Coaster Kingdom


Big Dipper, Pleasure Beach Blackpool

I should declare immediately that the Big Dipper has always been a very special ride for me. It is one of the three rides responsible for starting my interest in coasters, along with the Grand National and Alton Towers' Pinfari Mini Apple. The world is a different place nowadays (the Mini Apple has gone, children don't respect their elders, pop music's not what it used to be, and worst of all Opal Fruits have become Starburst), but some things never change, and the Big Dipper is still among my favourite rides.

This ride has had a more turbulent history than probably any other, so let's go back to the beginning. The Big Dipper was built on the site of one of Blackpool's earliest rides, the Switchback Railway. This simple coaster was a common feature of seaside resorts in the first quarter of the 20th century, and Blackpool's version, owned by a family of Gypsies, was operating on the south shore even before Pleasure Beach Blackpool officially existed. As time went on, other operators arrived with newer rides, and competition grew fiercer, to the point where the Gypsies left the area, abandoning the Switchback. Eventually, W.G. Bean, founder of the "official" Pleasure Beach, decided to use the site for a bigger and better ride, and commissioned John A. Miller, one of the most influential coaster designers of the day, to design what would become the Big Dipper.

Miller's coaster opened on the 23rd of August 1923, but was a very different ride to the one operating today. The original Big Dipper had an "L" shaped layout, which turned left after the second drop and followed what was then the boundary of the park, roughly along the line where the Big One's lift now stands. From here it performed a large turnaround in the area now occupied by the Space Invader before returning to the station along the same route. Interestingly, the original layout included a double dip, something that would later become the trademark element of the Grand National.

The ride was an instant hit. Compared to anything the British audience had seen before, the Big Dipper was a revelation, featuring drops that were bigger and steeper than anything they'd seen before. This was because Miller, in conjunction with Harry Baker, had invented the first "upstop" wheels - a set of wheels fitted to run beneath the track and prevent the train from crashing to the ground at every opportunity. Bean had acquired the UK rights to the system, and the Big Dipper would become the first UK ride to use it. Nowadays, upstop wheels are found on 99.9% of the world's coasters, meaning that the Big Dipper has a valid claim to that now-overused title "next generation roller coaster". Unfortunately, like most rides to bear that description, the appeal of the ride did not last forever...

After Bean's death in 1929, the Pleasure Beach passed into the hands of his son-in-law, Leonard Thompson (father of current MD Geoffrey). Thompson embarked on a wide-ranging series of changes to lift the Pleasure Beach above the competition. Among them, Thompson made two unrelated changes to the park that would combine to make the Big Dipper's future look bleak. Firstly, he managed to buy a piece of land to the south of the Pleasure Beach, with the aim of expansion. Unfortunately, this would leave Big Dipper running straight through the middle of the park, restricting the possibilities for future development.

Secondly, Thompson commissioned an ex-employee of Miller's company, Charles Paige, to create another new coaster, the Grand National. This superb ride opened in 1935, exploring the potential of Miller's upstop wheels far more than the Big Dipper ever did, and is still regarded as one of the world's best coasters today. The Big Dipper simply wasn't up to the competition, and visitors voted with their feet in favour of the ferocity of Paige's masterpiece.

With the ride taking up valuable space and not taking enough money, Thompson could have been forgiven for demolishing the ride, especially as it had already lasted twice as long as most of Miller's American Big Dippers. To his credit, Thompson instead commissioned Paige to completely redesign the ride. Paige retained the idea of sticking to the perimeter of the park, and took the ride around into the new section of the park, where it now intertwines with the Steeplechase and part of The Big One. The new Big Dipper opened in 1936, just one year after the Grand National, and stood as a symbol of the changing of the guard at the Pleasure Beach, and of one of the main reasons for the park's continued popularity, the ability to introduce up-to-the-minute rides, while retaining a proud sense of history.

Although the ride is still generally talked of as a Miller creation to this day, it is fair to say that very little of the original Miller ride actually remains. While Paige redesigned everything that made the Big Dipper thrilling, architect Joseph Emberton worked on the aesthetic side of the ride, creating a whole new station in the modernist style that he was spreading around the park. Effectively, all that was left of the original ride was the track from the brakes to the top of the first drop. In a cruel twist of fate, this was exactly the section that was wrecked by fire in 1953, taking Emberton's station with it. The park once again set to work rebuilding, but Miller's original ride was now gone.

With the fire destroying the last physical remnant of the 1923 ride, one of the very few things left to remind us of Miller's involvement is the name itself. "Big Dipper" has become a generic name for roller coasters over the years, to the extent that PBB visitors often see the ride and comment on the "unoriginal" name. In fact, it was a very specific name for rides built by Miller and his company, presumably referring to the fact that his upstop wheel system allowed these rides to have much bigger drops than anything that had gone before. The fact that it has become a widely known phrase merely serves to demonstrate how famous and influential Miller's designs were.

The most recent thing to undergo radical alteration was the entrance. The ride's station had always been immediately beside Watson Road, the public road running straight through the Pleasure Beach. By the mid-1960s, the increasing amount of traffic meant that fears grew for visitors' safety. Unable to get the road closed, it was instead decided to build a large raised walkway to completely cover the road, into which a new entrance to the Big Dipper would need to be incorporated. The original station had a "wine glass" shaped structure separating the entrance and the top of the lift hill, which Emberton later changed to a cone-shaped "lighthouse" look. With the arrival of the overpass, the covering had to be removed, leaving us with the more imposing skeletal structure we see today.

Visitors approach the ride on the new overpass, and descend a set of stairs into the new entrance "plaza", a semi circular platform overlooking the loading station. From here, riders need to negotiate quite a long descent along a series of ramps until they finally get to the loading platform. Not that the ride is any worse for it, as it gives the whole place a wonderfully open, yet strangely cosy, feel. This is very refreshing compared to the sheds that constitute a lot of coasters' stations. To make the place more spectacular, the redesigned entrance plaza is centred on a quaint little fountain pool, while the actual loading platform is covered by a quite spectacular arched ceiling. As an amusing aside, the new entrance totally buries Watson Road means to the extent that many people don't even realise there's a public road there at all, and get quite a surprise when they sit waiting for the ride to start only to see cars and vans speed by in front of them!  

Rarely do I feel so enthusiastic about a ride as when I am waiting for the front seat of the Dipper at night. As with many of PBB's rides, there's a real sense of timelessness as you stand on the platform waiting for the train to appear. Wherever you look, you see contrasts of the old and the new - look left and you might spot Ice Blast, look right and you'll see The Big One and possibly a glimpse of Spin Doctor. This clash of the old and the new all helps to give the ride, and the park in general, its unique character. As with several of the park's rides, the Big Dipper has such a fantastic sense of history about it that the sounds of the train clicking its way up the lift hill, and then roaring down the first drop, seems to echo with the ghosts of generations of long-dead thrill seekers laughing and screaming with delight. Of course, it's a shame that these sounds are punctuated by the bleep of the park's new barcode-reader-turnstiles, but I suppose some concessions to the modern day have to be made occasionally!

The buzzer will sound, and the train will appear in the distance bobbing along the last few drops. Finally, it leaps out of the last climb, stops to let off its passengers, and rumbles down to meet you. It's finally time to climb aboard and ride a sheer masterpiece of roller-coaster design.

After the lap bars have been checked, the train will depart, giving riders in the back seats of each car the distinct feeling that these huge carriages were never really designed to perform such tight turns. Into a dark tunnel lit only by the ancient "Do Not Stand Up" signs, onto a tiny lift hill, leading out on to a long turnaround, offering the chance to take in the view of The Big One and Spin Doctor and (if the wind is blowing in the right direction) get a face full of spray from the Log Flume. The idea of building up the tension of a ride by taking a long journey to the lift hill, is a very effective one, far more so than simply having a lift hill as soon as you leave the station. In fact, this idea seems to be slowly making a comeback, most notably with Thorpe Park's Nemesis Inferno, something I can only hope we see more of in the future.

Finally, we come to the main lift, which is directly above the smaller one, and makes the Big Dipper the only coaster in the UK to have two lift hills using the same chain. The lift gives a great opportunity to look around the park, and watch the other rides in action. From the turnaround at the top of the lift you get a great view of the entire park, along with the promenade and, in the distance, Blackpool Tower. By far the best time to appreciate this stunning view is either night-time or sun-set, preferably during Blackpool's famous illumination season.

 If you're reading this review in the hope that I'll be able to tell what the big blue thing at the top of the lift is, well I can only apologise - it's been a mystery to me for my entire life. My best guess is that it is some sort of Olympic-style flame, in which case I can only keep my fingers crossed that the ride won't end up sponsored by British Gas. In fact, this is the latest in a long line of domes, cones, and spheres to grace the top of the lift hill over the years, all of them serving to provide the ride with an unmistakable symbol. Until 1993, these would be visible right down the promenade, acting as a beacon to draw riders into the park. Of course, The Big One has taken over that job, and renders the Big Dipper almost invisible from outside the park. Anyway, enjoy the scenery while you can, because this is where the ride gets down to business.

The first two drops are straight, and look deceptively ordinary to spectators. From the front seat, however, they look huge, and offer a great, smooth ride, topped off with a serving of airtime as you reach the next peak. If you prefer a wilder ride, the back seats offers incredible airtime as the car launches itself into each drop, throwing you into the lap bar in a way that is rough, but still great fun. The second hill has a large sign on the side declaring the ride's name, a sad reminder of the days when the Dipper was the ride that caught peoples' attentions they walked down the promenade. Well, the sign actually says "IG DIPPER", so feel free to make up your own jokes about that (I suggest something along the lines of where "Where can the B be?" for starters).

The third drop is now buried among the structure of The Big One's lift hill, hiding a superb left hand kink, which first time riders won't realise is there. Again, the back seat causes riders to rocket out of their seat, although they now also find themselves thrown to the right hand side of the car - Great fun!

With the big drops finished, the train launches itself over a majestic arch across the park's southern entrance, forming a nice parallel with the arch of The Big One. A small dip then takes you to another great twisting drop, and into a manic turnaround that has the side wheels screeching loudly for mercy. This section intertwines wonderfully with The Big One, as first The Big One dives through the Big Dipper's structure, then the Dipper charging back underneath The Big One. The turnaround is right next to The Big One's helix, meaning that riders sometimes wave to each other if the timing of the two rides is right.

As the Big Dipper parts company with The Big One, it immediately begins to intertwine with another Arrow coaster, the Steeplechase. After the turnaround, there's a small dip that just about leaves room for the Steeplechase's 3 tracks to travel over. Be prepared to duck if the Steeplechase's horse-shaped cars come by as you go through the dip! As if this area of the park wasn't congested enough, this whole tangle of coaster track is built directly above the park's (rather poor) Go-Kart track - No wonder PBB can claim to have the highest concentration of rides of any park in the world!

A right turn brings the track parallel with that of the "out-bound" section of the ride, and back towards the path that forms the park's south entrance. Whereas the first crossing manages to avoid this obstacle by gracefully leaping over it, the return journey sees a real stroke of genius. Just like the finale of the Grand National, riders find themselves hurtling toward a window separating the riders and onlookers, at the last second, the track is suddenly pulled from beneath them, and the train charges into a dark underground tunnel, again catching first timers by surprise, and providing one of the ride's many highlights. Some light banking takes you back under the Big One's lift and returns you to the path of Miller's Big Dipper. From here, a couple of small hills take us back to the station, each taken at a pace that keeps the fun of the ride going right to the end.

At the end of the ride, the train hits the brakes and comes to a smooth stop - well, usually. Occasionally the train overshoots, sometimes to the extent of giving riders a second lap of this classic ride. The exit is not as grand as the entrance, and seems to confuse a lot of first timers. When the Watson Road bridge was built, the ride's exit clearly didn't get quite the same amount of attention as the entrance, and as people walk out of the narrow exit corridor, they don't always realise that they have to walk around the back of the fountains and up the sole set of stairs that leads back to the entrance plaza. Often people get totally confused and end up accidentally wondering down the "hidden passageway" to the Roller Coaster on the other side of the park!

It seems that this is a ride that you need to let grow on you. I have often heard people get off the ride claiming that it was nothing particularly special, a view which puzzles me enormously. As you may have gathered, my enthusiasm for the ride knows no limit, but why do I rate it so highly? Well, the novelty of The Big One doesn't take very long to wear off, while the Grand National can go through occasional bad patches where the racing element is lost due to one train being faster than the other. The Big Dipper, on the other hand never fails to give a superb ride, and stays as fresh and as thrilling as ever no matter how many times you ride it. There aren't many coasters out there with such an outstanding record.

It's immediately obvious when you ride the Big Dipper that the preservation of the ride has been a real labour of love for the park. It is a vital piece of Pleasure Beach history, along with the Grand National, Flying Machine, and River Caves. When it comes to historic rides, PBB always seems to adopt the attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and has commendably refused to give in to the temptation to modernise the rides' look or feel. With the Big Dipper, the only concession to the modern day is the unfortunate arrival of advertising, both in the form of monitors in the station showing adverts for the park and its sponsors (which tend to be broken anyway), and the garish new livery on the trains, the result of the Duerr's company sponsoring a ride marathon in 2000 (no, I've never heard of Duerr's either). That said, old pictures of the Pleasure Beach show rides like the Dipper's predecessor, the Switchback Railway, totally covered in advertising boards, so maybe you could argue that it is not quite the 21st century curse it first appears.

In recent years, the ride has become famous for hosting a series of charity ride marathons. These include a series of 100 hour riding sessions for the park's centenary, and several successful attempts by American Richard Rodriguez to break the world coaster endurance record by riding almost 24 hours a day for weeks or even months at a time. Although these marathons are obviously publicity stunts for the park, they also demonstrate how well maintained the ride is in order to run non-stop for such long periods of time without falling to pieces or knocking riders black and blue.

Although the Grand National is capable of eclipsing the Big Dipper in terms of sheer thrills, the Dipper has so much more to offer than just a series of drops and blasts of airtime. The stunning station design, the old fashioned charm of the ride, the winding path to the lift hill, all these elements help to make the Big Dipper a truly sublime piece of coaster history. In all honesty, I don't really want to compare the Big Dipper and Grand National too much, as that would involve saying that one of these two magnificent rides was inferior to the other. What Charles Paige gave the Pleasure Beach is a pair of truly world class coasters that complement each other perfectly, and which still manage to outshine newer rides even after 70 years of operation. The fact that PBB have preserved these rides in such excellent condition for so many years must surely earn them the admiration of coaster enthusiasts everywhere. Either of these rides would blow the socks off the competition at any other park, so it seems futile to start comparing the two.

To put it simply, the Big Dipper is for me the finest ride at the finest amusement park there is, and long may it reign. It is the definitive "fun" ride, as opposed to "extreme" or "intense" ride, and is as close as I've ever come to finding the perfect roller coaster. The history, the elegant architecture, the comfortable trains, the thrilling drops, the build up to the ride, it's got everything you could possibly want from a roller coaster and more. In a way it is the exact opposite of The Big One - The Big Dipper is like a fine wine, getting better and better with age, whereas The Big One soon goes as flat as, well, Pepsi Max I suppose.

Blackpool is a showbiz town, and what is it they say in showbiz? Always end on a really lousy pun, so here goes: When you're in Blackpool, don't confine yourself to the more famous rides like Valhalla or The Big One, leave yourself plenty of time to ride and re-ride the Big Dipper - You won't regret it, it's a Paige right out of history.

JP Undated

Good points:

A ride steeped in a rich history
A logical step up from the Roller Coaster
Fantastic views en-route of the park due to it's out and back layout
Beautiful station

Bad points:

Some people find Big Dipper rough
Tendency not to run at full capacity



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