Coaster Kingdom


What is the most magical thing you can think of? David Blaine sawing someone in half and then putting them back together? Somebody sawing David Blaine in half, and then not putting him back together? Well, as nice as that may be, reality tells us that there’s no such thing as magic, and that what purports itself to be so is just a sly illusion. With that in mind, Alton Towers’ slogan, “Where The Magic Never Ends”, is actually quite accurate. The only real mystery is how the place manages to keep its high reputation is the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I’ve been visiting Alton Towers regularly since long before I can actually remember. I used to sit in my infant school class, endlessly drawing pictures of the Mini Apple coaster, and counting the days until I could next ride it. Of course, things were so much different then. The skies were blue; the fields were green; children respected their elders; Opal Fruits were called Opal Fruits; the pop charts were full of good songs with proper tunes and lyrics you could understand; and Alton Towers was the greatest theme park around. Not like today, oh no.

So how did the park’s reputation come to suffer the most spectacular fall from grace since Gerald Ratner? What are the implications for the future?

Talbot Hound in Her Ladyship's Gardens

There's no hiding the rich heritage behind Alton Towers - despite their best efforts.

The first thing to remember about Alton Towers is that it is in a highly unusual position. Unlike Thorpe Park, Legoland, or countless others around the world, the site was simply never meant to be a major theme park, and became one almost by accident. The estate had been open to the public for over half a century when the first major rides appeared, and the place operated on the strength of people wanting to see the castle ruins and the (undoubtedly spectacular) gardens.

One of the most lamentable things about the Alton Towers of today is that precisely nobody visits for that reason, and the fact that the estate is the ancestral home of the Earls of Shrewsbury is largely ignored. This is a crying shame, as Alton Towers is at its very best when it exploits its own sense history. It is difficult not to be impressed with Hex, as it beautifully combines Alton Towers’ rich heritage with Tussaud’s ability to create drama and entertainment.

Similarly, there can be no more appropriate setting for a haunted walk-through than that of Terror of the Towers. Even Nemesis managed to tap into the seam, by creating a theme that took the park’s rich sense of enigmatic history and twisted it into a much darker realm in a manner that would simply not be possible in the modernistic settings of most theme parks.  

By contrast, the park is at its nadir when it tries to fight its own history. To have the magnificent Towers neighboured by the coarse industrialism of X-Sector, and the garish explosion-in-a-paint-factory of Ug Land simply beggars belief. Would Tussaud’s treat Warwick Castle like this? Of course not, but for some reason, the Talbots’ home does not warrant the same sense of reverence.

This is a ludicrous situation, as most theme parks are charged with the task of taking an undeveloped site, be it industrial (Thorpe Park and The American Adventure) or agricultural (Oakwood, Lightwater Valley), and turning them into places of mystique and wonder; Alton Towers, on the other hand, seems insistent on taking a site that was already overloaded with charisma and majesty, and making it look like a cross between an industrial estate and a cheap village fate.

Big One and Roller Coaster

Look no further than Blackpool to see how new can compliment the old

This lack of reverence is at the heart of much of what I feel is wrong with the park today. Irreverence in itself is actually a wonderful thing, but while Blackpool Pleasure Beach revels in its outrageous levels of tackiness, it does so while retaining its wonderful charm; similarly, Thorpe Park can get away with the epic campness of Amity cove and X:\ No Way Out because of its modern urban setting.

Alton Towers does not have that luxury, and the usual theme park cheesiness simply falls on its face when you’re working with such a historical backdrop. If you’re asking for examples, I can point you in the direction of the two “new” rides for 2004. Continues...

Coaster Kingdom Magazine
Issue 02: Jan 2005

Issue 02
Where the Magic Ended?
Has the magic gone from Alton Towers?