Coaster Kingdom

Stealth, Thorpe Park
Saturday, February 24, 2007

I'm going to stop short of calling Stealth predictable, but there has always been an air of inevitability about it from day one.

As an iconic coaster, I hoped that the park would rise to the challenge of giving the UK an internationally noteworthy coaster - an icon - but, at the back of my mind I was haunted by the spectre of inevitability that the park would trim back this flourishing rose bush to just a thorny twig.

Stealth is a good ride. Really, it is.

But, it lacks the imagination, spirit and brazenness of real iconic rides, enduring symbols that should become the envy of the world and embed themselves indelibly so when you think Thorpe Park, you think Stealth, just like when you think Blackpool, you think the Big One.

Problem is, it is difficult to make a convincing argument that Tussauds should beef up the public with all the extra trimmings when seemingly Stealth is already enough to keep hunger at bay.

At the end of the day, Stealth is no taller and no faster than the prototype ride that was built at Knott's Berry Farm in 2002. Forgive my nonchalance, but while it is a good ride, it has nothing at all to make it stand out from the myriad of so-called rocket coasters around the world.

Of course, most people wouldn't have ridden Xcelerator, but come on, can't we set standards for an icon coaster higher than simplified clones that were built years ago? I believe iconic coasters by their very nature stand out and offer something you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world.

Aesthetically, Stealth's simplicity is beautiful. A single, elegant archway climbs away from a fan of supports, while the return bunnyhop arches over the entrance to the area.

Yet, strangely, the minimalism of Stealth's trademark archway kind of undersells the ride making it appear shorter than it actually is. That is, of course, until a striking red Chevy-themed train soars over the arch, when all of a sudden you're reminded just how tall Stealth is.

The whole corner of Amity that Stealth is in feels strangely displaced. Frankly, there's not much to look at, and it feels uncomfortably open and sterile. This isn't helped by the fact that in front you have the ground-hugging launch track with nothing behind it - no other rides, no trees, no scenery - nothing.

To the left, you have a large expanse of paving, then beige shingle.

Tucked away awkwardly to the right, meanwhile, is the station that uses the same stand-offish architecture as Rita - Queen of Speed at Alton Towers. No pretty canopy or station design here, just an exposed platform clad in corrugated metal.

While many people have complemented Stealth on theming, there really isn't much to compliment from where I'm standing. A WWTP Radio Airstream trailer brightens up an otherwise sterile area, and the winch house at the end of the launch track is good for continuity, if a somewhat easy-to-miss touch.

The entrance is marked by what is fast becoming the biggest cliche in ride entrances, a tyre (Rita - Queen of Speed, Vild-Svinet etc) surrounded by a messy melee of signs, both showy (0-80mph in 2.3 seconds) and advisory (warning of so-called rollbacks).

The queue, like most of Thorpe's queues, is a largely uninspiring vague meander, but in the case of Stealth is brightened up with interaction from the WWTP DJ who can do shout outs between the playlist of the best of 1950s Americana.

It isn't until the very end of the queue that it properly begins to interact with the ride, running under the launch track, then briefly parallel to it before climbing the stairs to the main station.

The station is as much of a flatpack affair as they come with the race control tower overlooking a largely flat and featureless platform. The train is unloaded further along the track before moving along, empty, into the main station.

The train has just 20 seats, all with Intamin's new-style overhead restraints, which are best, described as an overhead lapbar with a rubber vest. Unlike Air, they're nowhere near as figure-hugging, which on Rita - Queen of Speed can be a problem, but for Stealth, they're more than up to the job.

With the restraint down, seatbelt fastened, 40 curious eyes cast their gaze towards the row of lights at the front of the station which count down to the launch.

One red light. Two lights. Three. Four. Five. Then green.

Go go go!

Before you can inhale enough air to scream, 40 now-bleary eyes are streaming their way down the launch track, everything in their periphery a blur before you feel the launch let go as the track peels away from the ground into a vertical climb.

Curling up into the top hat, you have time to savour every moment as miles per hour slowly ebb away with you spiralling towards the clouds. Suddenly, the track levels out into a peak, the train slows and teeters leaving you a moment to regain composure.

Then, the horizon little by little begins to climb as the train slowly edges over the top of the arch, soon gathering speed as it begins its vertical descent, quickly but smoothly twisting to the left, dropping down towards the pathway below, pulling away and arching over the entrance into the area before offering a strange mixture of forces as it hits a steeply-banked magnetic brake run.

The final turn into the unload station is accompanied by nervous giggles and whoops of delight. At this point, it is hard to deny that Stealth leaves you breathless.

But that isn't to say it is unique, world class or indeed an icon. It was the bare minimum that Tussauds could get away with.

The launch, like all Intamin rocket coasters is phenomenal. There is absolutely no period of acceleration - in the click of your fingers, you are already at top speed. While there is a difference of 20mph between Stealth and Alton Towers' Rita - Queen of Speed, this difference is hard to quantify, and you soon begin the climb up Stealth's trademark element.

Like every other Intamin rocket coaster in the world, the top hat too is good. The twist to and from the apex is as subtle and fluid a transition as you can get at the best part of 80mph. The top meanwhile, ranges from having a good amount of airtime in the back, to absolutely none in the front, although the view alone makes that concession worthwhile.

This isn't the extreme airtime-fest of Intamin's mega coasters, it is gentle, drawn out and sustained well into the drop back down to the ground. It's B&M quality airtime, not the artificial and aggressive airtime normally associated with Intamin rides.

To the restraints' credit, though, there is enough freedom to enjoy every negative G of Stealth's airtime - had Stealth have had lapbars, the chances are you would have been pinned in too tightly to adequately enjoy the sensation.

The bunnyhop is unfortunately a messy end to the ride. Front seat riders enjoy the slightly odd sensation of smooth, delicate airtime coupled soon after with the feeling of quickly being pushed forward into the restraints as the train hits the brakes, while those in the back of the train don't really get anything from an element that promised so much.

The largest criticism Stealth deserves is that it is too short. Yes, of course, the ride is only about the launch and top hat, but that was by design. So much more can be done with the idea, and if all coasters were designed with such a despondent and defeatist attitude, they'd rarely get beyond the first drop that is often a highlight by default.

Kanonen doesn't have a problem sustaining a good ride beyond the top hat, nor does Movie World's Superman Escape, so it is plainly obvious that there is more mileage in the idea than just a launch and a top hat.

Even before it opened, Stealth was dated. Already, there are taller versions. There are longer versions, there are faster versions, there are versions that have lots of airtime hills and inversions, and Stealth only has brake-run in the shape of a bunnyhop to its credit.

The argument that people wouldn't have ridden Xcelerator et al doesn't hold water with me. As an icon, it should give the park a real identity, not one that it is trying share the limelight with six other coasters that are at least the same height, as well as a handful of others that instead use length to their advantage.

I'd like to think Coaster Kingdom looks at more than just the raw ride experience itself, and the overall impact that a ride is likely to have in the years to come. As a ride, Stealth probably gets a full compliment of five stars. As a coaster, what there is of it - four stars... at a push.

But, as an icon? Just the three I'm afraid.

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:

  • A fast-paced high-octane ride with a launch that leaves you breathless
  • Top hat is an interesting and exhilarating contrast to the launch
  • WWTP Radio adds a bit of atmosphere to an otherwise tedious queue line

Bad points:

  • But the ride is too short, the bunny hop is a waste, and although a good ride, it isn't the icon it could have been
  • Queue is boring with limited views of the ride

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