The first wooden rollercoaster built in the UK for 22 years has now arrived at Alton Towers, after years of the park’s owners resisting calls for one to be built.
And as the ride appears to open to the public, Merlin Entertainments may soon be wondering why it took them so so long to come around.
As we descended on the Staffordshire theme park at the invitation of Alton Towers on Friday night, we approached a truly remarkable sight in the Wicker Man.
The ride utilises a perfect combination of steam, orange lighting and real flames to form a captivating sight in the distance.
It is a shame that Alton Towers’ operating calendar has so few days in which the park’s hours will allow guests to see Wicker Man in darkness.
The central structure, half-man, half-ram is of extremely high quality construction.
For those familiar with the Florida theme parks, it would not look out of place at Disney or Universal.
Dramatic music plays in the ride’s vicinity, which Alton Towers does not consider to be part of the adjacent Mutiny Bay area.
Pagan-type actors playing the part of the ‘Beornen’ people, a kind of primitive cult, interacted with guests around the area.
Performers on stilts, flame jugglers and mobile flame cannons also surrounded the ride.
It will be interesting to see by how much the ride is accompanied by these additions as the park’s season goes on.
We could not really rate the queue line fairly due to the darkness of our event. However, the atmosphere and anticipation was still high as the ride was heard moving around the track.
As the trains fly through the central wicker structure at impressive speeds, a combination of steam, flame effects and real fire burst into action.
It is a theatrical sight to behold from the both queueline and the sidelines in darkness.
The indoor building contains the increasingly familiar routine of new Merlin Entertainments rides, of batching and a pre-show sequence before you enter the ride’s station.
The Wicker Man’s pre-show is clever, but not sensational.
Merlin get this right more often than not anyway, but there is still something to look forward to with this one.
As you enter the station, fire effects serve as backlighting to an impressive wood-heavy station.
It is amazing to think how little a wooden rollercoasters ride’s trains have needed to change in their many decades of operation.
With a theoretical capacity of 952 riders per hours, Wicker Man is slightly below the 1,000 minimum throughput usually required by Merlin.
Operations on our preview evening were understandably not the most slick, but the new ride’s popularity will mean that dispatch times will need to be an area of focus.
Again, it is amazing how little much of the experience of wooden rollercoasters has changed since they were invented over a century ago.
The train leaves the station at haste and passes through a tunnel of steam and orange lighting, not a million miles away from Nemesis Inferno at Thorpe Park.
It then enters the lift hill – somewhat unusual in its change of ascent angle – before then curving down and around into the first drop.
It is an exciting first drop, and it would be interesting to know what it would have been like before John Wardley re-designed both it and the second drop.
And the second drop comes in the form of a hump with some modest airtime.
The ride then then rapidly powers through its series of twists, turns, humps and headchopping moments.
When the train passes through the wicker man itself, you are dampened by the steam effects and their large drips, strangely left feeling cold rather than warmed by the fire you are supposed to be traversing.
As any wooden rollercoaster fan will tell you, they are often truly wild rides, and Wicker Man – while relatively small – is no exception.
Our ride on the back row of a fully-laden train was by far the best of the several we had, and was the most speedy and forceful by some degree.
It will run rapidly and excitingly on hot busy days.
It is important to remember that there is little at Alton Towers that provides such lateral forces and non-glass smooth riding, with perhaps the exception of Rita.
However, with Rita having a 1.4-metre height restriction and Wicker Man 1.2 metres, the forcefulness and speed may come as a slight surprise to the many families who will be riding.
A sedate section in the second half encompasses a long swooping bend, and more imagination could have been used here.
Aside from that the ride is relatively action-packed, and crams lot into such a small footprint.
High quality and thrilling
Great Coasters International manufacturers are proven wooden rollercoaster builders and they have produced a very solid first UK ride in Wicker Man.
They have produced a ride that rivals the wildness of Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s vintage wooden rollercoasters, and that would be admired by veterans of even the huge American theme park scene.
Alton Towers have pulled off what should be a massive hit, in part due to the ride’s modest height restriction allowing many more youngsters to ride.
It will still be popular a decade after its opening, and it is a sound investment that should keep the park in a secure position for years to come.
Many will be hoping that Wicker Man will be the opening of the floodgates to Merlin Entertainments adding wood at its other theme parks.
Wicker Man is an attraction that has been built to a very high quality, is thrilling and is finally adding that long-awaited new dimension to the UK’s biggest theme park.
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