Before last weekend, I’d only been to Alton Towers once. It was for a CIM Branch Meeting. I wasn’t there for the rides.
This was a few years ago and remember an interesting presentation by the Alton Towers staff and some searching questions about discount structures, overheads and levels of through-put. It was also the first time I’d seen those therapeutic, toe-nibbling fish. Not that they nibbled mine but they did graze across my fingers picking off some loose skin.
I remember being struck by how Alton Towers complied with requirements to keep its rides below the level of the tree-line - if you’ve not been, the theme park is in a remarkably scenic area. They’d shown great invention, digging into the ground, bending rails and tracks to lie below the skyline. We heard about their policy of introducing a new and more extreme ride every few years and how they were branding themselves as a ‘resort’ - an all-in destination. We are more than a theme park, more than a day-trip destination, they insisted, we are a ‘resort’.
Well, not given to heights, to hanging upside down and to spooky stately home ruins taken completely out of their historical context, I concluded that Alton Towers would be the ‘last resort.’ I love the Staffordshire Moorlands and the Churnet Valley. But Alton Towers …? Sorry.
I’d always felt guilty that I’d never taken my kids over, but consoled myself that there would always be school trips. So when a young cousin from Australia approached us asking if he could stay and fulfil his long-held ambition of visiting Alton Towers, I readily agreed. I have a young aunt who had children later in life, so two of my cousins aren’t a great deal older than my own kids.
So, over we went, armed with vouchers and money-off tokens (there’s the discount structure) and up and over and inside out we all went.
My cousin insisted we went on The Smiler first, the latest fiendish device and, quite frankly, just one step up from something out of Guantanamo Bay. I half expected them to compel us to wear yellow boiler-suits. We were herded through metal cages, bombarded with disconcerting imagery (think Michael Caine in The Ipcress File) and played a repetitive sound-track that mixed heavy-metal grind with diabolical childish laughter and a gloating nur-nah-nah-na-nar chant.
It was almost a relief when we were finally strapped into the carriage. After a second’s respite we were hurtled through 14 revolutions and supposedly ‘processed’ and ‘marmalised’. I’m not sure that the vaguely 1984-ish brainwashing theme was detectable during the fast - and mercifully short - ride itself. All I was conscious of were grey tracks hurtling ahead and a loss of any sense of what was up and what was down. The ride broke down when we were just 10 yards from the end and we had to sit there while they fixed it. I enjoyed that, a chance for some peace and stability.
Not wishing to wuss-out I joined my cousin and daughters in the queue for Oblivion, a sadistically ingenious ride where they suspend you for a second or two over a yawning abyss. The descent also turns you into a Peter Hain look-a-like - as you can see from the photo they ingeniously snap as you drop into the void.
Once we were out of the pit and up the other side, I quite enjoyed Oblivion. I enjoyed Air too. They fly you frontwards like Superman. Nemesis was too much for me, though and I left the kids to it after that.
Conclusions? This is a marketing blog after all. Is Alton Towers still the last resort? Well, I came away with a lot of respect for the staff - they do their jobs courteously and with conviction - and a grudging respect for the warped minds that devised the rides. My cousin, of course, loved every minute. He knows his theme-parks - he’s been to loads in the US - and it exceeded his expectations. You can’t say fairer than that.