Coaster Kingdom


The Big Ten

Ten years and millions of rides later, the Big One celebrates it's tenth birthday.

As it does, we look at the history of this ride, the milestones within the last decade and the impact it has had since opening.

The Pepsi Max Big One at Pleasure Beach Blackpool is, by any definition, the most high-profile coaster in Europe. Even ten years after the ribbon was cut and the first public trainload of passengers climbed the lift hill, The Big One has remained easily the best-known coaster in the country.

Legend has it that Geoffrey Thompson, the park's MD, visited Cedar Point in Ohio soon after they debuted Magnum XL-200, the world's first 200ft coaster, and was so impressed that he immediately wanted one of his own.

Possibly the most impressive thing about the ride is that it exists at all. It’s achievement enough to build such a ride out in the middle of nowhere, but it took some serious inventiveness mind to look at the Pleasure Beach, probably the most crowded park in the world, and envisage a lift hill running straight over the monorail track, a first drop that dives down within a few feet of the seafront buildings, a turnaround over the Grand National station, then a return run that goes over the Log Flume, under the Big Dipper, over the Big Dipper again, Over the Steeplechase, under the Roller Coaster, and under the Revolution, covering around three quarters of the park as it goes.

The Big One was heavily promoted as the tallest, fastest roller coaster in the world 

Both the park and Blackpool Tourism Board took every opportunity to exploit the media interest in the new ride. Features about the ride's construction were commonplace over the winter of 1993-4, and never a week went by without some sort of news about how mega the new ride would be. News features would show endless shots of gargantuan piece of structure being driven to the park, surrounded by Police guards. Newspapers would show photos of the half-built lift hill, showing comparisons to Nelson's column, and other landmarks. Great play was made of the fact that the park had had to get clearance from the local airport, and would have to display beacons to warn aircraft of its presence at night (conveniently neglecting to mention that the airport was only a couple of miles from the park anyway).

The ride couldn't have come at a better time for Blackpool. At the other end of the Golden Mile, Blackpool Tower was celebrating its centenary, and was to be painted gold for the year. Blackpool Tourist Board were keen to combine the two events, and started promoting the resort with the "Two Tall Stories" campaign. The press in turn revelled in the rather odd stories that grew up around the ride. The fact that the park MD was having difficulty persuading his 91 year old mother not to ride, or the fact that the ride's designer, Ron Toomer, suffered from travel sickness and refused to set foot on a coaster, his or anyone else's.

The Big One was the last of the three 1994 coasters to open, which somehow gave it an air of "the main event" after the two support acts. Early reports suggested that the ride would be opened by the Queen, but amusingly the calibre of celebrity quickly sank to the point where now-forgotten boy band Bad Boys Inc performed the ceremony (or rather, three of them did, as one Bad Boy didn't show up due to illness). To remove all doubt of the event's significance, the promenade was closed in front of the park, and a celebratory concert took place, with the first drop towering directly over the stage.

The Pepsi Max Big One won many awards for looks alone. Not only was the station awarded for it's contributions to architecture, but the floodlighting of the roller coaster won awards too.   

It was obvious that the ride had seriously become the most significant thing to be built in the town since Blackpool Tower, and had soon become a genuine British landmark, appearing in tourist guides. Not until the London Eye in  2000 would another ride come to have the cultural significance of The Big One. The ride gained the attention of media sectors well beyond the usual travel supplements. The Times' architecture critic Hugh Pearman came to see the ride, saying "As with much of the best architecture, confined surroundings help rather than hinder its aesthetic appeal ... its blue and white latticework structure like some great inverted railway bridge" (Times, Aug 28 1994).

Not everything went to plan, however. On July 7th, less than two weeks after the official opening ceremony, a braking failure caused two trains to collide just outside the station. Unfortunately, this gave the press the chance to capitalise on the ride's grandeur. "Terror on The Big One" read the main headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror, and other papers showed little more restraint. It was the most publicised roller coaster accident since the  Big Dipper at London's Battersea Park had malfunctioned, killing a young rider. Fortunately, The Big One's accident did not cause any serious injury, but it was a stark indication of how, when something has been built up in the public psyche, it has a lot further to fall when things go wrong. Even today, any incident of a train stopping on the lift hill for safety reasons, is likely to result in people calling the media, saying that something has gone wrong. Fortunately, the accident did nothing to dampen public enthusiasm for the ride when it re-opened later in the year. Although the ride could initially run only one train, riders dutifully joined the long queue ready to jump aboard.

Probably The Big One's greatest success is that it has embedded itself in the British consciousness as not so much a roller coaster as a rite of passage. Listen to the crowd as they queue for the ride, and it's obvious that there is still a prestige to the ride. It's the biggest, therefore it must the best, the scariest, and many a group of holidaymakers have treated the ride as a test of machismo. Elsewhere, it is almost always the ride used when a newspaper wants to illustrate a generic coaster (usually with hackneyed clichés like “The roller coaster of personal finance” and such like).

Designers had the challenge of fitting the world's largest roller coaster into one of the world's most crowded theme park.  

Part of the reason behind the ride’s fame is the park’s unusual willingness to work with outside companies. From the obvious tie-in with Pepsi, the ride has appeared in adverts for everything from cars and newspapers, to the rather less tasteful TV ad for a diarrhoea cure. Other stunts have included draping the lift hill with an enormous banner advertising the movie “Agent Cody Banks” to the truly surreal stunt where a Jordan Formula 1 car was fitted onto the train’s chassis, and F1 driver Ralph Firman was strapped into the cockpit and sent around the course.

But what of the ride itself? Well, one smart move was to ensure that The Big One was a traditional coaster in everything but its size. It would have been very easy to think that a couple of inversions would have boosted the thrill-factor of the ride, but instead we have a ride that runs perfectly normal trains, without overhead restraints to block your view, or gimmicks to distract you from the ride itself. This combination of the traditional and the modern is the hallmark of Pleasure Beach Blackpool, it is no mean feat that The Big One manages to avoid looking out of place in what is still, at heart, a traditional seaside park.

The real secret behind the ride is that it projects an image of terror, but is in fact a relatively gentle ride. From a power-packed first drop, the remainder of the ride relies more on creating a perception of being a wild ride, while in fact consisting of dead-straight climbs and drops, none of them coming to close to match the first drop for steepness or thrills. A great finale means that riders tend to disembark feeling that they've survived an intense and thrilling two minutes aboard the world's wildest coaster, when in fact they have ridden a coaster that isn't even the wildest ride in the park (the Grand National and Wild Mouse being well ahead of it). Nonetheless, if people are walking down The Big One's exit ramp with smiles on their faces feeling like they've conquered the greatest ride on Earth, and happy to open their wallets for a second ride, a souvenir photo, and a "Big One - Been There, Seen It, Done It" t-shirt, who are we to say they are wrong?

Never ones to miss an opportunity, the Pleasure Beach used a real Jordon Formula 1 car with racing driver Ralph Firman in the driving seat to advertise their re-vamped Formula 1 go-cart track

Credit: Pleasure Beach Blackpool 

The Big One is a very unusual coaster in that the majority of the ride relies far more on creating visual sensations than physical ones. The climbs and drops along the seafront are all perfectly straight lines, with none of the curves found on most coasters. While this may not be a recipe for great G-force, it allows riders the chance to look out over the Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, and on clear days way beyond. During the Blackpool Illumination season, riders can look up the seafront and take in the miles of lights stretching to Blackpool Tower and beyond. Although you can argue that there are many coasters out there that are more thrilling, few coasters go about achieving their thrills the way The Big One does.

While coaster fans lament The Big One's unfulfilled potential, it can't be denied that no ride has done more to put roller coasters and amusement parks into the public eye. It was the first coaster to eliminate the notion that amusement park rides are for children, and encouraged huge numbers of people to at least go and watch a coaster for the first time.  

Anniversary Features

Flying Machines

Maxim's Captive Flying Machines are reviewed

Time Flies
A brief look back at how Blackpool Pleasure Beach has evolved around the timeless Flying Machines

Maxim Biography
A look back at master inventor, Sir Hiram Maxim

Big One

The Pepsi Max Big One is reviewed

The Big Ten
A look at the Big One over the last ten years and the impact it's had

Making a Molehill out of a Mountain
Building the tallest coaster in the world in a park where it just won't fit 


Shockwave is reviewed

Shockwave's Shockwaves
Drayton Manor before Shockwave, and how Shockwave has changed the park

Colin Bryan Interview
Exclusive interview with Park Manager and family owner of Drayton Manor