Coaster Kingdom

Spin Doctor (Blackpool Pleasure Beach)

When you were little, did you ever watch Camberwick Green and wonder what it would be like to strap yourself to the sails of Windy Miller's Windmill? Well, me neither, but that hasn't stopped Blackpool Pleasure Beach teaming up with Fabbri to let you find out.

It must be said that Fabbri hasn't exactly enjoyed an outstanding reputation over the years. Much of the Italian firm's trade has been built on the creation of low-budget clones of other manufacturers' rides, with varying degrees of success. For example, their portable freefall towers (most famously, Thorpe Park's Detonator), can easily shame any other drop ride you'd care to mention, while their version of the Top Spin is easily the worst ride I've ever encountered. In 2001, they struck gold when their Booster ride popped up all over the British fair scene. Again, the ride was not their own idea (similar rides had been touring American fairs for several years), but they triumphed in bringing the ride to a much greater world-wide audience.

Not to be confused with the Huss ride of the same name, Fabbri's Booster simply consists of a very tall, thin, arm with a 4 seat car (2x2, back to back) at each end. The arm then spins at a surprisingly brisk pace, with the cars free to spin and tumble over as they wish. It's as simple as that. Being easily transportable and spectacular to watch, the ride was a hit on the travelling fair scene, and before long, no major fair was complete without one. Soon Fabbri were looking at building permanent versions for parks.

Just because a ride works well on the fairs does not mean it will work at a park. Firstly, an 8 seat ride would never work in the kind of place where a 40 seat Top Spin can generate queues of over an hour. Besides, very few of Britain's major parks would ever get planning permission to build such a tall ride. Uniquely, Blackpool Pleasure Beach constantly faces a very different problem. They don't need to fret about the locals objecting to a tall ride, but do need to worry about where they are going to fit the ride in the first place. As anyone who has visited BPB will know, the relatively tiny park is utterly jam-packed with rides, and squeezing in anything new is nigh on impossible without removing existing rides.

Ingeniously, the park came up with the idea of building the ride alongside the Tom Sawyer Bridge (the walkway leading from the Big Dipper's entrance toward the Steeplechase). To help with the capacity problems, two Boosters would be built, one each side of the bridge. Each Booster would be built onto a small concrete island in the lake below, previously used by the Swamp Buggies. Signs went up declaring that "WK2" (the ride's codename) would open in the Spring ... which then became late Spring ... then early Summer ... then mid-summer. Eventually it opened with the clumsy sponsored title, "The Wall's Cornetto Soft Spin Doctor". Frankly, Wall's could have been more creative with their sponsorship. Imagine how spectacular it would be if the Boosters were themed as two giant Mini Milks, or giant, spinning, chocolate flakes. Some people just have no imagination.

Despite being so tall, the ride is barely visible from Blackpool promenade, blocked from view by The Big One. From inside the park, the ride is very striking, although the most obvious thing seems to be the fact that you tend to see it at a standstill more often than not. As you reach the entrance (marked, as usual at BPB, by a sign made out of old Big One track), you soon realise the severe drawbacks of the rides' location. In the middle of what used to be a wide open walkway, the path narrows into a sharp bottleneck. On one side is the beginning of the queue, on the other a fenced off section, presumably allowing for the western Booster's safety clearance margin. If your intention is simply to get from one end of the park to the other, the combination of the bottleneck and the number of people milling around, looking up into the air (instead of where they're going) makes your progress infuriatingly slow.

Before joining the queue, check the height restriction - not only is there a minimum height, but ALSO a maximum. The reason for this won't become obvious until you are on the ride. If you fit the requirements, and join the queue, you'll soon realise that you're moving about as quickly as the M55 on a Bank Holiday Monday. The reason for this is revealed as you disappear down a set of steps that lead towards the loading platform. This area has a definite "log cabin" feel to it, particularly after dark, when soft lighting makes the place feel very cosy indeed. It is here that you get your first glimpse of the long-winded loading procedure. Firstly, each car takes an eternity to edge its way, millimetre by millimetre, to the loading position. Once there, a metal platform slides into place to allow the operator to release the restraints. Bizarrely, this procedure includes fitting a chunk of the platform into place, where it would otherwise have hit the bridge supports as it moved out of position! Loading the car is reasonably quick, but then the arm does a lethargic half-turn and the procedure begins again with the other car.

If you're more accustomed to the theme park way of doing things, with its sprawling queue lines, and in-queue entertainment, well ... welcome to Blackpool! The "below-deck" queue consists of a very tight cattle-grid, with the staff effectively sitting in the middle of the crowd, operating the ride in full view of those waiting - the whole place is so cramped that, should one of them desert their post, you could easily lean across and take control of the ride yourself! As for in-queue entertainment, well you can forget any thought you may have had about story-setting scenes, instead you get adverts. Lots of adverts. Lots of adverts for Wall's Cornetto Soft that all revolve around the same joke. "Where's your soft spot?", "We'll find your soft spot!", "Find your soft spot at 120ft!". Oh the hilarity.

Although the Wall's company is paying BPB to advertise to their visitors, this has no effect on the ride's prices. Anyone without a wristband is expected to hand over 7 ride tickets, which at 1 per ticket, comes to a shockingly hefty bill. It does seem a little unsavoury to charge the same for the relatively low-cost Spin Doctor as for the multi-million pound Big One or Valhalla, especially when you can ride exactly the same thing at fairs for barely the price, despite the owners not having the luxury of a multinational company stumping up for the naming rights.

When you reach the front of the queue, you'll be sorted into a group of 4, ready to board whichever Booster stops next. Although it makes little difference which Booster you ride, it would have been be nice to be able to choose whether you face North (with a view up Blackpool prom) or South (with a view of The Big One's lift hill). Loading is a bog-standard affair, a comfortable B&M style overhead restraint and seatbelt, offering a good feeling of exposure. Sadly, the two Boosters are operated as entirely separate rides, and no attempt is made at Submission-style synchronisation, which is a shame as they look quite spectacular on the rare occasions that you catch them both at full speed.

If yours was the first car to stop, you have to sit through the process of the other car being loaded. As you near the top, the movement of the arm is barely perceptible, and despite the impressive views, you'll soon find yourself getting impatient for the ride to start. If, on the other hand, you are among the second group to be loaded, you'll have to sit through this at then end of the ride, which is even more frustrating. It's bad enough waiting for a ride to start, but having to wait to be let off can get pretty trying!

It is during these slow turns that you realise why the ride may be dangerous for taller riders. Each car is held by a large question-mark-shaped "hook", which keeps the car directly in line with the arm. When the arm is horizontal, riders are left looking directly down the arm, with their feet alarmingly close to the arm's end. It's easy to imagine tall riders being able to trap their feet between the car and the arm, which I find a pretty shocking design flaw, to say the least.

At long last, the ride comes to life. The arm soon starts to gather speed, and is great fun. At first, it resembles a giant, manic version of a 1001 Nights / Magic Carpet type ride. Before long, the ride really kicks into action, as the car begins to stick into place, and tip itself upside down in a series of huge loops. This really is terrific stuff, helped by the unusual visual sensation of the ride. On each side of the ride(s), a series of fountains follow your progress, creating a neat visual trick. As you plummet, face down from the top of the ride, you get the bizarre visual effect of the bridge flying to meet you, then the fountains, then the platform, then the whole thing happening in reverse. For all my complaints about the ride's location causing problems for non-riders on the bridge, it has a truly stunning effect when you are riding.

Spin Doctor is the only park-based spin ride I've ever ridden that I can honestly say I prefer to the travelling fair version. This is partly because the park has resisted the usual theme park temptation of taming down their spinning rides. Although the portable version offers physically the same ride, Spin Doctor's location makes the whole thing far more enjoyable. The Booster is a ride which relies on visual sensations as much as physical, and staring down at the lake, the fountains, and the crowded bridge is a lot more entertaining than looking down at the bed of a lorry, as happens on the portable version.

Although riding Spin Doctor is great fun, there are far too many little niggles that detract from the ride. Many of these come down to the fact that the whole ride carries a sense of having been rushed. The arrangement of the entrance area is appalling, the bottleneck reducing one of the park's main thoroughfares to a virtual standstill even on relatively quiet days. Having the entrance to the ride on the bridge is perfectly logical, but allowing the queue to take up a fair chunk of the bridge's width just smacks of bad planning. Surely a better queue could have been created (perhaps incorporating part of the underused path leading from near the ride entrance to the Avalanche). Meanwhile, the fact that the Western Booster has been built so close to the bridge that part of the bridge is fenced off, gives a very bad impression. Rightly or wrongly, it creates a definite sense that someone at either BPB or Fabbri got their sums wrong.

While it is good that BPB decided to double Spin Doctor's capacity by building two Boosters, the dismally slow loading procedure still makes the queue intolerably tedious. BPB doesn't usually generate the kind of queues seen at parks like Alton Towers, but Spin Doctor's low capacity and slow loading make even a short-looking queue last an eternity. Often, you'll find that you could have ridden the Big Dipper or Grand National several times in the time it took to queue for Spin Doctor. Interestingly, Fabbri's portable Boosters use a loading procedure far superior to Spin Doctor's, replacing the sliding platform with a much quicker and simpler lowering floor, which seems to make loading a much less clumsy affair. It seems odd that this perfectly good system was rejected in favour of one so clumsy that part of the platform has to be removed to stop it hitting the bridge supports!    Finally, even if you don't normally enjoy spin rides, it is worth giving Spin Doctor (or any other Booster) a try. Although disorientating, it is not as intense as it looks. While die-hard spin ride fans (myself included) might like the idea of the car flipping over and over, it does mean that riders who wouldn't go near a Top Scan or a Waltzer may well find themselves enjoying the ride immensely.

Overall, Spin Doctor is an excellent ride, surrounded by a series of silly problems. If solutions could be found to the problems of the bridge bottleneck, and the desperately slow loading procedure, I'd have no hesitation in declaring it a winner. It certainly demonstrates BPB's canny ability to squeeze rides into every little nook and cranny they can find. Furthermore, it is good to see Fabbri "doing a Skoda", and transforming themselves from a firm with a pretty lousy reputation for churning out unappealing clones of other firms' rides, to one known for working with major parks to produce high quality rides like Spin Doctor and Detonator.

By all means, go and ride Spin Doctor. You'll be surprised at how enjoyable it is. The only doubt is whether you'll want to bother queuing up for a re-ride.

 4/5 John Phillips