Present, in October 2022, were: The Ant, Aunty Ant
Of all the new experiences opened this year in London, Phantom Peak was the one I was most excited to read about. Not an Escape Room or even an Escape Experience, it still really appealed to me as an immersive day out with a puzzle vibe and has been on my “must-do” list all summer.
A little background. One of my favourite things about theme parks, and indeed Escape Rooms, is the exploration of mini “worlds” and this is what Phantom Peak creates, with the added lure of puzzles, story and mystery, rather than just pretty scenery. On a redeveloped site by the edge of Canada Water, they have taken what seemed to be a patch of scrubland and a disused warehouse and turned it into a brightly-coloured, slightly steampunk, slightly Wild West townlet. It is fully free-range and interactive – visitors go into the shops, play with the machinery, riff with the townspeople and collect items. This isn’t a spectator sport, unlike some pieces of theoretically immersive theatre. Just heed the advice of Sparks and don’t lick the burning blimp…
How does it work? A bit like some of the city puzzle trails, the “game” runs through your phone (make sure you are on full charge!). The Jonaco website offers you a mystery to solve and a starting point (“Go ask Ender why they are worried about their platypus”, for example). Following that lead will then send you elsewhere in the town, to search for a code, to talk to another townsperson (from their amazing cast of actors), to answer a question or complete a task, and so on, discovering more about the town and getting to the root of your particular mystery as you go. Each trail has maybe half a dozen stages, culminating usually in returning to your start point with the solution, when you are rewarded with a card. There were sixteen different trails in total when we played (this has changed with subsequent festivals) – we completed eight and were halfway through our ninth when our five hour-playtime was up, but you could rush through more as we stopped for food and cocktails. Or you could take it slower, with Phantom Peak suggesting between 4 and 6 trails, and making time to enjoy their other activities as well (see below.)
A significant part of this puzzle method filled me with trepidation – role-play and interaction with actors in Escape Rooms quite often makes me distinctly uncomfortable. But, right from the first encounter (with the aforementioned Sparks in the Old Town) I felt much more relaxed about this. The actors are genuinely fantastic, managing to be both fully-formed characters and reassuringly normal humans. Inevitably overhearing conversations with other guests, it was impressive how easily they switched from one plotline to another, and how much of a personal spin they put on the interactions. I think, for this, you get out what you put in – engaging in the story and playing along was a lot more fun that I thought it would be! Special shoutouts to Hogwood, Nethersole and Sparks (who tag-teamed well together) for really going above and beyond.
The puzzles themselves aren’t mentally strenuous, we were guilty of a little overthinking at first. Many of the tasks involve using some of the smart bits of tech around the town – video screens where you need to put in various codes. Others simply require observation or getting to know the geography. Again, it is worth doing extra exploration around the outside of the puzzles; there are brilliant splashes of dry humour throughout. I recommend reading the museum exhibit captions… There is theoretically a wider conspiracy at work behind the puzzles, which definitely adds a layer of intrigue, although the trails we completed didn’t really get us to the “truth” behind the slightly sinister Big Brother vibes – “Jonas is always watching”. However, each trail is a self-contained short story, wrapping up into neat little conclusions, sometimes hilarious, sometimes oddly touching (maybe I’m just really soppy about platypuses…).
For those tired of back-to-back puzzling, there are other activities. Again, this has changed with the different festivals, but when we visited there were carnival skill games (£1 a play, to win a rosette and possible citizenship), platypus fishing and a boat ride. We had a few goes at the carnival games – really fun, some much harder than others! – but otherwise concentrated on the trails. The boat ride in particular had long queues for most of the afternoon, and we didn’t want to lose the time. The shops, which are intrinsic parts of the puzzle trails, have actual merchandise you can buy. We are maybe a bit tight to justify the spend, but window shopping was nice. There are also various food and drink outlets – burgers, nachos, icecream, a bar, and we had a nice rest at a covered table by the lake to eat. There’s reasonable choice, including vegetarian and vegan options and, although it isn’t cheap, it would be fairly standard prices for a London activity. There are cafes and the like in the nearby area (between Phantom Peak and the tube station), so it would be easy enough to forego food in the venue, although you’d have to have stronger resistance to temptation than us when faced with chocolate hazelnut icecream.
Any negatives? From a purely objective point of view, the puzzle trails did lead us back and forth across the town a lot more than felt strictly necessary. We certainly got our Fitbit steps in, but it could get a little frustrating (“right, back to where we’ve just been!”). The visitor capacity is limited, but it still got quite busy, so we were pushing through the crowds a little on the narrow walkways. Polite request to visitors in larger groups: have a bit more consideration and please don’t stand in a penguin huddle in the middle of the path discussing where you want to go next! That would be a downside to attending with young kids and a buggy or a wheelchair would be difficult. The venue is clearly set up to be accessible with step-free access, but congestion round some areas – particularly the carnival games and the more popular characters – could make for a test of patience. However, since we visited, the venue has expanded considerably, with new indoor areas opening up, which could have alleviated this situation somewhat.
We found though that the potential negatives were nothing compared to the sheer joy of spending time in this mad, friendly, intriguing little bubble. We laughed so much, felt so welcome and loved the sense of achievement of collecting our Phantom Peak cards. We were really sad when our time was up and still had plenty to explore. Our first reaction was “when can we come back?”. We missed out on Hallowed Peak, the festival at October half-term, but are booking for the current season of Wintermas. The promise of waffles and hot chocolate would have been enough to draw us in, but we also can’t wait to explore the expanded town. I’d recommend this for anyone wanting a truly unusual immersive activity. This may not be an Escape Room, but the experience it provides is a wonderful escape into a crazy, fascinating world.
- Storyline: Strange things happening in the mysterious mining town, following a dramatic accident and an all-powerful corporation takeover. Individual storylines vary from the bonkers (Platypusman!) to the sinister (murder! ghosts! industrial espionage!).
- Theming and Set: Attention to detail is fabulous and surroundings are brilliantly immersive.
- Searching: Free-range exploration is a big part of this.
- Puzzles: We had one that we actually got stuck on, although we knew what to do. The rest varied from very simple to cutely solvable.
- Physicality: Be prepared to walk. Some of the carnival games were knackering, too!
- Scare factor: There is a little bit of a sinister vibe to some parts, but strongly undercut by lovely humour and friendliness. You can choose a family-friendly option on the trails.
- Company Age Guidance: “Phantom Peak is for persons of all ages to explore and enjoy. We do ask that any under 16’s be accompanied by an adult. Phantom Peak will have two Daytime shows, one on a Saturday 11:30 – 16:30 and Sunday between 13:00 – 18:00, which will be more appropriate for families with younger children.”
- Age suitability: Tweens and teens (if they can cope with potential cringe of talking to actors) will love it. Much younger kids would need a careful eye, as there are areas of open water and potential crowds. Personally, I would not have enjoyed bringing a buggy in, and visitors with papoose babies probably had the right idea. Even so, I’ve been raving enthusiastically about it to everyone I’ve met since, whatever their age!