Hello dearie. The character actor playing the ashen-faced station mistress on the platform at Carnesky’s Ghost Train, South Shore, is adept at working a crowd.
And a crowd has gathered as the scare actors, all Equity members, strut their stuff outside between rides – turning the most objectionable drunks into shrinking violets.
Hello, dearie, yourself, for this is the ride dubbed Carnesky’s Ghost “Drain” by some Blackpool Council taxpayers, who go white as a sheet at the thought of whether it makes a profit, or, indeed, opens at all. Blink and you’ve missed it in earlier years.
So here’s the good news. The ghost train now standing on a far better platform, on South Promenade, within earshot of the Pasaje del Terror at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, is not only open for business daily, 1pm to 6pm (later if demand is there and actors amenable), until September 4, then weekends through the run of the Illuminations, but on track to make a profit.
John Child, managing director of Sandcastle Waterpark opposite, which oversees it, explains: “We estimate it will make £5,000 clear profit.”
And, while it’s not a lot of money (the ride made £3,685 last year), the runaway train is also a big hit with spectators at the feast.
“You can’t put a price on that kind of goodwill,” adds John, pointing to the watchers gathered to trade banter with the actors, while others join the queue for the ride.
“It’s another reason to stop and stare. It’s part of the Blackpool experience, even if they don’t go on the ride.”
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, creative director of Blackpool Illuminations, also rates Carnesky’s Ghost Train. “It not only looks beautiful, but adds to Blackpool’s unique selling points. It gives people a reason to get out of their cars and walk.”
The ghost train is now nearing the end of its first year of trading in Sandcastle Waterpark hands. It’s run at what John calls “arm’s length management” from Blackpool Council (which acquired the ghost train in 2008) by his operation team, led by Steve Doidge.
It operates in much the same way as the once loss-making Sandcastle, which had a similarly lacklustre start, but is now a tourism success.
John’s risen through the ranks, from lifeguard to MD, and is now investing in two new thrill water slides for September, while the attraction boasts queues daily, and can afford to splash out on a TV advertising campaign.
“It seemed logical, given our position, after the ghost train relocated, that we were best placed to run it for the council,” John adds.
It’s a huge improvement on the ride’s original location – within the Olympia, opening out of season and charging a fiver a ride. It’s now £4.50 (£3.50 for kids), still steep, but you’re paying Equity rates for the real deal, not some animatronic.
Nip into the Sandcastle and you can bag a £1 discount, no strings attached.
Both Sandcastle Waterpark and Carnesky’s Ghost Train are owned by Blackpool Council – which gives taxpayers a stake in its success and makes them mindful of the need for profit.
It’s as well to note the recent makeover has not been funded by Blackpool Council, but by Arts Council funding, said by John to be in the region of £10,000, obtained by the persuasive Marisa Carnesky, who created the ride, and lent her name not just to it, but to the surname of every scary character within.
The grant has transformed the exterior, improved access, and boosted appeal, and sales, by providing an outside platform, permitting actors to interact with passers-by.
The council had already cut costly agency staff out of the equation and automated some duties. Arts Council cash, and Sandcastle enterprise, has also improved the eerie ride within – through a mythical land of lost children and searching souls ... making it a surefire hit with steel-nerved kiddies today.
It’s the children who seek out this ride, not their parents, or the brash stag and hens, glasses of beer (so much for our on-street alcohol ban) to hand, jeering or cheering at the actors outside. It’s the kids who clamour to join the queue, listening bright-eyed to spooky spiel, grinning delightedly when dollies’ heads are brandished at them by wailing “ghosts”.
Ushered aboard by ticket collector Pall Bearer, aka actor Mark Lofthouse, I sit with MD John, operations manager Steve riding shotgun, while little Lorisse Powell, five, puts us all to shame.
Lorisse is over from Clayton, with brother Kieya, four, and their grandma, and adores the Ghost Train. She owns up to having been “a bit scared – when the lady showed me her dolly and started crying”, but later, outside the ride, can be seen consoling the character concerned, and asking the rest what they like to eat. “Children,” says the border guard. Indomitable Lorisse smiles. “Worms,” says another. That horrifies Lorisse more than ghosts eating kids.
“They’re like spaghetti,” adds the border guard, still determinedly in character. “Nice but a bit gritty.”