Thematically, it doesn't seem like an obvious fit for a family (or, rather, let's say "family-accessible") ride, a category borne out by its 1.2m minimum height restriction. Despite not being based on the famous 1973 horror film, it's the connection most adults are likely to make. And yet, through a mixture of ingenious ride design and a well-executed narrative package, it works a treat.
We're guided through the experience by the Beornen, a pagan community residing in the woodlands around Alton Towers whose wellbeing depends on a ritual ceremony, initiated by a gift to their deity of “the chosen few” who will pass through the flames of an effigy. A role which is, in typical theme park fashion, accidentally taken by us by stubbornly refusing to leave the line.
(And given the various battles the park has had with their neighbours over the years, perhaps this outcome is no great narrative leap, anyway.)
It's far from the first time the park has called on (or created) its own local mythology for attraction narratives; Hex and Th13teen being two other notable examples. But the history and landscape of the area so inexorably wraps Alton Towers that choosing to embrace it makes for experiences that feel like a genuine part of the park's fabric – creating, in a sense, a more sincere kind of theme park than one simply structured around the notion of brand depositories.
Before we even get to the ride, wicker sculptures draw us in from the surrounding area – and the Beornen have taken over the nearby pub, transforming it into 'The Welcom-Inn.' (My heart broke a little when I realised they'd missed out on the possibility of 'Icumen Inn,' though that's maybe a niche Wicker Man reference too far.)
After a queue line that wraps around the structure of the ride, there's a pretty simple pre-show room to kick things off, introducing the narrative conceit of the attraction. Of itself, this moment isn't especially remarkable, using some basic projection mapping and odours to engage the senses. But it does enough to give context to the experience we're about to be thrust into.
Which brings me to the only aspect of the attraction that really jarred for me. Upon entry to the station, we find a train unloading its previous batch of passengers, ready for us. Although the narrative goes that our role is simply to pass through the flames – rather than succumb to them – there's an inherent, thrilling danger to this interaction with the elements. After all the hype, it somewhat diminishes the conceit to see a batch of riders safely and calmly returned ahead of us.
(I know, I know; it's such a minor gripe for something that would incur a hefty hit to the construction budget. But after such good and committed work had been done to imaginatively engage us in the premise, I really longed for a separate exit platform to allow the trains to be waiting for us empty.)
That aside – on to the ride. In many respects, it's a typical Alton Towers roller coaster, packing more of a punch than most rides so low to the ground would manage. The park has always struggled with the restrictions imposed by the surrounding communities, but rides such as Nemesis and Air (now Galactica) have made a virtue of this by making interactions with the landscape an integral part of their designs. Wicker Man is no different; a successor to those that have come before it.
It whips round corners, shoots up tunnels and hurtles past its own structure in ways that surprised me even on a fifth or sixth ride, offering everything you want from a GCI build. And then, of course, there is the incredible weenie at its heart: the six-story Wicker Man structure that it flies through three times during the ride, each time accompanied by fire, smoke and video effects that are an absolute delight.
Having only experienced the ride at night, I can't say how effective these effects will be during the daylight hours in which most riders will see them. But the shape of track itself so artfully intersects with the structure at these points that they really serve as a 'plus' to an already thrilling bit of ride design – so I applaud the park for choosing to invest in them all the same.
It isn't the longest ride – lasting around two minutes, including the lift hill – but nonetheless feels like a complete experience. It's perfectly pitched at a level designed to be accessible to the pre-teen crowd while still giving a thrill to adult audiences. Even if members of your party choose not to ride, the park have done an excellent job of creating absolute theatre simply from the sidelines – the combination of the ride and its surrounding sensory elements creates a dynamic environment.
And that concept is inherent in every element of its design. In keeping with the rituals of the Wicker Man, this is a ride that riffs on both harmony and counterpoint to its natural environment – hurtling toward the ground in one moment before running along its contours in the next; building, shaking and burning its core material.
We're so used to seeing roller coasters designed in isolation from their environments then given a generic branding – it's a real joy to see one where each design choice draws from and develops an artistic statement. It's been a twenty-something year wait, but this is a mini-masterpiece that earns its place at the centre of the park.
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