Chessington World of Adventures Resort has turned again to celebrated children’s author Julia Donaldson to help it reimagine a walk-through attraction at the UK theme park. Room on the Broom – A Magical Journey has been delighting families since the start of the season.

Ahead of the unveiling of Room on the Broom – A Magical Journey, a curious listing appeared on the property website Rightmove last Autumn. It read as follows:

Our magical property could make the perfect one-of-a-kind home.

Built in 1348, the 1,373m² hall has some unusual but charming features for a period property. Such as a farting chair, mirror maze and a whole lot of goblins!

Our seller has asked to reside in Hocus Pocus Hall until October 31, with the aim to complete the sale by Spring 2019.

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The new ‘owners’, including a witch, a cat, a dog, a bird, a frog and a dragon, took up residence this April. The advert, however, was a PR stunt. The historic building was never for sale. Rather, Chessington used the property listing to highlight that it was replacing the spooky-but-fun Hocus Pocus Hall, which operated inside Burnt Stub Mansion in the heart of the resort from 2003 onwards. Its successor is an equally family-friendly walk-through attraction.

The Gruffalo effect

Room on the Broom – A Magical Journey follows the introduction in 2017 of The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure. Both were created in collaboration with IP owner Magic Light Pictures.

The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure replaced a former fan favourite, Professor Burb’s Bubbleworks, with a dark boat ride based on Julia Donaldson’s popular Gruffalo books, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

Room on the Broom, another children’s story from Donaldson and Scheffler, gives its name to the new experience inside the former Hocus Pocus Hall.

“Chessington is all about animals and taking families on a wild adventure,” says Andrew Porter, creative lead at Merlin Entertainments‘ Resort Theme Parks group. “Animals feature quite heavily in the narrative to Room on the Broom. So it just seemed like the right story for us to keep bringing in the younger family market that Julia Donaldson attracts.”

Whilst River Ride Adventure offers an immersive but essentially passive voyage through the Gruffalo’s world, Room on the Broom – A Magical Journey offers a more interactive experience.

“Rather than transitioning on a ride vehicle from scene to scene,” says Porter, “we wanted people to actually walk through the Room on the Broom story. As they do so, parents can talk their children through the story, just as they would when reading the book at bedtime to their kids.”

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The Room on the Broom experience

The 10-minute experience begins with a pre-show inside an enchanted library, where guests are told the story of Room on the Broom. As the witch casts her spell, a cauldron bubbles and smokes before a secret passageway is revealed behind a bookcase. Guests follow the witch through a rotating tunnel but the wind is blowing so wildly it blows off her hat.

As families land in the forest, they meet the dog who needs help to find the hat. Guests jump up and down and the hat falls from the tree. Guests again follow the witch, who this time loses her bow.

The next scene is a sunny meadow. The bow is hidden in one of the haystacks and guests look to find it. A bird flutters from a tree onto the broomstick with the dog, cat and witch. In a whoosh, they are gone, but this time the witch loses her wand in the wind!

The guests then land in a swamp, but the wand has been eaten by a bullfrog. Everyone needs to work together to feed the bullfrog by touching the fireflies when they light up. Eventually, the bullfrog gets so full he burps and reveals the wand.

Families again follow the witch, but the broom snaps under the weight of the frog and everyone falls into a bog as the witch flies off.

A dragon encounter

Guests suddenly find themselves in front of a fire-breathing dragon who is hungry for witch and chips! They make it safely past the dragon and meet the bog monster who frightens the dragon into a mirror maze.

The final scene of the journey sees the witch and all of the characters encountered in the attraction reunited around a cauldron. She casts a spell and an animatronic broomstick rises out of the cauldron. The characters all board the broom and, after a tap from the witch, in a whoosh they are gone!

Wouldn’t it have been great to use a motion simulator to bring the broom flight to life? No, says Porter. “Motion simulators are more for an older audience. This storied walk-through is a more delicate experience for pre-school children. We wanted families to play and learn together and take their time to enjoy their surroundings and interactive activities.”

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Andrew Porter and Michelle Hicks

Storytelling in walk-through attractions

Michelle Hicks, Resort Theme Parks project manager at Merlin Entertainments, worked with Andrew Porter on both Room on the Broom and the Gruffalo River Ride, as well last season’s BIAZA award-winning Land of the Tiger exhibit at Chessington. She says the new walk-through experience offered an advantage over the dark ride when it came to storytelling and interaction.

“It really allows guests to engage and interact with the characters, and gave us the opportunity to be a lot more tactile.”

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Hicks details how the cauldron effect was created in the pre-show. “It’s a steel cauldron filled with water. When you throw an item in, a splash of water comes up and the lights inside the cauldron change colour. It’s a really popular effect. We’ve also got oscillating water misters and smoke machines to create a low-level haze around outside of the cauldron. However, when the explosions occur there’s also an air blast to clear the smoke away. If we didn’t do that, then you’d see light rays from the projection behind.”

Animatronics are used throughout the attraction. “The first animatronic is the dog in the forest,” says Hicks. “It’s quite big and impressive in its own right, so only subtle movements were needed to bring it to life. The bird and frog animatronics are fairly small but have lots of small motors inside. The bird alone has six different movements.”

Being creative with the budget

Projection mapping is used to enhance physical props, such as the storybook in the pre-show. “Otherwise you’re just projecting onto a flat screen,” says Hicks. “Children and adults respond better to physical objects.”

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Budget considerations forced the creative team to think smartly, explains Porter. “[On the Gruffalo] we needed to create a forest and a swamp area but didn’t want to use vinyl wrapping for the walls as this would feel very flat. However we could produce 3D trees to create depth, then cut them in half to double our props and add bushes and plants. With clever graphic design, we could create a false sense of perspective and add more layers of depth and detail. This all comes together to create the illusion of a dense forest environment.”

“Budget is a creative challenge,” adds Porter. “As creatives we push the bounds of reality and what is physically possible. By using a lot of clever techniques, we are able to create these lush environments. On Room on the Broom _ A Magical Journey, for example, I worked with the project delivery team to ensure there was a 3D animatronic and interactive in every scene.”

Another vital element is the attraction’s soundtrack. This was composed by John Sanderson at Pitstop Productions and recorded in Budapest by a 62-piece orchestra.

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Music to move people

Porter describes the music in the attraction as “stunningly beautiful. You can hear people breathing into flutes, hear the depth of the trombones and trumpets. Even when the musicians make a mistake, we’ve included that in the soundtrack because it just really brings you into this immersive world.”

The music starts in the pre-show with a lonely flute and progresses to a full orchestral soundtrack with strings. Together with lighting, the audio is used to ‘push’ people through the attraction.

Porter’s experience of creating Screamfest scare attractions in his native Staffordshire each Halloween was useful in managing throughput and creating a sense of emotion. But here, of course, the goal was not to scare his guests.

“In the pre-show, we establish that this is a safe, comfortable place by making it quite light. Then we make it darker with the explosion in the cauldron, but then you go into quite a bright corridor. That opens up into a very bright forest, then you go down a dark corridor that opens up into a very bright meadow. Even in the darker scenes, we can make them lighter with the music. Nowhere in the attraction do we have anything suddenly appearing from pitch black. If you do that, you’ve just betrayed the trust of the parent and the child and probably terrified them for quite a while afterwards.”

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Creating confidence in the next generation of theme park guests

For Hicks, Room on the Broom –  A Magical Journey challenges children just enough. “It’s confidence building,” she says. “So there might be that moment where they’re a little bit scared and hold a parent’s hand as they walk past the dragon, but they come out smiling and feeling they’ve achieved something.”

It was a similar encounter at Chessington that gave Hicks her first inkling that she might one day like to work in the theme park and attractions industry. “I remember going with my family when I was younger,” she says. “I queued for about an hour to ride Vampire [the roller coaster]. “When I got to the station, it was foreboding with an ominous organ being played. I thought: ‘I can’t do it’. But a year later I came back and conquered it. And from that point, I was hooked!”

Chessington regulars will certainly be curious to see the transformation inside the Mansion this season. The new experience uses the same route as Hocus Pocus Hall, although various corridors have been narrowed/widened in order to tell various parts of the story, and the mirror maze made shorter. Additionally, ramps have been added in order to make the attraction more accessible to wheelchair users.

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The dragon in the workshop at Merlin Magic Making Alton

Managing throughput

Guests are despatched in groups of 22 on a ‘Magical Journey’ up to every two minutes. After the pre-show, they are split into smaller groups. Each scene plays only after the group has watched the previous scene in its entirety.

Therefore, says Porter, “it’s impossible for a guest to run through the whole attraction and ruin the experience for everyone else”.

The walk-through is automated but has been created so it can be operated with actors inside, who manually trigger each scene with a button. This provides the flexibility to run it with either one or four members of staff. The hourly guest throughput is estimated to be around 500 at present but could be pushed higher by increasing group sizes.

Animated Movie Experience

After walking through the pages of Room on the Broom, visitors can now fly through the film in the new Room on the Broom – Animated Movie Experience. Guests can board Witch’s broomstick and star in their own magical journey alongside their co-stars the Room on the Broom characters. 

The experience was created by We Are Interact, an experiential technology platform for attractions. Movies are personalised with RFID technology and are automatically sent to guests by SMS or email to easily share on social media with family and friends. The package starts at £15 and is a separate experience to the walk-through attraction. 

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The mechanics of the animatronic frog

Room for more Julia Donaldson attractions?

Guests at Chessington World of Adventures can immerse themselves further in Donaldson and Scheffler’s storybook worlds by staying in a Room on the Broom or Gruffalo themed room at the resort’s two on-site hotels.

Yet so far neither IP has found its way into any of Merlin’s other parks. Unlike, say Peppa Pig, which now features at Heide Park, Gardaland and a growing network of play attractions. Porter believes there is no reason why Donaldson’s stories wouldn’t work elsewhere.

“I remember working with Kung Fu Panda at Gardaland,” he says. “As a storyteller, it was about creating an immersive experience that works whether or not you are familiar with the Kung Fu Panda films. With The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure, we have already seen people who are maybe too old or young to have grown up with the stories, but still really enjoy the attraction.”

And now Room on the Broom and its whimsical characters have firmly taken up residence in Chessington’s Mansion. But, we ask Michelle Hicks, did any house hunters ever put in an offer for Hocus Pocus Hall?

“I think there we a few enquiries, yes. Whether they were serious, I’m not sure!”

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Room on the Broom hotel room at Chessington World of Adventures Resort

The Team on the Broom

The project team at Merlin Magic Making would like to extend its thanks to Daryl Shute, Alex Sanson and Bridie Gibbs at Magic Light Pictures for their support throughout the development of Room on the Broom: A Magical Journey. Vendors included Merlin Magic Making Alton (theming fabrication and scenic construction), Sarner (audiovisual design/installation) Pitstop Productions (audio/animation), Ensee (animatronics) UK Loco (animatronics/special effects), FearFX (special effects) and Seeper (concept development).

Chessington Room on the Broom