Coaster Kingdom

The Vampire (Chessington World of Adventures)

An overused term when talking about coasters is ‘family coasters’. Too often, this knee-jerk phrase is used to allow adults on a kids’ coaster or to excuse a fundamentally dull thrill ride.

Good examples of family coasters are, fortunately, plentiful. Along with the greats such as Big Thunder Mountain, the Vampire has harmonised the thrills of a fun and engaging coaster with elements such as interacting well with non-riders and building the sense of drama with a rich and immersive station.

The period leading up to 1990 was a renaissance in eye catching and passionate ride design at Chessington. The Bubbleworks and the Vampire seemed to exercise a limitless approach to design, unhindered by money constraints.

Unfortunately, it seems all that is good is fleeting. Whilst we were enjoying these rides of almost fairytale proportions, Chessington were having untold nightmares with the Vampire. With the Vampire being the jewel in the crown, it was sad to see that the downtime was spiralling out of control. The park ploughing money into a ride that just wasn’t delivering in return was quite simply not an option.

Removing the ride was once considered an easy way out. But the saga would have continued. Locals detest the Vampire with a passion I wish only Chessington would apply to its newer rides. Removing the Vampire would situate the park between a rock and a hard place, as nothing of its scale could ever replace it.

The Vampire would be closed for an entire season to make way for an all-new Vampire. There is no happy ending in sight my friends - this is a truly harrowing tale where bad defeated the good. New trains were added, but at the same time, the whole drama of the Vampire has been castrated, the character of the attraction ruined and the whole experience now falls far short of being the production of theatrical proportions it formerly was.

Encompassing ambient lighting and upbeat organ music, the station has always been a well-choreographed and lavish affair with almost theatrical detail. Cobweb covered lanterns dimly light the organist flooding the building with  haunting melodies.

The almost overwhelming sense of impact has been somewhat choked by what alone are small changes, together forming a more fundamental decline in the whole drama of the station.

The mysterious animatronic organist sits slumped over his ivories and has done since opening. Where before he was lit in a hazy glow, harsh white and blue tones almost highlight that fact that this novel touch in theming is now redundant.

New lighting has been added over the station platform. A hole has been hacked in the end wall to fit the long gantry in and the length of the train is now lit in a rather severe shade of white lighting up not only the train but also the mechanics above.

Unsurprisingly, air gates to wait behind have been added. These haven’t been added in the gap formed between the previous coffins. Instead, the entire row of coffins has been removed and scant metal barriers have been installed instead. Despite the rows on the train being evenly spaced, in an annoying  trait by Vekoma, gates are clustered into pairs as if for their standard rolling stock. It is impossible for the train to line up with the gates, so there is a lot of hesitation before people sit down, of course wondering whether they have gone for the right row.

The trains are good. Sitting down, the seat design means that you are quite hunched, lifting your legs up higher than normal. The overhead restraints are chunky over the shoulders but unobtrusive. Surprisingly they don’t have grab handles, which although this is only a family coaster, many people choose to hold on. They do have seatbelts, though, something which riders seem quick to pick up on despite it being the only such ride in Chessington.

Shoes must be worn. You pass several signs to this effect, but all are rather slap-dash in their appearance and are often missed. People removing footwear and other silly delays mean that loading is far slower than it aught to be. I’d be surprised to ever see three-train operation again on the Vampire.

Regardless, the ride operators are quick to check the bars and the train leaves.

The train rolls over some grime before hitting the first lift hill. It is quite shallow and not overly tall. As the walkway below drops away, it is intimidating enough for the younger riders as it rolls off down towards the queue below.

Like a bat at sunrise, the train scurries downwards into the shadows of a coppice through a swooping s-bend. First dropping to the right, then flicking the train back to the left as it passes through a tight corridor of trees and supports. The train pulls up into a helix, turning 270-degrees at tree height.

As your feet barely miss the trees below, a lunge back to ground level has the train slaloming around various shrubs, passing over a desolate pathway below, swinging over a makeshift platform constructed out of chipboard and scaffold before coming to a complete stop at the bottom of the second lift hill.

As necessary as the lift hill is, it is a real intrusion on the flow of the ride. The train literally clatters to a complete stop before crawling up this lift – slightly taller than the first.

The front half of the train may be slightly thwarted by the way the train is lowered down a rather fun looking drop, back seat riders will enjoy being pulled down this drop, pulling out to the right, joining the street below in a graceful meander, just at roof height.

You pass over a rooftop and at probably what feels to be the highest part of the ride gently zigzag from left to right following the wooded path below. This is perhaps when the flight of the Vampire bat is best felt and once again, the train reacts by swinging closely to supports.

This casual meander serves no purpose but to accentuate the feeling of flight. It works well, and just as it becomes dull, the train dramatically plunges from over the pathway in a swooping right hand bend down into a tunnel.

As the flash of the ride camera momentarily blinds you, the train is sharply flicked to the side as it pulls to the right, nearly skimming the embankment to your left as you pull up into a relatively steep climb over the second lift hill.

All momentum is at this point lost, noticeable thanks to the sharp and snappy tunnel section. As the train rounds the top of this hill, a gradual hill takes you over the pathway, back down into a muddy gully between the queue line.

The train swings around as it follows the terrain of the ground approaching the station building. A final swing sends the train towards a handrail on the left swinging back to the right, almost hitting a curtain, coming to a sharp stop in the darkened station building.

With completely new trains, the feel of the ride is surprisingly familiar. The swinging of the cars is as feisty as ever, and questionably better than before. Even traits specific to the Vampire such as the erratic shuffling from element to element is still present by the very nature of the ride.

With the train being uprighted by a rail underneath the cars on the second lift, the bite of the Vampire was too much in the extreme front. I was hit on the head by this flaw in design, and it would appear many other people were too. For the time being, the front seat is out of bounds by order of the Count.

The novelty of floorless rides has already worn off, should the truth be told, and rides such as Vortex and Samurai don’t even make a feature of the lack of floor. I’m surprised that even with a ride verging on frisky, the Vampire doesn’t benefit that much from its new floorless cars. It is a moderate improvement to feel slightly more exposed, but it is a back-step to ditch all forms of theming on the trains and to have them look like a carnival float from Mardi Gras. They’re purple. They look nice, but purple trains on a brown track – that just ain’t cricket.

Having been closed for well over a year, it would have been a good opportunity to return the Vampire to its former glory. Biting my tongue, I’m going cut to the chase and say categorically that the Vampire looks the worst it ever has.

The queue is a disgrace. Paint is rubbing off onto peoples’ clothes and occasionally collapsing should you lean on them. Ironically, despite the ride attracting queues in excess of an hour, longer than they’ve been in the last ten years, a large amount of the queue line is not in use, sliced in half by seven-foot-tall black plyboard fences. Odd, and completely inexplicable.

Whilst we’re mulling over the more mystifying qualities of the Vampire, riddle me this: it looks like supports were messily numbered during the revamp. Whoever was in charge of this flawed project has not only painted over these numbers once in completely the wrong shade of brown, but painted over TWICE, the second shade being beige with a hint of orange, stranger when you consider the supports are actually a dark brown.

Track also comes in many shades of brown, and often green where algae stains the track and a greyish shade where track has been re-wealded. Patchwork doesn’t even begin to describe it, and I’m glad I’m not the only one casting my overly critical eye over such oddities, as members of public often comment on the random paintjob.

Landscaping is just as archaic as the rest of the ride. Having had a year to plan and implement the new trains, it seems as if landscaping the land around the increased envelope of the trains was an afterthought. Trenches have been untidily dug, dirt piled up against chicken wire fences. I’d expect it to be tidier had someone gone on a joyride in a JCB.

It would be nice to ride the Vampire in the knowledge that such a draconian makeover wouldn’t have ruined the actual ride experience. Not only is the flight of the Vampire now taken in unsympathetic swinging purple picnic chairs, but instead of swooping over the trees, shrubs and long-grass of before, you instead scrape your way over messy channels, muddy puddles and scaffold platforms.

Dracula would be turning in his coffin should he see what a state the highlight of the ride is in. The dramatic dive into a dark, subterranean cave is now a casual dip under a tin roof. A lot of length has been taken off both ends of the tunnel, and as well as looking a complete Christmas cracker style joke from the ground, has only an ounce of the impact it used to.

Although nothing fundamental has changed in the station, it lacks the drama and grandeur of before. The organist is an important effect and one that the park clearly don’t think is worth fixing. The station is far too bright. Haunting music cannot set the mood if the station is anything but eerie.

Using the station, the Vampire has always been an extravagant affair with the coaster itself forming only part of the experience. With the sense of hurriedness evident in the area, not only has the station been spoiled as a result, but also the area has been ruined to the point that the ride actually suffers as a result.

The floorless aspect is good, but cannot alone assure a better ride than before.

2/5 Marcus Sheen