Thursday, 15 April 2010

Review: The Dark Forest and Th13teen (Alton Towers)

Preamble: So, one facet of my, er, multi-faceted geekery is a rollercoaster geek. It's a side that's still developing, as my experience of rollercoasters abroad is nil, and within the UK is still fairly limited. That said, I've loved rollercoasters, and theme parks as a concept, for a long while and it's a love that I intend to develop and nurture for a long time to come. My geekery is also (at the moment) not particularly technical. I don't know all the different names for the many variants of rollercoasters that exist, nor do I know the ins and outs of all the different rollercoaster manufacturers out there, and the intricate physics clearly involved in rollercoaster design is something that will almost certainly elude me forever. What I really love about rollercoasters is the way they make you feel and the willing suspension of disbelief that they can induce. A well-designed and themed rollercoaster can make you feel the same about it no matter how many times you ride on it. Anyway, that's just a bit of build-up as to why I'm about to write the following review...

I can't remember a rollercoaster being hyped as much in the UK as Th13teen at Alton Towers since Oblivion opened at the park in 1998. Since reports that the ageing Corkscrew rollercoaster was to be retired and removed at the end of the 2008 season, I'd been following the progress of Th13teen since it was announced to be the next Secret Weapon, number 6 (5 had been Air, 4 was Oblivion, 3 was Nemesis, and 1 and 2 were unused plans for rollercoasters at the Nemesis site). A Secret Weapon essentially means two things: Alton Towers is spending a lot of money on the ride, and they expect it to be huge when it opens. Alton Towers generated much of the hype themselves through "leaked" videos and pictures, as well as starting rumours of age restrictions and waivers to sign for those who rode the new rollercoaster (rumours that have now proven to be nothing more than part of the build-up).

So I and the thousands of others anticipating the opening of Th13teen had extremely high hopes for the rollercoaster. In keeping with Th13teen's supernatural crypt theme, the area of Alton Towers previously known as the prehistorically themed Ug Land has been transformed into the Dark Forest. So, out with the dinosaur skeletons and giant boulders, in with the wraiths and eerie music. Upon first approach, the area looks good. If anything, at the moment it looks too new. The sign that greets you looks creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, but just a bit too clean and polished. The statues are appropriately gothic, but again could do with a bit of natural weathering to really get the right look. As you go in to the area itself, the retheme has been done well, but the same slight niggle continues. New trees have been planted to make the area look like a forest, but at the moment it's clear that these trees have just been planted. If you want the full impact of the Dark Forest theme, it might be better to visit the park in the 2011 season - when the trees have grown a bit more and everything looks a bit more worn in.

One part of the retheme that does work well is the new look Rita (formerly Rita: Queen Of Speed). The drag racing themed rollercoaster was completely at odds with Ug Land. Many expected the park to completely retheme Rita, with new names even being suggested (Rita: Queen Of The Forest, anyone?). What Alton Towers have chosen to do to fit Rita to the Dark Forest theme is more effective than a complete overhaul. The back story to the Dark Forest is that an "unexplored" area of the woodland around the park has come alive and taken over what used to be Ug Land, transforming it - including the existing Rita coaster. So, Rita's colours have been dulled and dirtied, her queue area has become a wasteland in contrast to the rock 'n' roll/caveman oddity it was before, and the control centre has become swathed in creepers and vines. Even the coaster's new logo is a dark and rusty spin on the old one. Essentially, Rita's new theme is an abandoned version of its former self that has been possessed by the Dark Forest. An intelligent and postmodern choice by Alton Towers, and one that I applaud. By keeping links to the old Rita fans of the ride can still relate to it easily; the rollercoaster most definitely fits into the new area of the park as well.

As you venture deep into the Dark Forest, you eventually come across the entrance to Th13teen. The entrance theming is promising, as are parts of the queue line. At one point
you double take as there appears to be a park employee standing in the woods; closer inspection reveals that this is an employee's uniform filled in with branches and vines - an employee apparently engulfed by the "living" woodland. Another point reveals a crashed Alton Towers van with vines growing through it and "holding" it. We also see shallow graves, one of which has a hand in the grip of some roots protruding from it. The sounds are typical spooky fare, more akin to something from the film The Ring than Hammer Horror, which fit well - we hear a hoarse female voice counting up to thirteen, before emitting a muted scream as if she has been grabbed. But that's about it. The young trees suffer from the same problem as those throughout the Dark Forest, so as those grow that will add to the atmosphere created. Maybe it was because I ended up waiting in the region of 2 hours and 15 minutes to ride on Th13teen that I found the visual stimuli in the ride queue to be somewhat lacklustre, but this is something that Alton Towers could easily add to in future seasons, and hopefully will.

As the ride station comes into view, things get a bit more impressive. The station is a clash of ancient crypt and contemporary building site, as the grey stone turrets stand next to tarpaulins and iron scaffolding. Essentially, the idea is that the crypt has somehow taken over mid-excavation, hence the scaffold being left seemingly half-constructed. This continues as you get into the station itself, and is the part of the theming I felt was strongest before embarking on the actual ride.

So now we come to Th13teen itself. Anyone who hasn't been on the ride yet, and wants to go on without knowing exactly what happens, this is your SPOILER ALERT.

So, the rollercoaster. I very much felt that the ride could be split into three parts. The first part is essentially a fairly conventional rollercoaster. As you embark onto the train, the thing that will strike you before you leave is the restraints, in that they are incredibly simple. There's no shoulder restraints of the other big rides at Alton Towers such as Nemesis and Rita. All you have is a lap bar akin to what you find on the ghost train ride Duel. Admittedly, Th13teen's lap bar feels much more sturdy, but the feeling of being more exposed than you presume you should be on a rollercoaster is definitely there.

You exit the station and turn the corner onto the first big lift hill, which the train climbs at a fair pace. As you reach the top, there is little time to prepare yourself for the steep downhill plunge into the first banked turn (where, slightly unexpectedly for those who know what's coming, the on-ride photo is taken). There are a few more turns and airtime hills, before you enter a different part of the "crypt". I really enjoyed this first section. It weaves through the real woodland, and so at the moment I feel probably doesn't give the full impact - a lot of trees have had to be cut back in order to actually construct the ride, so the feeling of travelling through the forest is lessened somewhat. Once this grows back it'll only add to the experience.

It's at this point that you know Th13teen isn't a white knuckle ride in the same way as previous Secret Weapon rides. The main experience you get from the ride comes from the fact that you feel almost completely exposed, which comes from the lack of shoulder restraints or anything other than the bar on your lap. The first drop is fantastic, and the airtime hills are exhilarating. It doesn't trigger fear in the same way as Oblivion does when it dangles you over its pit, or in the way Rita does when it shoots you like a bullet out of a gun into the ride. But it's also clear that Th13teen was never designed to do this. Th13teen's target is the more complex psychological response than simply putting your brain in a situation where it automatically fears for your safety.

The second section of the ride takes this further. You enter the crypt as stated, and find yourself facing an ancient wooden door and surrounded by statues and gloomy lighting. Creaking noises are heard. The train shudders down a few inches. More creaking, and a second later the car falls through the floor down what must be between ten and fifteen feet, plunging you into a second area of the crypt with supernatural theming (I have to admit I didn't fully take in exactly what it was) but in almost complete darkness. The "free fall drop" is definitely thrilling. Again, not to Oblivion levels, but it's certainly very effective.

We then get the third and final segment, which was my favourite part. The train is suddenly launched backwards at speed through a tunnel in total darkness. There are a few banked turns before the train emerges back into the light. The track then switches to allow the train to complete the ride moving forwards back into the station. Again, this section wasn't so much terrifying as it was psychologically unnerving. You still feel totally exposed by the lack of restraints, and I defy anyone to feel completely at ease travelling backwards at speed in pitch black.

So, how do I rate my first experience of the Dark Forest and its signature ride? Well, I'm a fan of the Dark Forest. It has imaginative elements, such as the new look Rita, and I feel those people who have bemoaned the new look for many of old Ug Land buildings (as opposed to completely new structures) are kind of missing the point of the area. It's a postmodernist take on the spooky theme park area. You're supposed to recognise parts of Ug Land, because the Dark Forest is Ug Land. Or rather, it's where the theme park area of Ug Land used to be, which has now been taken over by some supernatural force that resides in the woodland. The theme is not "spooky area" (such as Gloomy Wood elsewhere in Alton Towers), but "theme park taken over by something spooky". When you're in the Dark Forest area, you're meant to be aware that you're in a theme park, but a gothic and uncanny theme park where everything's creepy and unnerving. Rita's new theme sums it up perfectly. It's not meant to be anything but a rollercoaster. But it's a rollercoaster that's been possessed by something and engulfed by the surrounding creepy area. I guess it's like the difference between a film being a "horror" or a "supernatural thriller". The Dark Forest isn't perfect by any means. As I said before, it needs time to grow and settle into itself. The trees need to develop. The sign needs to dull a little. The stonework needs to weather. Once that happens in the next year or so, the Dark Forest will be a great success.

As for Th13teen, I'm also a fan. I don't think it's perfect, and all the technical problems the ride has had since it opened will not help it at all. On the day I went, the rollercoaster didn't open until about 4pm due to a technical fault. When it did open, only three of the five carriages on each train were being used, leading me to assume the fault was in some way related to the weight of the trains when on the free fall drop section. There have been several days since the park opened in mid March where Th13teen hasn't operated at all, and a significant amount of days where it has only operated for part of the day. My advice at the moment would be that, if you're mainly visiting to experience Th13teen, wait until later in the season, or even until next year when Alton Towers will have had the off-season months to do any major repairs and modifications that the ride may need.

But technical problems aside, I enjoyed the ride. What I do think is that Alton Towers have set themselves up to disappoint many riders of Th13teen. The new rollercoaster has been billed as "the ultimate rollercoaster" and described in the media by Alton Towers representatives as every ride you've ever dreamt about all rolled into one. By codenaming it as a Secret Weapon, Alton Towers also caught the attention of enthusiasts, automatically putting Th13teen on a par with Nemesis, Oblivion and Air before it had even opened. This was only furthered by the emphasis on the "world's first" element - the free fall drop. All of this hype was only going to lead to disappointment for many.

I would also question Alton Towers' approach to marketing the ride. The adverts and promotional materials have made the ride seem quite adult in its theming. However, after experiencing the ride I would say that, although I certainly enjoyed the ride, this is not quite the case. I wouldn't go as far as calling Th13teen a family ride, but it's definitely not as extreme an experience as I was expecting. Maybe if the park had followed through on the age restriction then the theming could have been ramped up to something a little more intense, in which case the advertising campaign would have felt slightly more accurate. There's even a post-watershed version of the TV ad; I'm not entirely convinced that this was necessary. That's not to say it's not an effective promotional campaign, because it is. It just doesn't fit the end product once you've ridden on the rollercoaster.

I thoroughly enjoyed riding on Th13teen, and it's a rollercoaster I'm looking forward to going on during visits to the park in the future. The three elements that go into the ride work well to create a psychologically thrilling experience that doesn't produce the same kind of thrills as Oblivion or Nemesis, but it is certainly a worthwhile and exciting addition to Alton Towers. I waited over two hours to ride, and it was worth it to experience a brand new ride for the first time, but I would only be willing to wait about half that amount of time during any future visits. The slightly off-the-mark promotion and over hyping of the ride, coupled with the technical problems which seem to be ongoing at the moment, mean that Th13teen is likely to have a tough first few months as Alton Towers newest attraction. However, once it has settled in, much like the Dark Forest that surrounds it, I'm sure that Th13teen will become a favourite for many an a fixture of the park, and in the next few years it will be hard to imagine Alton Towers without it.