Coaster Kingdom

TraumaTizer (Pleasureland Southport)

When Vekoma's first Suspended Looping Coaster (SLC), El Condor, opened at what is now Six Flags Holland, one man who heaped a surprising amount of praise on the ride was Geoffrey Thompson, MD of Blackpool Pleasure Beach. In interviews, he started to drop thinly veiled hints that he was interested in buying one for one of his parks. Although many assumed that the ride was bound for BPB, it turned out that the ride would be built at Pleasureland, BPB's sister park in Southport.

The problem with building large rides at Pleasureland was that, although the BPB company ran the park, many of the rides and stalls were privately owned, and would not budge until their leases ran out. This meant that the ride would not open until 1999, a full five years after the opening El Condor and (more importantly) Nemesis, which had already captured the public's imagination. On the positive side, Vekoma spent this time tweaking the design to create the Mark 3 version of the ride, intended to eliminate the severe roughness that plagued the Mark 1 model (El Condor was the only Mark 1 ever built), and the multitude of Mark 2 models, which had a reputation for being genuinely traumatising to ride.

When originally announced, the ride was given the rather dreary name "Hang Over", but also said that the name would change if a sponsor could be found. Usually, sponsorship deals lead to truly awful ride names, but in this case a deal was struck with the Barr soft drinks firm, who wanted to use the ride to promote the Tizer brand, and so the name "TraumaTizer" was born. While being a surprisingly witty name for a sponsored ride, I do suspect that if I were Barr's marketing man, I would be concerned that the brand name is not really prominent enough - after all, people were never going to think of it as "The Tizer ride", as they think of The Big One as "The Pepsi Max".

The park began promoting the ride as "The tallest, fastest suspended looping coaster in the UK", although any claim to the height record was debatable, as the height of Nemesis has always been open to interpretation due to it being built on such uneven ground. In any case, both records have since been lost to Fantasy Island's Odyssey Jubilee, rendering the argument academic.

TraumaTizer sits at the southern edge of the park, directly opposite the 1937 Cyclone. Compared to the slightly run-down look of much of the park, TraumaTizer looks fabulous. From a distance, the ride looks wonderful, with almost the entire track visible from anywhere in the park. From the seafront, the imposing blue structure and bright red track stand out as a beacon for thrill-seekers. Come nightfall, the subtle floodlighting looks superb. My only reservation is that the choice of paint scheme is exactly the same as BPB's Big One, and therefore fails to give the ride an identity of its own. Rightly or wrongly, Nemesis and The Big One are probably Britain's two most famous coasters, and it seems a shame that people may see the ride and dismiss it as "Nemesis in The Big One's colours". Also, if I can slip back into the role of Barr's marketing man for a moment, I'd be concerned that people would make the quite logical assumption that it was Pepsi that was involved in the ride, which would be a quite spectacular own goal.

Vekoma's design conveniently leaves a large space in the middle of the ride, allowing parks the chance to build Tussaud's-style paths and spectator areas under most of the ride. Happily, Pleasureland have made good use of this feature, as the main path to the ride takes you under the brake run, past a large name sign made out of old Big One track (much like everything else the BPB company builds). The wide path eventually narrows as it reaches the stations, blurring the distinction between spectator area and queue line. While negotiating this path, it becomes obvious that almost all of the space beneath the ride has been used to create a very pleasant garden. OK, it's not spectacular in the Alton Towers sense, but it's a very nice touch for a park that has never exactly been a place of outstanding beauty.

The station is surprisingly stylish, given that it's not particularly visible from anywhere other than the car park. Although the ride itself has no tangible theme, the station was obviously intended to fit the Moroccan theme which the park briefly tried to adopt, and therefore has a very similar look to Casablanca, the park's family entertainment centre (or "Posh arcade" as they're also known). The queue continues up two ramps, which lead to the loading platform. It is here that you will often find a bizarre tape loop of hopelessly outdated pop music, so if you've ever found yourself having a blazing row about the lyrics to New Kids on the Block songs, this is the place to settle your differences. In all honesty, this is not a great queue line once you get past the spectator area. The outside section gives you nothing to do but watch the lift motor or the car park, and you enter the station a long way below the loading platform, and can't see anything of the ride itself. It's a bit of a shame that, while the spectators have such a good view of everything the ride does, those of us in the queue see virtually nothing.

Eventually, you are let onto the platform, where the crowd sorts itself into the automatic gates. Amusingly, the original SLCs had 9 cars, later reduced to 8 because of the roughness of the early rides. Although TraumaTizer only ever ran 8 car trains, the designs were obviously never adapted to suit - the train still has the chassis of the ninth car, while the platform still has 9 gates, with one permanently blocked off.

In a rather cheeky move, Pleasureland's original press blurb for the ride made great play of the fact that the cars are two seats wide, "So all riders get a good view", an obvious reference to the complaints that the four abreast trains of B&M inverters like Nemesis don't offer a great view to riders on the inside seats. What they don't mention is that, compared to the comfort of B&M's trains, Vekoma's restraints are like straightjackets, restricting your view far more than Nemesis ever does. Due to the roughness of the earlier versions of the ride, the restraint features huge and very restrictive padded cushions either side of the head, while the lower half is shaped in such a way as to severely restrict arm movement, possibly to stop long-limbed riders being able to reach dangerous parts of the train. Nervous riders are given a strange handlebar at the bottom of the restraint, shaped like a bull's horns, which offer no reassurance at all. Frankly, if you're going to hold on, you're better off using the bars at the side of the seat than those on the restraint. Overall, if B&M produce the Rolls Royce of inverter trains, Vekoma's rank somewhere in the Sinclair C5 league.

As you take your seat, the safety instructions will play out over the speakers. Strangely, apart from substituting the park and ride names, it is exactly the same announcement as on The Big One, even including the line "And now, it is time to experience Vertical Reality". After the ride ops check the restraints, doing their best to crush you into the seat as they do so, the train rolls out of the station and the floor drops away - in that order. In fact, half the train is out of the station before the floor moves at all. To me, this just highlights the fact that moving floor is a totally pointless feature of these rides, as the only people likely to catch the feet on the floor would be too busy playing for Harlem Globetrotters to visit Southport in the first place. It's worth remembering, incidentally, that EuroStar's floor doesn't move, and it certainly doesn't seem hinder operation there!

The lift hill is nice and quiet compared to the B&M version, and cleverly avoids the need to have a floor beneath train, allowing riders a good view of the ground. This being the case, why is the ground under the lift hill the only area of the ride with no landscaping whatsoever? Most of the ride takes place over a nice little garden, but at the only point where riders have time to look down, they see a pile of dirt, gravel, and large chunks of rusty old metal. This totally defies logic, and must go down as a major black spot on the ride's otherwise excellent appearance. I'm not the kind of person who insists that all rides should be elaborately themed and decorated from top to bottom, but I certainly don't want to look down from the lift hill of an inverter (or any other coaster for that matter) at what looks like an abandoned scrap yard, particularly when the designer gone to the trouble of creating a system which allows the lift to be totally floorless.

As for the layout, it is exactly the same as any other Vekoma SLC so anyone who has ridden other versions of the ride, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. From the top of the lift, you have a few seconds to look out at Southport's sea front before rolling down a not-particularly-steep first drop, twisting 180 degrees to the right. The style of the ride is exactly what you'd expect from an inverted coaster, relying far more on inversions and turns for excitement than drops. The first two inversions are provided by the novel and quite spectacular "Butterfly" element. This is more or less a vertical loop, but with a twist at the top which means that train rights itself, before twisting back upside-down and continuing down the loop. It was the second half of this element that caused people to complain that earlier versions of the ride were too rough. Even after several years of operation, TraumaTizer gets you through the element without the slightest hint of roughness, regardless of where on the train you ride. Vekoma deserve a lot of credit for listening to the complaints and finding such an effective solution, although it helps that Pleasureland's maintenance department obviously know what they're doing.

Next, the train performs a neat fly-by of the station, coming very close to the exit ramp, and hits the next inversion, the Immelman (to borrow B&M's name for it), again without the slightest hint of roughness. Next, a dive straight into a right hand helix, and directly into two inversions, somewhere between corkscrews and in-line twists. This whole section goes by without any respite, and has a good, relentless rhythm to it. All that remains is a turn and a swoop into the brakes.

Annoyingly, if you want to re-ride, there's quite a walk ahead of you. I always hate it when a ride exit forces you into the souvenir shop, as I always think it to be a rather blatant form of customer manipulation. TraumaTizer's exit is worse than most, partly because 99% of the stuff on offer is unrelated to the park or ride in any way, and partly because the shop itself is quite a way away from the station, meaning that you can't re-ride without taking an annoyingly long detour. A further gripe, the exit of the shop doesn't seem to have been designed to cope with groups of 16 people funnelling through every two minutes, meaning that the shop can get quite congested. It's just as well the trains are only two seats wide, I suppose!

TraumaTizer has plenty of good points. There's nothing on the ride that could be described as remotely rough. The five inversions are well paced, although I think there is a good argument for losing an inversion or two in favour or more drops and tight turns (5 inversions presumably suited the park though, being one more than Nemesis has). Apart from the lift hill, the area is nicely landscaped, and forms a very pleasant area of the park. So surely I should be raving about the ride? Well, no. For some reason I just found it impossible to enjoy the ride very much. I can only think of two reasons for this.

Firstly, the awful train that made me feel overly restrained, crushing and clamping my head in place, while totally restricting all arm movement. This makes the ride far too claustrophobic for my liking, and only served to make me appreciate how good B&M's trains are. It is quite ironic that TraumaTizer, one of the smoothest looping coasters in the country, features restraints designed to clamp riders in place and protect them against the sheer roughness of earlier models. There are a lot of rough Vekoma coasters that would benefit a lot more from such heavily padded restraints than TraumaTizer does, that's for certain!

The second reason for my lukewarm reaction to the ride is not entirely unrelated to the first. A lot of Vekoma rides (such as Alton Towers' Corkscrew, Parc Asterix`s Gouderix, and the earlier SLCs), have been heavily criticised over the years for being far too rough. Vekoma have put a lot of effort into make their rides smoother and have succeeded. As strange as it may seem, I now find that I have to criticise TraumaTizer for being too smooth. I'm not saying a ride should leave me battered and bruised (as happens on TraumaTizer's neighbour, King Solomon's Mines), but I should leave the train feeling like something's happened. With any great coaster, there's a constant bombardment of sensations to get the adrenaline flowing. My favourite inverter, EuroStar, makes riders sit there wondering how much more G force their bodies can take before being crushed. Nemesis does the same, while also making them worry about how close they are to smashing into the scenery. On TraumaTizer, I found the ride had so little impact that when my mind wasn't focused on how awful the restraints were, it would be drifting off onto totally unrelated subjects, only for me to find we'd hit the brakes before I knew it. "What shall I have for dinner? Which park shall I visit next week? When will ... what, the ride's over? I never noticed". It's hard to get enthusiastic about a ride that fails so badly to grab your attention that you can barely remember anything about it even as you negotiate the exit ramp! I'm no psychologist, but I'm sure this condition wouldn't be classified as "Traumatised".

One final criticism, one that has been applied to hundreds of coasters over the years, that of the park's refusal to run the ride to maximum capacity. It is always frustrating to queue for twice long as is necessary simply because the park won't bring the second train into service until the queue reaches some ridiculous length. In my personal experience, queues have reached anything between the 45 minute to one hour, yet I have never seen the second train brought to life, or even any sign that anyone is considering the possibility of doing so. A more cynical person than I might suggest that if the park still operated solely on a pay-per-ride basis, efficient operation would be higher on the list of priorities.

It really is difficult to judge TraumaTizer. Other than the trains, there is no real reason to dislike the ride, but neither is there any real reason to recommend that you make a particular effort to go and ride it. It looks superb, both from within the park, and throughout the surrounding area. Standing on the seafront to the north of the park, the ride appears to tower majestically over the Cyclone, and has a real impact on Southport's otherwise modest skyline. Despite being an off-the-shelf design, it seems to be doing a good job of giving Pleasureland a "signature" ride, and the people of Southport seem quite proud of it as a local landmark, even if most riders do seem perfectly aware of the fact that it is just a cheaper version of Nemesis.

No matter how much the ride has become part of the fabric of Southport society, this doesn't disguise the fact that it really isn't as good as it ought to be. No part of the ride really stands out as a highlight, which is a little worrying if you're comparing it to the competition. With great rides (including Nemesis and EuroStar), you leave the train thinking things like "Wow, that drop was great, the loop was amazing, and the helix was phenomenal". On TraumaTizer, I left the train trying to remember what had happened almost as if I'd dozed off somewhere on the lift hill and woken up on the brake run. Maybe it's because Nemesis and EuroStar are such incredible rides that TraumaTizer suffers in comparison. Maybe having my head squashed against two enormous pillows fooled my brain into thinking it was bedtime. Whatever it was, it was not good.

I'm not going to tell you that TraumaTizer is worth booking yourself onto a train to Southport for, but similarly I'm not going to tell you that TraumaTizer is a ride to avoid at all costs, a comment often heard when describing Vekoma's earlier versions of the ride. It's certainly a nice ride, and Pleasureland is a much better place for having installed it, if only because it is nice to see the park get a brand new ride, rather than BPB's cast-offs. Unfortunately, it's not a ride that will put the park anywhere near the top of you list of priorities next time you are deciding which park to visit. With a few modifications to the train to allow riders more freedom of movement, I suspect there's a much better coaster waiting to be uncovered, but until we get the chance to find out, TraumaTizer fails to provoke even the slightest emotion, good or bad.  

2/5 John Phillips