempt at this trick, the magician produced a 7ft tall vicious rabbit who proceeded to consume him.
Due to the size of the maze, only a maximum of four guests at a time are permitted to enter, evoking a more intimate experience. The deceased magician himself makes an appearance half way through as we stumble around the mirror maze trying to navigate past our own reflections. The finale of the maze is a simple jump scare, as the terrifying titanous rabbit appears from behind one of the mirrors scaring guests out through the exit.
Festino’s Forgotten Funhouse is Dreamland’s take on the arguably crowded circus scare maze market, albeit with less killer clowns. This take on the maze focuses on various acts and various ‘freaks’ from scene to scene, including siamese twins, a contortionist, as well as a man eating his own organs.
The location of the maze inside the park’s own big top escalates the authentic feel, whilst the whole atmosphere of the maze feels toned down in comparison to The Final Cut and Dead & Breakfast, making it more suitable for a younger audience. The actors intentions seem more to make fun of themselves or you as an audience rather than purposefully scare you, with the scares themselves happening on the occasional rare instance.
Aside from the roaming actors and the mist, the atmosphere for Screamland is held up by the dramatic and captivating lighting around the park. Various rides such as Monotopia, Kiss Me Quick and the Scenic Railway all feature their own beautiful displays of fairy lights. Stealing the crown jewel from the newly reopened Scenic, however, is the colourful Big Wheel, made even more colourful with a striking and vivid lighting display.
The large Dreamland sign which sits as one of the park’s centrepieces behind the food court is also lit up exquisitely, with huge spotlights advertising Dreamland’s presence in the night sky for all of Margate to proudly see.
Also on offering for the evening is the Monstrous Menagerie, allowing guests to get very close and personal with a variety of insects, snakes and lizards. Drawing guests into this tent is a very proud hunter who ensures the attraction is very family orientated, allowing for Screamland to be targeted at all ages.
The event has primarily been produced by Atmosfear! Scare Entertainment who have provided Dreamland with a platform to stand upon and host a Halloween event to be proud of. There’s no hiding that many theme park enthusiasts in the country have been bored with the recent years’ offerings until this year, with many parks having a dramatic shuffle with their line ups and offerings. Dreamland’s contribution to the Halloween events occurring in our amusement and theme parks this year is unrivalled, with incredibly immersive and detailed theming inside a host of superb scare mazes. The presentation in its lighting and actors is an outstanding achievement.
Having the ability to reopen the country’s oldest roller coaster hand in hand with their first attempt at an ambitious Halloween product has easily secured what is likely to be yet another successful and highly entertaining event on offer by this plucky amusement park sat opposite the Margate sands.