Alton Towers is often regarded as one of best theme parks in England and among the more popular in all of Europe, but because of its location nearly three hours away from London - and even an hour or more from Liverpool and Manchester - it can be a very difficult theme park to reach without renting a car. There are ways to get to the park using public transit (a combination of train and bus is commonly touted as the best way to reach the park from major English airports), but a series of motorways and some narrow, winding roads in a rental car (or rideshare) are probably the most efficient way to reach Alton Towers. This was one of the primary reasons why we chose to rent a car for the first half of our Spring Break trip to England earlier this month. I know some people are intimidated by driving on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car (by American and mainland European standards), but probably the biggest challenge for most is the manual transmission common in most English rental cars. Luckily, I grew up driving a stick shift, and drove a car with a manual transmission for a number of years, so I was up for the challenge.
We did quite a bit of research on Alton Towers prior to arriving, and as noted in my previous report, we purchased Merlin annual passes – my wife and Zach got Silver level passes, while I bought a Gold level pass so we could have free parking at all of the parks and also discounts for Fastrack (Merlin parks' line skipping service). I’ll also note that Merlin is still requiring guests to make reservations for all the attractions that they manage, and the various annual pass levels grant different privileges in terms of making those reservations. (I won’t go into too much depth here other than both the Gold and Silver passes we purchased were blacked out on the Saturday and Sunday of Easter weekend, which affected some of our planning.)
Also, of all the tips I read about traveling to Alton Towers, many noted the need to allow for extra travel time not only for traffic, but also for the walk from the parking lot. Despite allowing for an extra 30 minutes to travel to the park from our Birmingham-area hotel, we still didn’t reach the front gate prior to rope drop. We were already planning to purchase Fastrack Platinum (unlimited rides on all major attractions), so being a few minutes late didn’t ruin our day, but if you want to reduce your time waiting in lines without purchasing Fastrack, I will reiterate the recommendations we received to allow plenty of extra time to travel to the park and walk (or take the infrequent monorail) from the main parking lot to the front gate – the walk is noticeably longer than Six Flags Over Georgia and Six Flags Magic Mountain, for those familiar with those American parks.
Once we passed through security and purchased Fastrack, it was time to experience as much of Alton Towers as we could fit into a single day (the park was open from 10am until 6pm on our visit). Alton Towers has been a tourist attraction since 1860, when it was operated as a country estate (and occasional fairgrounds), but has only been a theme park since 1980. You can kind of see that lack of maturity in the way the park is laid out with attractions grouped together in loosely themed lands, but with lots of empty space between those areas. That space and anticipated crowds is why we opted to pay extra for Fastrack here and not at Thorpe Park (with its more compact layout). The park is listed at 910 acres, and while that acreage includes the parking lots, backstage areas, and resort hotels, the theme park itself is probably close to if not bigger than EPCOT (estimated at 300 acres), though major attractions are evenly distributed around the park. The size of the park is not necessarily overwhelming from a physical exertion standpoint, but it does require some level of strategy to avoid backtracking, which may be inevitable because of attraction breakdowns.
We knew before arriving that one of the park’s best attractions, Nemesis, would be down. The B&M invert is being rebuilt (a la Hulk), and early rumors are that it will resume operations in 2024, perhaps with enhanced theming. There was active work occurring on the coaster during our visit with large sections of track removed and heavy equipment moving materials around the site. It’s a bit of a bummer that we couldn’t ride what many coaster fans feel is one of the best inverted coasters in the world, but it gives us a reason to return some day. Another coaster we knew would not be operating during our visit would be Spinball Whizzer, which was still going through offseason maintenance. This spinning wild-mouse style coaster looked interesting with a half-pipe style element, but probably not dramatically different from other similar coasters we’ve ridden in the US.
Thanks to Fastrack, we were able to systematically walk around the park and ride attractions as we reached them instead of chasing shorter lines (FWIW, the Alton Towers app is useful for attraction updates and queue times, though wifi throughout the park is spotty). We worked our way around the generally circular park layout in a clockwise manner, starting with Wicker Man. Wicker Man is the newest coaster in the park, built in 2018, and part of the wave of modern GCI wooden coasters that have earned rave reviews around the world like InvadR at BGW, Mystic Timbers at KI, and Texas Stingray at SWSA. Wicker Man doesn’t break any records but won’t break any backs or need an RMC makeover because of intolerable roughness. As we found with all of Alton Towers’ (and many of Thorpe Park’s) coasters, Wicker Man has solid theming that includes not only the queue and station, but also along the track with a massive wooden Druid idol at the center of the twisting layout.
The queue even contains a creepy preshow that gets guests into the mood just before boarding the mythical coaster. I was really impressed with the overall theming throughout the experience but felt that the coaster could have been a bit better, especially during the second half of the layout where the train runs out of steam. There are some decent pops of both ejector and floater airtime, but Mystic Timbers is still my top next-gen GCI.
The next coaster along our clockwise path would have been Runaway Mine Train, but because the attraction was listed as closed on the app after we rode Wicker Man, we skipped it to head towards the Curse of Alton Manor located in Gloomy Wood. We did circle back to Runaway Mine Train later in the day and found an interesting Mack powered coaster that was a departure from traditional mine trains in the US. I would probably categorize this more as a “kiddie” coaster, but there were some surprisingly intense elements, including a tight helix that plunges into a tunnel adjacent to the nearby rapid ride. The coaster also makes two circuits despite a relatively long layout, which causes the queue to move rather slowly. I’m not sure why they operate the coaster this way, but a single run around the track was plenty long enough for an attraction of this caliber.
As you walk along the pathways between Wicker Man and Gloomy Wood, an area known as Haunted Hollow, there are a number of props and effects that are more like what would see at a Halloween event.
It’s a clever way to create interest along the long, heavily wooded pathways between attractions, but I felt like this area was a big chunk of wasted space.
We eventually made our way to Curse of Alton Manor, a dark ride attraction that debuted this year with new theming centered around Emily Alton, a ghostly character that draws guests into her demented dollhouse. This ride has a bit of Haunted Mansion to it, utilizing tons of special effects, clever tricks, and forced perspective to make this attraction more like a classic haunted house than an attraction full of “happy haunts.”
I was really impressed with the overall experience of Curse of Alton Manor, though I wish I got some of the Easter eggs and references to previous attractions that are undoubtedly appreciated by frequent visitors.
As we walked further around the park, we got a good look at the construction around Nemesis and were hoping to ride Galactica. However, the B&M flier would experience quite a bit of downtime, and we ended up circling back to the coaster later in the day. Because of restrictions at Alton Towers that limit attraction heights to the surrounding tree line, the park cannot build massive coasters without digging deep trenches (like Nemesis and Oblivion), so a Pretzel Loop, an element found on pretty much every B&M flier, isn’t possible. However, what B&M delivers with Galactica (formerly Air) in their first-ever flying coaster design is an excellent terrain coaster that hugs the gentle hills of the Forbidden Valley to accentuate the flying position. While I’d probably still rate Manta (SeaWorld Orlando) and Tatsu (SFMM) higher than Galactica, B&M got a lot of things right with this coaster. The theming in and around the station reminded me a lot of Millennium Force with its futuristic space theme, but aside from a futuristic-looking ring element that the train flies through, there’s not a ton of theming on the ride.
Nonetheless, I was enthralled with Galactica – definitely better than the Superman clones, and if not for the fact it was down for a big chunk of the day (creating long lines when it opened mid-afternoon, even in the Fastrack queue), I would have liked to have taken a couple more rides on the coaster.
Continuing our clockwise tour of the park we entered one of the most unique areas of a theme park I’ve ever seen. When looking at the park map, The Gardens looks like a small, landscaped area between Forbidden Valley and the Dark Forest. If the skyride had been running, we probably wouldn’t have bothered walking through this area, and would have saved quite a bit of time and energy. The Gardens is a remnant of the original Victorian Estate that is full of winding gravel pathways, sculptures, and various structures.
It’s a quiet and beautiful area, but really out of place in what is predominantly a thrill park. There are no traditional attractions, restaurants, or restrooms to be found in The Gardens, but the area provides a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of a theme park.
Once we found our way out of The Gardens, we arrived at Th13teen, which was the first coaster in the world with a drop track. I’ve ridden both Verbolten (Busch Gardens Williamsburg) and Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure (Islands of Adventure), so this would not be my first experience with this element. While that part of the coaster is thrilling, the rest of the attraction was mediocre. The trains on Th13teen are tight, and more like mine trains, which can be a bit uncomfortable even for average-sized adults. Most of the course is in the woods with plenty of near miss elements that accentuate the speed of the coaster, which is necessary given that the top speed is just 41.6 MPH. I appreciated the final section of the queue leading to the station that included a large van de Graaff generator and other nice thematic elements. However, this was a one-and-done for us and was probably diminished having previously ridden other drop track coasters.
Right next door to Th13teen is Rita, an Intamin hydraulic launch coaster. The theming on this one is well done by highlighting the hot-rod culture, including fog effects and sounds during the launch to simulate smoking rubber during a peel-out. This is the first coaster of this type I’ve ridden that doesn’t have a top hat, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, with the track featuring a double figure-8 style layout with loads of positive G’s - more so than what you experience on its predecessor, Xcelerator.
A few steps beyond Rita is one of the 2 major areas of the park designed for families with small children and themed around the works of David Walliams.
I know nothing about the author here (nor anything about the IP theming the other kids’ area, CBeebies Land, which we didn’t have time to explore), but we did hop on Gangsta Granny: The Ride. Guests hop in cars to help Gangsta Granny steal the Crown Jewels in a dark ride style attraction that’s probably not worth the 45-60 minute waits we saw throughout the day, but certainly worth checking out with our Fastrack (allowed us to board after waiting less than three minutes). The effects and story are well done, though I think they could have been better if the vehicles were full motion-bases. Also, the eight-person capacity per vehicle obviously led to the significant lines we observed throughout the day, and a larger load platform and show building probably could improve throughput on the attraction.
Adjacent to Gangsta Granny is Hex, which was not operating during our visit. I was hopeful we’d get a chance to ride this, but luckily, we had ridden a similar ride at Legoland a few days earlier. Hex is built into the Alton Towers “castle,” which is directly across the central lake from the main park entrance. Guests can explore some of the grounds around the building, but there isn’t a whole lot to see here – I was hoping for more than a small courtyard and exterior views of a building that could use some restoration.
As you continue clockwise from the Towers, you reach X-Sector, which is home to Oblivion and The Smiler. Oblivion was the world’s first B&M Dive Machine, and while it’s only 68 feet above the ground at its highest point, it features a 180-foot drop into a tunnel that carves its way underneath the heart of X-Sector. I’ve ridden SheiKra, Griffon, and Valravn, and while Oblivion doesn’t come close to the statistics of those newer coasters, it makes up for it with its drop into nothingness.
The design of the drop is such that you can’t really see how far it goes, and the train speeds through the tunnel in such a way that you’re back into the light before you know it. Yes, Oblivion is the definition of a one-trick pony, but what a trick that is. Only the second drop on SheiKra comes close to the feeling of Oblivion’s drop, and I wish that parks considering B&M Dive Machines would understand how much more powerful a modest plunge into nothingness is compared to a 200+ foot drop.
Next to Oblivion is The Smiler, which was the coaster we were most looking forward to riding, and thus saved it for last. The Smiler is the current record holder for most inversions at 14. Zach and I have both ridden Steel Curtain, which is the North American inversion record holder with eight, but those occur over a sprawling layout whereas The Smiler negotiates six more inversions over an incredibly compact layout. The Smiler looks like a tangled web of track with trains seemingly flying at each other from all directions.
Similar to Oblivion, The Smiler’s over-arching theme leans into the common British trope of compliance. You don’t ride The Smiler, you become one with The Smiler, and the mesmerizing flashing lights in the queue and uniformed ride ops with the black and yellow striped socks make you feel like you’re about to go through a psychedelic car wash. In fact, I thought after going through 14 inversions in just under three minutes, my head would feel like it went through the wash, but surprisingly the pacing and intensity of the coaster are near perfection. There are a few rough, head-banging patches if you happen to be seated in the back of the train’s three rows, but in general, the ride is more sublime than you would think. I do wish the park hours extended into the evening so I could experience The Smiler at night, but the five rides we took were all excellent and not disorienting in the slightest. It was probably for the best that we saved The Smiler until the end of the day, because if we had started here, we might not have left X-Sector.
After our fifth and final ride on The Smiler, the park was closing. However, our day inside Alton Towers was not yet complete. We had made reservations to have dinner at the Roller Coaster Restaurant, which stays open well beyond park closing time. The restaurant is located in Forbidden Valley, adjacent to Galactica, and there is a smaller entrance here from the parking lot if you’re dining after park hours (I do wish this entrance was open in the morning, as it would save a lot of walking from the parking lot to the front gate). This was one of a number of Roller Coaster Restaurants found elsewhere in Europe, but as far as I know there’s nothing like this in the US. Once you enter, you’ll understand what makes this restaurant so unique. There is a labyrinth of track above your head that leads to various lazy Susan-style tables around the dining room. Guests are seated at tables and are directed to a QR code on the table to pull up the menu and place their order. Once you’ve placed your order online, the second-floor kitchen prepares your items and pushes them down the track corresponding to your table. It’s a symphony of chaos with dishes flying every which way (and occasionally getting stuck to the point where staff have to get on a ladder to give them a gentle push down the track).
It’s highly entertaining, and a clever way to serve a meal, particularly in a world where restaurants are looking to reduce labor costs. The menu is a bit pedestrian, so don’t expect anything too inventive, but most guests dining here are probably more interested in the experience than quality or quantity (portion sizes are decidedly on the small size to fit in the containers used on the coaster tracks).
We absolutely enjoyed our day at Alton Towers, and despite the cost to purchase Fastrack, it was completely worth it on a visit that likely be the only one we will have to this park for a long time. Some attractions like Oblivion and The Smiler were better than expected, while others like Th13teen and Wicker Man did measure up to similar attraction we’ve ridden elsewhere. However, the theming for all of the coasters was well beyond what I expected – certainly above typical Cedar Fair and Six Flags theming, and maybe even a touch better than some Busch Gardens/Sea World coasters. I would definitely recommend renting a car just so you can make a trip to this park - it definitely lived up to our expectations.
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For discounted tickets to the park, please visit our partner's Alton Towers tickets page.
Previously from Russell: Spring Break in England: A Trip to Legoland Windsor
Other Alton Towers trip reports: A Yank's first visit to a Brit theme park and resort, Alton Towers 1 November 2021 Report
Welcome to England, Russell! Glad you enjoyed your trip to Alton Towers.
Great report, Russell! I'd love to get to this park during Halloween season, as I really enjoyed the Fright Nights event at Thorpe Park a few years ago.
Something that I didn't mention that I thought was interesting was how a number of the big attractions at Alton Towers (and a couple at Thorpe Park) handled loose articles. Instead of having pay lockers or using bins on the load/unload platform, a number of coasters had a staffed room located prior to the station where guests could hand over bags and other loose articles to be placed in storage cubbies. Guests would be given a numbered rubber bracelet in exchange for their stuff, and when they were done done riding, guests would take their bracelet to a window on the exit side of the storage room to get their items back. While this method of handling loose articles takes some extra staffing, I thought it was an efficient and convenient way to handle the problem of guests with loose articles on thrill rides.
Good, thorough report. Agreed that Galactica is far superior to Superman. I really enjoyed this coaster except when I rode it with a VR headset on my 2nd visit to AT. Technical difficulties. I liked Wicker Man a lot more than you did; it's just so much fun that I could ride it all day. Agreed that the 14 inversions on Smiler are easy to handle. I've had a longstanding fascination with this coaster and three of my most prized possessions are a Smiler jacket, jumper (sweater to you not in the UK) and T-shirt. I found Rita mediocre and liked Th13Teen more than you did; going backwards was a blast. Too bad you didn't get to ride Nemesis; I rode it a bunch of times and it's truly one of the most iconic coasters I've ever ridden. Of course a trench was dug for Oblivion out of necessity due to height restrictions but now that you mention it, digging a trench for other B&M dive coasters would not be a bad idea. Too bad Spinball Whizzer was closed. This one really packs a punch. Didn't ride it until my 2nd of 3 visits to AT and it's the 1st spinning coaster I rode which made me seriously dizzy. That being said, I'd ride it again in a second because the spinning is out of this world. AT is one of the most beautiful parks I've ever visited and I can't say enough good about it. As to getting there, the way I got there strikes me as easier than renting a car. It's about an hour and a half train ride from London if you take the fast train to Stoke On Trent and from there it's about a 25 minute taxi ride to the park. Never tried the Rollercoaster Restaurant because it's a bit pricey and in any case the tempura vegetables at Alton Towers Hotel are so good that I decided to stick with them. Would have made a 4th visit to AT had it not been for the pandemic. Plan was to go there and then go on to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, where I'd pick up a bunch of coaster credits.
Another excellent trip report, Russell! I haven't yet been to Alton Towers, though it's on the list as soon as I'm able to do a UK coaster trip (fingers crossed it will happen in the next 2-3 years). I did, however, get a chance to visit several parks in Germany and Spain last year, and by far one of the biggest differences I noticed is that the theme part of "theme park" is not treated as optional over there. Even if it's not story-driven and just atmospheric, rarely are rides at any of the major parks completely devoid of theming, and while smaller parks are often a bit lighter, they are usually on par with Cedar Fair's more recent efforts. A good comparison is what SeaWorld/Busch Gardens used to do would be considered above average among US regional parks, but merely average in Europe. There were even a few rides that could be dropped beside the average Disney or Universal E-ticket and would match or exceed it in quality.
As for the loose articles, Alton's sister park in Germany, Heide Park, used a system just like that on one of their coasters and it worked very well. What I found even better were a few rides that used "spin bins," where you could store your possessions before boarding, then they'd be rotated around to the exit ramp to be claimed as you leave without causing clutter on either platform. In general, European parks seem to do everything much more efficiently than their American counterparts (or perhaps that's just a German thing).
Nice trip report! I'll likely be in London in a few months, so this park is on my list!
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I really like AT for the same reasons you did, while its by no means the best at anything in particular (including coasters) the place just has a vibe that makes it different form every other park in the world. Its like a large medieval forest complete with an abandoned estate, gardens, and creepy themed roller coasters. Its a shame you didn't get on Nemesis it was the best attraction in the park, sadly the new paint looks tacky IMO.
Also this is totally unrelated to your TR but you did bring up the theming at Galactica, one thing I noticed when I was there were the signs over the rows said "GALACTICA GATE 1" "GALACTICA GATE 2" etc instead of just saying row 1, 2....which means you know those signs used to say "AIR GATE 1" "AIR GATE 2" etc. Someone had a sense of humor when designing the station and i'm glad they kind of kept the joke going when they re-themed it.