Coaster Kingdom

River Caves, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Sunday, February 25, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

It would be easy to think that Disney was the pioneer or dark rides. Rides like Pirates of the Caribbean or Phantom Manor are among some of the most famous theme park rides ever built, and have become the yardstick of the their genres. In reality, the basic idea for such rides had been around for decades by the time Disneyland first opened its doors, and as with so many things, Blackpool Pleasure Beach was there from the beginning.

Britain doesn't exactly have a formidable array of dark rides. Most UK parks gear themselves towards thrill rides and don't tend to use dark rides as a major attraction. Why is this? Well, one reason is that Britain doesn't yet have any parks owned by film studios, and so there are few park owners with the right mixture of determination and expertise to even attempt large-scale special-effects driven rides. As a result, Britain has acquired a culture where visitors tend not to get too enthusiastic about rides that place the emphasis on what you see and hear, rather than what you physically feel.

However, when we start making generalisations about British parks, there's always one thing that needs to be remembered: Whatever the rule, Blackpool Pleasure Beach will be the exception. BPB has always been home to the biggest selection of dark rides in Britain, the quality of which varies enormously. From the almost disturbingly surreal Magic Mountain, to the quaint charm of Alice in Wonderland and the strangely engrossing Gold Mine, Blackpool is as much a haven for dark ride fans as it is for thrill-seekers.

The River Caves sits right at the heart of the Pleasure Beach. Almost entirely surrounded by the tracks of various coasters, it looks slightly out of place with its tranquil setting. The ride's exterior has a slightly quaint look, with a corner of a square building showing the park's "Mr Funshine" logo, and the rest covered in a rocky façade. A few characters are dotted around the rocks, while a water wheel nicely completes the scene, despite serving no obvious purpose. The ride is built at ground level, but the adjoining pathway is sloped, creating a handy balcony from which spectators get a good view of the boats as they emerge from the cave and head down a small drop into the crystal-blue waters below.

From the understated entrance, riders are led through a queue area where a variety of scenes give a preview of what you'll see on your voyage. As you leave this room, you head straight through the turnstile and onto the loading platform. The boats are pretty basic, but nice and snug. Seating consists of three two-seat wooden benches, with no seat dividers, restraints or even back rests. Fortunately, the ride rarely gets a queue, and so groups tend to get a boat to themselves.

Although the boats look and feel quite ancient, they help to create the ride's cosy atmosphere. Unlike more recent dark rides that use boats of a dozen or more seats, these relatively tiny boats help to emphasise the feeling that this is your personal vessel in which to make your journey around the globe. There is also something quite endearing about riding in a boat that has clearly completed more voyages than Michael Palin and Popeye combined.

Unfortunately, the ride begins by sailing under a sign saying "Tunnel of Love". While it may seem strange that a Tunnel of Love should sport six-seater boats, the sign is in fact a relic of the ride's appearance in the soap opera "Coronation Street", when the story required one of the characters to get dragged into a Tunnel of Love by an unwanted admirer. Unfortunately, this sign is clearly visible from the spectator area, and it is difficult not to feel self-conscious if you’re heading toward it with anyone other than your beloved!

As with many dark water rides, the entrance to the building is guarded by a waterfall that turns itself off as you approach. Once through a very narrow tunnel, the boat bobs straight into the first scene, which isn't the most logical way to start a ride. A Chinese emperor greets you, while a rather weedy voiceover recites "Welcome to the River Caves at fabulous Blackpool Pleasure Beach" before becoming totally incomprehensible. And with that, the great nation of China is done and dusted. Let’s move on.

Evidently, the River Caves is not only a journey around the world, but also through time, and we go right back to the beginning with the dinosaurs. While the models are nothing extraordinary, their settings are very tranquil and atmospheric. Although not exactly spacious, the ride uses the lack of space to create a tremendous sense of intimacy. At one point, the rock face lowers, and you have to duck down in order to see the model, almost as if you are spying on the dinosaur, and trying to get out before it spots you.

From the primordial soup of the dinosaur era, we pass to the depths of the ocean, where we see a shark that is, frankly, far too "cartoon-y" for the ride. A big papier-mache shark with a wide grin on its face may be fine for some of the park's more humourous dark rides, but sticks out like a sore thumb here. Thankfully, this is the ride's only really weak scene, and the standards are immediately raised in the next scene, the Inca civilisation.

Riders with an interest in the park's history may well recognise this scene's Cubist look, a style characteristic of Joseph Emberton and Percy Metcalfe, architects of many of the park's buildings in the mid-20th Century (including an earlier incarnation of the River Caves frontage, again in a Cubist style). With its distinctive look and unique atmosphere, this is possibly the best single scene in the whole ride. The eye is not drawn to any specific item, but the whole tableau has a warmth and charm that makes it stand out as one of the ride's highlights. Towards the end of the scene, the depiction of the Sun God is surprisingly attractive, especially as it’s quite obvious that it didn’t exactly blow a gargantuan hole in the park’s budget.

From this reasonably large room, the boat meanders into a tunnel barely big enough to accommodate it, before opening back up into the biggest scene on the ride, the Blue Grotto of Capri. The boat follows the outskirts of a quite magnificent scene of stalactites and stalagmites. Again softly lit, with a soft mellow soundtrack, this scene is perfect. However, just in case you've forgotten where you really are, it is here that the Pleasure Beach's bizarre logic rears its head.

Evidently, there are substantial mineral deposits in the Grotto, as you'll often see cars from the Gold Mine ride clattering by overhead. Even more surreal is the fact that the Grotto is also overlooked by one of the park's many restaurants. I’m no geologist, but I somehow doubt that the real Blue Grotto has such features. If this were any other park in the world, it would seem ludicrous, but somehow BPB has a knack of getting away with these things. Incidentally, if you make the effort to search out and visit this restaurant, you will realise that the River Caves actually ventures a lot further from its starting point than you might have imagined.

While the diners continue to tuck in, and the Gold Mine riders head back to the rock face, we venture forth towards a sign that reads "Valley of the Kings", the most prolonged section of the ride, and the only theme to continue through multiple rooms. As the boat passes under the sign, the tunnel again narrows right down, and then opens up into a corridor lined with Egyptian pillars, all covered with hieroglyphics. Our long-lost narrator friend re-appears to inform us of the wonders of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

At the end of the corridor, we turn off and head through a series of tombs. As ever, these scenes have no particular focal point, and no special effects, but rely on creating a dignified atmosphere of wonder. It would have been very easy to fail in this, but it somehow works beautifully. Although some of the rooms in this section are tiny, and therefore occupy only a couple of seconds of your time, the level of detail is far greater than you'd ever expect to find, certainly in comparison to the cheap & cheerful feel of other BPB dark rides.

Emerging from the tombs, we go straight into the final scene, the temples of Angkor Wat. Our narrator again chips in, giving a few details of these Cambodian temples, without directing your attention to any particular feature. Angkor Wat is probably the most detailed scene in the whole ride, with lots of small touches on offer for those prepared to search them out. This is fortunate, as you are likely to spend a lot longer here than anywhere else. Why? Because the scene includes a small log-flume style lift hill, which tends to operate in a quite clumsy manner, meaning you may well spend quite a while stationary, waiting for your turn to leave Angkor Wat and return to 21st Century Blackpool.

At the top of the lift, the boat rumbles along a wooden trough, powered by tyre-boosts. After the tranquil nature of the ride, this somehow seems inappropriate. As the boat emerges into the open air, it will usually be held at the top of the drop for a moment. The drop is nice, and nothing to concern even the most timid of riders. The splash down is nothing to worry about, as very little water finds its way into the boat. Although the drop gives the ride a nice dramatic climax, it doesn't really justify all the messy stop-start preparation it requires. Sitting at the top of the drop, with a crowd staring down at you in your stranded vessel, it's difficult not to feel a little awkward, as if they are waiting for you to start entertaining them. Maybe you should brush up on your party-piece ready for this moment, as you'll be given plenty of time to perform it while you wait for the drop.

In judging the River Caves, it is important to remember the fact that it is not a multi-million pound special effects extravaganza, and was never meant to be. Not only does the ride overcome this handicap, but actually thrives on it. Nothing in the River Caves is going to make you shriek with amazement, but the ride has an atmosphere and a charm that makes it a perfect way to relax between thrill rides.

Unlike BPB's other dark rides, there is very little about the River Caves that relies on "tacky-charm" to be entertaining, it is just a genuinely pleasant ride. Unlike many dark water rides, the sense of relaxation is helped by the fact that the boat really feels like it is floating along the course, never makes you think that you are rumbling along a water-covered track, enhancing the sense of authenticity. Similarly, you are unlikely to see any other boats for much of the ride, which makes the ride feel very personal and private, and eliminates the "conveyor belt" feel that some dark rides unintentionally convey. Riders are never going to leave the boat humming the ride's soundtrack, but the music and sound effects do an admirable job of blending into the background and maintaining the ride's sense of ambience.

The River Caves has something which very few dark rides can offer, and that is real personality. Although there is no story to follow, no characters guiding you through, the feel of the ride more than enough charisma to compensate. The feeling that the boat is aimlessly drifting between the larger scenes, interspersed with dark narrow tunnels, gives a real sense of exploration. Thankfully, the poorest scenes are at the beginning, and so it is the second half of the ride that sticks in the memory.

The fact that you simply pass through scenes, without any particular special effects waiting for you, gives a peculiar sense that you really are simply drifting past, almost as if your presence is going unnoticed. This is in stark contrast to rides like Valhalla, where you enter a room, something happens (or is supposed to, at least) and you leave again.

The River Caves does not try to engage you in such a direct manner, and has a very passive feel. As such, it makes a very welcome change to be on a dark ride which allows riders a sense that they are exploring what is on offer, without conveying the feeling of an overly-rigid guided tour. This gives the ride a sense of timelessness that is highly appropriate for the kind of scenes it seeks to recreate.

The River Caves could very easily have been ghastly. You only have to look at Valhalla to see what can go wrong when you a park tries too hard to create a spectacular dark ride. Against the odds, the River Caves is a genuine triumph. OK, it is unlikely to be the thing that is foremost in riders' memory as they leave Blackpool, but in it's quiet unassuming way, the ride is a perfect example of the kind of gem you will discover at BPB once you get past the headline-grabbing rides. The park may be famous for its white-knuckle thrillers, but there has never been a ride so perfect for unwinding as the River Caves.

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:

  • Yet another Pleasure Beach ride steeped in history
  • One of the most endearing dark rides at the park, with no added baggage such as getting wet

Bad points:

  • Obviously not a ride for thrill seekers

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