Coaster Kingdom

Storm Force 10, Drayton Manor
Friday, February 23, 2007

Here's a little experiment for you to try. Go out and grab someone from anywhere in Britain. Next, ask them about the old TV game show, "Bullseye". I guarantee that within one minute, they will mention the contestants who would "Win a speedboat, despite living in Tamworth". The point of this joke was that Tamworth is officially the furthest town in Britain from the sea. Nowhere is more "midlands" than Tamworth. Thank goodness that someone at nearby Drayton Manor Park thought to give the good people of the town a taste of the coast. Not just any old coast, oh no, but the exotic and tropical climes of... Cornwall.

When Storm Force 10 was announced, it marked something of a change of direction of direction for Drayton Manor. It would be the first time the park attempted real theming for anything other than a dark ride, and would be the first ride ever built by BEAR, a Swiss firm started by ex-Intamin staff. It would be the first time the park claimed a "world first", although rumours of this being some sort of inversion were swiftly dashed when it was revealed that Storm Force 10 would be the first ever ride to be (drum roll please) endorsed by a charity. Not exactly Earth-shattering, admittedly, but at least it's a nice change from rides being sponsored by big business. The charity in question was the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, or RNLI, which obviously lent itself very nicely to the concept of the ride.

For a park that had never gone OTT with theming, Storm Force 10 came as a very nice surprise. Built by Farmer Studios, the station and queue line form a quaint Cornish village, complete with red and white lighthouse and all sorts of artefacts relating to the RNLI. The entrance is buried away slightly, and not the kind of grandiose lobby that first timers would be looking for. Once inside, a very detailed recreation of a nautical service hut reveals itself. Squeezing through this tight pathway, you get your first hint of the ride's blend of authenticity, information, and subtle humour. A mournful voice on the radio endless recites a pessimistic shipping forecast ("Storm Force 9, rising"), while all around are rusty artefacts, and mouldy mugs of tea that all look like they've been in service for decades. Over the years, this scene, like all the others, has been well maintained, ensuring that the only things that seem run-down are the ones that are supposed to.

Next, we enter a much larger room, where portholes in the wall provide detailed information about the RNLI, its work, and its history. The path takes us to meet a long-serving animatronic lifeboatman. This old-timer really has seen it all, and proceeds to prove it by reeling off endless stories of danger and peril, involving countless references to fire, floods, and fish. This kind of detail really is excellent, as it means that, between reading the information on the wall, and listening to the stories, you have plenty to do while you're waiting to board your vessel.

A quick trip up the lighthouse stairs exhibits the same kind of attentions to detail as the maintenance hut. Again, the park's signature brand of subtle humour is there for those who take the time to look, while in the background, the RNLI radio relays a crew's horror at how bad the conditions are, with a general agreement that things are almost up to Storm Force 10. Heavens above, who would have expected such a thing?

As you leave the lighthouse, the theming dries up, and you pass around the lifeboat station to a platform, from which almost the entire ride is visible. The overriding thought here is likely to focus on the water, which doesn't exactly seem clean. Indeed, the final drop seems to throw up almost a solid curtain of dark green lake water. Just keep telling yourself it's all a perfectly authentic simulation of what the RNLI lifeboats go through. It's not true, but it's a comfort.

Once inside the station, the theming resumes, with ride information set out on old fashioned blackboards, and posters showing the different type of craft used by the RNLI over the years, while the shelves offer an insight into what lifeboatmen do when they're waiting for a callout - eat biscuits and drink tea, by the look of it. Particularly useful is the poster that advises us on how to spot the differences between the hammerhead shark, spannerhead shark, and the notoriously versatile Swiss-army-knife-head shark.

As a row of bright orange eight-seat lifeboats await your captaincy, the staff point you to your vessel. If you have any choice in the matter, sit as far forward as possible. I'll reveal the reason later. Like many flume-type rides, the boats have no restraints, which is unfortunately taken by some as an invitation to stand up and even climb over the seats in mid-ride. Unfortunately, you have to just trust to luck that you won't be setting sail with such idiotic land-lubbers.

Before you, a shutter thoughtfully conceals the first surprise of the day, before rising to allow you into the launch area. Once in position, a cheerful lifeboatman pulls the lever to begin your mission. Unfortunately, this is one point where the theme breaks down. What exactly is your mission? Nobody has said anything about going to rescue anyone, so why are we being sent out? Does someone need us, or are we just heading down the shore to replenish the station's supply of tea bags? No time to stop and think about that, as the first drop provides a very enjoyable start to the ride. The ramp doesn't reach the same angle as the drop, and so there's a great moment where the drop seems to suddenly steepen. At the bottom, there is a good splashdown that sends water flying into over unsuspecting spectators near the ride entrance, while giving riders nothing worse than a little spray. We then head off between two large waterfalls, which helps to maintain the sense of drama, if only because of the sheer noise of the great torrents falling either side of the trough.

Then comes the wasteland. After such great theming in the station area, it is unfortunate that this doesn't extend to the rest of the ride. Instead, we take a fairly uneventful wander around a relatively austere piece of land, before turning back and climbing a lift hill that takes the boat up and into an oilrig. If there was anyone working there, they've already been rescued, and so we turn back, in every sense of the word. A turntable slides across, and we're pushed backwards into the second drop. This drop is the reason for me saying you should sit as close to the front of the boat as possible. Of the four rows, the first stays fairly dry, the second gets a bit wet, the third gets a bit of a soaking, and the fourth gets utterly saturated. Even on hot days, the magnitude of the drenching given to back seat riders is well in excess of anything you could describe as remotely enjoyable.

The second turntable is placed near the bottom of the first drop, and bad timing might mean that back seat riders have insult added in injury, as they catch another wave from a boat leaving the station. For everyone else, things remain very jolly, as the boat winds its way beneath the station, and the theming resumes. A man-shaped float is labelled "life boy", and hand painted warnings about strong tides remain unfinished as the sign writer gets swept out to sea. Emerging from the shadows, the large lift hill takes us slowly to the ride's highest point, offering a tremendous view of the park. Again, this won't be much fun for back seat riders, as they'll find themselves shivering in the ever-present wind. Although the trough is still water-filled, the boat slowly rumbles along, powered by submerged tyres, creeping leisurely toward the final double-drop into the lake.

Although the final drop is good, it lacks the grace of the similar drop on Thorpe Park's Loggers Leap, and feels slightly clumsy in comparison. Nevertheless, it brings the ride to a good climax, and provides an excellent splashdown, the boat skimming the water briefly before sinking down slightly to give a more spectacular wave. A short amble takes us back to the station, passing a coin-operated model boat game that uses some natty models of the Storm Force 10 station and oilrig. A final lift hill hauls us back into the station, from which a set of stairs lead back to the ground, via the obligatory photo stall, offering bog-standard montages of you and your shipmates navigating the final plunge.

As for criticisms, minor niggles come in the fact that the boat tends to "drive" along between drops, rather than floating, while the seats could so with some form of restraint just to stop the occasional moron from ruining others' enjoyment. Sadly, the ride has one major flaw, and that is the over-drenching of back seat riders on the backward drop. Even in a heat wave, it would take far too long to dry out after such a comprehensive soaking. In the art of saturation, the back seats of Storm Force 10 can even out-soak grand masters like Thorpe Park's Tidal Wave and Oakwood's Hydro. The difference, crucially, is that people go on those rides expecting to come off sopping wet, and prepare accordingly. People board Storm Force 10 expecting a relatively gentle log flume-type affair, which makes the drenching a very unwelcome surprise. Furthermore, neither Tidal Wave or Hydro rub salt into the wound by soaking their riders and then taking them back into the air to freeze them half to death. For goodness sake, if you're going to ride Storm Force 10, make sure you have a poncho, or a complete change of clothes, even if there's only a 25% chance of you needing them.

Despite such criticisms, Storm Force 10 proves that even relatively small parks can combine excellent family rides with good quality theming. The fact that the theming is based on something real adds immensely to the ride, particularly as it manages to combine genuine information about the RNLI with an understated form of humour. The only flaws in the theming are the lack of a progressing storyline, and the absence of theming in the section leading to the first lift hill.

For spectators, Storm Force 10 is highly impressive, combining the impressive village scene on one side, and a spectacular view of the ride from across the lake. For those in the queue, it is a masterclass in how to make theming both informative and entertaining, while remaining totally immersive. For those on the ride, it is arguably the best flume-type ride around, with plenty of tricks up its sleeve to distinguish itself from the rest of the genre. In fact, the ride manages to keep everybody happy. Well, everyone who hasn't found themselves in a back seat, at least.

So, the final forecast: Drayton; Storm Force 10; becoming wetter; good.

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:
  • One of the most original flume rides in the UK - a decent length with several drops
  • Gets off to a great start with a drop out of the station
  • Original queue line, as well as an educational lifeboat theme

Bad points:

  • The backwards drop is too wet, though, and the final drop is weak compared to Logger's Leap
  • The water is filthy

Labels: , , ,