A trip to the United Kingdom's answer to Disney World: Alton Towers. I'll admit that going into the experience I knew almost nothing about Alton Towers. I knew not to expect Disney World. I was pleasantly surprised.
We visited on a cloudy Monday. Thunderstorms had threatened over the weekend but hadn't actualised. There was a bit of a queue of cars ambling through the villages up towards the park—and the countryside surrounding the park itself is surprisingly village-ey!—but when we pulled into the car park, we found it mostly empty. Past Postman Pat's (unfortunately flat-tyred) mail van, we queued for the monorail under the repetitive, manic refrain of In the Hall of the Mountain King and, by and by, shuffled onto a narrow bench on the train. No spacious, carpeted Magic Kingdom Monorail, this. Decals so covered the windows that one could barely see out the window onto the expansive car parks below.
I call Alton Towers a "park" in this post, but the term that Merlin Entertainments would rather I use is "resort", since that word emphasises Alton Towers' attractiveness as a multi-day destination. I think there's a hotel on the property, but full disclosure: we were only there for 7 hours or so.
Into the park with little fanfare and we hoofed it to Oblivion, a surprisingly short ride comprising of a drop and not much else. I think I'd been spoiled by riding Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens, three times as high and three times as long (and with a queue three times as long to boot). Up next was The Smiler, a newer coaster with a record 14 inversions. Alton Towers likes to tout the status of its coasters as the first or the most something. I don't think I noticed that The Smiler inverted me more than usual, but I liked the theming best here. The conceit is that the roller coaster is big government machine for brainwashing people into happiness. Sam's summary: "the government just keeps inverting you until you're smiling forever." The grey-and-yellow colour scheme was striking and the theming was really consistent, except for in the actual loading room. Excellent effort.
In between, we rode a couple of carnival-type flat rides. The first rubber-banded us around in three dimensions and only left me slightly woozy. Buoyed by my relative ease and by the bored look on a man in a Chester Cheetos t-shirt riding the next contraption alone, we boarded an elevated spin-you-round affair. This was a bad idea, and resulted in Extreme Personal Distress.
We decided to ease off for a minute and stole into The Curse at Alton Manor, a recently refurbished dark ride along the lines of The Haunted Mansion. A bit of drizzle moved in, bringing a solemn air to the graveyard that the queue snaked through. At the start of the queue, the gravestones tended towards the morbid, but as we progressed, they got increasingly glib, featuring cheesy limericks or typos like Died in the plage of 1349. The ride itself takes a bit more of a serious approach to the spooks than its inspiration does, with jump scares and screams galore. Halfway through, all of the lights came on, the cars ground to a halt, and a voice came over the loudspeaker to chastise someone for using their phone on the ride. "Put your phone away or I'll be forced to come down there and confiscate it." This was, I believe, not one of the ride's planned frights, but I still would not have wished to be the guest with their phone out. My favourite part of the ride was that I was allowed to sit down in the dark for four minutes.
We'd bought a plastic Coca-Cola-branded cup earlier that entitled us to free refills throughout the day, but at almost every Coca-Cola Freestyle (designed by Pininfarina) dispenser we came across, the drink that came out was room temperature. Discovering the one machine with cold Schwepps Cloudy Lemonade was like coming across an oasis in a room-temperature desert.
A couple more rides in quick succession: Galactica, a coaster that hangs you horizontally, your arms limp and your legs in stirrups like some kind of animal about to undergo a Procedure; Congo River Rapids, where a group of people sits in a big donut and rides down some whitewater, but where every small group was ushered into their very own donut, leading to a high-riding raft and an underwhelming splash factor; and The Wicker Man, a wooden track with some more great theming, including a pre-ride show where a disembodied Scottish voice told us that we were going to get sacrificed in some quasi-highland ritual.
Finally, to Rita, an accelerator with limp theming about an abandoned race track. Apparently it was briefly called Camilla: Queen of Speed to commemorate the current Queen even though she was only a Duchess in 2005 when the rename occured, Camilla, Queen of Speed feels, somehow, even more limp than Rita, in terms of a thrill ride. No offence to people called Rita or Camilla. A number of people had to be ushered off the ride for not fitting in the restraints, while the operator in the booth took on an increasingly incensed tone and revving car SFX played loudly in the background. The launch, eventually, was: pretty good.
We had some down time at this point, so we strolled towards the 19th century Gothic revival country house at the heart of the park. Much of the building is in disrepair, having been neglected pretty egregiously throughout the 20th century. Some of the building appears to be dedicated to a dark ride, but other parts, unroofed and unglazed, are overgrown with greenery. It feels very Victorian—which of course, it is. Alton Towers' annual Oktoberfest was under way in the background, however, so the calm of the pleasure gardens was regularly punctuated by the oompah, oompah of an enthusiastic accordion played at maximum volume. As it was a Monday at about 3pm, the beer garden was nearly empty.
Peckish, we followed a man with two bottles of SmartWater in the back pockets of his tight jeans out towards one of the family-style pubs on the property. Unthemed, unpretentious, and surprisingly un-marked-up. A couple sat down next to us with a pint of Bud Light and a pint of Strongbow Dark Fruit. Yes, I thought to myself, we are in England. A woman in a tiara walked past with a plastic cup full of prosecco.
The Alton Towers Dungeon, our last event of the day, was probably the highlight: a series of short skits centred around actors in roles of dubious historicity from the middle ages to the late 18th century, with a frankly quite gruesome boat ride in the middle. The actor would perform a monologue and select folks from the audience for a bit of light interaction; the lights would go off and the actor would creep about in the dark and shout in someone's face just as the lights came back up for a bit of a scare. The actors seemed to have a good time with it, and the sets were elaborately and creatively dressed (though the corridors between sets consisted of dim, blank hallways). Well worth the extra nine quid or whatever it was, I thought.
And that was that. Exhausted and unwilling to queue for the increasingly busy monorail, we started the milelong trek back to the car park. I think that one visit per decade is probably enough.