As promised / threatened, here’s my (overlong) trip report of my visit to the UK’s Disney World, Alton Towers. Spoiler: there are some great pictures and I learned a few things about myself.
The idea to take a trip was entirely spontaneous. I can’t even remember what prompted it. It had become ever more clear that I’m not visiting the US this year, and perhaps not for some time. Indeed, I recently bought a car with the intention of reverting to the pre-Disney life I led before 2017. Annual trips to local theme parks were a feature of that life. The government had recently announced that theme parks could re-open and, before I knew where I was, I was planning and booking a trip. My original idea was to go at the end of July, but negotiations with the two friends I was taking with me led to my booking our arrival on the second day of operations.
The thinking here was partly motivated by Alton Tower’s website, which claimed that it would open with very low numbers of guests and gradually build those numbers up. I’d heard really great reports from how UOR had handled its reopening, and I had visions of a virtually empty park with almost no lines.
The park opened on Saturday 4th July. I booked our arrival for Sunday 5th, with park days Monday 6th and Tuesday 7th. The thinking being to avoid opening weekend — with its likely higher crowds and opening snafus — and to visit on a weekday when kids are, technically, still at school.
Departure and arrival
As the time for departure grew closer — and, therefore, the time to drop Calvin off at my friend, Sarah’s — I grew ever more anxious. And not just about leaving Calvin behind — I worried about the possible recklessness of visiting a theme park in the middle of a developing pandemic. I gave the two friends I was taking a number of opportunities to cancel the trip. I didn’t feel I could do so as it was a promise I’d made to them to take them, but I kept suggesting reasons why it would be better not to go ahead — COVID, bad weather forecast, poor reviews of the re-opening, ride closures and breakdowns. They were having none of it.
Finally it was time to leave. I drove to Sarah’s house — well, a two minute walk from her house. It started raining fairly heavily so I decided to wait in the car with Calvin until it cleared up. This gave me a great opportunity to have a mini panic-attack. Luckily, the rain cleared almost immediately and we walked over. Calvin was initially very over-excited to see Sarah and her dog, but he quickly figured out what was happening and made a Very Big Fuss. So much so that I thought it was best to just rip the Band-Aid clean off and leave. I hated doing it.
Yet once I’d done it my focus immediately changed to picking up my friends. The drive to their house was only 45 minutes, but about half of that is through a big city, with very complicated roads. I’d deliberately chosen a Sunday early evening so that the roads would be quiet, and I would get away with the inevitable last-minute changes of lane as I figured out on the fly what my sat nav wanted me to do.
Once I had picked them up, my mood lightened considerably and we had a very pleasant drive to the hotel.
Alton Towers started life as a proper stately home set in extensive grounds. The house itself is now partially derelict and is not lived-in. The grounds are well-looked after (see later) and there are rides and attractions scattered throughout them in broadly themed areas.
There is a variety of accommodations on-site — from very basic “star-gazing pods” (basically wooden tents) to a four star hotel, which is where we were staying. The hotel is themed, as are the rooms.
We ate breakfast in the hotel (included in the price, as is typical in the UK) which was salty and overcooked, but it got the job done. There is a private path for hotel guests that enters the park at the opposite side to the main entrance. This opened at 9.30am, with a park opening of 10am. Unlike at WDW, they may let you in early, but they don’t let you ride early. But you can get in line.
We headed straight for Wicker Man, the park’s newest attraction and one none of us had ridden before. It’s a wooden roller coaster and is visually pretty impressive.
We were in line for almost exactly an hour. Some people wore masks in line, but this was optional. There were chevrons at 2m separation in the line, but these were mostly ignored. There was social distancing, but people were really judging it for themselves. Once we entered the ride-loading building we put masks on — they were compulsory from this point. They were loading riders in parties, leaving an empty row between each one. The ride was wiped down before each run and hand sanitiser was available at the entrance to the loading area and the exit.
The ride itself was fun. A classic old-school rollercoaster — fast but pretty rickety. We all enjoyed it.
From here we headed off to Spinball Whizzer. It has historically been a favourite of mine. I didn’t take photos because the ride is of little architectural interest, but it’s similar in concept to Primeval Whirl. We waited around 45 minutes.
The route took us to the other side of the park, and this is the view along the way —
I should mention the weather at this point. It was surprisingly (even uncomfortably) cold much of the time and I felt underdressed. It rained — lightly, but persistently — for much of the day. However, the last couple of hours were lovely: blue skies, with fluffy white clouds.
We then headed to The Smiler. This was the new ride the last time we had visited. It’s visually stunning and very long with many loops and corkscrews and a vertical hill midway through the ride. The theming is clever and witty and all-embracing. (The ride is also notorious for a crash that caused life-changing injuries to a number of passengers not long after it opened.)
We waited 75 minutes in line, but we did get front row seats, which are a real plus on this ride.
We were all desperate to sit down and eat at this point. For many years Alton Towers had brand name concessions — Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut — but a few years ago it took all the catering in-house. This may have been great for its bottom line, but it was bad news for customers. We went to their version of KFC and had their version of a bargain bucket. It was . . . fine. Again, it got the job done.
The weather had cleared up by this point so we took a short walk to see the house and enjoy some ice cream.
The park is closing early during the first week of operations — at 4pm — so we headed for our last ride: Oblivion. This is one of my top two at the park. (The other is Rita, which was closed.)
The ride is simple. You climb the very tall hill, from which you get stunning views of the park and surrounding countryside. You make a 90-degree turn. You nudge towards the edge of a near vertical drop, where the car is then held momentarily. (Apparently this was not the original intent. The idea was to simply drive straight over the edge. But during testing of the ride it got stuck in the position you see in the picture — where you get a clear view of your impending fate. They decided this was a better experience and so they built it in as a feature.) And then you plunge at high speed into a hole in the ground, in which you are blasted with thick mists of water. You re-emerge from underground and whoosh back to the starting point. The whole thing is over in under a minute. But it’s great.
At this point the rides were now all closed. But not the park. We took the opportunity to explore the gardens which, as you can see, are stunning.
We then headed back to the hotel for (virgin) cocktails before heading to one of the restaurants in one of the other hotels for dinner. It was poor and expensive.
Tomorrow is scheduled to be another full day at the park, followed by dinner at the Rollercoaster Restaurant (your food travels on a rollercoaster to get to your table) and then the drive home. The weather forecast is awful.
Oh — I said I’d learned something. I’m old and I don’t care. My favourite part of the day was the blissful tranquility of walking through the gardens and admiring the views. And my favourite part of the rides was admiring the architecture and engineering. The only ride I really enjoyed was Oblivion — it’s genuinely thrilling. And buttery smooth.