REVIEW: Escape Theme Park, Penang

With adventure sports and active entertainment being strong – and probably lasting – trends in our industry as people are increasingly looking for more adventure and skills development in their leisure time, I have grown an interest for themed attractions that attempt to address these trends.

International companies are looking into their own models of “adventure” theme park – Merlin Entertainment with The Bear Grylls Adventure and Cirque du Soleil with their Cirque du Soleil Park and Creactive indoor concept – but one operator in Malaysia might have nailed it. Escape Theme Park in Penang has been in the making since 2012 and, with the recent announcement of the longest water slide in the world coming end of this year, might have established itself as the leading “adventure” theme park in the region.

Curious about the announcement I decided to go and see for myself. I drove up from Kuala Lumpur, stayed overnight in charming George Town and headed to the park on a Wednesday morning in July.

The booking experience is interesting. Basically the best price will always be on the park’s website as the earlier you book the cheaper it is, which is not possible to replicate on a third-party website. Then they “force” you to add minimum RM20 (US$5) to your e-wallet to spend in the park (refundable at the park if not used). Then you receive a password and that’s basically your e-ticket and e-wallet for the day, no QR, no wristband! I have to say I found this simple and rather low-tech approach quite refreshing and liberating. Maybe not so safe for a bigger and busier park but OK I guess for the population they are targeting.

And this leads me to talk about pricing. Escape is not cheap! For a Malaysian theme park it is on the high side. I paid RM125 (US$30+) for my ticket one day in advance; it’s RM147 (US$35+) at the door. They don’t have discount price for one zone only. Definitely not something the average Malaysian can afford. As a result the guests when I visited where mostly wealthy locals, some tourists (Indians, Arabs, Australians) and a few expats. This is a strategy I respect: quality over quantity, and probably one that is necessary for an “adventure” theme park given the safety constraints and type of experience delivered.

I will start with the general impression. From the many billboards on the North-South highway driving from Kuala Lumpur to the directional signage from George Town and the arrival (parking, ticketing), everything is designed to make you feel you are entering a world-class theme park. Once in the park I was immediately struck by the cleanliness and the very effective theming style: heritage with an eco twist. Everything looks well thought and well maintained.

The park is divided in two zones: Adventureplay and Waterplay. The ticketing and entrance are on the Waterplay side and a bridge across the main road takes you to the Adventureplay, which was the first section to open back in 2012. The park does a reasonable job at managing a mix of dry and wet. Parks mixing wet and dry are the new trend (cf. Cirque du Soleil Park project in Mexico) but for having been involved in the design of one of them, it is not easy to manage the flow of visitors between wet and dry. Here, it seemed natural to start with Adventureplay, where you need appropriate attire and shoes and where you sweat a lot, and then cool off at Waterplay in the later part of the day once you have changed and left your bags in the large designated area. I am not sure if it would have been easy to go back and forth between the two zones and I am not sure how this will be done once the longest water slide in the world opens as its start is at the top of Adventureplay and its finish in Waterplay.

Adventureplay is anchored by a massive ropes course area with different levels and many different routes; perfect for families with older kids and groups of friends who can choose different options and compare when they meet again after the experience, which can last from 15min for the easy one to over 1h for level 3. Besides the ropes course, Adventureplay offers lots of small capacity and high intensity attractions: ziplines, trampolines, drop tower, coco climb, wall climbing, airbag, jungle swing, trapeze, kite flyer, sling shot, tubby racer, etc.

This section is mature with great trees and small buildings in old Penang style covered with green roofs, which disappear in the landscape from above on the ropes course. The staff knows what they’re doing; they are helpful and efficient. I didn’t have to wait anywhere. The music was good, mostly from the 80’s and 90’s (REM, Bryan Adams, etc), my generation… and probably that of the owner!

Overall the team did a good job at turning what could have been another ropes course (or treetop course) into a true “adventure” theme park and that is probably due to a few simple things:

  • a strong environment: theming, landscaping, music
  • a good layout and signage designed to make you go from one attraction to the other in an attempt to “complete” the park, with some hidden surprises for those who can find them
  • a variety of attractions that makes you feel there’s something for everyone even if in reality you only experience a few of them

Now, that feeling of being in a true “adventure” theme park gets even stronger when stepping into Waterplay, which is like discovering a whole new zone in a theme park.

Here the anchor is probably the high dive and Banana Flip pool surrounded by seats for people to watch riders or performers (there’s a professional high dive show twice a day). This is in line with Cirque du Soleil Park’s intention to provide as much for people to do than to watch. I tried the Banana Flip three times; it is a mix of drop and water jump. Very cool, and people watched!

Other attractions include a family twister, mat racer, kids water play area, mega drop, lazy river, small wave pool and inflatable course. None of them is amazing; the lazy river is quite plain with no speed and the slides are all from second or third tier manufacturers. But overall it works well and provides for a pleasant cooling session after Adventureplay.

The F&B area in the centre of Waterplay is nicely done, the menu offers a good variety at reasonable price (RM20 or US$5 per person on average).

Waterplay was a lot quieter than Adventureplay, which was good for me (no queue) but which felt a bit odd. I believe it was still a bit early (people come to Waterplay in the afternoon) and maybe the visitors to Escape are more into the kind of attractions found at Adventureplay. The park’s pricing strategy (no discount price for one zone only) is such that the traditional waterpark market (local families, etc) can’t afford.

Time for the verdict. Well, I would give it 8/10. As mentioned above I believe this is one of the best attempts at an “adventure” theme park and probably the best in the region.

I say this because “adventure” is clearly at the heart of everything in the park and therefore even an attraction you could find in another park will get a different twist here, nourishing the overall experience. Adventure doesn’t mean scary things but it means pushing you to do something you wouldn’t normally do and putting you in control of your experience for an even more rewarding and memorable time.

I say this because I could have easily stayed the entire day trying different ropes courses, resting by the wave pool, perfecting my (dubious) high diving skills, etc. And that’s what theme parks do; they make you feel you have more than enough to keep you busy the whole day.

I say this because I felt I was in a happy bubble for the day; music was good, staff were friendly, things looked good, safe and clean. And that’s also why we go to theme parks.