Coaster Kingdom

Bling, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Friday, February 23, 2007

Pleasure Beach Blackpool has always prided itself on providing something for everyone. If you're looking for wooden coasters, no park does more to keep you happy. If steel coasters are your desire, the Pleasure Beach provides a wide variety of types. Likewise, fans of dark rides are comprehensively catered for.

However, there was always one group that was left out in the cold, namely the group to which I have always belonged, the spin-ride fanatics. T'was a sad life for we spin-merchants, having to watch as everyone else enjoyed themselves, while we were cast out, forced to search the town's piers in the hope of finding someone willing to spin us, flip us and twist us to our satisfaction.

2002 gave us the first glimmer that the park waking up to our plight, when a pair of Fabbri Boosters was opened in the guise of Spin Doctor. When this proved successful, the park looked at something a bit more adventurous for 2004, to be located on the site of the former Dodgems, near the park's south entrance.

Talk to any spin-fan, and you'll soon discover that the one ride revered like no other is Mondial's Top Scan. One of the Top Scan's previously unseen features was its star-shaped gondola, with riders sitting upon six spoke-like arms, each holding five riders, and each free to flip and tumble to its heart's content. So, how about taking this distinctive gondola, and then attaching it to an arm that spins vertically, rather than diagonally. Oh, and then let's double the size while we're at it.

This was the idea that popped into the head of somebody at Zierer, and thus the "Star Shape" was born. News of the new ride was enough to make spin-fans think the unthinkable - that the Top Scan's supremacy might be nearing an end. The only possible cloud on the horizon was that the fact that Zierer is not a firm that has much experience of building top-flight spinners, their contribution to the art of spin being confined to the Wave Swinger and Flying Carpet rides if the 1980s.

Always a park willing to try something new and unusual, the Pleasure Beach would be the proud owner of only the second Star Shape ever built (the first having gone to a German showman). So, all was looking good. Not only did we have the Pleasure Beach installing a brand new type of spinner, it was a ride that looked capable of matching, and possibly beating, the prestigious Top Scan. All we need to make things complete was a good name. Well, I'm afraid that's where things start to go downhill.

"Bling" is without doubt the most diabolical name in existence. Not even the park's own "PlayStation - The Ride" can compare, lacking the excuse of having a sponsor to placate. For those lucky enough not to understand the name, it is a reference to the "phenomenon" of Ali G, the mock-gangster-rapper who will hopefully be long forgotten by the time you read this. Given that the Pleasure Beach has a history that stretches back to the 19th Century, you'd hope that they'd be above getting involved in the latest short-term craze. Oh well, I suppose we can't have everything. I'm sure we'd all prefer to concentrate on the ride itself.

Without doubt, the ride looks tremendous. Despite standing directly in the shadow of The Big One's lift hill, it maintains a commanding presence, particularly when in motion. The bold colour scheme of red and orange is enhanced by a hypnotic array of strobe lights down the main arm. At night, the ride looks fabulous, with flashing white lights on the rear of the seats, and the strobes reflecting on the ride's structure to quite dazzling effect. Approaching along the Tom Sawyer Bridge, the ride stands majestically at the end of the walkway, despite being partially hidden by The Big One. Whatever else you say about it, it certainly fits in with Blackpool's tradition of embracing the big and the brash.

The low-key entrance is buried to the left of the ride, and offers quite spectacular views as riders pass overhead at very close quarters. A short path takes you to the rear of the structure, where a deceptively short zigzag leads to the turnstile and the loading platform. Throughout the queue, you get some terrific views of the ride, and get an earful of the powerful motors roaring menacingly as ride gathers momentum.

Loading is not exactly a model of efficiency. Unlike Thorpe Park's Top Scan, Samurai, where staff pre-organise riders into groups of five and assign them a row, here it is a case of waiting until previous riders have left the platform, then allowing 30 people through the turnstile and letting them sort themselves out. The small platform, coupled with the fact that you can only ever see two rows of seats at once, ensures that the whole loading procedure is a muddled affair.

Seating is virtually identical to the Top Scan, with deep seats, and big comfortable overhead restraints. As with Spin Doctor, the restraints initially lock tightly, but then ease off slightly to give a little breathing space. The only down side to the restraints is that they are so bulky as to stop you being able to see your co-riders, and the retracting seatbelt used to secure the restraint is truly ferocious when unclipped.

There is a nice comic sub-plot to the loading procedure. As with many Pleasure Beach rides, baskets are provided for riders to leave the belongings, but here only one basket is provided per row, and inevitably gets piled high with five peoples' shoes, mobile phones, and other paraphernalia. With everyone in place, the platform is lowered, forming a V-shape that disturbs the carefully balanced mountains of artefacts, and causes riders' possessions to immediately cascade onto the floor. Pure entertainment.

The gondola slowly starts to turn, and the arm takes its first powerful swing. It takes just a few swings before it amasses the power to perform high-speed 360-degree loops. After a few of these powerful loops, the gondola is stopped at full height and slowly spun backwards for a while to take in the view (much of which is blocked by The Big One), before performing a few loops in the other direction and finally easing to a halt. Continuing the latest capacity-boosting trend, the gondola stops in exactly the position it began, meaning that you are deposited right next to the basket where you left your possessions, even if those possessions are now scattered all over the floor.

The ride is certainly spectacular to watch, but how are things from the rider's perspective? Well, let me first answer the question that will be on the lips of spin ride fans everywhere: Is this really the ride that will prove the heir to the Top Scan's crown? Well - how do I put this gently - absolutely definitely not. That's not to say it's a bad ride, it just isn't going blow your mind the way a good Top Scan will, and to be fair, it seems clear that the ride was not really designed to be the kind of intense thriller that spin ride devotees would have hoped for.

Contrary to what you might expect, Bling is no G-Force generator, as the gondola spins far too slowly for that. To this end, the outside seats are not worth fighting for, as they are on the Top Scan, and in fact the inside seats are worth riding for the surreal visuals as other riders float past at an array of anomalous angles. The only thing that makes the inside seats a no-go area is the dreadful foot guard that makes life uncomfortable for your legs.

For thrill-seekers, Bling's basic problem is that the turning of the main arm is so much faster than that of the gondola. As such, it is the arm that truly dominates proceedings. It is the mark of a truly great spin ride that the various actions complement each other properly, whereas here you don't really feel the effect of the turning gondola as much as you really should. This isn't helped by the fact that the gondola only ever turns in one direction, removing the possibility of switching direction in mid-swing. Strangely, the rows of seats tend not to flip very often, but when they do, they are truly manic, more so than the Top Scan in fact, and so its a shame they can't be induced to come to life more often.

For those who are more cautious about spin rides, Bling should be an easy one to handle. Although the ride is reasonably long, it does incorporate a lengthy breather at the halfway point. If you've ever stumbled from a Top Scan in a daze, this needn't put you off Bling, as the two are not as similar as they look. What I will say is that Bling is much more suited to the category of "fun ride", rather than "extreme thrill machine" - whether you interpret that as a good or bad thing is up to you. If you are still unsure, then it is worth adding that Bling offers a ride that is essentially a slightly wilder version of Spin Doctor, and so if you can handle Spin Doctor, it is well worth making the step up to try Bling.

What does become apparent when watching and riding Bling is that it tries to please everyone, which in the case of spin rides, is extremely difficult to achieve. Much of the ride is very gentle, but there is the sporadic burst of intensity, as your row comes to life and starts swinging wildly. Those hoping for an intense ride will be annoyed that the remainder of the ride is so gentle, while others might find these bursts of activity far too wild. The combination of the ride's imposing stature, and the park's insistence on describing it as "A diamond-knuckle experience", does give the impression that the ride is a lot more intense than it actually is, and will no doubt lead to many riders being disappointed.

More worryingly, there is one area in which Bling will please absolutely nobody, and that is the occasional bouts of severe roughness to which the ride seems prone. As the main arm shakes slightly, riders' heads ricochet from side to side, bashing the restraints as they go. This is by no means constant, and you could easily get through the ride cycle without it happening. If you are unlucky to be aboard when it happens, though, you will most certainly know about it. Thankfully, the padded restraints mean that things aren't as bad as they could be, but it is still far from pleasant, and it is difficult to imagine such a thing on a Huss or Mondial ride.

On the plus side, if you compare it to other park-based spin rides (as opposed to fairground-based), Bling measures up quite favourably. Compared to most park-spinners, the ride length is generous, while the flashy presentation hints at the mania of a fairground ride, and helps to create a good atmosphere for riders and spectators alike. To watch the ride in motion is very impressive indeed, particularly at night, and is a very welcome addition to the Pleasure Beach skyline. One can only imagine how powerful and imposing it would look were in not dwarfed by The Big One.

So, Bling is a decent ride, but really nothing more than that. The coronation of a new king of spin rides will have to be postponed, however, as it falls a long way short of the standards set by many Huss, Mondial, and KMG rides. There is a distinct sense that Zierer has not really explored the ride's real potential in the way these other companies might have done, as there is seemingly no scope for the sort of versatile acrobatic artistry that the better spin rides allow. Nevertheless, Bling is certainly a fun ride, and worth queuing for, especially as the ride's capacity seems to be well within the park's needs. For spin ride devotees, however, there will be a distinct sense of wasted potential.

Please, do not use our ratings to compare rides head-to-head. They rate only how well this ride meets its own objectives using criteria that may not necessarily be relevant with similar reviews.

Good points:

  • Excellent appearance
  • Much-needed spin ride for the park
  • Decent ride length

Bad points:

  • Although not as wild as you'd expect, can also be rough
  • Not much atmosphere
  • An appalling name

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