Editorial: Merlin finally facing reality over wood rides

SW8 under construction at Alton Towers

It was not too long ago that Merlin Entertainments dismissed the idea of adding wooden rollercoasters to its theme parks.

Chief executive Nick Varney in particular was opposed to the rides, and marketing personnel said the public thought of them as ‘unsafe’.

Only four years ago, Varney described them as “not good investments”.

“The problem is that the general public doesn’t get what is so special about them,” he said.

“They therefore don’t represent good investments because historically parks will not achieve the visitor uplift required to pay for them.”

But the construction of a new wooden rollercoaster, dubbed SW8, is currently taking place at Alton Towers, ahead of opening next year.

And it was actually only two years after Varney’s earlier dismissive comments that we saw a planning application for a wooden ride at Alton Towers be submitted.

So what changed Merlin’s mind about ‘woodies’?

In reality, Varney’s claims were misinformed, and perhaps Merlin’s chief has learned from the international theme parks that make the rides a huge success.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach, with its five classic wooden rollercoasters, also serves as a nearby and obvious example that the public do not generally consider them to be unsafe.

Merlin is after all now owned by its public shareholders, and members of the board may have been the ones to twist the appropriate arms. We may never know.

One thing we do know is that the many past, present and varying theories on wooden rollercoasters is about to be tested in reality, and at Britain’s most popular theme park.

The mandatory unique (‘world first’) feature demanded on an Alton Towers ride will hopefully not serve as too much of a distraction from what should be a great physical experience.

The last major wooden rollercoaster built in Britain is more than 20 old.

Get SW8 wrong, and it may be another two decades before we see a woodie built in the UK.

Get it right, and the UK could be on the verge of a new era of wooden rollercoasters.