Alton Towers and Thorpe Park are no doubt two of the largest and finest theme parks in the world. Many people, myself included, would name these two as the top duo in the UK. The only question is - which is better?
Both parks are part of the Merlin Entertainments Group chain, the second largest operator of attractions worldwide. Despite this connection, the parks have significantly different histories.
Alton Towers began its life over 200 years ago as a neo-gothic country house with lavish gardens, home to the Earl of Shrewsbury. In the 1970s it began its transformation into the theme park we know today; over the last half century rides have been added at a steady pace building up what is now a fantastic collection of attractions.
Thorpe Park, on the other hand, began its life just 40 years ago as a gravel pit, eventually being reused as a small family amusement park and farm. In 1998 it was bought by Tussauds (since acquired by Merlin) and thus began a major conversion. In the past 14 years we have seen millions being invested almost every year, including the addition of five world class roller coasters, and the park can now compete with almost other theme park in the world.
Nemesis continues to be a big draw at Alton Towers.
The biggest draw for any theme park is often its collection of roller coasters, and so it is right that it is the major factor in determining just how good (or bad) a park is. The tricky thing here, though, is that there’s very little to separate Alton Towers and Thorpe Park.
If we include this year’s addition to Thorpe Park, The Swarm, both sides have five big roller coasters. Comparisons can be drawn between certain similar roller coasters; Nemesis and Nemesis Inferno, Rita and Stealth, but it makes more sense to look at them overall.
Personally, I feel that Alton Towers just edges it in this category, mainly because it is home to by far the best individual coaster - inverted Nemesis. The weakest coaster in the park's line-up, Thirteen, simply doesn’t stand up to any of Thorpe Park’s collection, while flying coaster Air doesn’t quite provide the thrills that the others deliver. Launch coaster Rita, however, packs a mighty punch; very little separates it from Thorpe Park's Stealth, while Oblivion is by far the most terrifying of any of them.
Despite the the consistency of Thorpe Park's line-up (with classics such as Nemesis Inferno, Stealth, Colossus and SAW - The Ride),it can't quite match the big-hitters over at its sister park. It must be considered, however, that The Swarm looks to be potentially Thorpe Park’s best creation yet, and this could swing the ball in its favour.
Winner: Alton Towers
Rush is just one of the impressive line-up of thrill rides at Thorpe Park.
It’s no surprise which parks wins this one, and there are good reasons why. Thorpe Park has very little land to play with, and as a result it makes the sense that it installs major thrill rides with small surface areas. In contrast, Alton Towers has masses of space to work, but suffers from severe planning restrictions, with many flat rides exceeding its ceiling height of 65 feet.
As of this year, with Enterprise and Submission closed for the construction of the SW7 roller coaster, Alton Towers has just two flat rides; Blade, a swinging ship, and Ripsaw, a Top Spin. Although the latter of the two is thrilling, it is rarely open, and Blade is enjoyable, but no better than most swinging ships.
At the other end of the spectrum, Thorpe Park hosts seven thrilling flat rides. Two of these, Quantum and Zodiac, are not up to much, one an Enterprise and the other a Flying Carpet, but the other five pack a hefty wallop. Detonator is a small drop tower at 115ft, but is one of the most intense I have experienced on account of pneumatic rams forcing the car down. Rush, the Screamin’ Swing, is forceful and fun. Samurai, a Top Scan, is brutally intense, as is the Sky Swat Slammer, and Vortex rounds up the group, providing "airtime" aplenty.
Winner: Thorpe Park
Family Rides and Shows
If you have young children it becomes apparent quite quickly that Thorpe Park is not really the place to be; sure, there a few rides for the little ones, but the park is aimed primarily at teenagers and young adults. The 4-D cinema Time Voyagers is perfectly enjoyable, as are the Flying Fish coaster and Logger’s Leap water rides, but it ends there really. Rumba Rapids is quite poor, much weaker than Alton’s lengthy Congo River Rapids, and Storm Surge is hideously out of place and very short. The real shame is that X:\ No Way Out, Thorpe’s bizarre backwards in the dark coaster, has a height limit of 1. 40 metres; it is not at all scary and could’ve been a hit with younger children.
Alton Towers also hostsa flume ride, which is one of the longest of its kind, and the aforementioned rapids ride. Add on top of this a couple of great family coasters - Sonic Spinball (a brilliant Maurer spinner), and the Runaway Mine Train (a fun powered Mack coaster). Blade, the swinging ship, has a height limit of just 0.9 metres and thus is a great ride for all the family and Hex, a Vekoma Madhouse, is one of the finest attractions worldwide with its entertaining backstory.
In terms of shows, there aren’t a huge number at either park. Thorpe Park’s arenais usually home to a stunt show, which is generally very fun, while Alton Towers usually offers a show or two for the little ones. The Staffordshire park also hoststhe Sealife Aquarium Sharkbait Reef, which is really very enjoyable and lets you get hands-on with the some of the animals. The sheer number of quality family attractions hands this category to Alton Towers.
Winner: Alton Towers
As a result of Alton Towers' grandiose history there is a wonderful air to the park; many of the rides are nestled within trees and there is none of the overcrowded feel that many major parks suffer from. On top of this, most of the attractions have brilliant theming, particularly Nemesis and Hex and this means that guestsare constantly submerged in a fantasy environment.
Thorpe Park also boasts some very good theming in places; Saw - The Ride and Nemesis Inferno have very extensive and detailed stations, but where it falls down is the general atmosphere of the park. You can’t blame it for being in a disused gravel pit, but it certainly puts it a step behind Alton Towers. Also, the hordes of youths that flock there are notorious for causing trouble; often smoking and jumping in the queues. Overall Thorpe Park is taking baby steps in the right direction, but Alton Towers is still far ahead in atmosphere.
Winner: Alton Towers
So far I have just taken into account the theme park side of each resort, but the truth of course is that whilst Thorpe Park offers no more than the park, its northern relative goes far beyond this as the home to two hotels and an indoor water park. Perhaps this is slightly unfair as there is very little room for expansion on Thorpe Park’s lake, but for anyone planning on visiting one of the two it is definitely a factor to consider. The entirety of the Alton Towers resort makes it at least a two day job, and with the recently improved restaurants in the main hotel and the innovative crazy golf course, the Towers can become a miniature holiday of sorts. Even without explanation it’s very obvious that Alton storms this category.
Winner: Alton Towers
Taking just the big roller coasters and rides into account, it is clear that Alton Towers and Thorpe Park both have a lot to offer. However, taking all the other factors into account, it becomes apparent that Alton Towers is the finer theme park currently. Thorpe Park simply can’t match that historical beauty of the Towers, and it really needs some tender loving care to create a more enjoyable, friendly tone.
What has taken these parks to the next level in recent times has been their willingness to invest; other top UK contenders such as Chessington World of Adventures (also a Merlin park) and Blackpool Pleasure Beach have spent very little in the last decade and as a result have fallen behind. Thorpe Park has been investing at a quicker rate than Alton Towers, and if it can keep that up over the next decade or so, I see no reason as to why Thorpe Park can’t eventually overtake its sister park, but for now Alton Towers' crown is safe.
Champion: Alton Towers