We stepped out from under the COVID cloud on a sunny Monday morning.
Arriving a few minutes before opening time, the car park is filling up steadily, but slowly.
Hi-vis jacketed stewards wave us to our designated spot, their cheerful calls of ‘Enjoy your day’ muffled behind layers of cloth but the eyes are smiling.
Parking in row four at 10 am on a sunny Monday in late September is a pleasant surprise; in pre-COVID times arriving just after gates open would have us languishing at least ten rows away.
Strolling leisurely and in a socially distant way (even the cars aren’t packed in tightly) we arrive at the entry marquee.
Temperature taken, bag checked, ticket scanned, a rude bump on the bum from an energetic turnstile and we’re through.
Now I’m not a big fan of thrill rides but Pork Belly loves ’em and once we had children it was inevitable. The steady progression from end-of-the-pier carousels through Legoland, Chessington and Thorpe Park to the dizzy heights of Universal and Disney, in Florida.
It was also inevitable that, once restrictions were lifted, I would find myself holding camera bag and phone, watching Pork Belly fly skywards, listening to screams pierce the air (of others, you understand, not Pork Belly – Mr Super-Cool).
Theme parks in the UK were among the first attractions to come out of lockdown, leading to some wits to remark that you couldn’t meet your granny for tea but you could take her for a ride on Nemesis.
There’s no doubt that these attractions are, as we predicted back in April, very different places in this COVID19 world and even the top parks won’t be anywhere near their usual 2 million visitors a year mark in 2020.
So in the interest of research and accuracy we paid, and paid a visit to Thorpe Park, in the time of COVID.
It has to be said we’re not the target demographic so we took along Twitch gaming sensation Wobble362 and ellbug, the human behind @allfluffnobrain – the Instagram adventures of Lord Oreo, the derpy rescue cat.
They’re experienced coaster riders and theme park aficionados.
So it’s pay and play time in the autumn of 2020 and COVID restrictions mean forward planning is essential.
• Prebooked tickets – check
• Download app – for advance warning of any changes and up-to-the-minute wait times once you’re there – check
• Mask at the ready – check
• Car park ticket – Thorpe Park charges for parking, even though getting to it by public transport is a faff, involving train and bus connections. We didn’t realise, didn’t include parking in our booking so paid extra as we left. Don’t make the same mistake!
Now thrill-seeker, you’re good to go.
First impression is – not surprisingly – the lack of crowds.
The bridge that leads to the resort itself is usually a long trail of straggling groups of ten or more youngsters and families, chattering and clattering with many pauses to take selfies.
Today it’s a leisurely stroll in small groups of no more than six with bright yellow spots on the pavement to warn if you’re Getting Too Close.
Checking out the rides, wait times and food outlets is easy – you can actually see across the courtyards and down the alleys to decide on your route and dodge any potential bottlenecks. Things got a little busier later in the day but it never felt uncomfortably crowded.
Mask-wearing in queues and on most rides is compulsory, with regular recorded and live reminders to wear them over mouth AND nose.
There was good-humoured acceptance amongst most of the customers but Wobble 362 and ellbug said social distancing in queues for the biggest rides wasn’t easy.
‘We love Saw, but how can you be socially distant when the line takes you up and over several levels? Anywhere there are stairs you get cross-over. We felt okay, because most people were wearing masks, but wouldn’t want to stand in an indoor queue when it was busier than this.’
On the up side, many of the queues are out in the open so it’s less of an issue.
Wait times started off pretty good, just 5 minutes for the busiest rides and by midday even the queue for Nemesis Inferno, always a popular ride, was no more than forty minutes.
Some rides and shops have had to close until restrictions are lifted but Pork Belly’s favourite, Stealth, still runs as does mine – the gentle and mildly damp Rumba Rapids.
Colossus, Samurai and Vortex are still in action, you can get soaked on Tidal Wave and most of the family-friendly rides are running, so you can still get dizzy on the teacups or bash into each other on the dodgems.
But because of their close quarters, interactive elements like Angry Birds, The Walking Dead, Ghost Train and Wet Wet Wet and Jungle Escape are closed for the foreseeable future.
The new cleaning regime is conspicuous and there are pauses every few rotations for carriages to be spot cleaned. This causes more delays but adds to the feeling of confidence.
Restaurants and food outlets abide by the new Rule of Six and social distancing, but not all concessions have reopened yet.
I was pleased to find The Veggie Box providing healthier alternatives than the usual chips ‘n’ burgers but the rest of our crew plumped for the gigantic Bratwurst on sale from the little wooden pop-up chalets, part of Thorpe Park’s Oktoberfest.
So what’s missing at Thorpe Park in 2020?
In a word – atmosphere.
And the sweet smell of nostalgia.
Theme parks should smell like childhood – candyfloss, sticky toffee apples and popcorn. The aroma of Thorpe Park is currently sausage and beer and a slight snuffle of disappointment.
Each major ride has an area round it with suitable, if often weird, scenery but the overall effect is haphazard and there’s no clear route through it all.
At the entrance to the whole park you’re welcomed to ‘An island like no other’ but the tropical theme is lost within a few steps and the Amity town area frankly looked tired ten years ago.
It seems nothing’s had a lick of paint or general refurb for way longer.
ellbug’s been a regular at Thorpe Park since her early teens. ‘I remember when the giant tyre at the entrance to Stealth was jet black. Today it’s a pale and dusty grey!’
And the music?
It bleeds from one section to another and the irritating yodelling of The Detonator (an Oktoberfest addition I guess) can be heard almost everywhere.
Sitting waiting for my party to emerge from yet another adrenaline-rush I mused on how much better Universal and Disney do this vital aspect. There the sounds of each clearly defined area wrap around you, enveloping you in uplifting anthems and blood-stirring rock beats.
The only place that comes close at Thorpe Park is The Swarm who’s soundtrack was created by British band You Me at Six. That one really works, drawing in even those not actually riding the alien structure. I could hang around there all day amongst the crashed fire engines, blasted buildings and downed helicopter!
Still, Thorpe Park’s doing its best in what are clearly difficult times and with a spooky drive-in cinema and the return of the annual Fright Nights the screams, albeit muffled by masks, will still ring out.
Staff stayed masked and good-natured, even at the end of the day when the departing call of ‘Come again soon’ from the lone steward at the gates had a distinctly mournful feel.
Good luck Thorpe Park, and theme parks everywhere, in your bid to keep on providing pure, escapist thrills during a global pandemic.
I may not be back, but Wobble362 and ellbug certainly will and I don’t think I’ll be able to keep Pork Belly from one more ride on Stealth!
Thorpe Park information
Opening hours: 10am to 5pm Sunday to Thursday, 8pm Fridays and Saturdays
Late opening til 9pm for Fright Nights from Friday 9 October to Sunday 1 November 2020
Tickets: £39 day pass, with concessions for students. No Fastrack available due to COVID restrictions.