Coaster Kingdom


Detonator, Thorpe Park

When the infamous Italian ride manufacturer Fabbri announced that they were to attempt a freefall tower, few people starting whooping with delight or doing cartwheels in anticipation. The reason is that the freefall machine is a genre that many manufacturers have attempted, but few have mastered. Intamin, S&S, and Huss have all been relatively successful, while Maurer and Zamperla’s efforts have been poor and abysmal respectively. Likewise, a quick look through Fabbri’s back catalogue of rides reveals a similarly worrying level of inconsistency. Almost all of their products are cut-price clones of existing rides, of which many are good, a few are excellent, and the rest are downright appalling. Nevertheless, against all odds, Detonator is by far the finest freefall machine you could ever hope to try.

Detonator was installed in 2001, as part of the triple-whammy of new rides that made up the park’s “Sensory Overload” campaign, and marked the start of the conversion of Thorpe Park from ultra-conservative kiddie park of to an all-out refuge for thrill-seekers. Standing at 100ft, it is one of the shortest freefall towers around, and from a distance lacks visual impact, thanks to its position between the more imposing Nemesis Inferno and Tidal Wave. Furthermore, its dark colour and undecorated peak mean that it looks distinctly industrial, resembling some sort of crane protruding from a far-away building site.

Looks can be deceptive, and a closer examination of Detonator reveals its true personality. Although it won’t win any awards for architectural flair, it somehow manages to turn faults to its advantage. No effort is made to disguise the fact that it was designed as a travelling ride, and the heavy base that anchors it to the ground is plain to see. However, this base doubles as a very effective “stage”, allowing viewers to see the reactions of riders as they board and leave the ride. The sound of the motors that hoist the car to the summit may seem ungainly, but the noise creates a unique sense of drama, suggesting that everything is working flat out to give you the most extreme ride imaginable.

The sense of drama is heightened further by the ride’s excellent presentation. While not themed as such, the whole area around the ride reverberates to what must be the catchiest ride music ever devised – I defy anyone to ride Detonator and not have its ditty running uncontrollably through their mind for at least a week. Swooping sound effects abound as the car lifts from the platform, and a loud countdown echoes around the vicinity to make sure everyone knows to look up and watch the car plummet. Overall, the presentation strikes a superb compromise between the unabashed mania of a travelling fair ride, and the more relaxed atmosphere of the average theme park.

For those who want to star in the show, the entrance path makes its way through an area close to the first drop of Nemesis Inferno, offering fabulous views of this B&M inverted coaster, before turning upwards to the loading platform. As if inflicting a cruel psychological torture on nervous riders, the path now works its way at close quarters around the foot of the tower, the floor vibrating menacingly as the lift motor goes through its exertions, then forcing a close-up view of the car dropping almost on top of you, and of riders’ expressions as they return to Surrey soil. As if to mock the more technologically complex freefall machines, the catch car then lowers and emits a satisfying “clunk” as its giant metal hooks latch onto the car once again.

And so it’s your turn to ride. Unlike travelling versions of the Mega Drop (to use Fabbri’s generic name for the ride), Detonator’s twelve seats are arranged in a circle, rather than four rows of three. This obviously helps capacity, as groups of whatever size can be accommodated without undue fuss, but also has a huge advantage in terms of the psychology of the ride, namely that you are totally isolated from your eleven co-Detonatees, and can see nothing of the ride’s structure other than the large overhead restraints. Anxious first-timers can’t look to their friends for support – this is one challenge you have to face solo.

Although the tower doesn’t look tall, it feels surprisingly high from the top. Depending on where you sit, you’ll have a great view of Nemesis Inferno or Tidal Wave, as the now-familiar countdown plays aloud, punctuated by stabs of orchestral strings to heighten the tension. Right on zero, the hooks loudly release themselves, and the ride reveals its secret weapon. You see, this freefall tower doesn’t exactly let you freefall; instead, it uses pneumatics to thrust the car downward, meaning the drop is slightly faster than a pure freefall. Statistically, the extra speed may not be huge, but it certainly makes its presence felt, as riders go flying up out of their seats in what must surely be the finest such drop in existence. As you fall, the restraints do a perfect job of catching you and pulling you to the ground, and then thrusting your airborne backside down into the seat as the magnetic brakes bring the car to a G-force packed halt. As the phrase “Detonation complete” is heard all around, the spectators and queue begin to scrutinise your reaction, and it’s difficult to do anything but give them a huge approving smile in return.

One possible criticism is that the countdown detracts from the ride’s element of surprise, by telling you exactly when to expect the drop. While this is true, it has to be said that the overall influence of the various sound effects is far more positive than negative. They enable the ride to build on its sense of drama, and allow both riders and spectators to stretch the enjoyment of the ride well beyond the half-second of the actual drop. Compare this to the travelling versions of the ride, where it is not uncommon to hold the car at the peak for anything up to two minutes, and where the eventual drop can come not as a pleasant surprise, but as a rather unwelcome shock. If any criticism can be made of the soundtrack, it should be that it is identical every time the ride runs, and so can grate on the nerves slightly if you have to wait in a long queue. While a little variation would undoubtedly be welcome, the soundtrack nevertheless deserves a huge thumbs-up.  

As with all freefall rides, Detonator can be labelled a one-trick pony. While this is undoubtedly true, it delivers that trick infinitely better than its competitors. Even the unthinkably more expensive and high-tech Oblivion fails miserably in its endeavour to out-do Fabbri’s “bargain basement” equivalent. The question is simply whether you are prepared to queue for such an unashamedly short ride. Personally, I wouldn’t generally recommend queuing for freefalls, as they offer too little to justify the wait. In Detonator’s case, things are slightly different, and even if you aren’t a fan of the genre, it is still certainly worthy of a longer wait than any other freefall ride.

Detonator is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and despite initial low expectations, offers a fabulous ride, pleasant surroundings, and an unparalleled sense of drama. The fact that such an unashamedly “cheap & cheerful” ride should end up giving its high-tech rivals such an unreserved caning gives it an almost heart-warming sense of David beating Goliath, and proves once and for all that there is more to Fabbri than just second-rate clones other firms’ rides. In short, please do visit Thorpe Park, and please do ride Detonator; just don’t blame me if you spend the rest of your life humming the ride’s theme tune.

JP 11 July 2004

Good points:

Very powerful drop with great freefall effect
Very roomy seats and restraints
Good atmosphere created by music and countdown
A good view of either Tidal Wave or Nemesis Inferno

Bad points:

Theming is a bit out of place and sparse
A short ride



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