Moments after we're led into the waiting room, the lights cut out. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, a hologram of Derren Brown flashes before our eyes, ranting about the meaning of fear. We're then directed to a large warehouse-style room with a rather impressive 20-metre long Victorian-style train carriage, suspended three feet off the ground with iron chains. But all is not as it seems.
And that's the theme of Thorpe Park's latest thrill ride: a modern, VR twist on an amusement park old timer - to disorientate the rider so that they begin to question their own reality.
This first happens when you step inside the Victorian carriage, and again when you put on one of the Vive VR headsets, which hang from the roof of the vehicle. We sit ourselves down, buckle up and strap on a device.
The truth is 'out there'
We won't reveal too much about what happens next, but it's an intriguing mix of illusion and reality. The 4D effect of experiencing both virtual and physical narratives is designed to make you question what's real.
At one point you are thrown out of the carriage and... we won't give away any more about the story, but will tell you that Thorpe Park's Ghost Train lasts for about 15 minutes, which is quite a long time for a theme park ride.
It's also described as "not for the faint-hearted". Brown told us this is because the whole ride is based around playing with people's fear through mental disorientation. The aim is to make riders feel vulnerable through twists in a narrative told through VR and 4D effects (real-life actors, pyrotechnics, etc) that they weren't expecting, making it difficult for them to decipher the fake from the real.
"From the moment you enter the train, the show, the ride, the experience relies on surprises. Surprises that probably, very quickly, will be 'out there'," explains Brown. "It's about questioning your own perception and memories."
This is illustrated by the ride's 12 different VR "journeys" that can be completed by riders, each with two different endings. This further aims to disorientate; different people will have different experiences.
"We are working hard to preserve [these surprises] as much as possible," says Brown. "It would be a real shame if any of it came out the ride relies on unexpected things."
Ghost Train is the brain child of park owners Merlin Magic Makers alongside VR firm Figment Productions and not forgetting mentalist Derren Brown himself, with a goal to scare the bejesus out of thrill seekers in a totally new way.
Because of the variability Brown demanded in the attraction, Figment road tested over 30 different brands and types of VR before settling on HTC's Vive.
Founder of Figment Productions, Simon Reveley, tells us that there were specific interface reasons which meant that the Vive edged out its rivals.
"The Vive headset has been built into the ride with a bespoke head strap, which is essentially here to hold the headset in place to keep the cables in place," he said. "It's actually a variant on the one we have on Galactica."
Reveley says Ghost Train has been a very complicated and large scale engineering project in the making, mainly due to the custom-build full size train carriages that feature the same infrastructure you'd see on the London Underground. Not to mention that the building in which it is housed didn't exist at the beginning of the year.
"You've got 58 people on a 17 tonne train carriage which gets lifted up and swung around – that's a lot of engineering."
However, despite the years of research and effort from 1,000 people to make it happen by Spring 2016, many of the illusions are still unfinished; we were only able to experience part of the ride ourselves.
But with a a projected opening date of "soon", it can't be too far off now. Going by what we've seen, we expect it will be worth the wait.
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