The rise – and fall – of drop towers

Drop tower ride [photo: nitli]

By Michael Mander

Chessington World of Adventures is launching a new drop ride in 2021: Croc Drop. The 25.6-metre drop will be enhanced by special effects and is seeing a high-profile opening campaign.

It’ll join Treetop Hoppers as the park’s second drop tower. Small in footprint, cheap compared to a rollercoaster, while delivering similar thrills – it is no wonder these are popular. 

But there are two ways to really make a drop tower an incredible attraction – theme it really well, or make it really high.

Theme it really well

Drop towers can, of course, be immaculately themed, and you only need to look to Disney for evidence of that. The Tower of Terror is one of the world’s most famous attractions, and shows how a simple drop can be transformed by clever theming, and a few surprises. 

But then Alton Towers attempted their own version – Nemesis Sub-Terra. Granted, there wasn’t much of a drop in this ride (6 metres, compared to the Tower of Terror’s 40) but the principle remained – a spooky shell for a simple concept. 

Nemesis Sub-Terra
Nemesis Sub-Terra closed in 2015 after only three years of operation

Except Nemesis Sub-Terra was botched in execution, and riders were generally left with a mix of confusion and feeling of being underwhelmed. With lots of moving between rooms, it felt more like an extended pre-show than a ride.

You don’t need a lot of pre-show and special effects to theme a drop tower. Hansa-Park launched a Scottish themed drop tower called Highlander back in 2019. It had the benefit of being very tall, for sure, but it also told a story. The colour scheme, the themed queue line and, of course, the cinematic IMAScore soundtrack all worked together to make this more than just a drop tower. 

Attempts to theme a drop tower in the UK have been largely without success. Detonator at Thorpe Park was vaguely themed – with the name and soundtrack suggesting something to do with bombs. In 2014, it received a makeover to become an Angry Birds ride. But really, nothing changed and it was never quite made clear who you were in the story, or where the drop fit in. 

Detonator, Thorpe Park
Detonator has previously been themed by Thorpe Park for its Fright Nights events

In fact, Detonator actually came close to being a well-themed drop ride. During some Fright Night events, the ride is re-themed with ominous lighting and a scary soundtrack. In 2014, dialogue was even added to the top, before the drop: “Every stunt here at Thorpe Park Movie Studios is safe, except this one”. A story, a role for the rider, music and lights compounded to make it a high-quality drop ride.

When it comes to half-heartedly theming a drop ride, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is the worst offender of all. The Ice Blast, formerly the Tango Ice Blast and before that PlayStation: The Ride, is a classic example of a ride that was built and then had a ‘theme’ slapped on. In this case, the theme was in the form of a sponsor – who lent its name and a colour scheme, but not much else.

Make it really high

This is less of an art, but a lot more of an expense. Making a drop ride really high gives it an edge over competitors and makes it a stand out attraction at a theme park. A standard drop tower is unlikely to attract theme park fans (once you’ve done one you’ve done them all, some would say of drop towers) – but one that is taller, faster, or in some way unique to the others will bring in hordes. 

Hurakan Condor at PortAventura, Spain, towers over the park by 100 metres – almost twice as high as many of its UK counterparts. This was a drop tower that took the traditional drop tower and just made it really, really high. It is still among the tallest in the world. 

And when you can’t be the tallest, you can make something unique to add to the experience. Falcon’s Fury did just that – and titled riders 90 degrees, facing the floor, just before they dropped. It created a totally unique experience, and at 94 metres it is also one of the world’s tallest drop towers. But even without the height, the first-of-its-kind addition of facing the floor is enough to make it one of a kind. 

Apocalypse, Drayton Manor
The 54-metre Apocalypse opened at Drayton Manor in 2000

There’s a notable example of this in the UK – and unsurprisingly it’s considered the country’s best drop tower by reviewers on Theme Park Tourist. Apocalypse in Drayton Manor isn’t much higher than Detonator at Thorpe Park; but it was the first stand-up drop tower, and as soon as even that started to get stale it was partially rebuilt to add an additional tower featuring the world’s first stand-up floorless drop.

In 2008, it was awarded the Best Thrill Ride in Europe by CoasterForce – a rare accolade for a drop tower – and the Sunday Times called it “Britain’s Scariest Ride”. 

So, will Croc Drop be a new fan-favourite drop ride? It could very well be. With huge attention being paid to its large theming element, a crocodile head that will appear to swallow visitors, as well as the promise of lighting, smoke and water effects – this could be a drop ride to watch.