2012 was a big year for Thorpe Park, with the introduction of The Swarm, Europe's tallest winged roller coaster. After such a large investment, 2013 is understandably a quieter year for the park in terms of new attractions. Nonetheless, there are a number of noteworthy changes and improvements across the park, with the most significant ones focused on The Swarm itself.
The Swarm has “mutated” with a major modification to its trains complementing the addition of a new billboard theming prop alongside the ride. Although it might be a tad over-the-top to brand these improvements as new additions ("New near-miss for 2013", anyone?), the park has to be commended for upgrading and improving existing rides. This seems a neat method to offer guests new and different experiences even when the capital to invest in brand new rides is not available. Additionally, it’s nice to see parks taking care of – and even enhancing - existing attractions, rather than letting them degrade over time.
With that in mind, it’s slightly strange that the focus of attention is on The Swarm, which having only opened last year hardly seems as if it’s due an upgrade. One has to wonder whether some of the improvements are simply features which didn’t get installed in time last season, or are somewhat hurried attempts to improve the ride experience. Similarly, a few seasons back, Stealth was billed as "upgraded" when the modifications were probably performed mainly to improve the ride's temperamental reliability. Whatever the motivation behind the changes, it seems fair to judge The Swarm’s improvements as what they are: improvements; features which enhance or alter the existing ride experience.
The Swarm in 2012...
Since its debut, the SWARM has to an extent split opinion. Whilst it undoubtedly provides an entertaining experience which has raised Thorpe Park's profile further, the ride seems to suffer an identity crisis of sorts. The apocalyptic, “aggressive” theme is at odds with what is actually a fairly tame ride. The SWARM feels more graceful than intense, and with its floating sensations, is in places reminiscent of Alton Towers' Air, rather than the antagonistic Nemesis-esque nature implied by its theme.
Just as the theme and the actual experience don't quite correspond, the presentation of the theme isn't entirely convincing. The large scenic set-pieces “show” the theme and are hugely impressive (the crashed plane being a great example) but a lot of the Swarm “island” is reasonably bland and “clean”. Hence the environment as a whole is not as cohesive, convincing or as immersive as hoped. More disappointingly, the track did not interact with this environment to a great extent. The trains never travelled close enough to the big set-pieces to make the most of their exposed winged design.
Don't lose your head
It seems Thorpe Park may have shared these thoughts, as a new "near-miss" for 2013 has been retrofitted into The Swarm’s layout. A giant new damaged billboard has been installed midway through the layout, which the train tears through as it exits the zero-g roll. The billboard features somewhat amusing fake advertising for an airline and for painkillers ("Don't lose your head"). Fortunately, it doesn't look as “just added in” as one might fear, but equally, it doesn't break the trend of “random big set-piece followed by a random big set-piece”.
But crucially, does the billboard improve the ride experience such that The Swarm in 2013 is better than The Swarm in 2012? In short, yes, but not significantly, and perhaps not in the way you may expect. Whilst it proves to be a far more effective “near-miss” than the crashed plane, the train's first encounter with the billboard is the equivalent of it passing through a very short tunnel. Although the clearance is tight, it doesn't cause the same surprise and terror which better-incorporated near-misses on other winged coasters generate. On these rides, the track is banking or inverting as it approaches the near-miss, giving riders the impression that the train has to suddenly manoeuvre twist in order to fit through the gap. Conversely, on The Swarm we always know we're going to make it though.
The billboard is actually more effective after the initial pass-through, at least for riders sat in the left-hand side of the train. On our first pass, we all saw the billboard coming and once we past it, we forget about it, considering our interaction with it to be over. But a few seconds later, twisting out of the corkscrew, suddenly out of nowhere, there's the billboard again! Fortunately, the corner of it has been mangled apart such that the left wing of the train passes safely under it. This near-miss proves to be more dramatic and memorable than the initial pass-through, simply because it comes as a complete surprise.
Brave it backwards!
Whilst the new billboard slightly augments the experience, a major modification to the ride's trains completely mutates The Swarm for 2013. Thorpe Park has reversed the last two rows on each of The Swarm’s trains, such that riders in Rows 6 and 7 can now brave the experience facing backwards. This follows the news that other coasters manufactured by B&M will be running with reversed rows in 2013 (Hollywood Dream: The Ride at Universal Studios Japan and Batman: The Ride at Six Flags Great America). The Swarm though is the only Wing Rider coaster to feature this modification - but is it merely a marketing gimmick, or something truly deserving of the "New for 2013" moniker?
Fortunately, it is the latter. The Swarm Backwards provides an entirely different experience to The Swarm Forwards. This alone justifies the modification. An interesting scenario is created whereby the experiences are so different that you effectively have two-rides-in-one. Most people agree that coasters can vary greatly depending on where you are sat (front vs. back), but never has a difference between particular seats on the same train been so pronounced. However, whilst the backwards-facing experience is no doubt completely different to the forwards-facing ride, whether it is actually better is highly debatable.
Irrespective of which direction the seats are facing, there is a marked difference between the front and back row in terms of the ride-dynamics - the front-row offers “hang-time” aplenty, whereas a back-row ride feels as if you are being “pulled along” by the leading rows of the train. With the additional complexity of rows facing different directions, there is now an extraordinary visual difference in the experiences as well. The front seats on a coaster traditionally offer the best visuals on a ride - but with the back-row now reversed, there are now essentially two rows on The Swarm’s trains which offer unobstructed views: Row 1, facing forwards, and Row 7 facing backwards.
Note that I only experienced the 'backwards-facing' ride in the very back-row, Row 7. I imagine my analysis may have been very different if I had ridden in the other option, Row 6 - the view from which is of course obstructed by Row 7!
Riding in Row 7 provides a very strange, unique view, which few other full-circuit roller coasters can replicate. Seeing the ground get further and further away from you as you ascend the lift-hill, anticipating the moment when you'll begin twisting down the inverted drop - but not knowing when that moment will occur - is oddly intimidating. When you do get yanked down the drop, the visual effect is both disorientating and dramatic. Unlike normal coasters where the ground seems to rush towards you as you head down the drop, it is rather bizarre to feel like the sky and lift-hill is falling away from you!
The rest of the ride continues to deploy the same trick. Not seeing where you're going means that the ride throws up confusion and surprises aplenty. The brain is continuously trying to process what's just happened, whilst having no idea of what's about to happen. This experience is perhaps partially amplified by the wing-rider design itself, with the seats being offset from the track axis. The penultimate inversion - a giant corkscrew - proves to be the highlight of The Swarm Backwards. Of all moments on the ride, it best showcases the aforementioned attributes of unique visuals and unexpectedness, as well as offering the most interesting ride-dynamics. Out of the blue, you begin to invert, floating and twisting through the corkscrew, with the already disorientating, strange and intriguing visual effect augmented by the fact that you have no idea in which direction you'll be heading next.
A sting in the tail...
However, whilst words such as “interesting” and “unique” can be used to describe The Swarm Backwards, all in all, it's not actually better than the forwards-facing experience (particularly if we are comparing Row 1 vs. Row 7). Ironically, this is down to a flaw which Thorpe Park had already identified and attempted to negate by also adding the billboard prop this year. As mentioned, the billboard was added as a new near-miss effect, which The Swarm was strangely devoid of, despite being a type of ride designed to allow close-calls with its surroundings. Of course, in the backwards rows, we are unable to fully appreciate or indeed anticipate any interactions with scenery. Whilst the “unexpectedness” of Rows 6 & 7 is unquestionably exciting, all interactions with scenery only impact on the forwards-facing seats. In many senses, if all theming was removed from The Swarm area, the backwards-facing experience would be no different to what it is like currently.
So despite The Swarm Backwards offering uniqueness, surprises and confusion, the forwards-facing experience still offers the superior ride. Generally, riders like to see where they're going and this allows a ride designer to utilise the element of anticipation for an upcoming feature. On The Swarm Backwards, any anticipation is largely redundant once the first drop occurs. Equally, the rider is unable to appreciate any of the near-misses which can really add to the overall ride experience. As a change from the norm every now and then, The Swarm Backwards ticks all the boxes, and I'm glad Thorpe Park have implemented this modification. However, if backwards was to become the norm, it would be a downgrade. I think that if a typical Thorpe Park guest was to ride the SWARM once in Row 1, then once in Row 7, such that they'd “crossed off” both forwards and backwards experiences, they would most likely prefer to ride facing forwards again on their third go.
Of course, everyone will want to try The Swarm both forwards and backwards, and with backwards being "New for 2013", Rows 6 & 7 might be in more demand than the five forwards-facing rows. And with only two backwards rows per train, there are only eight available seats per cycle. Hence the queues for these seats are likely to get very long, particularly as the queue-line design almost encourages people to pick the backwards-facing seats. Rather than allowing guests to pick their row in the station, the queue-line splits right at the ride entrance - there are effectively two queues. It would be odd to force riders to choose whether they want to ride in the front row at the very start of the queue-line, so why should the back rows be treated differently?
The queues do end up converging at the station entrance where passes are handed out to back-row riders, but it's all a bit messy. With only eight available seats, queues will be long, and I wonder whether Thorpe Park will consider reversing an additional row on each train. As it stands, I can see a lot of disappointed guests - those who are unable to try out the back seats as the wait is simply too long, and those who have queued forever for the experience, only to find that all in all, the forwards-facing ride is just as good, if not better.
Elsewhere in Thorpe Park...
Somewhat ironically, the park's other modification for 2013 appears to centre around a change to X :\ No Way Out, whereby its trains have been reversed from backwards-facing to forwards-facing! Whilst this is yet to be confirmed, sources on the park have mentioned the change, and even said that this was done to make the ride less nauseating! - it seems the ride's continual stop-starting in the dark whilst facing backwards was not well received by guests! Additionally, the ":\ No Way Out" has been dropped from the title, and it seems as if the ride's tenuous theme will be changed to a more generic "Ministry" theme (presumably "Ministry Of Sound") with new lighting and audio inside the pyramid.
Thorpe Park's other addition this year is some divisive on-site accommodation, named "Crash Pad", which is still under construction. The temporary "Snoozebox" accommodation currently almost resembles a number of shipping containers bolted together! News on these additions will follow once Thorpe Park officially opens it gates for the year - but no doubt, the changes to The Swarm will remain the most noteworthy aspects of Thorpe Park's "New for 2013" offerings.