Coaster Kingdom

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Rita - Queen of Speed, Alton Towers

There was a time when Alton Towers was known for coming up with brilliantly original names for rides. Why use a hackneyed old cliché like “Cyclone” or “Revolution” when you can use “Nemesis” and “Oblivion”? Times have changed since then, and it now seems that the park’s creative department has confused the concepts of “brilliantly original” and “downright daft”. If it was a touch surreal to use the non-descript syllable “Air”, the park has excelled itself with near nonsensical “Rita: Queen of Speed”. It seems that the park is determined to wrestle the title of “worst ride name” away from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which gave us the dual atrocities of “PlayStation: The Ride” and “Bling”.

Of course, there is a rationale behind naming your new Intamin rocket coaster after a Coronation Street shopkeeper but, as with the Nemesis legend, there seems little urgency to explain anything to Joe Public. The official explanation is that in the American sport of Hot-Rod racing, it is apparently traditional for racers to give their cars female names. At this point, I wish to remind you that I never said there was a GOOD reason to call the ride Rita, just that there was a reason. It remains likely that there is some sort of private joke behind the name, as it seems implausible that the idea got through the entire Tussaud’s system without someone pointing out that it is possibly the most charmless name of all time.

Even at its most basic level, it seems a great shame for a park that has often excelled in creating unusual themes should go for the most screamingly obvious idea for a launch coaster, namely motorsport. Even less appealing is that this most quintessentially British of theme parks should be seeking to theme its rides around American imagery, particularly given the horrendous clashes it creates with the cartoon caveman theme of the existing Ug Land rides. Attempts have been made to suggest that this is some sort of bizarre prehistoric form of motorsport, but this is monumentally half-hearted.

But what of the ride itself? Intamin’s hydraulically powered rocket coasters have been a huge hit, offering a launch that is far more powerful than anything before seen. Generally, the astonishing speeds attainable with this technology have been seen as an excuse to send trains to ludicrous heights, breaking the 400ft barrier. Rita, however, marks a departure from this approach, with the launch instead leading to a circuit more like a low-rise version of Holiday Park’s Expedition Ge-Force or Walibi World’s Goliath, featuring a fast flowing layout that worms its way into every corner of what the park still officially labels Ug Land, but which now seems to carry the secondary title “Thunder Rock Rally”.

The Corkscrew, a ride that once attracted hordes of thrill-seekers from every corner of the kingdom, now sits literally in the shadow of its younger sister, with bright red Intamin track cutting across both front corners of the Vekoma relic. It really is a stark reminder of how far steel coaster design has advanced in a quarter of a century when you see the nasty chunky lines of Vekoma’s creation juxtaposed with the fluidity of Intamin’s work. There’s no shortage of vantage points from which to view the newer ride, as the whole layout adheres strictly the Tussaud’s philosophy of allowing punters to get up close and personal with its coasters. Although not integrated into the landscape to quite the same extent as Nemesis or Colossus, you can nevertheless walk around beneath almost the entire layout of the ride, giving ample opportunity to appreciate it’s astonishing speed.

Another sharp contrast is in the sounds the two rides make. While the Corkscrew’s trains rumble around sounding like a flatulent walrus, the only sound you’ll hear from Rita is of the “Go! Go! Go!” launch jingle, and the screams of the riders. The silence is deafening, and is somehow difficult to accept. In contrast to Nemesis, where the belligerent roar of the train is integral to the sense of fury that the ride is designed to encapsulate, Rita seems unsettlingly eerie and soulless by comparison.

You may not hear much of the ride, but what you will hear is “TRRR”, or Thunder Rock Rally Radio. Like the excellent WWTP Radio in Thorpe Park’s Amity Cove, this is a faux radio station that plays a selection of classic rock tracks (many with loose connections to the automotive theme), while a mock-DJ takes calls and generally tries to keep the crowds entertained. While the music hits the spot, the spoken sections are abysmal, particularly those where presenter Roxy Stone conducts a series of tortuously laboured “comedy” interviews that commit the twin sins of being woefully unfunny, and lasting what seems like forever and a day. I could write a 10,000 word dissertation on what makes this so abysmal, but I shall spare you the unabashed torrent of bile that would inevitable be forthcoming if I were to discuss it any further.

Obviously, the first thing you will encounter as you head through the giant tyre that forms the ride’s entrance is the queue line. This must be the most expansive cattle grid that Tussaud’s has ever built, and makes for a convoluted and daunting prospect even at the best of times, especially as it is near impossible for the uninitiated to work out how far they have to go before they make it to the station. The queue winds its way along much of what used to be the Corkscrew queue, making it difficult for first timers to establish exactly who is queuing for which ride.

As has become customary for Tussaud’s, as you near the station, the queue goes from a single file affair to a multi-lane highway of normal queue, single rider queue, front seat queue, pass holder queue, and God only knows what else. Be warned – the front seat queue is far longer than you are led to expect, and makes for very slow progress indeed. Unlike the architectural wonders that the park’s B&M rides use for stations, Rita’s open-air platform is modest in the extreme. In fact, “scaffolding” is the word that best sums it up. On the whole, the station actually looks distinctly temporary, and you get the impression that the ride staff are making the best of a pretty bad job.

Rita’s trains are themed as 1950s hot-rod cars, just to add a bit more confusion to Ug Land’s muddle of time-zones. Boarding is a very straightforward affair, which will no doubt be a relief to anyone who has faced the Herculean task of climbing through the back row of a Colossus car. The restraints are an odd mix of lap bar and overhead, with a chunky “cushion” lowering into place, while two stiff rubber straps arch over your shoulders. The lack of leg-room requires riders to adopt a curious bolt-upright squat, but on the whole, everything is perfectly comfy. When all is well, the train shuffles forward slightly, and the red lights start to countdown to the launch.





In just the blink of an eye you are propelled from 0 to 100. Now I know what you’re asking, “100 what?”, well that’s one thing the park isn’t admitting. It could be metres per second, chains per minute, or light years per microsecond. In fact, it is km/h, but the point is this: it’s damn fast.

The acceleration is truly incredible, pinning riders to their seats, and causing a sensation in pit of the stomach unlike anything any other type of ride out there. Looking forward at turn 1, there is an instinctive panic that we seem to be going far too quickly to safely make the turn. Towards the end of the main straight, the sense of acceleration dies unexpectedly, and a split second later the train piles into the first turn. The banking is pretty severe at this point and is one of several spots on the ride where it is worth bracing yourself to prevent the restraints becoming a pain in the neck, all too literally.

After this long high-speed turn, the track rises into a sublime hill, twisting to the right as it climbs, then propelling riders out of their seats before diving to the left. A truly stunning start, and one that can only be given the highest of praise. A left swoop skims the roof of the Corkscrew station, and sends the train hurtling into a smaller and equally effective airtime hill. After this fabulous opening gambit, things unfortunately start to tail off just a little. A swoop to the right, shadowing almost precisely the first turn, and we’re winding back across Ug Land toward the station, and a powerful airtime-filled hop on to the brakes. It’s all very nice while it lasts, but clocking in at a mere 30 seconds, it’s hard to convince yourself that it was worth standing in a typically long Alton Towers queue for. Put it this way: You know a ride is too short when you can look down from the brake run and see that the next set of riders have yet to make it through the airgates.

The most commendable thing about Rita is that it really does give the sort of turbo-charged ride that a launched coaster should offer. At no point does it come threaten to run out of steam and revert back to the feeling of a “normal” coaster. If anything, however, it is just too darned fast for its own good, particularly given how short the circuit is. First time out, it is absolutely impossible to take in what is happening, resulting in an odd sense of having queued for an hour or more to ride a coaster, only to leave the train having barely noticed anything that has happened. It’s fantastic while it lasts, but it’s not exactly fulfilling in the way that Nemesis is. Ironic, given that television advertisements for the ride’s opening centred on the idea that it will give you happy memories to cherish in the future, that I struggled to remember any of it after my first ride.

It’s not until your second or third ride that you come to notice anything that happens between the launch and the brakes. After these first few rides, the novelty of the launch dies off, and you can begin to concentrate on the rest of the ride, at which point a couple of flaws become obvious. Despite being such a short ride, the three long high-speed, low-altitude turns start to become a little dull once the novelty of the speed wears thin. The turns, while being blisteringly fast, are long and open, and therefore offer next-to-nothing of the strong G-forces you would expect from such a super-speedy ride. What you may have expected Rita to be a physically punishing ride, it turns out to be nothing of the kind, which is a real shame, particularly after the G-feast of the launch. A couple of long, tight helices would be just the ticket to provide these sort of gruelling physical exertions, but instead all we have is three long forceless turns, two of which are nigh-on identical.

The other criticism of Rita is the whole look of the thing. It’s no secret that Rita was an immense rush job for the park. Whereas Alton Towers’ trio of B&M coasters are the result of years of planning, plans for Rita took shape in mere months. This is not necessarily a bad thing (Phantasia Land’s River Quest was even more of a rush job, but is none the worse for it), but in this case, the moment you enter Ug Land, it is quite screamingly obvious that Rita has not had the same level of love and attention lavished on it as other rides. Bluntly, Rita looks like it has been well and truly shoehorned into Ug Land. The conflict of two totally different themes is ludicrous, and makes even the Nemesis / Air clash look subtle.

Rita’s station is truly horrible. Again, it is very obviously wedged into position, sitting in a narrow strip of land between the Corkscrew and Skyride, it is below par both aesthetically and functionally, and simply feels wrong, especially in a park that usually takes theming and landscaping seriously. It reflects the spirit of the entire ride, in that it is obvious that it has been stuck into whatever gap it could fit. Likewise, the queue system is a total mess, particularly in the way it tangles itself with that of the Corkscrew. Elegant Rita ain’t, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I’d rather have a shoehorned ride than no ride at all, which seems to be the choice the park faced.

Finally, capacity seems to be a major problem. Despite the best efforts of the ride staff, with only 20 seats per train, it struggles to cope with the demands placed on it in a busy park like Alton Towers. As with Spinball Whizzer, long queues seem to be the norm even on quiet days, and even with such efficiency measures as separate loading and unloading platforms, the ride seems doomed to attract truly gargantuan queues on busy days. Would you queue for three or more hours for a 30 second ride? If so, good luck to you, but this will undoubtedly be too much for the majority to tolerate.

Once upon a time, when Nemesis opened, people criticised it for being too short. Now, with Oblivion and Rita, Nemesis looks like a veritable marathon by comparison. Rita is not a bad ride, indeed parts of it are astoundingly good, but it is yet another gimmick-coaster that seems unlikely to keep hold of riders’ affections the way that Nemesis has. Whereas Nemesis continues to get better each time you ride it, the opposite is true of Rita, and it doesn’t take a huge number of rides before the novelty starts to wear away, and the prospect of joining the queue becomes less and less appealing. Of course, this is not an issue for most riders, who will only ride it once or twice a year, but if you plan to make a habit of it, then make sure you appreciate those first few rides while the novelty is still there.  

3/5 John Phillips