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Spinball Whizzer (Alton Towers)
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".
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.
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.
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.
let's take those blinkers off:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.