Having a Premium Annual Pass and not being able to get to the Midlands… Well, in my defence, I live in Southsea at the southern end of the island of Portland, on the Solent, and from there it’s a long way to Alton. Although not really, as there’ s an Alton just around the corner. Well, you know what I mean, it’s supposed to go to Alton in beautiful Staffordshire. Alton Towers is coming up with a new secret weapon: The Wicker Man.
The past five years
It’s been five years since I’ve been to Alton Towers and the last time I sat in the third train of The Smiler roller coaster on its first official opening day, which was announced by the BBC at extremely short notice. For that I just stood around for three hours in an area where you probably don’t even wait on Halloween and was supplied with baked goods by an English mother. However, it was actually worth it, which is why I had to undergo the procedure one more time just before the park closed for the day.
In the past five years, a lot has happened and unfortunately a lot has happened. But the beginning was very positive, because the Storybook Land and Old MacDonalds Farmyard sections were merged into one section and immediately licensed. The toddler area, now called CBeebies Land, revitalized the previously rather orphaned corner of the park and offers a very nice atmosphere. No wonder that the children’s land was expanded the following year. With the Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure another children’s roller coaster finally moved into the park; while only a few meters away a tragedy happened: a car of the roller coaster The Smiler stopped on open track.
The accident of The Smiler and its impact on the park
Actually not too bad – after all, it already happened in the past – but stupidly enough, they send a second car loaded with passengers right after it. However, nothing would have happend, if not all warnings of the ride have been ignored and the system has been overwritten without further ado. It came, as it had to come, and the moving car banged with a good swing against the standing one. Engineers always wonder at this point whether there were any fatalities. Fortunately, there weren’t, and apart from the fate of the passengers in the front row of the car, the accident ended surprisingly well. However, what had to follow followed. A shitstorm of the English press broke in over Alton Towers, according to which the park is still considered unsafe nowadays. No wonder that the number of visitors decreased drastically and since then Merlin Entertainments has been struggling in their own country.
Yet, there is also something very comical about it, when the technical director of the park is dragged in front of the camera, just because a roller coaster has just had a safety shutdown and The Sun is already raging against the park. Unfortunately, it also has negative effects for the normal park guest, as the park has closed for the first time this year within the season and also has extremely crappy opening hours. Supposedly, they are quite flexible; but in summary, one can say that most of the time, the park is open from 10 to 16 o’clock. A cheeky thing for a park of this size, especially as most of the rides can’t be used until 11 am anyway. Until then, one has to be patient within the park and can ride Nemesis almost continuously, thanks to the absence of operation of the park’s cable car – apparently it was too hot –. Prior to that, there is still the possibility for an early morning ERT at selected attractions, but for that, too, the rides would have to start operating first.
It would be easy for me to talk Alton Towers into the ground, but I do not. The park is still great. Even the fact that a lot of rides have left the park in the past years does not change that. Actually, you are much more focused on just getting all the roller coasters done somehow, especially if you are guiding a theme park newcomer through the park. Despite (with the exception of the roller coaster The Smiler) moderate waiting times, you hardly manage to do that in the end and still have a great day – that even speaks for the park. You should simply take your time for Alton Towers, preferably two days, maybe even including a visit to the water park and a booking for the roller coaster restaurant in the evening.
But first we sanctify the Wicker Man. On the site of the old squeaky duck log ride The Flume, England’s first roller coaster from the manufacturer Great Coaster International was built during the last year and thus, after a very long time, a new wooden roller coaster. The theme of the ride is based on the cult of the Wicker Man, a sacrificial figure made of wicker – which in the past may have included people (be it only as a Roman fantasy or nowadays by dramaturgical means in movies and television) – and which was supposed to bring a rich harvest to the Celts by burning them. It is therefore quasi an analogy to Alton Towers itself, which hope for new streams of visitors by alienating visitors.
The ride itself seems a bit strange, only up close it can really convince. The Wicker Man itself is an impressive structure and looks surprisingly good with the artificial fires. The real fires on the shoulders of the sculpture on the other hand were stopped shortly after the premiere – you can guess why. The queue leads you next to the Wicker Man on a hill from which you have a wonderful view of the hustle and bustle underneath you. In a very fast rhythm, train after train is climbing the two-stage lift hill, which reminds a little bit of old Rct times, because it is first steep and then a bit flatter. In reverse order, the way leads us down the hill. I really appreciate the ingenious solution of the lift, as this solution provides an ideally accessible engine house. I also found the guidance of the chain for the first part of the lift personally quite exciting. Anyway, after some stairs we can hand in our bag. Actually Merlin-typical, but here in the park it is a return to old traditions. It was somehow silly that this system was removed everywhere else in the park. After a short holding room, a pre-show room follows, in which it is revealed to us in a very effective way, that we should be sacrificed right away. Of course, we are not averse to all this and soon we take a seat in the provided train.
We leave the station of Wicker Man in a right turn, which promptly becomes steeper and steeper. In the perpendicular to the station line we change direction and throw ourselves into our fellow passenger or into the side wall of the car. Parallel to the station, we then reach the lift hill of the complex that first takes us up a little steeper and then a little less steep. At the top we turn immediately into a tunnel. In a left helix we gain a little bit of speed before a sudden descent skillfully lifts us out of our seats. Back in the daytime, we thresh through a valley, only to dive into another tunnel shortly afterwards. During this dive we board over an unmatched airtime hill, whereupon all contact with the seat is interrupted at first. This is followed by a very steep drop that leads to the right and to the valley to the left. With 70 km/h we cross the Wicker Man for the first time and immediately climb a hill. In the following turn we race around a part of the queue before we approach the detonator with small airtime hops. Following the valley after the second passage, we climb another hill in two stages, where we could at least theoretically take a short breather. But instead of a neatly inclined right turn, another highlight of the layout awaits us, after which we mercilessly snuggle up to the left side of the train. Oh, lateral forces are something nice. Just before we know it we drop down the last big hill of the layout into the valley. Here we cross the Wicker Man a third time and get moistened with steam. In another right/left turn combination we climb the hill once more, whereupon we find ourselves immediately in the braking section of the layout after a short straight line. This is followed by the maintenance house of the ride, where many park guests now prepare for the free fall. Th13teen probably disturbs a lot of people.if you asked yourself “What’s in the shed?” the answer is quite simple: Nothing.
The Wicker Man is a really awesome wooden roller coaster that fits perfectly into the park’s secret weapon line-up. The ride doesn’t reinvent a wooden roller coaster, but it defines an overall experience that has never been seen before in the park’s roller coasters. Furthermore, the ride lives through its literal interplay of valley and hills including the triple interaction with the wicker man. Since Alton Towers – like many parks in Great Britain – is subject to strict height restrictions, the layout is always very close to the ground, which is very beneficial for the up and downhill ride. I also like the length of the ride, as it feels just right, which makes the layout in contrast to many of the newer European wooden coasters, like Heidi-The Ride from Plopsaland De Panne and Timber! from Walibi Rhône-Alpes, which are far too short for my personal taste. To sum up, I was surprised and still am blown away by the ride, which I think is on top of the GCI roller coasters.
After five years, the queue of The Smiler roller coaster looks quite battered, which of course doesn’t affect the quality of the ride. I just love the coaster. The VR update of the roller coaster Air and the name Galactica on the other hand just don’t please me. Without the glasses, the ride is still my favourite Flying Coaster, but with the glasses, the pacing or the feeling of speed during the ride is missing. Furthermore the picture was so strangely shifted to the left when the ride started, which makes the VR experience rather limp. Anyway, the movie doesn’t look that cheap, just a bit unimaginative. Theoretically, there is also sound, but that was missing completely.
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