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Big One (10 Years): Making a Molehill out of a Mountain

So, how do you go about building the tallest and fastest coaster in the world? Well, first of all, you find yourself a nice big patch of empty space, and… oh, hang on a second; maybe I should rephrase the question. How do you go about building the tallest and fastest coaster in the world at a park that is already crammed to the limit with other coasters?

Answer: With great difficulty.

Visitors to Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1993 must have thought the park were playing some sort of elaborate practical joke. As they walked around this most crowded of amusement parks, footers had appeared over the winter, most with a notice saying “At this point, the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster will be” followed by a list of statistics for height and speed. More observant visitors would have noticed that similar footers were sprouting up all over the park, as far north as the Grand National station, and as for south as, well, the entire southern boundary of the park. As the season progressed, parts of the structure began to appear, mainly in areas of the park inaccessible by foot, such as the supports for the helix near the end of the ride. Between the Avalanche and Steeplechase, the foundations were visible for the station, although their long thin shape suggested that the building would be something rather unusual.

Let’s start with the station. Designed by Fiona Gilje, daughter of Pleasure Beach MD Geoffrey Thompson, it was designed to occupy as little ground space as possible. Whereas to build a conventional station on the site would have forced the Monorail and Pleasure Beach express to be either closed or re-routed, the building instead opens out from its narrow base so that the queue passes over the two scenic rides. Another ingenious space-saving device was the world’s first vertically-moving transfer track, which allows unused trains to be stored directly beneath the station track, rather than alongside the brake run. Overall, the building fits the park’s long tradition of stylish coaster stations, which dates back to era of Joseph Emberton’s distinctive designs of the 1930s.

Indeed, the need to use as little ground space as possible is a theme that runs through The Big One’s construction. Fortunately, the designers at Arrow Dynamics had already come up with a way to build their hyper-coasters without the need for side supports. On previous rides, this had been done simply to make the ride look more intimidating, whereas in Blackpool, the idea would be put to practical use, squeezing the lift hill into a narrow corridor between other rides, and then running the main part of the ride in slender gaps between other rides and buildings. Furthermore, the bottom of the support structure had to tailored to the various oddities around the park, such as the need to let the Monorail and Pleasure Beach Express run below the lift hill, to cross the public road that runs through the park, and to allow the continued use of the west car park, where visitors can now park almost directly beneath the track.

As soon as the park closed its gates for 1993, the race against time began. The park had rented some ground at nearby Blackpool Airport, where large sections of the structure were being pre-assembled, ready to be transported to the Pleasure Beach and craned into place. While most major coasters are constructed behind within a strict veil of secrecy, The Big One almost became a tourist attraction in its own right, as locals and winter holidaymakers crowded around the southern end of the park and watched as the ride stretched ever further into the air. Construction workers became celebrities in their own right, and the press revelled in stories about the workers who were happy to walk around on the structure, but who claimed to be terrified at the prospect of having to ride the finished product (Guardian, March 6, 1994), or Bernard and Phyllis Buxton, an elderly couple who would spend hours parked on the seafront, diligently watching the construction work, despite having no intention of ever riding, and who were always ready to contribute a sound bite to the many reporters who covered the construction for the media.

The first section to take its shape was the lift hill. Despite all the artist’s impressions and publicity pictures, it still came as a surprise to see exactly how tall the ride was. Previous hyper-coasters had all been built in open spaces, and so the fact that this giant structure was towering over such an urban area just served to make the ride seem even taller. When the bright red track was laid onto the blue support structure, it suddenly became apparent how boldly the ride would assert itself onto the Blackpool skyline.

Even today, as the ride passes over and threads through several of Blackpool’s classic roller coasters, the Big One is littered with clues how such an unwieldy structure had to carefully tip-toe around one of the most historical parks in the world.  

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