Alton Towers has finally opened its long awaited new rollercoaster for the 2010 season, Thirteen. Although the park had lifted the veil of secrecy around the nature of the ride during the last week with a series of TV segments, members of the public had to wait until the first day of the season to see if Thirteen would live up to expectations. Theme Park Tourist's Nick and Natalie were on hand to brave "the scariest rollercoaster in the world".
Alton Towers cranked up the hype machine to maximum ahead of the launch of Thirteen, loudly proclaiming that its new ride would be "the ultimate rollercoaster", would feature a “world’s first element” and would be so scary that the park was considering imposing an upper age limit in case it proved too much for older riders. However, when it was initially revealed that the park would build a new rollercoaster for 2010, it was widely billed as a "family" attraction. So which was the true story?
Is Thirteen the latest mega-thrill ride to hit the UK's most popular theme park, or was the hype overblown? Read on to find out our impressions after the opening day.
Spoiler warning: readers hoping to maintain the "surprise" factor when riding Thirteen should read no further. This review contains SPOILERS including discussion of the "world’s first" element of the ride.
Dark Forest theming
To accommodate Thirteen, Alton Towers has updated the Ug Land section of the park with a new "Dark Forest" theme. The theme makes perfect sense, given the proximity of the area to woodland (Thirteen itself passes through a wooded area) and the abundance of greenery throughout the park.
However, we were somewhat disappointed with the lack of changes that Alton Towers has made to the former Ug Land area. Essentially, the existing shops are intact, complete with their "prehistoric" mock-stone structures. These have been repainted to darker colours, and "creeping" branches affixed to them to give the impression of the forest "taking over", but there’s no hiding the Ug Land heritage. Possibly, given the extremely tight deadline for achieving the transformation, Alton Towers simply had to make do with a quick-fix approach (many of the trees planted in the Dark Forest will take some years to reach maturity).
On the plus side, for the opening day at least, Alton Towers had populated the area with a number of "wraith" characters, who hovered menacingly around guests as they moved through the Dark Forest. Hopefully, the park will continue to employ the live characters, while updating the Dark Forest theme over time to make it more distinct and absorbing.
The queuing area for Thirteen is one aspect which feels as though it was neglected in the rush to meet the ride’s opening date. After a promising entrance through a gate featuring menacing wraith figures and whispering audio threats ("don’t go alone"), expectant riders settle into a monotonous tarmac line which winds around the back of Rita.
No attempt has been made to tell the story behind Thirteen before boarding it, and indeed had we not been reading forums on the web for months we would have climbed aboard oblivious to any kind of back story whatsoever. The only real theming elements to have made it into the queue are a few mounds representing buried bodies, a disembodied arm reaching from a grave and an Alton Towers van, seemingly caught up in the forest during the ride's construction.
The most disappointing aspect of the queue is the lack of build-up to the ride itself, since guests in the queue can only see Thirteen in action during the very last section. However, given that much of the queue line backs on to woodland, there is plenty of scope for Alton Towers to add improved theming now that the pressure to open the ride on time is off – we hope they make the effort.
The plus side to our experience of Thirteen’s queue was how little time we spent in it. Even though hundreds of excited teenagers stampeded straight to the new ride when the park opened, the line never extended for longer than 90 minutes during the opening day. This was primarily due to an extremely high throughput, achieved using three trains simultaneously. Thirteen looks as though it will not cause the bottlenecks that previous headliners, particularly Air, have caused at Alton Towers.
Station and boarding
The station itself is an improvement on Thirteen's queue line, with darkened lighting and foreboding music creating an intense atmosphere. In keeping with Thirteen’s impressive opening-day performance (a few short downtimes aside), staff were extremely efficient at herding guests onto the ride and we spent very little time in the station.
Unlike other rides at Alton Towers which use insecure baggage cages to hold loose objects, Thirteen uses a free baggage hold system in which riders receive a wristband that allows them to collect their items at the end of the ride. We much prefer this system even if it does add a small added wait, and are pleased to see the park adopting it like its sister park Thorpe Park.
Boarding the ride itself is easy and fast, given that there are no over-the-shoulder restraints to contend with. Indeed, there isn’t even a full lap bar, with a simple lap restraint holding guests in place (if you’re ridden The Mummy Returns at Universal park, these are similar). This leaves riders with very little to hold on to, which is a positive thing given what lies ahead.
From afar, the Thirteen trains have an industrial look which suggests an intriguing “man-vs-supernatural” clash. Up close, we found them to be a little plastic-looking and not as impressive as the trains on other Alton Towers rides such as Nemesis and Oblivion.
On the plus side, the traditional bench-style seats are comfortable and the aforementioned lap restraint feels safe but not intrusive. And for tall riders like TPT's Nick, you won’t be banging your knees constantly as you probably did on Thirteen's predecessor, the Corkscrew.
On leaving the station, Thirteen banks to the left and enters the main lift hill. Although the train moves at a fair pace up this, there is still time to admire some impressive views around the park before entering a surprisingly steep first drop – a thrilling start to the ride.
After the first hill, Thirteen enters a series of "bunny hops" which provide riders with a bit of "airtime", before twisting and turning through a wooded area. Although this is an enjoyable, fun ride (without being remotely scary), we feel that Alton Towers missed a trick with the theming of this section. Where are the encounters with wraiths? Where are the near misses with trees in the "forest"? Granted, the real trees had to be trimmed back for safety reasons, but there is no sense of danger in the outdoor section at all.
Having allowed Thirteen to build up some considerable speed in the first hill, the ride’s designers have seen fit to install trim brakes directly after it which take the edge off that speed for the remainder of the outdoor section. This makes for a comfortable, smooth ride – but puts the traditional coaster section firmly in the "moderate" category. This is for families, folks, not coaster fanatics.
Inside the "crypt"
The signature move – and much-touted "world's first" – of Thirteen takes place inside the mock "crypt" building which forms the centrepiece of the ride’s theming. To be clear, this is significantly more fun if you are not expecting it. Do not read on if you don't want to spoil it.
On entering the crypt, the section of track holding the train drops vertically by (we're guessing) 15-20 feet. We’re told that, as with Disney’s Tower of Terror, the drop sequence will vary ride-by-ride. However, on both occasions that we rode Thirteen, the track dropped by a few inches initially before dropping the remaining distance.
After the drop, eerie lighting reveals a wraith-like figure at the bottom of the crypt, although there is barely time to register this before the train is fired out into a backwards section through a darkened tunnel. Probably our favourite part of Thirteen, this is again reminiscent of great indoor coasters such as The Mummy Returns, although it is over far too quickly. After a short wait on exiting the tunnel, the train is launched back into the station and Thirteen is over, around 2 minutes after it began.
So what we do make of the trumpeted "world's first", super-scary Thirteen vertical drop? Well, firstly we should say that given that we had to cover the rumours around the ride as part of our news coverage, we were not surprised at all. Others around us were – and as a result, seemed to be much more impressed than us.
The first question on our minds on exiting the crypt was "was that it?" It's all over very quickly, and the vaunted special effects weren’t up to much (Update: it is believed that some effects are still to be added in the crypt section). There were no grabbing hands pulling us down into the crypt, no advanced video effects – very little of anything, frankly. Natalie compared it to going into a car wash – doors open, quick wash and dry, and out you come. Swap "wash and dry" for “drop and launch”, and you have Thirteen’s crypt section.
That's probably a harsh assessment. We really enjoyed the vertical drop, and it left us gagging for more. Alton Towers should be lauded for investing in the new technology, which will surely be picked up and expanded upon by another park (hopefully a U.S. one, with deeper pockets). We just wish it had been a deeper drop, with more build-up beforehand – but perhaps that’s the price to pay for achieving the impressive throughput that Thirteen has shown so far.
So we weren't blown away by the "world's first" on Thirteen, and we certainly weren’t scared by the supposed "scariest rollercoaster in the world". But does that mean that Thirteen is a poor addition to Alton Towers' roster of attractions? In our opinion, no. We’re headed back to the park tomorrow, and which ride are we most excited about? You guessed it – Thirteen.
It's not the ride it was hyped to be by the Alton Towers PR machine. But that’s not to say it isn't innovative, or that its creepy theme isn’t in keeping with the gothic, haunted atmosphere of the park itself. The main issue, in our view, is that it is clearly a family ride that has been marketed as an extreme thrill ride. Alton Towers has plenty of thrill rides. It is crying out for more tame, but fun, attractions that kids and parents can both enjoy – and now it has one.
We're pleased to see the park investing in attractions with proper, rich theming after the disappointingly bland Air and Rita. If the gaps in the storytelling during the build-up to the ride can be filled in, Thirteen could be a much more complete experience than either of the aforementioned mega-coasters.
Is Thirteen the ultimate, game-changing rollercoaster that many were expecting (or at least wishing for)? No. But it is a solid addition to an already stellar line-up at one of the best theme parks in the world. Hardcore fans may be disappointed, but most theme park goers won't be complaining.
You can see images from the opening day of Alton Towers' 2010 season in our galleries.