Opening on 31 May 2013, Alton Towers’ Smiler rollercoaster has just celebrated its tenth birthday.
It is one of the most famous rides in the UK, for both good and bad reasons.
Remaining the world’s only rollercoaster with 14 inversions, it has built something of a dedicated fanbase-within-a-fanbase among ride enthusiasts.
On almost every visit to Alton Towers, and often at other British theme parks, you will come across someone partially, or even fully, dressed in Smiler attire.
At the more extreme end of admiration, you might even mistake some of its fans as Smiler operating staff that have finished their shift.
‘You will never know where you are’
It has never been a smooth ride but after a decade of operation, this Gerstlauer Infinity rollercoaster is more ragged and jolty than ever.
There is of course some variance between rows and even the trains themselves.
It is perfectly possibly to have a ride of bearable comfort, but it can also jolt and rattle far too much.
The Smiler’s track layout was drawn up by veteran concept designer John Wardley.
He described it has having more track per square meter than any other rollercoaster in the world.
“From the moment you get on the ride you will never know where you are, and it has some great surprises for riders,” Wardley said.
It captured the imagination the moment the planning application appeared online in 2011.
No one quite new how many inversions it would have, but many correctly guessed it would be a record-breaker.
In 2012, the now famous ‘spiral eyes’ face logo started to be used by Alton Towers, in what was an excellent marketing campaign.
We were introduced to the Ministry of Joy and the enigmatic Dr Kelman via the Sanctuary scare maze in 2012’s Halloween Scarefest.
It was a precursor to the theme of the ride, a kind of bizarre series of treatments designed to forcibly invoke euphoria.
The Smiler had many issues with its construction, seeing opening delayed by more than two months beyond Merlin Entertainments’ traditional target of season-start openings.
It tried to open in mid-May 2013, but those at the press preview night got stuck on the first lift hill and had to be evacuated.
It took another two weeks for the ride to just squeeze into a Spring opening, with the public being able to experience it from 31 May.
But within a couple of weeks it had stalled twice during morning testing.
Then, on 21 July, bolts sheared and part of the track become slightly detached, with a small gap being visible.
The ride closed for four days while inspections and repairs were made.
It was by this point that the density of the ride led to some suggestion that it was like a coiled spring, too tightly compressed into its small footprint.
Late July and early August saw cracking appear in the ride’s foundations, likely due to movement of the track.
The opening year’s issues continued, and in November guide wheel covers from the Smiler’s vertical lift hill became detached.
Four people were struck causing minor injuries and a further five days of closure ensued.
But of course it was in 2 June 2015 that the most significant event occurred.
Five people were seriously injured when their train collided with an empty vehicle which had stalled ahead on the track.
The rescue took the emergency services more than four hours to complete, with two people later requiring partial leg amputations.
The stalled train was not detected by operations or engineering staff, and “human error” was originally blamed.
Merlin did however accept full responsibility for the chain of events. The company was fined more than £5 million.
One of the most serious accidents in modern times at a theme park became a huge learning event for Merlin.
The Smiler has had no real incidents of note since.
The ride was closed for the rest of the 2015 season as the Health and Safety Executive investigated, but it reopened on 19 March the following year.
It reopened with popularity, as its fans – freshly galvanised in their love of the ride – flocked to it on opening day.
There were of course some calls for the ride to close permanently after the accident, but it is now undoubtedly one of the safest rides in the world.
But it is also one of the most scrutinised. A routine lift hill stoppage in 2016 attracted considerable media attention.
In the TikTok and Instagram age, the Smiler remains vulnerable to unfair coverage, just as Blackpool Pleasure Beach recently experienced.
The Smiler’s post-accident history is relatively bland. Some people would argue that it has simply got rougher in ride experience, and grubbier in presentation.
The Smiler was celebrated by Alton Towers this year, in their Festival of Thrills “Smiler takeover” event this Spring.
While continues to be somewhat overshadowed by its past, the Smiler remains popular – and shows no signs of losing the inversion record.