Coaster Kingdom

Valhalla, 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

Like a poorly rehearsed pantomime, Valhalla is ham fisted and clumsy.

Blackpool's vision for a spectacular dark ride started not long after the historic Funhouse was destroyed by fire. Blackpool wanted this to be the most spectacular dark ride in the world, and although I cannot deny this was their intention, it falls far short of this rather noteworthy claim.

The front of the ride is like a cliff face, over 100ft of generally featureless fake rock. A film of water cascades down this rocky elevation down to the wooden station below.

Meanwhile, the station is beautiful, magnificently crafted by Russian craftsmen to appear as a Scandinavian church. Golden pieces of lumber are skilfully carved into intricate shapes this station uses not one single nail.

On the right of the station, a huge Viking skull with a horned hat forms the entrance to Valhalla. Water cascades through the mouth as the Viking longboats pass through the jaw of this character.

With such high capacity, the queue moves quickly. You pass a now-disused ticket kiosk, something that could surely be used to sell the Valhalla-branded bin bags (ponchos) from before entering the ambient station.

Rustic wooden lanterns give the thatched ceiling a warm glow as eight-seater long boats slowly pass through the centre of the station with the operator looking down on the ride from above.

Riders sit in pairs on benches with heavily padded grab rails in front. There are no lap bars, something of a surprise to be honest seeing as riders are pretty much left to their own devices once inside.

Dipping into the water outside, the ride starts on a less than spectacular footing. You already know that the cascading waterfall you are heading towards will drop out of your way as you have seen this from the queue line.

As you head through the Viking skull, you are plunged into darkness as you enter the gargantuan building.

The Pleasure Beach is quick to remind us how they have gone for gutsy alternatives to lightweight effects. For example, lightening isn't a simple case of strobe lights, but a case of real sparks licking around the inside of a metal cage. Problem is, you look and think ‘spark', and the thought doesn't even cross your mind that this should be lightening.

Such effects are also unreliable. In its third season, the unreliability of effects cannot be attributed to teething problems, and is just a general indication of how reliable they actually are. In fact, so much onus is placed on these larger effects, that when they don't work, there is a huge gap in what little flow the ride has.

The ride has no cohesion. Music was added for its third season, and is patchy throughout and incredibly muted. I heard it twice, and on both occasions it was epically concluding before starting again. The ride lacks a coherent sound track, lucid sound effects and dialogue of any sorts.

The lighting is as erratic as the audio. Effects are often poorly lit, with overbearing shadows obscuring scenery or effects, and large pockets of darkness.

The ride would have been a great opportunity to explain Valhalla, the significance of it and why you are there. It doesn't.

Even with a vague understanding of what Valhalla is, I have no idea how each effect falls into play. It is never explained why we're going through an ice storm, or why the scenery around us burns. My equivocal knowledge of the Viking afterlife was further clouded on riding Valhalla, and raised questions in my head of whether the attraction is the journey to Valhalla or Valhalla itself. A clued-up reader of Coaster Kingdom informs me it is the former, which somehow makes sense, but it seems a shame that in amongst the generally irrelevant marketing spiel that accompanies this ride, this isn't made clear. Basically, I'd far rather know what the ride represents (moreover have the ride explain this for me) than to be told it cost GBP 15m to build.

The ride is devoid of any characters, meaning it is a very bleak inside relying on the scenery to entertain. With effects being so unreliable - and each vault containing only one major effect - it is easy for you to pass through with precious little to look at.

Whilst Valhalla tries its best to completely indulge you in rich and dramatic effects, at the summit of the ride you head briefly outside which considering the minutes before have been a rather confusing medley of all things Viking, it seems a somewhat harsh interruption to be afforded a view of Ice Blast and the Flying Machine. Water cascades out of view, and just as you think the brittle stalagmites in front will crumble away, you stop.

This would of course be an excellent opportunity to entertain you with an effect - you are stationary, after all. However, the ride takes on an almost industrial feel with no theming what-so-ever, and sitting on the side a ride operator sits in his PBB-issued boiler suit, shouting conversation across the hall to a colleague.

We gently roll backwards down a small unthemed drop back into the darkness. Another unthemed turnaround sends us back into the patchwork of effects.

Although the backwards drop is quite frankly dull, the other two drops are used to their full potential.

The first is my favourite, where you plunge from the inky blackness almost without warning down a steep drop. As you think you are going to level out, you plunge through a rolling blue mist. Thinking you have plunged underwater, holding your breath, water hits the front of your boat, sloshing over the front and sides as slow to a slow gait through a rolling tunnel of water.

You get reasonably wet, but in the front at least, it isn't the drops where you get wettest. Many effects including the water vortex entail dumping unfeasible amounts of water on you, and as the boat turns each corner with little or no grace, water rolls over the side of the boat.

These are complete distractions, and at the points where cold air is blown into your face, grossly unpleasant.

The ride has no sense of drama. For the majority of the ride, you're following a maze of corridors often separated by doors. Despite an apparent GBP 15 million being spent on the ride, the boat bashes into these stiff rubber doors. Even the doors on Alice in Wonderland open auto-magically. Back seat riders may be thumped on the shoulders as the door quickly closes behind your longboat.

The rooms are small and don't open up into large halls. This is a shame, and no creativity has really been used to open the ride up like on Pirates of the Caribbean. With everything being on such a small scale, the sense of grandeur portrayed in the parks' avalanche of marketing claims really never materialises.

Where the majority of the ride sticks to this cautious and formulaic principle, the finale clearly stands out and brings the ride out from the dregs of forgetability. Something seems so right about literally dropping into a finale (as visitors to Professor Burp's fizzy pop factory in Chessington will testify) and Valhalla perfects this effect to quite astonishing levels.

As you drop, flames licking over the surface of the water below recede only just in time before your boat charges into the water, Viking longboats on fire around the perimeter of this hall.

As you quickly slalom through this cavern, flames spontaneously erupt from the burning shipwrecks as fire rolls across the surface of the water to great effect.

On the whole, I find Valhalla a forgettable experience. It has no emotion and no real drama about it. Without characters and a progressive story line, the ride has no flow and effects do not effectively fit in with surroundings.

Even if the ride was brimful of spellbinding effects, distractions like the outside ledge before the backwards drop, water sloshing into the boat and wind blowing in your face are overly intrusive and mean you can't succumb to any drama the ride has.

Effects are integrated poorly into their surroundings and do not flow into the next. Poor lighting and patchy music makes the ride even more disjointed.

With little or no cohesion, no emotion and no character, Valhalla falls far short of the other charismatic dark rides that Blackpool offers.

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 good idea, just poorly executed.
  • An original theme, and a few spectacular moments
  • Excellent finale with water explosions and fireballs through a large, open room

Bad points:

  • Let down by the fact the boat bashes through doors, that reliance is upon special effects that when out of order leaves a gaping hole in the ride
  • The legend of Valhalla is not adequately explained
  • Music and acoustics are terrible, so too is lighting, and there are no characters around the ride
  • Far too wet. Yes, we know it's a water ride, but that doesn't mean you have to get soaking wet, especially as it distracts you from the ride itself
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