Coaster Kingdom

Pleasure Beach Blackpool
United Kingdom

To regular theme park visitors making their first trip to Blackpool, there's one piece of advice that I can really give - take all of your little ideas of what makes a typical theme park, and throw them all out of the window. Pleasure Beach Blackpool ("The Plesh" to its friends) is a modern theme park, an  old-fashioned seaside funfair, and so much more besides.

The Pleasure Beach has existed for over 100 years and is the only old-style park to have really survived the arrival of competition from the relatively recent wave of theme parks. While most seaside parks have shrivelled to become a dreary collection of decrepit funfair rides, PBB has continually invested in attention grabbing rides, while remaining commendably diligent in making sure the classic - and I do mean CLASSIC - rides of the past have been preserved for us to enjoy for many years to come.

Our first time visitors arrive at the gate have bought their wristband and entered the park. The wristbands may be more expensive than the average theme park ticket, but there are several things to remember before criticising the park for this. Firstly, the park offers more rides than your typical theme park. Secondly, the park is usually open for a lot longer than any other British park - while other parks give you your marching orders at teatime, a PBB  wristband can keep you riding for up to 12 hours in high season.  Finally, a typical family group will have at least one member who is going to go on few or no rides. While most parks will still charge these people full rate, PBB is free to enter, and offers ride tickets for those who don't want to ride all day. Overall, a typical family is likely to end up paying less at PBB than at other parks, and receiving a lot more for their money.

Anyway, our first time visitors pass through the turnstiles and into the park. What follows is total sensory overload. Instead of having to consult the map to find the rides, they see rides everywhere. Visible for several miles around the park, their eyes will already have been drawn to The Big One, the 1994 Arrow Hypercoaster. As they watch a train go round they now notice that it crosses the path of another coaster... and another... and another. The fact that the  park is really very small has resulted in new rides being built over, under, around, and through existing rides, creating a tangle of tracks which, at some points, makes Spaghetti Junction look straight forward. Not one square inch of this park is wasted, and this is one of the park's great strengths.

So what of the rides themselves? Fan of wooden coasters, are you? Of course you are, and PBB's five woodies really do offer something for every taste. The Zipper Dipper, Roller Coaster, Big Dipper, and Grand National are respectively, a children's woodie, a perfect family woodie, a gloriously grown-up woodie, and a truly wild racing coaster. These four rides complement each other perfectly, allowing the most timid of riders to progress from being terrified, to enjoying themselves, to adrenaline junkie.  Just to stop you getting too cocky, the fifth woodie, the Wild Mouse, is on a level of lunacy way beyond anything the English language can describe.

Steelie fans are well catered for in terms of quantity, although in truth none of the rides here are a match for the theme parks. The pick of the crop is the Revolution, Europe's first steel looping coaster. The first drop of this Arrow shuttle loop being one of the most incredible airtime moments of any coaster. Elsewhere the steelies are, frankly mediocre at best. The Avalanche is a relatively unimaginative Mack bobsleigh coaster, the Space Invader a decent dark coaster, albeit with rather tacky space theming.  The Steeplechase is certainly unusual, given that you ride on Carousel style fibreglass horses, but is a fairly short-lived novelty. Remember, though, that these are just the support acts to the woodies, and certainly beat the line up of hyped up, but tamed down, spinning rides which most parks use as support rides.

The park's main selling point, the aforementioned Pepsi Max Big One is a very impressive looking coaster (the view of the ride as you leave the M55 motorway is staggering), but has received a mixed reaction from coaster fans.  It is a tough ride to judge, as it seems to follow a Stock, Aitkin and Waterman style approach to coaster design.  Superficially amazing, the ride lacks any real substance and won't really keep you coming back for more. Taking the first drop in the back seat is something special, but otherwise the ride has aged before its time, sadly.

The park has several dark rides, the best of which is the River Caves. Dating from 1904, the ride has been well kept, and some of the scenes are quite superb, putting the much-hyped Valhalla to shame in many respects. Most of the other dark rides, such as the Ghost Train or Alice in Wonderland, are hardly state of the art, but don't take themselves too seriously, and have a tacky charm which newer rides can't recreate. The much-hyped Valhalla is a slight disappointment, being largely a collection of unrelated (and often temperamental) special effects, lacking the charm of the older rides. Still, if you like looking at fires you'll really enjoy the ride!

Where PBB scores highly among enthusiasts is preservation.  Alongside the modern rides are several historic rides which, anywhere else, would now be a distant memory. Along with woodies from the 20s and 30s, rides like the Whip and the Turtle Chase are living pieces of history. The park has not attempted to modernise these rides, they appear exactly how the designers intended, and are all the better for it. In terms of history, however, one ride towers above them all.

The 1904 Hiram Maxim Flying Machine is, quite simply, magnificent. A gigantic ride, the Flying Machine's rocket shaped cars swing out in a huge circle over the surrounding walkways. The ride is a real treasure, and riding is an overwhelming experience - you can almost feel the ghosts of the millions of long dead fun-seekers who have taken delight in the ride since long before you were born. Every creak of this monster machine resounds with the scream of generation after generation of people all enjoying the simple pleasure of this ride. How many amusement parks are there which make you appreciate your place in history? This one ride reminds you of what life is all about, and if that isn't worth a few minutes of your time, nothing is. Now, if only they could make the seats comfier...

So, we've established that PBB has more than its share of decent rides, but that means nought if the park hasn't got the right atmosphere, and it is here that the park shows its funfair roots. While theme parks tend to have the same atmosphere all the time, a visit to PBB on the wrong day could see the place deserted, which is not a particularly enjoyable experience. The park radio station will try to gee things up a bit, but the presenters do seem to come from the Alan Partridge school of broadcasting and are quickly reduced to reciting the weather forecast every few minutes.  Visit at the right time, however, and the atmosphere is electric, and quite unlike any other park. My recommendation is to try and visit on a Friday night in the summer. This is when regulars come out alongside the one-off visitors, in fact PBB is the only park I know where regular visitors become friends, like the regulars in your local pub. The combination of the crowds, the elegant lighting of the rides, and the simple fact that you can carry on riding long after most parks would have kicked you out make for a invariably wonderful experience.

Now, as baffling as it may be to you or I, it seems that not everyone is happy to ride coasters all day and night, and want to do something a bit different. The Plesh, however, doesn't cast these people out into the cold, and is home to a wide variety of shows. No, these aren't just the normal shows you'd expect a park to put on, the "Hello boys and girls... I can't hear you" type (although these are on offer if you want it), these are real shows of the type you'd more commonly associate with the West End. Shows like Mystique, Hot Ice and Eclipse have all received rave reviews from the "serious" theatre press. Furthermore, there are smaller shows around the park which can be seen for free, such as the High Diving show which has been a regular fixture at the park for several years.

When it comes to mealtimes, PBB covers virtually anything you could desire. Old-fashioned Candy Floss stalls or Fish & Chip restaurants are dotted around the park, while a branch of Burger King can be found at the park's South Entrance. Meals can also be taken at Coasters Diner on the seafront, in which you'll also find all sorts of park memorabilia - ever fancied eating your lunch in a Waltzer car?! Top of the range meals can also be bought in the White Tower restaurant in the Casino building (Casino in the old sense of the word, mind), while the Fish Inn sees the park take on Harry Ramsden at his own game.

Ride merchandise can be varied, with only the Big One really getting it's fair share of T-shirts, mugs and the usual bits and pieces. There are though a lot of nice pieces of park merchandise, particularly when it comes to books and videos. Two superb books have been written about the park's history, while the videos are reasonable but far too short. What is nice too see, however, are books and videos about coasters and parks generally. It's good to know that PBB are happy to sell products which encourage an interest in coasters, even if they endorse rival parks as well as their own.

To return to our first time visitors, it's worth remembering that they're not just visiting a park, they're visiting a town too, and are under no obligation to stay on the park every minute of the day. If they don't find that their tastes in food or shows are covered, Blackpool will always accommodate them somewhere. This even applies to rides. As a massive fan of spin & spew rides, I find it sad that the park has virtually none, but fortunately this type of ride is provided by two of the town's three piers, and even directly opposite the park entrance, where quality travelling rides regularly turn up, much to the annoyance of park management!

In the 1980s, Pleasure Beach Blackpool's advertising slogan was "The Amazement Park", and this seems an appropriate way of summing the place up. It is a million miles away from any other park in the UK and gloriously breaks all the rules of the modern corporate theme park industry. While I have criticised the lack of a great steelie, it should be remembered that this place has four - FOUR - great woodies on offer. This one park accounts for almost 50% of the woodies in Britain, so just think of the steelies as decent "support" rides. This isn't just an amusement park, this is a living museum of the amusement industry, with rides from every era presented exactly how they were meant to be. There can be no greater symbol of the park than the view up the main walkway of the elegant flame shaped cupola of the Big Dipper, with the lift hill of a 90s hypercoaster rising in the background.

Pleasure Beach Blackpool - The park wi' nowt taken out.

John Phillips

Blackpool PB

Blackpool PB
Park Reviewed
Big Dipper
Big One
Grand National
Ice Blast

River Caves


Roller Coaster
Space Invader

Wild Mouse

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