Coaster Kingdom
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Steeplechase (Blackpool Pleasure Beach)

Blackpool Pleasure Beach is famous for its collection of old fashioned and unusual rides.  The Flying Machine, the Whip and the Turtle Chase all fit the former category, while the Steeplechase is a shining example of a ride that screams the word 'strange'.

The story begins in the golden age of Coney Island in New York.

Amusement parks were all the rage, and with several parks close together, the competition was fierce to build the next big crowd puller.  One of these was Steeplechase Park, which offered visitors the chance to mount carousel type horses and race around the park.  Sadly, the park closed, as did most of the other parks at Coney Island, and the ride was lost. Surely the world would never see its like again?

We pick up the story in the mid-1970s, a time where British parks rarely built new roller coasters, other than the occasional off-the-shelf model.

After the death of Leonard Thompson, Blackpool Pleasure Beach had fallen under the control of his son Geoffrey, who was keen to introduce unique attractions to complement the fine set of coasters he had inherited.  In co-operation with Arrow Dynamics of Utah, the Steeplechase park idea was reborn, using a three-lane track, and a figure of 8 layout which would wind its way through the space between the main turnarounds of the Roller Coaster and Big Dipper.  The ride opened in 1977 and, opening day being full of BPB's typical British humour.   VIPs dressed as if it were Ladies Day at Ascot, and the ride was opened not by the top boy band of the week (as later rides would be) but by Grand National winner Red Rum, whose hoof print from that day is still on display near the ride's exit.

To the modern day, then.  The entrance to the ride sits opposite that of the Big One, and is very well hidden, as the pay box is quite a way from the gargantuan sign which obstructs the view of the station.  It may be worth spending some time in the gym before trying to ride, otherwise you'll never get through the cramped turnstile.  If you achieve this feat of contortion, you'll often find that the queue is bigger than you ever expected.  This is partly because of the low throughput of the ride, and partly because the huge sign for the ride completely blocks your view of the queue, which people often join,  unaware of how long the wait will be, and unable to leave thanks to the turnstile!  The stairway leads to a bridge over the brake run, and branches off to the three loading platforms.

Your fibreglass steed holds two people, one behind the other, and passengers are held in place by nothing more than a seatbelt.  One neat touch is that the front grab rail is quite low down, forcing you to adopt the jockey position, and allowing the back rider a better view.  Take my advice - don't even think about riding without gripping the grab rail for all you are worth!

The competitors line up at the end of the station and are released together down a slight dip which itself is enough of a jolt to make you worry about what is coming next!  Youíll need to get used to the fact that the riding position is very exposed, and a long way above the track Ė you really donít feel too safe!  After the first small lift hill, you will find that the area isn't that badly themed by BPB's standards.  The ride takes up far more room than you would guess from outside, filling its own chunk of land, and overflows on top of the Chinese Puzzle Maze and Big Dipper.  The first half of the ride features a series of "jumps" and turns.  There are no real drops as such, as the ride meanders along gradually losing height to maintain the speed.  The highlight is the long turn over the maze, partly because of the sense of lunacy that comes from racing directly over peoples' heads - On busy days it isn't unusual for people in the maze to wave or even ask for directions!

As the tracks sink to ground level, you approach the second lift hill.  About half way up, you cross the bottom of the first lift, and on busy days, more people wave you past as they begin their race.  The second half of the ride is a real anti-climax.  It consists of little more than a long left hand bend leading to the brake run, over the courses of the Go-Karts and Big Dipper.  If the timing is right, it is frightening how close Big Dipper riders come to burying their heads in your wheels at one point!  Without the great finale of the Grand National or Big One, the tracks gently toward the brake run, where the horses come to a halt with the kind of force which can only be compared to being hit head on a by a speeding truck.  To make it worse, the brake run comes long before the actual loading platform, and gives no warning that the ride is about to simulate what a jockey goes through when he's thrown off his horse at Beecher's Brook!

Every time I ride the Steeplechase, I change my opinion of it.  On the positive side, it is a unique ride, and it is very commendable that the park built a custom designed ride at a time when an off-the-shelf ride seemed a good short-term bet.  The ride has a very distinct character, and although it doesn't deliver massive thrills, that doesn't matter so much in a park where there are already more white knuckle rides than anywhere else in the country, and where it isn't marketed as the star attraction.

On the other hand, it isn't the most effortless ride in the world, and can feel like a bit of an assault on your person.  This may be very realistic (I canít imagine riding a real racehorse is too comfy after all), but the sharp turns and jumps can become too much before long.

Plus there are more basic concerns. As with the Grand National, the ride is at its best when you are racing against friends, yet the queue splits off too early, making it extremely difficult to organise ensure that donít end up racing total strangers.  Furthermore, it isnít uncommon to see one lane left unused adding to the frustration of knowing that the race could be made more exciting.  It seems strange that BPB lose out on the potential benefits of really racing the ride when they are so (justifiably) boastful of the fact that the Grand National is always run as a real racing coaster.

So how do you sum up such a strange ride?  Well, itís great fun if you are in the mood, but can be a bit of an ordeal if you arenít.  Too rough for repeat rides, but that matters less in a park with so many other quality rides on which to spend your time.  Perhaps the space could be better used, but itís hard to imagine visiting the park without the occasional ride on the Steeplechase.  If it was at another park and treated as the star attraction, it would get a thumbs-down but at BPB it becomes a good example of a ĎMight as well rideí coaster.

2/5 John Phillips 


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