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Spinball Whizzer (Alton Towers)

We all owe a huge debt of gratitude Charles Talbot, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury. He transformed a barren area of the Staffordshire countryside into the elegant landscape that we know as Alton Towers. He created the gardens, the lakes, and everything that made it one of the most extraordinarily estates in the world. It was his life's work, his pride and joy. He died in 1827, and as a tribute to him, his nephew John Talbot, the 16th Earl, built the Choragic Monument at the entrance to the gardens, inscribed "He made the desert smile".

Interestingly, research suggests that Charles was never quite satisfied with the end product, and unverified reports suggest that newly discovered documents record his last words as follows: "I hope that some day, some kind person will finish my work by building a great big pinball-themed roller coaster right opposite my front door". At long last, in 2004, a mere 177 years after his death, Charles' vision was completed, and the estate became home to Spinball Whizzer, a custom-designed spinning coaster from Mäurer of Germany.

Let me say from the outset that Spinball Whizzer is, if we are looking purely at the two-minutes or so that you're out on the track, a reasonably respectable little ride. With that established, we can start factoring in the various unwelcome elements that turn a neat little coaster into something overwhelmingly irritating and frustrating. The enjoyment of the coaster itself is outweighed by far too many problems, either cosmetic or practical, that force me to the conclusion that the addition of Spinball Whizzer is about as complementary to Alton Towers as a multi-storey car park would be to Stonehenge.

If we don a pair of metaphorical blinkers, Spinball Whizzer looks great. It towers above the local greenery, and its silver cars look great as they manically dart and weave among the structure. Mäurer’s signature "Immelman" element, in which the track rises until vertical, then turns 180 degrees and drops back to Earth, is nicely framed by a smaller horseshoe turn that threads the main arch. Like a wickedly warped Wild Mouse, the track darts and weaves around the area with tremendous grace. By "normal" standards, it's undoubtedly a good-looking little ride.

Now, let's take those blinkers off:

Once upon a time, you could walk down Towers Street and see the genuine majesty of Alton Towers. You could walk on the lawn, admiring the wonderful sight of the Talbots' ancestral home, and marvelling at the timeless beauty of it all. Those days are gone. Nowadays, the whole area is clogged up with the kind of tacky paraphernalia that would look fine in any other park, but which destroys the dignity that was once Alton Towers' hallmark. To your right, as if to emphasise the permanence of this disregard for tradition, is the bright red tangle of track that is Spinball Whizzer, complete with accompanying soundtrack of roars and hisses from the ride's machinery, and the yells of its riders. The contrast between the beauty of the towers, and the ultra-modern style of Spinball Whizzer simply looks wrong, sounds wrong, and feels wrong. In all the years that Alton Towers has operated as a theme park, there has always been a feeling that great care has been taken not to infringe on the park's great history. Spinball Whizzer is an unmistakable omen that this is to be consigned to the history books. Oh well, they were nice while they lasted.

One thing that was immediately obvious when Alton announced their intention to build a Mäurer spinning coaster was that these rides, with their "Wild Mouse" type capacity, would generate outrageous queues. Indeed, the precedent had been set by the Vekoma-built “Alton Mouse”, which generated gargantuan queues until its removal in 1991. Nevertheless, we thought, Alton Towers must have considered this, so let's take a look to see what ingenious scheme they've concocted to relieve the crowds:

Well, there' not a lot to report, to be honest, and certainly nothing I can say that would be remotely positive. The queue for Spinball Whizzer is definitely not its finest point. In the grand Tussaud's style, it weaves among the structure of the ride, but is an open invite to queue jumpers, as one hop over the right fence here and there can skip giant chunks of the queue, while offering little risk of being spotted by the staff. What about Fastrack (AKA Virtual Queue)? Amazingly, this is conspicuous only by its absence, meaning that you either wait your turn, or you don't ride at all. Actually, that's not quite true, there is one method which will allow you to bypass the queue completely, and the park isn’t exactly secretive about what it is.

The entrance to the ride is marked by a large pinball scoreboard, with numbers whirling around feverishly. To the left is a sign saying "ENTRANCE". To the right, "PASS HOLDER ENTRANCE". That's right, should you stay in the Alton Towers  Hotels, you will be given a pass that entitles you to walk straight onto the ride. Better still, the pass holder path directly shadows the last part of the main queue (approx 45 to 60 minutes worth of queue), enabling you to flaunt your superiority right in the faces of the poor souls in the normal queue. Arriving en masse? Don't worry, you can all hop straight onto the ride, and everyone else can abandon any hope of the queue moving in the immediate future. Now, I don't particularly begrudge the hotel guests being given priority passes per se, but I do object to the way Alton Towers has chosen not to let them on discreetly, but rather to parade their preferred customers under the noses of those who have had the “audacity” to confine their visit to a single day. In short, it seems to be a fairly shameless way of reminding you that the more you pour into the Alton Towers coffers, the better they'll treat you.

However, what the priority pass holders don't get is the opportunity to play a series of pinball related games. These are scattered through the queue, with approximately one for every half hour of waiting. All consist of a single button that triggers a blast of air, propelling a silver ball to the top of the machine, with points awarded depending on where it lands. While a nice addition, these games provide little more than five seconds of amusement in what is a very slow and frustrating queue.

The only other in-queue entertainment is the constant music. Generally, this consists of a similar playlist to the WWTP radio station in Thorpe Park's Amity Cove, featuring classic Americana from the likes of Elvis, the Beach Boys and The Monkees. With no speech in between, and with an odd tendency to throw in the occasional piece of modern dance music, it lacks the atmosphere of Thorpe's version, but does at least help to make the wait a little more tolerable.  Again, however, there is a niggling feeling that this Americanised atmosphere is inappropriate in a park that used to be the very definition of British grandeur, but if you can eradicate such thoughts, it helps to make your wait a more tolerable one.

Now, if you're getting frustrated about how long I've spent going on about the queue without starting on the ride itself, then consider that an accurate simulation of what it feels like to wait for Spinball Whizzer. You will be glad to know, however, that the end is nigh as we inch towards the silver hut that is the station. Mercifully, there are no hidden cattle grids in the queue, and the path leads straight to the loading platform, where all the usual station announcements are made by a highly enthusiastic character, who preceeds and proceeds every announcement with "Woohoo", "Wahey", and other such exclamations. The station itself is a rather plain affair, unthemed but for a series of pinball bumpers in the ceiling, and the occasional pinball-related word written on the wall.

As with all Mäurer spinning coasters, each car seats four riders in a 2x2 back-to-back formation. Although awkward to climb in and out, the cars are very comfortable once seated, and the large lap bar is nice and snug, offering a tremendous sense of security. The silver cars are undecorated but for the park's name and car number, which is a shame, but appropriate to the idea of the theme. Soon, you leave the station, past the "BALL IN PLAY!" sign that adorns the service hut, and up the lift hill.

The lift hill is swift, and soon the first drop arrives. Unlike Mäurer's travelling version of the ride, the car is free to spin right from the off, and our budding Tommies are plunged into a spiral drop, reaching around half way to the ground, before hopping back into a set of block brakes. From the brakes, the car embarks on a long straight drop, followed by the Immelman, with these two elements presenting a quite imposing sight, being the most prominent section of the ride for passers-by.

The Immelman is OK, but lacks the sense of mania that other Mäurer spinners seem to offer. Facing downwards, it offers good visuals, but is something of an anti-climax for anyone expecting anything particularly thrilling. Far more enjoyable is the proceeding swoop back in and out of the structure, and back through the Immelman arch, which has a nice flowing quality to it. All that's left now is a nice drop into a good ground hugging helix, and a final back-and-forth zigzag to the brake run. Don't let your guard down, though, as the device that straightens the cars relies on very basic technology and is not subtle, being more than capable of giving a quite aggressive thwack to unsuspecting riders.

On the plus side, the ride feels nice and long, and is wonderfully smooth, which is a relief, given that 50% of the time you can't see what's coming and prepare accoridngly. Some of the changes of direction are wonderfully subtle, and it does seem that Mäurer have really made the spinning coaster concept their own. Unusually, the highlights are the dives to and from the various block brakes, which offer a wonderfully disorientating transition from chaos to calm, and back, as well as providing a slight pop of airtime if you're lucky.

As for the downers, well, for a spinning coaster, there seems to be one quite startling omission. Spinning. Only the hops onto the various block-brakes seem to persuade the cars to move at all, whereas much of the "proper" sections of track see the cars stick rigidly in whatever position they have chosen. Compared to the wild spinning offered by some of Reverchon's Crazy Mouse coasters, you get a distinct feeling that Mäurer's cars would welcome a liberal dose of WD-40.

While you can argue that a pinball theme does not suit the park, you can't deny that it opens up a huge array of potential tricks and effects. The Mäurer-designed Winja's coasters at Phantasia Land include such features as see-saw track, which would have suited the pinball theme beautifully. Spinball Whizzer could have been a real showcase for what Mäurer can do with the concept, and yet this potential remains entirely untapped, leaving a relatively coaster that is little more than a simple re-shuffle of the elements found on the travelling version.

As for the in-ride theming, this consists of little more than the occasional bumper-tower here and there, which is a real waste of a gilt-edged opportunity to do something truly spectacular. Similarly, the ride fails to exploit the possibility of in-ride effects such as endless chaotic head-choppers and sound effects as the car darts around the structure, meaning that riders have very little to watch out for during the ride. Considering that the idea is that you are the ball in a pinball table, you'd be forgiven for expecting a bit more razzamatazz. A real pinball table is a fast-paced extravaganza of action, lights, sounds, and anything else the designers can chuck into the mix. By contrast, Spinball Whizzer's décor could not be more bland and insipid if it tried.

Now, observant readers may be wondering whether this is the same Coaster Kingdom that has heaped praise upon Dragon's Fury, Spinball Whizzer's sister ride at Chessington World of Adventures. Well, while Dragon's Fury is certainly the better and more interesting ride, it also suits Chessington in a way that Spinball Whizzer does not suit Alton Towers. Both rides fall somewhere between the categories of "family ride" and "thrill ride", and as a result of this, Dragon's Fury works perfectly as a relatively major ride in a park intended for young families. Spinball Whizzer, meanwhile, is forced to cater to both audiences, the young families and the thrill seekers, and simply does not have the capacity to do so. As a result, family groups are charged with the task of keeping the youngsters amused as they plod interminably through a soul-destroying queue, while older groups are going to be frustrated to find that they've queued longer for Spinball Whizzer than they would for Nemesis or Oblivion (or, quite possibly, the two combined).

Building Spinball Whizzer at Alton Towers was like housing a Rolf Harris sketch in the Louvre. Individually, it might be a fairly entertaining piece, but it should not be there, and makes its surroundings less dignified than before. It simply had too much to do in terms of trying to entertain too great a proportion of the park's visitors, without infringing on the park's unique landscape. As a result, it fails on both counts, being garish enough to cheapen the area, while not garish enough to create the illusion of a giant pinball machine. It makes you wonder why the pinball theme was chosen, given that it was never really going to work in such a location.

In short, Mäurer has designed a respectable little family coaster that would work extremely well in many parks, but which totally ignores the fact that Alton Towers regularly attracts crowds beyond what the ride can handle. As a result, actually getting to ride it involves far more hassle than it's really worth. Given that Spinball Whizzer has much lower capacity than any of the parks main three coasters (Nemesis, Oblivion, Air), and appeals to a much higher proportion of visitors, I can't really recommend Spinball Whizzer to you unless you happen to visit on a very quiet day indeed. "Fair enough" you might say, but there's one unavoidable proviso - At Alton Towers, "Very quiet days" are all but non-existent.

John Phillips