Established for many years as the UK's most popular theme park, and one of its leading tourist attractions, Alton Towers has long been hindered by the strict planning restrictions placed on it by local authorities. Entirely fair, many might say, given that the park occupies the historic site of the Alton Towers estate.
The need to maintain the site's legacy and natural beauty often conflicts with operator Merlin Entertainment Group's desire to boost the profitability of the Alton Towers Resort. There is little point in the firm creating plans for major new rides on an ad-hoc basis, in the hope that the authorities will approve them. Instead, it has produced a long-term development plan covering the period from 2012-2019, as it aims to agree an overall framework within which it can evolve the park and ensure future success.
For fans, the plans offer a tantalising glimpse of what might become of the Alton Towers theme park and its surrounding facilities. From the construction of several new roller coasters and the replacement of existing attractions, to the addition of a new hotel and the creation of "year-round" entertainment offerings, there's plenty to whet the appetite. Read on to find out more.
The stated aims of Alton Towers' management are very clear:
- Develop a year-round destination - by investing in new on-site accommodation and indoor, all-weather attractions.
- Maximise overnight stays - by building new on-site accommodation.
- Appeal to different demographics - by offering a range of attractions that will attract families and thrill-seekers alike.
- Expand beyond the theme park - to offer additional entertainment beyond the park's gates.
- Improve "visitor circulation" - making it easier for guests to get around the notoriously sprawling Alton Towers site.
- Invest in preserving the site's heritage - in particular, renovating and preserving areas of the historic Towers building.
As you would expect, the long-term development plans makes a clear case that the ability to construct new rides and facilities is a pre-requisite for enabling investment in preservation work.
Alton Towers details four different investment options in its plans, and has undertaken an economic analysis of each:
- Option 1: Maintain investment / do nothing - the resort would simply keep its current rides and theme areas in place, with minimal spending on new rides, accommodation and restoration work. It is estimated (based on the decline of sister park Thorpe Park during the late 1990s) that annual attendance would plunge to 1.2-1.4 million (from the current 2.4 million) by 2019 as a result.
- Option 2: Low investment - small-scale ride replacements would occur and the existing Alton Towers Hotel and Splash Landing Hotel would be renovated. However, attendance would still decline slightly to 2 million.
- Option 3: Medium investment - "significant" money would be spent on new rides, entertainment areas and accommodation. This would enable a boost in attendance to around 3.3 million, with the park being forced to invest in new transport initiatives as a result.
- Option 4: High investment - in the final option, the resort would splurge huge amounts of funds on "faster, higher" roller coasters and a major new hotel, with the aim of achieving attendance of around 3.6 million. This could lead to overcrowding in the park and transport issues.
Merlin's own analysis leads it to recommend option 3 as the most commercially and environmentally viable. The remainder of its plans are therefore based around this "medium investment" scenario, and are divided into two phases: 2010-2014, and 2015-2019.
Phase 1: 2010-2014
Clearly, Phase 1 already includes the ongoing work to replace the former Black Hole roller coaster in the X-Sector area of the park with the new SW7 roller coaster. It also covers several other major changes to the park, though the most radical suggestions are saved for the second phase.
Alton Towers is considering several sites for additional major new rides or roller coasters, which would be unlikely to open until 2014 at the earliest. Two of these are in Forbidden Valley (to the north of Nemesis, and to the east of Air), and one is to the west of Cloud Cuckoo Land. Details of these attractions are currently under wraps, but it is likely that 2013 will see a smaller addition with a more significant ride being added in 2014.
The resort hopes to implement an already-approved extension of the Alton Towers Hotel, adding either 36 suites plus two bedrooms or simply 74 bedrooms. If demand proves strong enough, it will also press ahead with a proposal to build an additional 150-bedroom hotel to the east of the Alton Towers Hotel - though this seems more likely to slip into the second phase.
As shown above, Alton Towers is already pursuing plans to build a new set of on-site lodges, "holes" and "huts", some of which will resemble the Hobbit houses seen in Lord of the Rings. These are expected to open for bookings in spring 2014.
The resort would restore several areas of the towers, most notably the Grade II-listed Garden Conservatory and the Gothic Prospect Tower. It would also prevent the collapse of several ruined areas, with the aim of restoring some parts of the building to active use. The surrounding gardens would also continue to be maintained.
Transport and car parks
To reduce the current visual impact of Alton Towers' two car parks, major changes will be made. The smaller southern car park will be relocated altogether, while the main car park will be divided into smaller "cellular" areas. Despite the expected boost in attendance to 3 million by 2014, Alton Towers will continue to resist calls for it to invest in new road links. Instead, it will offer to spend money on alternative transport options and traffic management schemes.
Phase 2: 2015-2019
The second phase of the plan includes proposals for two major rides, as well as an all-new entrance to Alton Towers. Several existing attractions are also earmarked for replacement or removal.
Three rides are specifically highlighted for replacement by Alton Towers during this period: Ripsaw, The Blade and The Flume. Meanwhile, the Sonic Spinball roller coaster will be removed altogether, as part of a proposal to reduce the visual and noise impact of the Adventure Land area (which sits close to the Towers).
As well as replacements for the three rides highlighted above (which are likely to include a mixture of flat rides and water rides), two major rides are earmarked for 2016 and 2019. Intriguingly, one of these is a "Cross Valley Ride", which is described as a roller coaster that would link the Forbidden Valley and Dark Forest areas, passing through the famous gardens. Its circuit would hug the floor of the valley, using its contours to create speed. Gaining planning permission for such a ride is likely to be a major obstacle, but Alton Towers hopes that by preserving the gardens' existing trees it would be able to create a stunning attraction with minimal impact.
To improve the movement of guests around the park and to open up the possibility of redeveloping the existing entrance area, the park proposes building a new entrance to the east of Duel in the Gloomy Wood area. This would radically change the experience of entering Alton Towers, with guests no longer gaining the customary view of Towers Street with the mansion in the background.
As part of its aim to become a year-round destination, the Alton Towers Resort would build a number of new indoor and outdoor attractions in the area between its on-site hotels and the theme park. Details of these are currently light on the ground, and there is no mention of expanding the existing Alton Towers Water Park.
The addition of further hotel accommodation is also mentioned, but it appears that the resort wishes to test demand before committing to this.
The Garden Conservatory will be completed, with Alton Towers also promising further investment to bring other areas of the mansion back into active use. This would including installing electricity, lighting and other facilities in the largely derelict building.
Alton Towers will, predictably, continue to resist the funding of new access roads. Instead, it will spend money on alternative transport options, and will aim to spread visits out more uniformly across the year.
While Alton Towers' long-term development plan is light on details in terms of specific rides that will be installed at the park, it does offer a real glimpse into the future of the resort. Clearly, it hopes to develop itself into a true multi-day destination more akin to the Disneyland Resort Paris than a traditional British theme park.
The mention of the "Cross Valley Ride" - a long-standing dream of many Alton Towers fans - will also set some pulses racing. Can the park really pull it off, and create a high-speed link between Forbidden Valley and the Dark Forest?
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