The months of hype are over, and Thorpe Park's highly-anticipated new roller coaster for the 2012 season is finally here. Guests at the self-professed "Nation's Thrill Capital" have been experiencing The Swarm, the first "winged" coaster to open in the UK. But does it live up to expectations?
Thorpe Park has invested in an expensive marketing campaign for The Swarm, under the slogan "War is Here". There's no escaping the post-apocalyptic theme at the park, with roaming actors chanting conspiracy theories and soundtracks for other rides being interrupted by mysterious noises. Excited adrenaline-junkies have descended on the island that hosts the ride, housed close to the existing Stealth and Flying Fish coasters.
Awaiting them is the world's second Bolliger & Mabillard Wing Rider roller coaster, which forms the centre of a small new land. The area, dotted with burnt-out vehicles, also hosts a shop, several game stalls and a new dining outlet, Roast & Relish (which serves hand-carved pork and gammon baguettes).
The Swarm has become the second-tallest ride at Thorpe Park behind Stealth, and is visible from all over the park. It offers UK theme park fans the chance to soar into the skies on "wings" on either side of the track, an experience that is currently totally unique in the country.
War is Here
An accusation that has often been levelled at Thorpe Park is that it doesn't invest enough in theming to surround its mega-thrill rides. Only the harshest of critics could claim that this is the case with The Swarm. The ride's backstory centres on an alien invasion of the Earth, and for once the surroundings - and the coaster itself - are completely consistent with the plot.
The area that houses The Swarm is designed to resemble the site of a mysterious incident, and is strewn with wreckage. The most impressive element on show is a crashed plane, which will remind many visitors of the opening episode of Lost. It's not just for show - the coaster itself passes within inches of the plane's body. Other burnt-out vehicles (including two fire trucks, a lorry and a helicopter) are used cleverly to house games and shops, or simply for show.
The storyline, filled in via "News 16" reports that are shown in The Swarm's queue line, is that a swarm of aliens has attacked London. As well as destroying large swathes of the city, the aliens also have a nasty habit of plucking humans off the ground and carrying them into the skies. The coaster's trains represent the aliens themselves - and riders are set to be "abducted".
Heading to church
The Swarm's lengthy queue line winds along the outside of a mock church, which has been partially destroyed during the aliens' attack. Visually, the line isn't particularly interesting, but the combination of the ride itself and the News 16 reports are enough to build anticipation for the excitement to come.
On nearing the station (housed inside the ruins of the church), guests are offered the chance to join one of two sub-queues: one for the front row of the train, and one for the other rows. These are then split further, with some guests queuing for the right-hand wing, and others queuing for the left-hand wing.
Unusually, rather than queuing separately, guests who want to ride on the front row are given a pass and join the final section of the queue with the other guests. This can cause some confusion, with many front-row passholders seemingly unaware that they should have been waiting on the left-hand-side. Thorpe Park is likely to refine this system as the ride beds into operation.
The station itself is very impressive, with the alien-themed trains gliding into the church in a suitably menacing fashion. The church theme works well, and hosting the ride operators' booth in an overturned police vehicle is a neat touch.
Wait times for the The Swarm hit upwards of 70 minutes during the opening Saturday of the 2012 season. While this represents a significant wait, it was still much shorter than wait times for Saw - The Ride, suggesting that the newer ride will cope reasonably well with the large crowds that are sure to swamp it throughout the summer.
Boarding the "wings"
As with the first B&M Wing Rider, Gardaland's Raptor, guests are seated in groups of two on either side of The Swarm's trains. Groups who wish to ride together in a single row have to coordinate cleverly across the queues on either side of the station, but ride operators are accommodating in this. There's little point, though, as you won't be able to see your friends on the other of the train.
The over-the-shoulder restraints are very comfortable, to the point that you almost won't notice you're wearing them. Being seated on the wings, with no track beneath you, provides an unrivalled level of freedom and the head-banging that affects Thorpe Park's most recent coaster, Saw - The Ride, is not in evidence on The Swarm at all.
Flying with The Swarm
On leaving the station, The Swarm's trains ascend its 127-feet-tall lift hill. For those guests that manage to keep their eyes open, this offers stunning views across the rest of Thorpe Park - but most will be focused on the unusual element that awaits at the top of the ascent.
Unusually, the first inversion on The Swarm takes place before it even plummets down its first drop. The train rolls 180 degrees at the crest of the hill, leaving riders dangling upside down. They then race down a half-loop, seemingly on a collision course with the plane wreckage below. At the last moment, they dip under the plane's wing, providing a classic "near-miss" sensation and completing a stunning start to Thorpe Park's new addition.
There's barely time for riders to catch their breath before they are rocketing through a 100-feet-tall zero-G roll, which leads into two highly banked turns and a corkscrew. The second of these turns takes place over a small pond, giving riders a great view of the crashed helicopter that sits partially submerged within it. Thorpe Park is still working on the fire and water effects that will take place in this section, which are currently a little underwhelming.
The Swarm's circuit completes with another near-miss (this time with a section of the church's wall), and an inline twist. At this point, we felt fully warmed-up and ready for some more thrills. Unfortunately, though, the train then hits the brake run and coasts back into the station - with the total ride time coming in at under two minutes.
The Swarm packs a number of incredible elements into its compact circuit, all of which are greatly enhanced by the wing rider coaster's design. There's no other ride in the UK that offers the same sense of being exposed to danger, with the near-misses being particularly pronounced for those sitting on the outside of the train. Riding on the front row at least once is recommended, as you'll have a much better view of the scenery surrounding the ride.
The main downside to Thorpe Park's new ride is its short ride time. In reality, much of this is spent on the lift hill and coasting back into the station, with less than a minute of "real" ride time. We heard few complaints from fellow riders about the length of The Swarm, but we felt a little short-changed - brilliant as it is, the overall experience of the new ride is just too short for it to be considered a classic.
That said, though, the same accusation can be levelled at nearby Stealth, and that hasn't stopped it becoming one of the most highly-regarded roller coasters in the UK. The Swarm's ride system and circuit are stunning engineering feats, and Thorpe Park has defied its critics by installing some of the best theming seen alongside any ride in the country.
The Swarm is destined to become one of the most popular attractions in a park that is already packed full of major coasters and flat rides. It may have fallen just short of our sky-high expectations, but it's still a ride that every theme park fan in the UK should make a pilgrimage to experience.
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