Closed in 2019 for elongated ‘reimagining’, Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s famous dark water ride Valhalla reopened for so-called technical rehearsals last month.
First announced as being open “from 7 April”, the ride actually didn’t start taking guests on board until five days later, causing some controversy.
Then, when it did open, the experience also attracted controversy. Probably the majority of reviews were on the negative side.
Bizarrely, the Pleasure Beach describes this technical rehearsal period as where “some elements of the attraction may not be functioning” and that it may operate “intermittently throughout the day”.
It’s bizarre because anyone familiar with the ride would recognise that description as fitting of how Valhalla has always functioned.
This colossal Intamin ride has always been a lottery of effects and opening times, but it was never anything other than an epic, spectacular and thrilling adventure.
With last week’s media day pushed back to 10 May, the Pleasure Beach clearly had concerns over presenting the ride to the press in its current form.
If the rehearsals’ end on the re-arranged media day, the Pleasure Beach has given itself another few weeks to make further improvements, even though the ride remains open for anyone that wants to ride it.
SPOILER WARNING! This review contains descriptions and images of the ride experience.
The first thing you notice is the likely pricey revamp of the ride’s station, plus of course the newly-darkened longboats, which look very classy compared to the originals.
Externally, this reimagined Valhalla looks very impressive, with some small Nordic-style trees and an effective mist effect in front of the ride’s chunky, classy new name sign.
The soundtrack however sounds too similar to that of the Icon rollercoaster, and in turn too close to the Big One’s current score.
The music simply doesn’t feel appropriate for the theme of the ride, and there are weird electronic vibes that sound like a cross between Kasabian and a veteran house music DJ.
In the station, ride operatives continue to vacuum out water collected in the bottom of the boats – reassurance if you needed any that Valhalla’s legendary wetness remains.
But gone are the portable vacuum units and the water is sucked out via a more permanent tube fitted which passes through the rafters of the station.
It is a pitiful attempt though, as both the lacklustre effort from the operatives and the capability of the machine fail to keep up, and one boat welcomes riders with about six inches of water in its base.
Almost everyone in the queue appears to be wearing a waterproof garment of some kind, including the ponchos being sold for £5 in the queue.
There was always a feeling of nervous excitement about what you were about to experience when your boat left the station, and riding during these technical rehearsals enhances that feeling even further.
As the boat enters the famous skull mouth of the building, the waterfall still does its stopped-but-still-dripping thing, giving you an initial dampening to top up the usual spraying from the façade’s waterfall.
Inside, a new static Viking figure greets you, as you continue forward to see that the former real flame torches have been replaced by pretty effective FauxFire bowls.
The two-headed wolf figure – still surprisingly life-like in texture – but unfortunately today one of its lower jaws is detached and dangling perilously as mechanical parts are exposed.
As the boat begins to ascend the first lift hill, there is sound and narration playing, but it is too quiet to hear apart from the odd word. This certainly needs to be improved.
The projection of the Viking warrior has been removed but the walls, while no longer spinning, are more illuminated and the impressive original rock effect is more clearly visible.
As the boat reaches the summit with a gentle splash, new lanterns have been added to the right. They are nice but a little out of place.
A new jump-scare has been added to the right, with both the sound and the shadow proving more starting than the model itself.
Then, an impressive array of faux-fire, fully working on both sides, is a welcome sight.
You can just about make out a few words of Scottish-accented storytelling about travelling down the “river of life” (or was that “light”?) before a female voice suddenly interjects, exclaiming “turn around!”
This occurs where the outdoor section used to be, but is now enclosed by a wooden wall and daylight is replaced by darkness save for two tiny red lights that might supposed to be eyes.
The turntable does its thing, but now the boat leaves facing forward into the first drop and passes straight through where the other turntable used to about-face the previous backwards boats.
This small drop always felt exciting because you were going backwards, and no one seems to scream at this point any more.
It still takes place in complete darkness though, before a new effect crudely fires water at you from behind a hastily-built face, or mask of some kind.
Not ice show
Entering the (former) ice room, you are greeted by a female figure, who is not obviously in Viking-style dress.
The room is no longer cold, nor does it or has any kind of snow or ice effects on offer.
Despite widespread comments to the contrary, the figure does not immediately give an impression of belonging in a certain ice skating show, but it does look somewhat out of place.
Several other figures, male and more appropriately warrior-like, are scattered around the room, but they do not give a feel of being frozen aside from maybe their static nature.
As the boat moves out of the ice room, an evacuation platform is intrusively visible due to safety lights being left on, and exit doors open.
Indeed, there is generally much more exposure throughout this reimagined Valhalla than there ever was before.
Large parts of the colossal building are visible, including light-leaks from the building’s roof edges.
Also somewhat over-illuminated is the effect above the second – and still spectacularly thrilling – second drop.
It is not clear what the new effect it is meant to be. The fantastic blue fog at the bottom of the drop has also sadly not there.
But the shear angle and height of the drop still makes it one of best moments of any dark ride in the world.
Lack of sound
Huge amounts of water still enter the boat as it exits the drop, and the infamously-drenching water vortex is now more powerful in that it largely clears the left-hand side of the boat.
The vortex is however still pretty unreliable and only seems to work about half of the time.
The powerful water blast remains, as do the gigantic and still-drenching hammers. The spikey log is also still going strong.
There is still no real fire to be seen, as a greeting from an animated raven is immediately followed by a confusing row of bells above your head.
Neither raven nor bell makes a sound, and there is no narration or even music audible to set the scene.
Storytelling has been mooted as being a big part of the new ride experience, but sadly very little can be heard throughout the ride.
The ascent of the second and final lift hill ends with new-but-clumsy demon-skeleton models that are mostly static, as their mechanisms fail to work.
One does move, but it is slow and poorly timed. It is more reminiscent of a dated effect that would better placed in the Pleasure Beach’s vintage Ghost Train.
The third drop – always slightly less thrilling than the second – is completely devoid of any effects as the boat plunges into the former fire room.
Everyone on board is again completely drenched by the uplifted water, but as you look around there is nothing to see, at least today.
No fire, no wrecked longships, no bangs – nothing.
Entering the final scene, some more FauxFire – by this point wearing a little thin – is the only real effect on display.
But while there is a sudden and loud reappearance of the soundtrack, it’s too little too late as the ride is now over.
Still a stunning experience
It is hard to believe there is the resource or the time for the Pleasure Beach to turn around all of the deficiencies Valhalla has in the few weeks before it is presented to the media.
Some of the shortcomings are however easy to fix, supplement or even add where gaps exist. They mainly include sound and special effects.
There have been reports of some people experiencing real fire on the ride, so it isn’t clear how much is actually there but simply not working.
And some of course may have been been permanently removed in the interests of keeping running costs under control.
The ride’s hardware means that it will always remain a stunning experience.
Staggeringly, it has been made more drenching than ever, and while that was hardly needed, it takes nothing away from this classic attraction.
It is obvious that the £4 million spent has largely been on the ride system and not on effects, but there are still several nice touches, particularly in the station and the ride’s plaza.
It is worth remembering that the original ride cost some £26 million in today’s money, and for more than a decade it remained one of the world’s greatest rides, even if it was unpredictable.
This reimagined version – with or without a few weeks more tweaks – is certainly a downgrade on the original offering.
But bringing back some of the trademark fire and ice that made Valhalla famous will go a long way in restoring some of the old magic.
In any case, it is a testament to the original ride that so much can be stripped out, but what’s left is still an epic, spectacular and thrilling adventure.