Alton Towers – the best theme park in the UK?

2 10 2009

A couple of weekends ago I visited the Alton Towers theme park which is just 50 miles from our new home in Nottingham. Probably for that same reason the University of Nottingham have a number of links with Alton Towers too, not least through our new Digital Economies hub and doctoral training centre (DTC), so there was some professional interest in an otherwise family visit. My perception of Alton Towers has always been that it’s the premier theme park in the UK and it’s this I want to reflect on in this post.

My first visit to Alton Towers must have been in the mid-90s as a single male in his 20s. Thrill rides were the thing. I went back with friends after the opening of rides like Nemesis and Oblivion but then haven’t been for a while. For context, I’ve been to Disney parks in the US, Japan and France and Universal Studios and Busch Gardens in Florida. Again, mostly for the thrill rides. In the UK I went to Chessington and Thorpe Park in the 90s too.

Of course now my circumstances are different, with a wife and young family (both kids under 5). We recently went to Legoland near Windsor for a family day out (tip: spending Tesco Clubcard vouchers on this is cost effective!). After a great day out we figured that we could probably get good value from a Merlin annual pass, which gets you into Thorpe Park, Chessington, Alton Towers, the London Eye, and various other attractions. As a result, in the last few months I’ve been to all of the latter. We also went to Disney near Paris in 2008.

An interesting side note – though Merlin are the park operators they no longer own Alton Towers. The park was part of a leaseback scheme a couple of years ago. The Alton Towers park is an interesting place itself, of course, with a long history of decline leading eventually to its opening as pleasure gardens and then its eventual evolution into a theme park. It’s been through a number of owners in its guise as a theme park. (There’s a potted history on Wikipedia). One thing in particular that separates Alton Towers from many other theme parks (e.g. Chessington) is that there is lots of space, both for expansion and between the ride areas.

So, what of the park nowadays? Well the thrill rides are still there and there are new ones since I was last there (Spinball Whizzer, Air & Rita in particular). Also, like many places Alton Towers runs a parent pass scheme . You get a card listing each ride; one parent queues for a ride and gets the card stamped just before going on the ride; then the other parent can jump to the front of the queue (often in front of the fast pass line) and ride quickly. You of course have to have the kids with you to get the card. This scheme works doubly well if you buy one fast pass ticket so the first parent uses a fast pass to skip a lot of the main queue. So my wife and I were happy because we could get round the thrill rides. (I just wish that I hadn’t built up so much of a tolerance for these rides – the adrenalin and anticipation of the rides just isn’t there so much any more, though being on the rides is still fun.)

So far, so good. I think there are two issues though – one relating to having the kids along, and the other relating to the zoning and park experience.

Of course taking kids to a theme park should be a great day out for everyone (especially with the parent pass, etc.). Our experience of Alton Towers was that the kids rides are perhaps too concentrated in a couple of zones. Thorpe Park, for example, seems to have kids rides much closer to the thrill rides so everyone can be happy. Because of the larger size of the Alton Towers park, it’s actually quite a trek (especially with short under-5 legs) between the zones. Still, the rides themselves are fun (though the Charlie and The Chocolate Factory ride doesn’t really work in my opinion – it’s trying to be too macabre, doesn’t really fill the space, the animatronics and pretty poor and it doesn’t really convey the narrative of the story).

And then there’s the zones of the park. This needs some serious rethinking (tricky of course, given the rides are fixed!). The zone with Oblivion (X-Sector) feels like a half abandoned corner, Ug Land makes no sense (the Rita roller coaster is based on a drag racing theme or something and just doesn’t fit the prehistoric theme), and Storybook Land has almost nothing in it. The main entrance way, Towers Street, is a sad reflection of the main streets of places like Disney with mostly closed building hoardings rather than exciting retail outlets. All in all, I feel that Alton Towers has been resting on its laurels, relying on the thrill rides to bring people in, but in my view these parks are about the whole experience, including its weird internal logic, and not just the rides. My suspicion is that the period of ownership by Dubai International Capital, part of the Dubai sovereign wealth fund, is when the vision was lost but this is only because I suspect an investment business probably has less specific interest in the theme park business. This lack of focus on the park as a whole is also reflected in the gardens areas. The plants are reasonably well maintained and the fish thrive in the ponds but architectural features, such as the Gothic Prospect Tower seem to have been allowed to decay. Couldn’t some of the income from the rest of the park keep some of this heritage alive? Similarly, down in the gardens areas there are buildings, including what looks like an old tea room. OK, I’m middle aged and a father now (how did that happen?) – I could have killed for a decent cup of tea and some cake at a quiet spot in the gardens. It seems like a missed opportunity in the family market.

Best ride? Probably Spinball Whizzer – not the most intense ride but having the car spin round so you’re facing different directions through the ride was an exciting addition, adding a new dynamic I hadn’t experienced before.

And the ‘geo’ aspect?  Well the park’s crying out for better mapping: tailored mapping and interactive mapping are possibilities, but even the current all-in-one map could be greatly improved to help route finding through the park. Don’t put labels over the junctions! And how about virtual games in the park areas too, a form of location based activity?

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2 responses

7 10 2009
nealjb

Took my daughter to Alton Towers this wekend for her birthday with 4 friends – we had a great time Kiddie Rides galore and I have to say that the quality of the park, rides, general feel and professionalism of the presentation was, is in my opinion, pretty much on a par with the parks in the states. The quality of UK attractions has always been a real bug bare with me – we just never seem to get it quite right but I must say Alton Towers was about he best I have experienced. Unfortunately we just didn’t get the weather!

7 10 2009
jeremymorley

Maybe I overstated things – we certainly had a fun time, and there are lots of kiddie rides. However I still don’t think the kids’ rides are well distributed through the park, given its size. And Alton Towers is probably the closest to a US theme park that the UK has. However I think it does lack the slickness and pizzaz of a US park, plus there’s the edge of decay around some areas (the X-Sector and the structures in the gardens particularly).

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