Coaster Kingdom

Excalibur (Drayton Manor)

The following review will go into explicit detail regarding the attraction and the surprises it may conceal. If you choose to read on, be warned that it may detract from your first ride on the attraction.

Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George! With Drayton Manor being right in the heart of England, it's understandable that they should have adopted a patriotic stance in the construction of their 2003 ride, and what could be a more English theme than the knights of the realm?

Of course, knights aren't really what they used to be. Where we once had Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad, we now have Sir Cliff Richard and Sir Elton John. Somehow, I can't imagine either of them risking life and limb to save the honour of a fair maiden, so it's probably wise that Drayton Manor should choose to celebrate the knights of the Mediaeval era.

In late 2001, signs appeared on the old Jungle Cruise ride, explaining that the ride would soon retire, to make way for the mysteriously named "Project Neptune". It was immediately made obvious that the ride would not be a thrill machine, but a gentle towboat ride around the existing Jungle Cruise lake. During 2002, the mountains of gravel that littered the site slowly took shape, and a castle turret slowly rose, forming the centrepiece of a rotating loading platform. Boats started to go on display around the area, and signs invited visitors to return in 2003 and ride "Excalibur: A Dragon's Tale".

It was announced early on that the ride system would be from BEAR rides of Switzerland, and the theming from Britain's Farmer Studios. This certainly gave the ride a good pedigree, being exactly the same combination of minds that brought us the highly regarded Storm Force 10 in 1999.

Despite the park being very proud of the ride throughout its construction, it somehow failed to set tongues wagging in the way you might expect. It actually shows how far the UK amusement park industry has come that the ride did not generate anywhere near as much publicity as it would have done just a few years earlier.

With work on the ride completed, one formality remained - the grand opening. Thanks to Drayton Manor's links with Birmingham radio station BRMB, all of their rides get opened by bland, tiresome pop groups. On the plus side, the "Drayton Manor Curse" does tend to lead to these groups splitting up within six months, and therefore the final choice of Atomic Kitten was highly agreeable.

So, with the ritual of the opening out of the way, the great unwashed were allowed to get their hands on the ride to find out what life was like as a Mediaeval knight - or so you might expect. In reality, Excalibur is anything but an educational look at the Arthurian legend...

The problem with some themed rides is that they can often come across as ludicrously overblown and pompous. There are only two ways to avoid this trap. Firstly, you can throw millions of pounds into lavish special effects, and magnificently detailed and genuinely engrossing scenery. The alternative is to neatly sidestep this problem by creating a ride that plants its tongue firmly in its cheek. Excalibur goes for the latter.

The story is simple enough. You are there to look around "Castleville", a new housing development for the upwardly mobile middle-aged folk of the Middle Ages. The developers are trying their hardest to push you into signing the contract as soon as possible. Throughout the queue line, you are surrounded by notices offering artists' impressions of your potential dwellings, along with extensive descriptions trying to put a positive spin on everything - houses with leaky roofs are described as having "Running water throughout", for example.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You'd love a little pad in a Mediaeval village, if it weren't for the nuisance of having dragons flying around the place, getting under your feet and setting light to your house with their fiery breaths. Well, have no fear - the developers go to great lengths to reassure you that there are no dragons in Castleville, or anywhere near Castleville. Nope, you'll have no problems on that score; you mark my words.

Finally, the queue heads under the turret, where the gatekeeper allocates a boat for you and up to fifteen other house-hunters to take the tour. As you board, you will be fed vital information about the dangers of falling into the water while wearing chain mail, and the procedure to follow should you spot any dragons. Not that you'll see any dragons in Castleville of course, but you just can't be too careful where those dreadful creatures are concerned.

Leaving the platform, we turn towards the gates of Castleville, and see the gang of merry knights hard at work building your dream house. Frankly, these aren't the most competent workers on Earth, and make you wonder whether King Arthur might have been a touch generous in handing out knighthoods to any olde-worlde Tom Dick and Harold.

Glossing over the workers' shortcomings, the commentary soon turns to the subject of contracts, and suggests that we really ought to sign up right now to avoid disappointment. Tragically, we lose the reception at this point and we instead hear a calm female voice, telling us that she has taken control of the boat, and is going to take us away through the town's rear gate. The voice introduces herself: "I am Cantata, and I am a dr... well, we'll come to that later". All she'll say is that she's beneath the water, dragging us along. Fair enough.

The guards at the rear gate are too clumsy and thick to prevent the boat from leaving, and so we find ourselves drifting out into the lake beyond Castleville. After sneaking past the town's rear lookout, Cantata bumps into the Lady of the Lake, who holds aloft Excalibur for us. She then conducts a quick and fairly informal chinwag with Cantata, asking her to pass on a message to Merlin about giving her something lighter to hold than a sword (her arm's killing her, the poor girl).

Reaching the back of the lake, you see what is presumably a dragon peering over the wall to see what's going on. Actually, it's the T-Rex from the park's "Dinosaurland" walk-through, but it works just as well.

Now that Cantata has our trust, she feels it safe to reveal herself. It seems that she is... wait for it... a dragon! Not only that, there are dragons everywhere. By Jiminy, that unscrupulous property developer lied to us - whoever heard of such a thing?

Cantata tells us her side of the story. Apparently, the whole lake used to belong to the dragons until the knights came swanning in, building houses on what has always been the dragons' home. The cheek of it. Anyway, Cantata has figured that if she can dissuade us from buying homes in Castleville, they'll eventually have the lake to themselves again. Well, it certainly beats hackneyed old tactic of breathing fire everywhere and killing everyone - that would have required more expensive special effects, after all (and anyway, Health and Safety law strictly forbids the killing of riders).

Up ahead, we see knights using a large wooden crane type contraption to capture a dragon a net. Goodness me, so that's how they were going to guarantee no dragons in Castleville! This dragon turns down Cantata's offer of help, claiming that the net is unlikely to hold him for long. Sure enough, he's soon free and, and joins Cantata for a natter. He is shocked, however, to find that she has a boatload of disgusting humans in tow, and takes her away.

We are left drifting towards "Dragon Manor" (AKA the old Jungle Cruise tunnel) in the hands of Merlin, who casts a spell on the boat to guide it through safely. Given how sharply the boat can strike the sides of the channel, I suspect Merlin needs to brush up a bit on his spells, but still, we get through in the end.

At the end of the tunnel, we finally come face to face with Cantata in her family home. As she excitedly dashes around, the children wake up, much to the annoyance of their father, who lets out a blast of flame to put them in their place. With this scene of heart warming domestic bliss, Cantata is satisfied that she has got us on her side, and bids us farewell, convinced that another group of prospective buyers will be looking elsewhere for their new homes.

We emerge into what looks like the knights' dressing room, where we see various artefacts, including an eye-less helmet belonging to Sir Veillance, and an expanded chest plate for Sir Lunchalot. From the white noise, the Castleville commentator emerges, bemoaning Merlin's choice of sound system, and makes one last attempt to get us to sign on the dotted line before we reach the turntable and return to 21st Century Tamworth.

It's true to say that Excalibur does not exactly set new standards in terms of presentation. Between leaving Castleville and entering Dragon Manor, the scenery is very sparse, and the ride relies almost entirely on the commentary to keep us entertained. In terms of scenery, only the tunnel has anything that can be compared to the highly detailed theming on Storm Force 10. In fact, if you look at it coldly, the ride is a bit of a disappointment.

Fortunately, the ride has one thing that redeems it immeasurably. Humour. An endless stream of self-deprecating humour, serving to make the ride's shortcomings much easier to accept. Anyone expecting Excalibur to be an informative look at life in the Middle Ages are in for a shock, as the only think we really learn is that the Lady of the Lake had a strong Brummie accent - the sound of this majestic and legendary figure gurgling a merry "cheerio" as we leave her is sure to bring a smile to riders' faces.

The easiest way to describe the strengths of Excalibur is to compare them to the weaknesses of Blackpool Pleasure Beach's Valhalla. On Valhalla, the tone is very serious. You really feel that you are supposed to sit there open-mouthed at the quality of the special effects. The fact that the quality is somewhat lacking is what makes the ride such a disappointment. Excalibur, by contrast, never takes itself remotely seriously, and there's always a tongue in cheek reference to the fact that, say, the lake isn't very big, or that much of the story (such as Cantata's conversations with the other characters) takes place out of the riders' view. It's hard to dislike a ride that has such an engaging sense of self-mockery. You simply can't help emerging from the ride with a wry smile on your face.

Looking for genuine criticisms, the biggest problem is that, at the half way point of the ride, we are meant to be surprised to find that Cantata is a dragon. In the first half of the ride, there are lots of references to "I am a dra..." or "Look, it's a dra...", without actually saying the word. Unfortunately, it's so screamingly obvious what it meant to be happening that the final reveal, complete with OTT musical crescendo to emphasise the surprise, falls rather flat. Maybe I'm just missing a joke, but this ham-fisted reveal is the only uncomfortably pompous moment in what is otherwise a very unpretentious ride.

Also, the name of the ride is slightly puzzling, given that we only get one passing reference to Excalibur, which is totally isolated from the story of the ride. You get the impression that the Excalibur reference has been shoe-horned in to justify the name. Given that “Excalibur” has already been used for quite a variety of rides, it seems a shame that something a bit more original and relevant couldn't have been used. Even more puzzling is the original name, "Project Neptune". The fact that neither name relates much to the story hints that maybe there was a change of mind at some point as to how the story should go.

Finally, the actual transit system is far from natural. In fact, every turn is taken by stopping dead, turning on the spot, and then jerking back into action. Again, a very minor criticism, but it does break up the pace of the ride slightly. The feeling of floating around the lake is temporarily lost due to the almost robotic turns.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of "scenic" rides - meaning anything where the emphasis is on looking at the ride's surroundings, rather than on the ride itself. I tend to find it unappealing when a ride expects me to go along with some sort of overblown storyline. Fortunately, Excalibur's sense of irony separates it from such rides and is all the better for it in my opinion. Similarly, it distinguishes itself from other "comedy" rides (e.g. Alton Towers' Toyland Tours) by using a much dryer form of humour, without the sense of overbearing wackiness that inevitably grates on the nerves on such rides.

Quite simply, I cannot bring myself to criticise a ride that never takes itself seriously. Although the scenery is sparse, the soundtrack is entertaining enough to bring a smile to the face. It's not laugh-out-loud humour, but is a good mix of cheesy gags (early on), and sublime bathos (supposedly awesome characters conducting banal day-to-day conversations) later on. The references to Merlin and magic may be an all-too-blatant attempt to cash in on the Harry Potter craze, but this doesn't really intrude on the humour of the ride at all.

If Excalibur took itself seriously, I'd have no hesitation in administering a comprehensive slating. As it is, the comedy elevates it well above similar rides. It may not be technically stunning, even the most cynical rider will emerge with a smile on their face. In the theme park industry, the phrase "family ride" tends to mean a ride for toddlers, but Excalibur is one of those rare rides that the whole family really can enjoy, even if none of them will find it exactly mind-blowing.

3/5 John Phillips