Theme Park Insider

A Yank's first visit to a Brit theme park and resort

June 3, 2017, 10:35 AM · ALTON, Staffordshire, United Kingdom — The idea of visiting Alton Towers, arguably the UK's premier theme park, had long intrigued me and I finally got an opportunity to go there. I'd never visited a theme park outside North America so this was something fresh and new.

Alton Towers Resort and Theme Park is essentially in the middle of nowhere, deep in the English countryside of Staffordshire. I took the train from London to Stoke on Trent and was fortunate enough to be sitting next to a woman who was not only getting off at Stoke but who insisted upon driving me to Alton Towers, which saved me a £30 cab fare. From the train station to the resort it was about a 40-minute drive on winding country roads.

Accommodations at the resort consist of two hotels and Enchanted Village Woodland Lodges. I stayed one night at Alton Towers Hotel, the more elegant of the two, and one night at the Caribbean-themed Splash Landings Hotel. Rooms in both are equipped with a double bed and bunk beds, perfect for a family getaway. Splash Landings also encompasses a water park. It offers a good dinner buffet and is perfectly adequate if you don't mind 1) lack of air conditioning on a hot day and 2) loud accordion music playing every time you step into the lift. Service at both hotels was outstanding. Both provide a complimentary breakfast but the difference between these and hotels in the USA is that it was necessary to reserve a specific time for breakfast.

Alton Towers Hotel

Splash Landings

The theme park is somewhat of a hike from the hotels and car parks but easily accessed by the monorail. Hotel guests are entitled to early ride time beginning at 9 am (the park opens at 10) and the monorail begins operation at 8:30. So off to the park it was to take advantage of this. Of the major roller coasters closest to the park entrance, only Oblivion was operating. It wasn't until about 11 am that they got The Smiler up and running, but I'll go into more detail about the coasters later.

What makes Alton Towers so different from any other theme park I've visited is that it shares a tract of land with buildings of historical significance. The Alton Towers Estate a/k/a Alton Towers Castle, originally a fort, was redeveloped in 1801 and is a "listed building" (landmark). The setting is beautiful and heavily wooded. Zoning regulations prohibit erecting attractions above the tree line and this is most likely the reason that Oblivion features an underground tunnel. I was told by a ride op – but have not verified this – that the reason the track of Rita is red in some spots and green in others is that this makes it blend in with the trees. And speaking of trees, the Skyride that I boarded near the Dark Forest section of the park in order to get to Forbidden Valley (location of Nemesis and Galactica) afforded a spectacular view of the landscape but didn't allow good aerial photography of the rides because they were mostly obscured by the trees.

Alton Towers Estate

Alton Towers Castle

Food is reasonably priced for a theme park except for the Rollercoaster Restaurant, which I skipped. I was able to get a very tasty vegetarian burger that came with fries and a drink for £6.95. That's less than I would have paid for the equivalent at a US theme park, where the drink would have cost extra.

There is obviously a lot to see and do at Alton Towers, including CBeebies Land for kids, but I went for the coasters, so let's talk about those. Alton Towers' coaster lineup boasts the first dive coaster to ever be built, and the coaster that holds the world record for most inversions.

My first two rides were on Oblivion, which dives 180 feet into a tunnel after the holding brake is released and ascends a right overbanked turn before returning to the station. The ride is short but sweet. The Smiler provided a pretty awesome ride experience, with a heartline roll in the dark right out of the station. After the second lift hill – this one vertical – it really kicks into high gear. It was rough in spots but nonetheless enjoyable enough to merit repeat rides. I did wonder whether 14 inversions might be a bit much but blimey, no problem and nothing to it. The drag racing-themed Rita was a fun ride, especially the launch, but nothing exceptional.

Oblivion 1

Oblivion 2

Smiler 1

Smiler + Bobbie

Rita

What did strike me as exceptional was Thi3teen, of which I was unable to get a photograph because, you got it, it's hidden by trees. The highlight of the ride occurs when the train enters a tunnel with flashing lights and other visual effects, drops vertically twice in the dark and the riders are propelled through the tunnel backwards. Nemesis is as intense as the best inverts I've ridden. While somewhat rough and in need of a paint job, it's exciting enough for me to have ridden it several times.

Finally, Galactica, formerly known as Air, proved to be the most surprising of the lot. Unfortunately, the VR headgear was not operating so I rode it without any enhancements – not that it needs any. I've never been a fan of flying coasters except for Flying Dutchmans and dreaded getting on this. Well, surprise, surprise! This turned out to be a vastly entertaining ride, very smooth and far, far superior to the only other B&M flyer I've ridden. Of the six major coasters at Alton Towers, it should be noted that Oblivion, Smiler and Thi3teen have single rider queues, so I was able to get on fairly quickly. And while these coasters may seem tame compared with some I've ridden in the States, they are all quality rides. Not a dud in the lot.

Nemesis 1

Nemesis 2

Galactica

Unlike most US theme parks, Alton Towers has very limited hours of operation at this time of year. It closes at 5pm, even on weekends. Also unlike most US theme parks, Alton Towers is without drinking fountains (at least I didn't notice any) although this is typical of public places in the UK. Otherwise ride and general operations are pretty much the same as in the US but somewhat better. During my visit park staff went out of their way to make guests feel happy about visiting the park. More than once a team member asked me whether I was having a good day. I certainly was. I managed to get in a total of 14 roller coaster rides in a scenic setting and experience something out of the ordinary. What a fun adventure! Alton Towers is a destination that I highly would recommend.

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Replies (14)

June 3, 2017 at 10:47 AM · I agree wholehartedly that Air didn't need a gimmick like VR. The sooner this fad of sticking VR headsets on roller coasters dies the better.

The Location is a PITA. There are shuttle busses from a few train/bus stations, but realistically you probably do want to be either staying on site, or have a car... On my visit (some time ago) I was trapped on an overcrowded bus next to a stinking bin... I'm not one for getting car sick but I came close that day.

June 3, 2017 at 11:11 AM · Glad you enjoyed Alton towers, by far the best theme park we have to offer in the UK. The good thing about Alton atowers is the fact that you can't see all the roller coasters and that it is spread out a lot, unlike Thorpe park where you can see all 5 of the main coasters as you enter the park. I'm also going to alton towers in a couple of weeks.
Did you get a chance to ride HEX as it is a really well themed dark ride attraction, one that many UK parks do not offer.
June 3, 2017 at 12:47 PM · Glad you had a nice trip.

By the way nemesis has just had a paint job, it's supposed to look rusty!

June 3, 2017 at 2:14 PM · @Jack Edwards - No, I didn't get a chance to ride HEX due to time constraints. I'm accustomed to visiting theme parks that stay open until 10pm on Saturdays and with Alton Towers closing 5 hours earlier than that I was frantic about getting one more ride on Smiler before I had to leave. Yes, the layout of the park is very good although I believe that the way the attractions are spaced has a lot to do with zoning regulations.
June 3, 2017 at 2:25 PM · Shame. Hex is one of the greatest rides there is. The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory dark ride is also awesome.
June 4, 2017 at 3:40 AM · Nemesis had a paint job in the last 18 months or so. It's meant to look like that.
June 4, 2017 at 10:52 AM · I know it's probably not comparable to Hex, Bobbie, but if you've been on Houdini at Great Adventure it's the same ride system as that.
June 4, 2017 at 5:00 PM · @Jaiden - OMG, then it's a good thing I didn't go on it. A friend, tragically now deceased, who appeared with me in a video for TPI talked me into going on Houdini without telling me anything about it and I got sick. Motion sickness.
June 5, 2017 at 8:00 AM · There isn't actually a "holding brake" at the top of Oblivion. Just like other B&M Dive Machines in the US, the top of the first drop is actually a chain drive. Once the train reaches the top of the lift hill, it turns and passes through a set of block brakes (both magnetic and pneumatic on newer B&Ms like Griffon and Valraven) to control the speed of the train as it approaches the crest of the first drop. After the train slows, it locks into a chain drive that slowly pushes the train over the edge. The speed of the chain drive is deliberately slow to make it feel like you're being hung over the edge of the drop, but the train never actually comes to a complete stop. Then, once the train gets completely over the edge, the "chain dogs" let go and the train drops down the vertical track. Depending upon weight distribution and spring strength in the chain dogs, trains may actually drop at different spots on the track (give or take 3-5 feet of track length). Dive Machine trains actually have 2 sets of chain dogs, one for the lift chain (to prevent the coaster from slipping back down the lift hill) and the second set that is deployed after passing through the block brakes to lock into the drop chain drive.

The next time you're on a dive machine, take a close look at the track below just before the train drops, and you will see that the train never actually comes to a complete stop. I also thought B&M Dive Machines used a holding brake too, until I took a coaster tour at BGW where guests can ride up to the top of Griffon's lift hill and see up close the mechanism that allows the train to drop.

June 6, 2017 at 7:26 AM · Great article and it looks like you had some sunny weather in Staffordshire! Amazing. I think the park closes early due to noise and neighbour complaints. AT has had a lot of trouble with that. Also, it may in part be due to British visiting habits, in an often damp/cool climate ppl are less inclined to stay out into the evening and as it's in the middle of nowhere too, unless ppl are staying onsite (which most aren't) they are going to need to head home earlier. There's miles of country roads before you get to the main highways, so many people will have at least an hour or two's drive home.
June 6, 2017 at 2:08 PM · Most enlightening and interesting, Russell. I suspect it's commonly thought that dive coasters use a holding brake. That brings me to impulse coasters. I'm assuming that they do use a holding brake although this is not the sort of detail one can find by Googling it.
June 7, 2017 at 6:25 AM · For impulse coaster, it actually depends upon what you consider a "holding brake". Typically, he LSMs will "hold" the train in a stopped position until the motors fire and start propelling the train. However, some impulse coasters are also equipped with addition magnetic and/or pneumatic brakes that are use to slow or stop the train into the correct position to get the LSMs to properly accelerate the train. An impulse coaster like V2 or Wicked Twister uses brakes to hold the train during loading and to slow the train at the end of the cycle, but once it's ready to launch, those brakes are disengage and the train is held in place momentarily by the LSMs with a stead current until they start alternating currents to move the train.
June 8, 2017 at 1:28 PM · Great review Bobbie! What a nice park, living in Canada I've never been to a park overseas. I love the setting in the English countryside, what a unique and historic location, look at that castle! Lots of trees is a big plus in my book, it doesn't look so cookie-cutter. Where will you take us next Bobbie? Cheers!

Lots of interesting facts regarding dive coasters on this page, I will experience this on Valravn @ CP in July. My first dive coaster.

June 9, 2017 at 6:08 AM · Russel, he means the holding brakes found at the top of the spikes on some impulse coasters, can't name which but I want to say V2 at SFGAm or SFGA

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