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The Log Flume (Alton Towers)

Although the modern Alton Towers is famous almost for being a top class theme park, it is often forgotten that for the vast majority of the estate's life as a tourist attraction, it traded principally on attracting visitors to look around the castle ruins and gardens. Rides were considered a very minor part of the equation, and were restricted to a few old-style fairground rides. The turning point came in 1980 when then-owner John Broome decided to install a variety of larger scale rides. The new Vekoma Corkscrew stole the headlines, which was understandable, but it would be fair to say that the biggest achievement was the installation of the new Log Flume on the other side of the park the following year.

Why was the Log Flume a bigger achievement? Well, although the Corkscrew may have been the biggest and most spectacular thrill ride visitors had ever seen (how times have changed), but it was only an off-the-shelf coaster, which simply required the park to clear a patch of concrete, then assemble the pieces. The Log Flume was the park's first custom designed ride, weaving its way through the woods, and taking its riders well away from the crowds into an area of dense woodland. Given that the park could easily have got away with installing a much smaller twistier version of the ride, which would have been easier to construct yet just as well received by the public, the management of the day deserve credit for trying something ambitious. In its early years, the ride became almost as much a part of the park's identity as the Corkscrew, with the image of the final drop bottoming out just above a picturesque lake becoming famous, partly thanks to the fact that it is the only part of the ride clearly visible to spectators.

Since then, a lot has changed. Alton Towers has gone from operating as a stately home that just happens to have a few rides, to a serious theme park that just happens to have a stately home. Log Flumes have become a standard amusement park ride, to the point where visitors are likely to be shocked to visit a park and find that there isn't some sort of flume on offer. Rides like Drayton Manor's Storm Force 10 have heightened visitors' expectations, while rides like American Adventure's Nightmare Niagara or Thorpe Park's Tidal Wave dampen the impact of the Alton ride's once-amazing height. How can the Log Flume compete in the more competitive theme park market of the twenty-first century?   

The entrance to the Log Flume can be difficult to find for the first time visitor. Logically, the ride should have been incorporated into the Katanga Canyon area, which was created in 1992. Instead, the entrance is hidden away in Merrie England, although no effort is made to explain why a Log Flume should be doing there. In its early days, the queue was a nasty cattle-pen affair, but this has been replaced with a long meandering path which heads around the edge of the lake, and directly underneath the crest of the final drop, before turning back towards the station. The only down side to the queue is that there are no shortcut gates, and even when the ride is a walk-on, you still have to walk the full length of the path. One highly unusual feature of the queue is the large notices scattered along the path, asking water-related general knowledge questions, almost as if the park is acknowledging how bored you'll be by the time you reach them. This isn't a bad idea, and I'm surprised not to see the feature on other rides around the park.

The station is more the type you'd associate with a rapids ride than a Log Flume, using a moving circular platform, covered by an ornate roof, probably in a desperate bid to fit the Merrie England theme. Although this system may be outdated, it does look far more spectacular than the old sheds most other flumes use for their stations. On busy days, the fact that so many boats are in the station at once means that the staff are able to match up group numbers to ensure that boats go out with a full load of 5 riders, which helps keep the queue moving. This isn't always a good thing, and its worth making sure you don't queue too close to what I shall politely call "undesirable" visitors, as there's always a chance that you'll be forced to ride with them.

The first section of the ride takes you down a rather odd cul-de-sac, which seems to be there solely to make the ride visible from the nearby path, and the original queue line, in fact nostalgia-buffs will be able to spot the supports which once held plastic screens to stop riders from leaning out of the boat and splashing the queue. Once this is out of the way, we come to the first lift. This has a slightly intimidating look to it, since it is pretty huge, and neither riders nor spectators can see what comes next. Up and up and up you go, what could be waiting on the other side? A huge Oblivion-style drop maybe? Brace yourself, here it comes, it's ... a quite pathetic teeny-weeny little drop, bottoming out well above the ground. This is actually a nice enough way to start the ride, but the fact that riders are led to think there is something much more spectacular on its way does make it a big anti climax. It is also used as a simple enough way of getting the track to a height which allows it to gradually slope down to the base of the second lift, which is a long long way away.

With the first drop out of the way, you find yourself in the woods. The big plus point of this is that it is the only ride at Alton Towers where you are taken well away from the crowds and the noise of the park itself. Although the pathway leading from Katanga Canyon comes closer than you realise, this is really the park's only way of sitting on a major ride and just relaxing. Here, it also becomes obvious that this is one of the very few where the park has made no effort to create a theme - at no point does anyone pretend that you are doing anything other than going on a fairly gentle boat trip through the woods.

The ride takes the shape of an elongated figure-of-8, and as you approach the crossover, a tunnel takes you under the second lift. Amusingly, the entrance to the tunnel is an archway that appears to be cut into a rubber curtain. It is a strange quirk of the human mind that, in this situation, the majority of people are powerless to stop themselves putting up their hand, and whacking it. Anyone with a cruel sense of humour will take great delight in seeing people attempt this, only to find that the "curtain" is as solid as a rock, and hearing their cries of pain echo around the pitch black tunnel.

For several years, the boat would emerge into an area inhabited by large model dinosaurs, which were moved here when the construction of the Black Hole meant the demolition of their old walk-through enclosure (similar to that found at Drayton Manor today).  Authentically, these have now all died out and the area is now left just as nature intended. As the boat plods its way through the back "loop" of the figure-8, there isn't a lot to do except relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but again it may seem anti-climatic to first time riders. In the last few years, Tussaudís has become very keen on the idea that rides should be surrounded with walkways which go under, over, and around the rides. Although this is great for spectators, it can occasionally give riders the claustrophobic feeling of a zoo animal, there to stared at by others. When this feeling strikes, its good to know that thereís one ride in the park that you can enjoy in privacy.

Eventually, the boat winds its way around to the second lift. At the peak sits the entrance to another tunnel, which means that the short drop is taken in total darkness. Again, the drop is nothing to get too excited about, and you are unlikely to get particularly wet beyond a bit of spray bouncing back from the walls. The following section is particularly odd, as the boat continues in total darkness for a considerable time, still in total darkness. This has not always been the case, as during the reign of the dinosaurs, the tunnel was home to pleasant subtly lit scene of smaller models gathered around a pool. Although the "stage" for this scene remains, it sits invisible to all but the most observant of riders. Whatever you may be expecting in terms of special effects or theming fails to show up, and as the end of the tunnel looms, you can't help feeling that the opportunity for something spectacular has been wasted.

The tunnel delivers you straight to the foot of the final lift.  During the climb, reality slowly dawns, as you return to the hustle and bustle of the park. At the top, it is amusing to note the platform, a relic from the days when a member of staff would hand you a ticket, which you would hand in at the exit to order your on-ride photo. It hardly seems credible today that ride photos would have to be ordered, unseen, by handing in your ticket, and then filling in an address form so that your picture could be posted to you a few days later. Even more incredibly, this system was considered very hi-tech at the time, simply because it used an automatic camera - compare this to the system used on Blackpool Pleasure Beach's Log Flume, where an employee would be stationed on a platform in the middle of the lake and take every picture manually with a bog-standard hand held camera!

The drop forms a nice way of delivering you from the isolation of the woods into the wide-open space of the lake, and is entertaining enough in its own right. Unfortunately, there's no sign of a really spectacular splash down, which yet again gives it a sense of anti-climax. With a full (and therefore heavy) boat, you are likely to get a reasonable soaking, "reasonable" being defined as letting you know you've been on a water ride, but not drenching you to the point walking away from the ride becomes uncomfortable. As you head back to the station, large ripples are transmitted along the trough by other boats hitting the water behind you, which causes an amusing effect, as the boat suddenly rises into the air, to the surprise of the unprepared riders. Annoyingly, the observation platform is fenced off from the ride exit, meaning that groups of riders and non-riders have quite a bit of lateral thinking to do in order to be re-united.

I wouldn't use the word "bad" to describe the ride, but it does have a couple of major flaws over and above the little annoyances already mentioned.  Firstly, if you ride in a full boat, the weight pushes the boat down and forces it to run on its wheels along the bottom of the trough. This alone takes away a huge amount of the fun of riding. While passengers on a light boat enjoy the pleasant floating sensation that the ride is meant to deliver, larger groups are left with a sensation more akin to clattering down a badly maintained railway.  Secondly, the splashdowns are all disappointing. Anyone who has witnessed such rides as American Adventure's Nightmare Niagara, or Drayton Manor's now-removed Log Flume will remember the huge, spectacular walls of water thrown up every time a boat hit the bottom of the drops. On Alton's version there is precious little to get excited about, as the water just seems to fumble around, throwing up little more than a near-invisible cloud of mist which isn't particularly exciting either for riders or spectators.

Although I always enjoy the ride, I can't help noticing that the phrase I've had to use most often in this review is "anti-climax".  The biggest problem with the ride is simply that it doesn't fit in with the modern Alton Towers. When the Log Flume opened, visitors came to look at the park's amazing landscape, and riding the Log Flume fitted in with that idea. Nowadays, people queue up expecting a fully-fledged theme park ride, which it simply doesnít deliver. If you think of it as a ride to get away from the loud, brash Alton Towers of today, and go back to the quaint Alton Towers of twenty years ago, the ride is perfect.

No-oneís pretending that the ride is a world-beater, and Iím sure we can all think of several more thrilling flume rides, but the Alton Towers Log Flume has an identity and a charm all of its own, and if you are looking for a peaceful ride which can be enjoyed with relative privacy, then the Log Flume is not bad.

3/5 John Phillips


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