Alton, United Kingdom
“Great coasters, but the park’s best days are long gone”
Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Thorpe Park, Legoland… the United Kingdom is home to several well-known amusement parks and resorts. But when I think about British theme parks, Alton Towers is the first thing that comes to my mind. The park can be found in a remote village, somewhere between Birmingham and Liverpool. Getting here by public transport is nearly impossible, but the unusual location adds to the park’s unique atmosphere.
This legendary theme park has spoiled its fans with some of the greatest roller coasters ever created. Alton Towers has nicknamed its greatest accomplishments as Secret Weapons. The two earliest Secret Weapons never got realized, so SW3 was the first Secret Weapon to open at the park in 1994. I’m talking about Nemesis, a one-of-a-kind B&M inverted coaster that was built in a ravine. This was mainly due to the park’s strict height regulations. Alton Towers isn’t allowed to build above the tree line, so they dig deep into the Earth’s surface instead. The ride’s statistics are everything but extraordinary, but the actual experience is unforgettable. Nemesis’ setting is absolutely stunning and the ride features a whole bunch of near misses.
Four years later, SW4 was launched (or should I say “dropped”?) as Oblivion. This became the world’s first Dive Coaster and B&M was once again hired for the job. The ride features a 55-metre decent and height regulations forced Alton Towers to put two thirds of the drop in an underground tunnel. In all honesty: Oblivion is the only Secret Weapon which hasn’t aged that well. The vertical drop is still fantastic, but the layout is just way too short if you compare it to modern Dive Machines.
SW5 was opened for the public in 2002 as Air, but it’s called Galactica nowadays. This Secret Weapon can be found at the Forbidden Valley area, right next to Nemesis. Air was B&M’s first flying coaster and it’s still one of the most unique coaster experiences to date. It’s not overly intense and it doesn’t involve pretzel loops, but the feeling of flying is performed very well. Alton Towers has made the unfortunate mistake of turning Galactica into a VR ride, but the VR glasses have disappeared again as of 2019. I’m happy about that: the ride itself is so awesome that it really doesn’t need this technological nonsense.
2010 was the year of SW6, which replaced the park’s iconic Corkscrew. Thirteen became the world’s first roller coaster to feature a vertical drop track. And despite the fact that this element has been copied by many other parks since then, Thirteen remains a surprising coaster. Still, Alton Towers acted a little silly by describing the attraction as a psychological thrill ride when it opened. In reality, Thirteen turned out to be nothing more (and nothing less) than an enjoyable family ride with a dark theme.
Alton Towers has always tried to deliver groundbreaking coasters. Thanks to this philosophy, they even managed to obtain a world record. The Smiler opened as SW7 in 2013 and it features the most inversions on any coaster in the world: you’re flipped upside down 14 times. Unfortunately, a serious accident happened with The Smiler in 2015, which resulted in a lengthy closure for the ride. Nowadays, The Smiler is up and running again and it’s surprisingly popular. Personally, I don’t like the ride that much. This is mainly due to the uncomfortable restraints and 14 inversions is just too much to be enjoyable. This world record should not be broken again, if you ask me.
The 8th (and currently last) Secret Weapon was inaugurated in 2018. Unlike its predecessors, this coaster didn’t break records or push boundaries. SW8 is just a medium-sized GCI wooden coaster called Wicker Man. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not good. This coaster’s theming is very original and the ride itself is pretty good as well. Although you shouldn’t expect the most intense ride of your life, Wicker Man turned out to be a decent family coaster.
Alton Towers’ coaster lineup is completed by a junior coaster, a powered coaster, a spinning coaster and Rita, an Intamin Accelerator. These rides weren’t awarded the Secret Weapon label and they definitely don’t perform on the same level.
The park’s haunted house has never received the Secret Weapon label, but it deserves some attention nevertheless. At the time it opened in 1992, it actually was Europe’s largest dark ride. It’s still in operation today and it’s still huge, but the park has dramatically changed the attraction in 2003. Laser guns were added and the ride is called Duel – The Haunted House Strikes Back nowadays. Theming is still excellent and I really enjoy the classic ghost train atmosphere, but the interactive element doesn’t bring much added value in my opinion.
Alton Towers’ best dark ride was integrated in The Towers, a.k.a. the castle ruins in the centre of the park. Hex – The Legend of the Towers is a Vekoma mad house, so that isn’t unusual at all. However, the creepy background story (which is based on a local legend) and the ride’s brilliant soundtrack send shivers down my spine. Story telling is the biggest strength of this attraction anyway. In fact, I even consider Hex’ two pre-shows to be more interesting than the actual mad house ride. Very impressive attraction.
The British have a strange relationship with water rides. The country isn’t exactly known for being tropical, but locals seem to adore water rides nevertheless. That’s why I always encountered a decent queue for Congo River Rapids at Katanga Canyon. Personally I don’t like getting wet, so I usually skip it. An attraction that shouldn’t be missed is the Skyride. Alton Towers is huge and the park is split in two by a large (and stunning) valley. This makes it a bit challenging to navigate the park, but the Skyride is there to cover the largest distances. Besides, it also offers incredible views of the park and its surroundings. The Skyride section between Forbidden Valley and Dark Forest is especially beautiful, as it soars above the valley.
BEAT THE CROWDS
Alton Towers is notorious for being one of the UK’s busiest theme parks. This may result in long queues and unfortunately, park hours can be extremely limited. During our most recent visit (on a warm and sunny day in June) the park was open from 10 AM until 4 PM. To make matters even worse, many of the rides didn’t start to operate until 11 o’clock. This means that we only got five hours to enjoy the full park, which is obviously too little for a major theme park like Alton Towers. Even during summer, Alton Towers usually doesn’t stay open later than 5 or 6 PM. Therefore, it requires some planning to visit all the Secret Weapons.
Queues aren’t limited to the rides inside the park, but you may already encounter a long line outside of the park gates. The parking lot is located approximately one mile from the park entrance and Alton Towers provides a monorail to cover that distance. However, the monorail usually doesn’t achieve the needed capacity, so a 45-minute queue is rather common. This certainly isn’t the most ideal way to start your day. That’s why I recommend walking to the entrance if you encounter a large queue. You’ll walk a lot during the day anyway, so an extra 20-minute stroll isn’t that bad, right?
Inside the park, there are several options to tackle the crowds. I don’t recommend starting with Wicker Man (it’s located close to the entrance, so many people ride it early), but Forbidden Valley and Dark Forest are good places to make your first coaster rides. Alton Towers also features single rider lines and paid Fast Lane tickets, so these options offer another way to shorten queues.
WORTH A VISIT?
Overall, Alton Towers is a fine theme park. We’ve ridden a few excellent coasters (Nemesis, Galactica and Thirteen are my favourites), landscaping is beautiful and Alton Towers is also home to the world’s greatest Vekoma mad house. However, the park has its flaws and it seems as if Alton Towers’ golden age is over. Recent additions aren’t on par with the park’s classic roller coasters and the short opening times are simply ridiculous. I’d definitely recommend visiting Alton Towers, but just don’t expect it to be the world’s best theme park.
ALTON TOWERS HOTEL
Am I the only one who’s intrigued by Wicker Man’s strangely shaped lift hill? What’s your favourite coaster in the Forbidden Valley? And did you also experience Alton Towers’ unbelievably short operating hours? Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this page.