One of the ways to lure my wife to England for a vacation was the promise of seeing the Harry Potter studio tour outside of London. The other was Thomas the Tank Engine Land, which is a small corner of the larger theme park called Drayton Manor. Thematically, the larger park is a bit disjointed – it wants to have something for everyone, and thus there’s no overarching theme. You have the Thomas rides for kids, from which adults without accompanying minors are actually banned; a small zoo tucked away from everything else that mostly seems to have emus; various high-intensity thrill rides, various not-so-thrilling rides, and rather disappointing food stands.
One thing that is clear is that whoever designed the park based parts of it on popular American theme parks…apparently without entirely understanding why. If Disneyland and Universal Studios are Superman, Drayton at times feels like Bizarro’s cube-world…or an Axel Braun porn parody without any naked people. Here are its strangest interpretations of American attractions…
There’s no reason for there to be a giant fake shark to take pictures with, except for the fact that Universal Studios also has one. One that people take pictures with because it’s patterned on a famous movie prop. This one is in no way an official Jaws, but because it’s not labeled as anything in particular, there’s no reason to tell anybody that.
It’s a concept that probably worked better before there was an Internet.
2. Not-Jurassic Park.
Jurassic Park: The Ride is a water-based attraction with animatronic dinosaurs that ends in you plummeting down a flume to escape an attacking tyrannosaurus. Drayton’s “Dino Trail” has gates built to resemble Jurassic Park’s, but beyond that it’s just a bunch of really lame giant models that don’t move, or serve much of any purpose.
3. Not-Pirates of the Caribbean.
Words cannot describe this thing in its true anti-glory, but I’m going to try.
Imagine you went on the actual Pirates of the Caribbean as a kid, and then, as an adult, decided to recreate it without any knowledge of robotics, or set dressing, but a rudimentary ability to carve humanoid figures out of wood and give them maybe three points of articulation.
You get the whole idea of a boat sliding down a waterfall correct, but then you’re hopelessly lost, so you literally try to copy scenes like the prisoners attempting to cajole a dog holding the jail keys (it’s a goat here, but same exact idea). In trying to add your own touches, you come up with ideas like a Marilyn Monroe-type hooker whose dress blows out, but because it’s so badly sculpted and uses intermittent puffs of air, it looks like a female Pinocchio farting.
You throw your hands up at this point, and decide that if you do the reverse of the Disney ride, beginning in the city and ENDING in the treasure caves, it’ll totally be different. And then you run out of money for set dressing, so riders can totally see the steel doors, roofs and such behind the cheap pirate village facade.
That’s about how I imagine it went down.
Here’s somebody else’s on-ride video, though the low-light keeps you from seeing the truly craptastic details.
4. Not-Finding Nemo.
I didn’t go to see this. Why would I? Disneyland actually has a Finding Nemo ride, and it isn’t even all that good. Unless there’s a weird twist like the sharks eating everybody this time, I think it’s a safe one to skip.
5. Beer Barrels > Teacups.
Okay, here’s where Drayton actually one-ups Disney and Universal, for the first and only time. England doesn’t feel the same need we do to make everything completely kid-friendly, so to make their teacup ride better, they added beer and boobage. Which actually is a more accurate lesson for kids in the end, because drinking tea doesn’t make you dizzy, but staring at cleavage and downing booze by the cask absolutely will.
For some reason the wife had no interest in this one.
6. Ben 10 Ultimate Mission.
Aside from the Thomas stuff, Ben 10 is the only ride in the park to be legally and officially based on an outside license. So it’s not a rip-off in that sense.
What it is, though, is a cut-rate version of the kinds of superhero roller coasters you see at parks like Six Flags, with a walk-through section that’s supposedly telling you an incomprehensible story to explain why you need to get on a roller coaster to save Ben or whatever it is you’re supposed to do.
The ride itself is just about my speed, as a coaster-wuss. You go backwards up a steep slope, then release, go through a couple turns, and up a steep slope at the opposite end. At that point, you’re released backwards to where you began. I don’t know how that saves Ben, but I do know that somebody needs to save the attached gift shop. Billed as the only Cartoon Network store in the UK, you soon find out why – most of the pegs are empty save for about fifty Bandai Mumm-Ra figures from the Thundercats reboot.
Drayton Manor doesn’t really understand merchandising – much of what the stores sell is unrelated plush toys, rather than T-shirts advertising the specific rides, which you’d think would be Theme Park Marketing 101.
7. Not-Haunted Mansion/Not-Ghostbusters.
At first, you think you know which Disneyland ride they’re ripping off. And then you see this:
Inside, you are given an orientation video narrated by “Doctor X,” who shows you supposedly the last transmission from a team sent inside the haunted vicarage to check it out. I kid you not – think Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” video, but with Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson impersonators toting fake proton packs that are quite blatantly toys. They see a bright light. The transmission ends.
You’re then guided inside to a room where a painting hangs on the wall. Via rear lighting, said painting becomes transparent and a wooden “vampire” head behind it starts talking, yammering on about stuff you can’t quite make out because the audio is terrible. This continues for two minutes.
Finally, you’re led into the room where the ride, such as it is, is to happen. It’s set up like a crypt, and a bar goes over your lap, leading one to suspect it might be a free-fall kind of deal. Nope.
Instead, it’s one of those funhouse rooms where the whole room spins around you, to fool your eyes and trick your brain into thinking you’re spinning head over heels when in fact it’s the outer wall that’s rotating. For an example of how the effect can be done well, this Metallica video demonstrates:
About halfway through, the lights dim even further and runes appear on the walls under blacklight. When the swinging stops, the coffin in the middle of the room opens and rubber bat heads pop up. The lights go out, the familiar blasts of air that simulate critters rushing past you happens, and the experience is over.
But don’t take my word for all this…
There’s a charm to this kind of thing, but it’s a limited charm, especially since the Excali-Bar was closed. I’m glad I went, but unless they decide to try their hand at Not-Transformers and Not-Minions, it might be a while before I’m back.
Call it Nots-Buried Farm.