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River Caves (Blackpool Pleasure Beach)
would be easy to think that Disney was the pioneer or dark rides. Rides like
Pirates of the Caribbean or Phantom Manor are among some of the most famous
theme park rides ever built, and have become the yardstick of the their genres.
In reality, the basic idea for such rides had been around for decades by the
time Disneyland first opened its doors, and as with so many things, Blackpool
Pleasure Beach was there from the beginning.
doesn't exactly have a formidable array of dark rides. Most UK parks gear
themselves towards thrill rides and don't tend to use dark rides as a major
attraction. Why is this? Well, one reason is that Britain doesn't yet have any
parks owned by film studios, and so there are few park owners with the right
mixture of determination and expertise to even attempt large-scale
special-effects driven rides. As a result, Britain has acquired a culture where
visitors tend not to get too enthusiastic about rides that place the emphasis on
what you see and hear, rather than what you physically feel.
when we start making generalisations about British parks, there's always one
thing that needs to be remembered: Whatever the rule, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
will be the exception. BPB has always been home to the biggest selection of dark
rides in Britain, the quality of which varies enormously. From the almost
disturbingly surreal Magic Mountain, to the quaint charm of Alice in Wonderland
and the strangely engrossing Gold Mine, Blackpool is as much a haven for dark
ride fans as it is for thrill-seekers.
River Caves sits right at the heart of the Pleasure Beach. Almost entirely
surrounded by the tracks of various coasters, it looks slightly out of place
with its tranquil setting. The ride's exterior has a slightly quaint look, with
a corner of a square building showing the park's "Mr Funshine" logo,
and the rest covered in a rocky faÁade. A few characters are dotted around the
rocks, while a water wheel nicely completes the scene, despite serving no
obvious purpose. The ride is built at ground level, but the adjoining pathway is
sloped, creating a handy balcony from which spectators get a good view of the
boats as they emerge from the cave and head down a small drop into the
crystal-blue waters below.
the understated entrance, riders are led through a queue area where a variety of
scenes give a preview of what you'll see on your voyage. As you leave this room,
you head straight through the turnstile and onto the loading platform. The boats
are pretty basic, but nice and snug. Seating consists of three two-seat wooden
benches, with no seat dividers, restraints or even back rests. Fortunately, the
ride rarely gets a queue, and so groups tend to get a boat to themselves.
the boats look and feel quite ancient, they help to create the ride's cosy
atmosphere. Unlike more recent dark rides that use boats of a dozen or more
seats, these relatively tiny boats help to emphasise the feeling that this is
your personal vessel in which to make your journey around the globe. There
is also something quite endearing about riding in a boat that has clearly
completed more voyages than Michael Palin and Popeye combined.
the ride begins by sailing under a sign saying "Tunnel of Love". While
it may seem strange that a Tunnel of Love should sport six-seater boats, the
sign is in fact a relic of the ride's appearance in the soap opera "Coronation
Street", when the story required one of the characters to get dragged into
a Tunnel of Love by an unwanted admirer. Unfortunately, this sign is clearly
visible from the spectator area, and it is difficult not to feel self-conscious
if youíre heading toward it with anyone other than your beloved!
with many dark water rides, the entrance to the building is guarded by a
waterfall that turns itself off as you approach. Once through a very narrow
tunnel, the boat bobs straight into the first scene, which isn't the most
logical way to start a ride. A Chinese emperor greets you, while a rather weedy
voiceover recites "Welcome to the River Caves at fabulous Blackpool
Pleasure Beach" before becoming totally incomprehensible. And with that,
the great nation of China is done and dusted. Letís move on.
the River Caves is not only a journey around the world, but also through time,
and we go right back to the beginning with the dinosaurs. While the models are
nothing extraordinary, their settings are very tranquil and atmospheric.
Although not exactly spacious, the ride uses the lack of space to create a
tremendous sense of intimacy. At one point, the rock face lowers, and you have
to duck down in order to see the model, almost as if you are spying on the
dinosaur, and trying to get out before it spots you.
the primordial soup of the dinosaur era, we pass to the depths of the ocean,
where we see a shark that is, frankly, far too "cartoon-y" for the
ride. A big papier-m‚chť shark with a wide grin on its face may be fine for
some of the park's more humourous dark rides, but sticks out like a sore thumb
here. Thankfully, this is the ride's only really weak scene, and the standards
are immediately raised in the next scene, the Inca civilisation.
with an interest in the park's history may well recognise this scene's Cubist
look, a style characteristic of Joseph Emberton and Percy Metcalfe, architects
of many of the park's buildings in the mid-20th Century (including an earlier
incarnation of the River Caves frontage, again in a Cubist style). With its
distinctive look and unique atmosphere, this is possibly the best single scene
in the whole ride. The eye is not drawn to any specific item, but the whole
tableau has a warmth and charm that makes it stand out as one of the ride's
highlights. Towards the end of the scene, the depiction of the Sun God is
surprisingly attractive, especially as itís quite obvious that it didnít
exactly blow a gargantuan hole in the parkís budget.
this reasonably large room, the boat meanders into a tunnel barely big enough to
accommodate it, before opening back up into the biggest scene on the ride, the
Blue Grotto of Capri. The boat follows the outskirts of a quite magnificent
scene of stalactites and stalagmites. Again softly lit, with a soft mellow
soundtrack, this scene is perfect. However, just in case you've forgotten where
you really are, it is here that the Pleasure Beach's bizarre logic rears its
there are substantial mineral deposits in the Grotto, as you'll often see cars
from the Gold Mine ride clattering by overhead. Even more surreal is the fact
that the Grotto is also overlooked by one of the park's many restaurants. Iím
no geologist, but I somehow doubt that the real Blue Grotto has such features.
If this were any other park in the world, it would seem ludicrous, but somehow
BPB has a knack of getting away with these things. Incidentally, if you make the
effort to search out and visit this restaurant, you will realise that the River
Caves actually ventures a lot further from its starting point than you might
the diners continue to tuck in, and the Gold Mine riders head back to the rock
face, we venture forth towards a sign that reads "Valley of the
Kings", the most prolonged section of the ride, and the only theme to
continue through multiple rooms. As the boat passes under the sign, the tunnel
again narrows right down, and then opens up into a corridor lined with Egyptian
pillars, all covered with hieroglyphics. Our long-lost narrator friend
re-appears to inform us of the wonders of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
the end of the corridor, we turn off and head through a series of tombs. As
ever, these scenes have no particular focal point, and no special effects, but
rely on creating a dignified atmosphere of wonder. It would have been very easy
to fail in this, but it somehow works beautifully. Although some of the rooms in
this section are tiny, and therefore occupy only a couple of seconds of your
time, the level of detail is far greater than you'd ever expect to find,
certainly in comparison to the cheap & cheerful feel of other BPB dark
from the tombs, we go straight into the final scene, the temples of Angkor Wat.
Our narrator again chips in, giving a few details of these Cambodian temples,
without directing your attention to any particular feature. Angkor Wat is
probably the most detailed scene in the whole ride, with lots of small touches
on offer for those prepared to search them out. This is fortunate, as you are
likely to spend a lot longer here than anywhere else. Why? Because the scene
includes a small log-flume style lift hill, which tends to operate in a quite
clumsy manner, meaning you may well spend quite a while stationary, waiting for
your turn to leave Angkor Wat and return to 21st Century Blackpool.
the top of the lift, the boat rumbles along a wooden trough, powered by
tyre-boosts. After the tranquil nature of the ride, this somehow seems
inappropriate. As the boat emerges into the open air, it will usually be held at
the top of the drop for a moment. The drop is nice, and nothing to concern even
the most timid of riders. The splash down is nothing to worry about, as very
little water finds its way into the boat. Although the drop gives the ride a
nice dramatic climax, it doesn't really justify all the messy stop-start
preparation it requires. Sitting at the top of the drop, with a crowd staring
down at you in your stranded vessel, it's difficult not to feel a little
awkward, as if they are waiting for you to start entertaining them. Maybe you
should brush up on your party-piece ready for this moment, as you'll be given
plenty of time to perform it while you wait for the drop.
judging the River Caves, it is important to remember the fact that it is not a
multi-million pound special effects extravaganza, and was never meant to be. Not
only does the ride overcome this handicap, but actually thrives on it. Nothing
in the River Caves is going to make you shriek with amazement, but the ride has
an atmosphere and a charm that makes it a perfect way to relax between thrill
BPB's other dark rides, there is very little about the River Caves that relies
on "tacky-charm" to be entertaining, it is just a genuinely pleasant
ride. Unlike many dark water rides, the sense of relaxation is helped by the
fact that the boat really feels like it is floating along the course, never
makes you think that you are rumbling along a water-covered track, enhancing the
sense of authenticity. Similarly, you are unlikely to see any other boats for
much of the ride, which makes the ride feel very personal and private, and
eliminates the "conveyor belt" feel that some dark rides
unintentionally convey. Riders are never going to leave the boat humming the
ride's soundtrack, but the music and sound effects do an admirable job of
blending into the background and maintaining the ride's sense of ambience.
River Caves has something which very few dark rides can offer, and that is real
personality. Although there is no story to follow, no characters guiding you
through, the feel of the ride more than enough charisma to compensate. The
feeling that the boat is aimlessly drifting between the larger scenes,
interspersed with dark narrow tunnels, gives a real sense of exploration.
Thankfully, the poorest scenes are at the beginning, and so it is the second
half of the ride that sticks in the memory.
fact that you simply pass through scenes, without any particular special effects
waiting for you, gives a peculiar sense that you really are simply drifting
past, almost as if your presence is going unnoticed. This is in stark contrast
to rides like Valhalla, where you enter a room, something happens (or is
supposed to, at least) and you leave again.
River Caves does not try to engage you in such a direct manner, and has a very
passive feel. As such, it makes a very welcome change to be on a dark ride which
allows riders a sense that they are exploring what is on offer, without
conveying the feeling of an overly-rigid guided tour. This gives the ride a
sense of timelessness that is highly appropriate for the kind of scenes it seeks
River Caves could very easily have been ghastly. You only have to look at
Valhalla to see what can go wrong when you a park tries too hard to create a
spectacular dark ride. Against the odds, the River Caves is a genuine triumph.
OK, it is unlikely to be the thing that is foremost in riders' memory as they
leave Blackpool, but in it's quiet unassuming way, the ride is a perfect example
of the kind of gem you will discover at BPB once you get past the
headline-grabbing rides. The park may be famous for its white-knuckle thrillers,
but there has never been a ride so perfect for unwinding as the River Caves.