The Big Dipper: 100 years of coastering

Big Dipper, Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Blackpool’s famous Big Dipper rollercoaster is celebrating its centenary in 2023 – a remarkable milestone for any ride.

It is of course located at the Pleasure Beach, home to some rides that are even older. The park is a living, breathing ride museum.

Though it was an inter-war investment inspired by the thrills of America’s Coney Island, the Big Dipper wasn’t the first rollercoaster to have have been installed at the Pleasure Beach.

But the earlier Switchback and Scenic Railway are long gone. It is the Big Dipper that takes place as the rollercoaster ‘Father of the Park’, as it were.

Like most wooden rollercoasters more than a few decades old, very little of its original infrastructure remains, and none of its track is original.

But it is the gradual and continuous nature of wooden rollercoaster maintenance that enables the spirit of the original ride to be kept alive throughout the decades.

Maintaining an icon

There is no dramatic closure and complete rebuild like what we have seen in what may be a precedent set by Alton Towers in the re-tracking of the steel-track Nemesis ride, a mere baby at 29 years old.

Instead woodies – as you have probably heard them called – are rebuilt piece-by-piece over many closed seasons.

There is one exception to that in the Dipper’s history – it was rebuilt, heavily modified, and extended by 1936.

Today, conscious of its place in people’s hearts and memories, the Pleasure Beach is literally giving the ride a good birthday.

A spokesperson for the park told RideRater: “The Big Dipper is currently undergoing work to make sure that it looks its very best for its centenary season.”

Big Dipper, Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Re-tracking is taking place, as is removal of the famous ‘iced gem’, ‘onion’ or ‘tulip bulb’ that adorns the top of the first drop’s structure.

“The iconic onion is being refreshed and the ride is being repainted so that it will shine bright white throughout 2023,” the Pleasure Beach’s spokesperson added.

The park has also unveiled a new logo celebrating the 100th anniversary, and has an official park fan club event planned for the ride this summer.

The spokesperson told us: “It wouldn’t be a centenary year without a party, and we a planning a huge bash on the Big Dipper’s actual birthday on 23 August.”

Further details on that event will be released later this year, the park said, but never-before-seen images are soon likely to appear of the Pleasure Beach’s social media channels.

‘Simply feels special’

The ride is held dear in many rolllercoaster enthusiasts’ hearts. Ian Bell, owner of the CoasterForce website, is certainly among them.

“One of the aspects I like most about the Big Dipper is the way it envelopes the rider in history and heritage,” he told us.

“From the appearance of the station and its iconic bulbus spike on top, to the smell of maintenance grease and the narrow upholstered seats, it simply feels special.”

In its centenary year, Ian reflects on how much has been and gone around the almost ever-present ride.

“When you think how many riders have been on Big Dipper, and how the landscape around the ride has changed over the past century, it’s quite a humbling thought,” he says.

“If rollercoasters could talk, I’m sure Big Dipper would have some interesting tales to tell.”

Big Dipper, Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Ian still considers the Big Dipper a “must-ride” during a visit to the Pleasure Beach, in part due to its ability to offer a massively different ride experience depending on the weather.

“I remember one particular ride in the rain where the train appeared be running faster than usual,” he says.

“My hands were torn between being in the air as usual, holding on, or covering my eyes. I couldn’t stop laughing!

“Big Dipper also has two of my favourite ‘head chopper’ near misses on UK roller coasters. One on the Big Dipper itself near the end, and another on the Big One when it passes through Big Dipper’s structure.

“Even after countless rides and knowing the clearance is perfectly safe, I still naturally duck my head!

“Big Dipper might nowadays be dwarfed by other rides at the Pleasure Beach, but it’s a giant amongst them.”

Robb Alvey, of the American-based Theme Park Review, told us that there was one distinctive standout he noticed when he first rode the Big Dipper almost 30 years ago.

“I remember my first ride on Big Dipper in 1994 and at that time thinking I had never seen a coaster that used a single chain to power two different lift hills,” he said.

“I was seriously impressed then, and the fact that it might still be the only ride in existence which offers such a feature continues to impress me even with my current rides today on the coaster!”

50 years of memories

Andy Hine is the chairman of the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain, and a well-known advocate of wooden rides.

He has coined the phrase “wood is good” and has also been known to privately lobbying UK theme parks to add more wooden rollercoasters.

“The shake, rattle and roll of a woodie, the feeling of being out of control and the way that the coaster rides differently depending on the time of day and the weather conditions,” Andy says.

On the Big Dipper, he says we are unlikely to see many steel rides reaching a 100th anniversary.

Big Dipper, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
The Big Dipper dates back to when the Pleasure Beach was situated on the sand itself

“The imposing lattice woodwork structure running along the length of the south end of the park, dips rising above the ground, entwined with its modern counterparts, the sound, the smell, the excitement, all make this coaster an absolute classic worldwide,” Andy says.

His memories span half of the ride’s lifetime, beginning in 1973 when the park then had no steel rollercoasters to speak of.

“I remember the excitement of walking down the steps to the platform and then anxiously awaiting the train to return to the station so I could get in,” Andy recalls.

“I say anxiously, as I could hear the screams of riders already on it and this was to be only my third ever rollercoaster ride after the Scenic Railway at Margate and the Wild Mouse at Littlehampton.  

“Once boarded – alongside a random member of the public as my parents were non-riders – the train was released and set off through the tunnel, which I didn’t know about. 

“As the train then ascended the lift hill, with the traditional ‘clickity clack’ of a woodie, I was hoping to admire the views. Sadly I didn’t, as I had my eyes tightly closed through fear.

Big Dipper, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
The ride was a regular feature of postcards sent from Blackpool over the decades

“I kept them closed down the first drop, but riding with my eyes closed only made things worse as my brain filled in the gaps and made assumptions about what was happening – including going upside down, which of course it didn’t!

“Finally opening my eyes, I was able to see what was going on and I began to enjoy the experience of all that it was throwing at me.

“As the train slowed approaching the station, the ride operator offered re-rides for a reduced price (I think it was 5p), and I eagerly parted with my pocket money to go again – I wanted to see what I had missed the first time!

“The second ride was just as thrilling, although I was not as scared as the first, and this ensured that every time I have visited the Pleasure Beach over the past 50 years I make sure to take a ride on that classic woodie. I still get on smiling and get off laughing – always the sign of a good ride.”

Andy concedes that the ride is a little rougher than in its younger years, but praises the excellent work by the Pleasure Beach’s maintenance teams for having kept the ride in “tip top condition” during the past century.

“You can’t say that about many things that are 100 years old,” he says.

“As we celebrate the centenary, we should be grateful that the ride is still thrilling thousands of riders every year, and long may it do so for many years to come.”