Alton Towers has relaunched its flying rollercoaster Air as the virtual-reality based Galactica for the 2016 season.
When news of the revamp first emerged during the park’s closed season, it caused considerable controversy among fans of the original ride, which opened in 2002.
So the world’s first Bolliger & Mallibard flying rollercoaster was transformed into the world’s first rollercoaster “dedicated to virtual reality” in March this year.
Air’s layout and hardware remains the same, with the Galactica transformation coming in the form of virtual reality, a new soundtrack and some new touches of theming and signage.
It was all delivered on a relatively low budget compared with the manufacturing of new rides.
The theme is of course space travel, and this makes for an even more bizarre placing in the post-apocalyptic earth theme of Forbidden Valley than the graceful and gentle Air was.
The new music that plays in the vicinity of the ride, and in the queue line, is vague and unmemorable, it is a missed opportunity to add atmosphere before riding. This is highly unusual for Alton Towers.
The ride station has been enclosed somewhat, allowing high-tech graphics to be shown on display screens with great clarity.
The station has a futuristic feel, but a little more money could have been spent on covering up some of the corrugated panelling still visible, but all-in-all the ambience of the station is pleasing.
As the trains arrive, empty and are re-boarded with guests, it becomes clear that the addition of the virtual reality element has crippled the ride’s throughput capabilities.
A hugely laborious procedure of staff wiping down each headset before and after use dramatically slows things down.
The headsets are fiddly at first, and are capable of slipping off your head during the ride if you don’t get the adjustment technique explained in the station videos just right.
As the train leaves the station the graphics and sound begin.
A futuristic metropolis is depicted as you look below, as the train virtually moves through a tunnel as you ascend.
The strange feeling of the breeze hits you and the train then launches from the top of the lift hill and the flight among asteroids and planets begins.
The timing of the animations depicted on the screen and the movements of the rollercoaster are perfectly synchronised.
The breeze in your face is invaluable in enhancing the experience, and it would certainly be interesting to try in rain.
The combination of the movements, forces and acceleration of the ride propel this virtual reality experience well beyond what those retro hydraulic space simulators and any projection cinema have ever provided.
With the subject matter being futuristic – and not attempting to create people and real-world objects – the somewhat pixelated resolution barely hampers the experience.
Galactica succeeds where Derren Brown’s Ghost Train fails in that respect, with the new Thorpe Park ride asking the human imagination to make a leap just that little bit too far.
It is over too quickly of course, and the three planets we could make out are flown past in the briefest of encounters.
Air’s smoothness and relatively slow speed was surely crucial in its selection for virtual reality incorporation, but a rollercoaster with more inversions and pace could increase the thrill even more.
It is over too quickly of course, but this would simply not work on longer and rougher rides from other manufacturers.
On our second ride, the visuals seemed less perfect and were very juddery in nature.
A number of the headsets also seem to fail during the day, leaving staff members to continuously rework a clipboard diagram of non-functioning headsets so that guests can be forewarned.
Virtual reality should not represent the future of theme park rides, but there is certainly a place for it in any theme park. It should however be the exception not the rule to theme park rides.
The carving up of this classic Alton Towers rollercoaster has hardly been the butchery many expected.
While it is unclear how consistently it can do so, Galactica is certainly capable of offering a sensational experience.