The UK is home to a surprisingly large number of theme parks and amusement parks given its size and climate, proving that the country's citizens are thrill-seekers at heart. The majority of the headline rides at those parks are roller coasters, with an enormous variety of models, sizes and construction types on offer.
Since we launched our theme park guides last year (covering every major park in the UK, and 90+ in total), it's been fascinating to watch the ratings and reviews that our readers have given to coasters in the UK. With the 2013 season now finished, we thought now would be a great time to share a list of the top 10 roller coasters in the country, based on our readers' opinions.
Notably thin on the ground? Wooden roller coasters! There are some classic "woodies" in the UK, such as the classic Grand National at Blackpool Pleasure Beach (which makes the list), the aptly-named Roller Coaster at Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach and Megafobia at Oakwood. However, at present, our readers appear to rate steel coasters more highly than their wooden equivalents. It's also somewhat surprising, given the UK's rainy weather, that no indoor coasters feature on the list - and indeed that UK parks haven't built more of them.
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10. The Big One (Blackpool Pleasure Beach)
Opened back in 1994, The Big One has long since lost its crown as the world's tallest and steepest roller coaster. Still, it remains the tallest coaster in the UK. Manufactured by the now-defunct Arrow Dynamics, it sees riders seated in rows of two on trains that can hold up to thirty at a time.
After traversing the enormous, 213-feet-tall lift hill, riders plummet down the 205-feet, 65-degree first drop, hitting a top speed of 74 miles per hour. The ride is far from over at this point, with the circuit stretching for some 5,497-feet and snaking around large areas of Pleasure Beach. The second drop is taller than most roller coasters, and The Big One’s course features turns that are designed to exert extreme forces on riders.
It’s easy to be intimidated by The Big One, which towers over every other ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Force yourself to ride it, though, and you’ll find that The Big One’s bark is worse than its bite. The coaster offers so much more than just a thrilling first drop (though it really is a monster), and you’ll enjoy racing around the rest of the circuit just as much.
Top tip: The Big One is particularly stunning at night, when many of Blackpool’s attractions are lit up by neon lights. Try and ride later in the day as well, when queues are likely to have died down somewhat.
Full details: The Big One guide
9. Vampire (Chessington World of Adventures)
One of Chessington World of Adventure's flagship rides, Vampire is a suspended Arrow suspended swinging coaster. It is designed to evoke the experience of flying like a vampire bat, and starts in a heavily-themed station complete with a creepy animatronic organist.
The coaster hits a maximum height of 70 feet and a top speed of 45 miles per hour as its weaves around its circuit, which includes two lift hills. Much of the ride takes place in a wooded area, although a short section sees riders soaring over the rest of the Transylvania area.
Given Chessington’s current focus on younger guests, it’s hard to imagine another ride like Vampire being built at the park. Thank goodness it’s already there, then, as it is one of the best rides of its type in the UK. Like all great suspended roller coasters, the real thrill of riding vampire comes from the thrill of having the scenery whip past your feet at close proximity. It also features some great drops and turns, including a very fast and enjoyable corner located inside a tunnel.
Top tip: Vampire is very popular with Chessington visitors, and can become swamped early in the day. Ride first thing, or wait until near the park’s closing time.
Full details: Vampire guide
8. Saw - The Ride (Thorpe Park)
Based on the long-running Saw horror movie franchise, Saw - The Ride is marketed by Thorpe Park as "the world's scariest roller coaster". The backstory sees evil genius Jigsaw challenging guests to prove that they are worth of living by braving his latest creation – the coaster itself.
Saw – The Ride features both indoor and outdoor sections, with a number of gruesome theming elements featured throughout. The coaster hits a top speed of 55 miles per hour following its “beyond-vertical” main drop, before racing around a series of tight turns and 3 inversions.
The Saw movies may or may not be your cup of tea, but having selected the theme Thorpe Park has done a good job of recreating the dark world of the movies. The queue line sets the scene perfectly, and for once a roller coaster’s plot actually makes some kind of sense.
Top tip: Two trains are dispatched a time from Saw – The Ride’s station. Try and position yourself to be in the second one – you’ll experience a short lecture from Jigsaw at the start of the ride, which the first train races straight past.
Full details: Saw - The Ride guide
7. Air (Alton Towers)
Alton Towers has a tradition of building "first-of-a-kind" roller coasters. Air was one of these, opened in 2002 at a cost of £12 million as the world's first Bolliger & Mabillard Flying Coaster. Situated in the Forbidden Valley area of the park, it aims to recreate the experience of flying. Riders board the ride in a seated position, but the seats rotate to leave them facing the ground before the ride enters its opening lift hill.
Air is still the only ride of its type in the UK, and its innovative ride system really does offer a spectacular feeling of flight. More than a decade after its debut, it still draws large crowds, although it hasn’t attained the same legendary status as nearby Nemesis.
The most disappointing aspect of Air is the dull second half of the circuit, which is exacerbated by the total absence of theming around the ride. Surely a ride that simulates flying should offer guests a flight “over” something more than blades of grass and the occasional patch of concrete? SeaWorld Orlando’s impressive flying coaster Manta shows what could have been if Alton Towers had stretched its budget a little further.
Top tip: Despite featuring duel stations, Air’s loading time is still painfully long. This causes long queues to build up from mid-morning onwards, so try and ride early in the day (before Nemesis and Oblivion, but after Rita).
Full details: Air guide
6. The Swarm (Thorpe Park)
Thorpe Park made a major investment in 2012, opening the first Bolliger & Mabillard Wing Rider coaster in the UK. Riders on The Swarm are seated in pods of two on either side of the track, enabling it to incorporate a number of “near-miss” elements with the surrounding scenery. In 2013, the park added a new twist, reversing the back two rows of each train to face backwards.
The park has installed extensive theming around The Swarm’s circuit, with the backstory for the ride being that an alien invasion has devastated the earth. A number of burnt-out vehicles are located close to the track, including a “crashed” aeroplane, a helicopter and a fire engine. The train themselves are designed to represent the invading “swarm”.
Thorpe Park deserves credit for investing heavily in the theming of The Swarm, and the storyline is a great fit with the park’s target audience of teens and young adults. Making the trains a part of the storyline is a clever touch, and the scenery isn’t just for a show – it’s a key part of the ride experience.
Top tip: Sit in the outermost seats of the train in order to get the most dramatic “near-miss” sensations.
Full details: The Swarm guide
5. Grand National (Blackpool Pleasure Beach)
Grand National is one of only a handful of Möbius Loop roller coasters still operating, and features trains that “race” each other as they traverse near-identical halves of the same circuit. It was first opened in 1935, and features old-style trains with padded seating and lap bars for protection.
Trains on the two circuits are released from the station simultaneously, climbing a lift hill past a sign that reads “They’re Off”. Similar signs around its circuit mark elements from the Aintree course that hosts the annual Grand National horse race. In total, the ride’s two halves feature 3,302-feet each of hills and turns, culminating in a race to the finishing line that is usually decided by the weight of the riders in each train.
Top tip: Ride both sides of the Grand National for double the fun.
4. Stealth (Thorpe Park)
Thorpe Park's Stealth holds the distinction of being the faster roller coaster in the UK. Originally, it launched riders up to a top speed of 80 miles per hour in 2.3 seconds. Subsequent modifications, however, have reduced this time to just 1.9 seconds.
The coaster’s circuit is simplistic, with the initial launch sending the trains to the top of the main, 208 feet tall tower. They then plummet back down towards the ground, racing over another, smaller hill before returning to the station.
On the surface, Stealth’s short ride duration and basic design look like weaknesses. However, they are actually strengths – the entire ride is focused around the launch, and it’s so breathtaking that you won’t want to be distracted by anything else. Even the lack of theming doesn’t really feel like a lost opportunity – it just adds to the simplicity of the experience.
Top tip: Watching Stealth’s track speed past you is much more exciting than watching the back of another rider’s head. Ask to sit at the front.
Full details: Stealth guide
3. The Smiler (Alton Towers)
It may have suffered from serious downtime during its first season at Alton Towers, but The Smiler has proven to be a hit with most reviewers. Packing in an incredible 14 inversions, the ride shattered the world record for the most upside-down sections on a coaster.
Alton Towers has a challenge on its hands to ensure that The Smiler will operate reliably in 2014, but if it can pull it off, the park appears to have a ride that will be thrilling guests for many years to come.
Full details: The Smiler guide
Top tip: If you're prone to motion sickness, don't close your eyes on The Smiler. Instead, try and focus on a single spot in the ride vehicle, not too far away from you.
2. Oblivion (Alton Towers)
Opened in 1998, Oblivion was another "world's first" for Alton Towers, boasting the first vertical drop of any roller coaster. It towers over the futuristic X-Sector area of the park, with riders being held at the top of the vertical drop for around four seconds, before plunging into a hole in the ground. The ride hits a top speed of 68 miles per hour at the base of the drop, and then races around a wide bend before hitting the brakes at the end of a short 1,222-feet circuit.
The major criticism aimed at Oblivion is that its circuit is simply too short to rival other major coasters, including other B&M Dive Machines such as SheiKra at Busch Gardens Tampa. We don’t agree with this assessment – what Oblivion lacks in lengthy and variety, it makes up through the sheer strength of its terrifying, adrenaline-rush-inducing first drop. Anything that was added afterwards would simply be an anti-climax.
Top tip: While it's tempting to keep your eyes closed during the drop, don't. The real thrill comes from seeing the dark, misty tunnel below rushing towards you.
Full details: Oblivion guide
1. Nemesis (Alton Towers)
Nemesis was a landmark addition to Alton Towers back in 1994, marking the start of its transformation into a haven for thrill-seekers and the UK's most popular theme park. Located in the Forbidden Valley area of the park, it was the first Bolliger & Mabillard inverted rollercoaster to open in Europe.
Due to the strict height restrictions imposed by planning authorities on Alton Towers, designer John Wardley opted to build much of Nemesis deep into a giant hole in the ground. The ride's storyline is based around an alien that was discovered when the site was excavated, before being pinned into place by the steel coaster. Rivers of "blood" continue to flow down the inside of the pit, and the station is loosely themed as the monster itself.
The first of Alton Towers’ major roller coasters, Nemesis is still by far the best. The ride’s strength is its use of its setting, with riders able to see the ground rushing close beneath their feet. This makes the coaster seem much faster than it actually is, making perfect use of the inverted coaster format.
Top tip: Ride Nemesis at least twice – once on the front row (which offers amazing views of the theming below) and once at the back (which offers a more intense experience).
Full details: Nemesis guide
What do you think?
Are you surprised that one of favourite attactions is missing from our list of the UK's top 10 roller coasters? Why not head over to our UK theme park guides and start adding your own ratings and reviews?