Tucked away in the picturesque Staffordshire Moorlands, Alton Towers has become the market leader within the UK theme park industry for churning out thrilling attractions that push the envelope of roller coaster design and amusement park innovation. It is this unique approach that has led the Merlin-owned theme park giant to produce some of the most iconic thrill rides and roller coasters of the past two decades.
While the park has taken a more family-oriented approach in recent years, 2013 has seen Alton Towers lift the lid on a new star attraction that is already proving that it has got the power to turn the frowns upside down on the faces of coaster enthusiasts and general public alike. The result is a a coaster that is making thrill seekers "smile". Always.
Planning for the aptly named The Smiler began in 2011, and in true Alton Towers style, the ride was shrouded in secrecy throughout its development. Assuming its codename, "Secret Weapon 7", as the plans were subtly unveiled, many enthusiasts started to become excited about what the future had to hold.
With a twisted and compact layout set to replace the iconic Black Hole tent that had lain dormant for over half a decade, this new metallic beauty was set to put the humble inversion back on Alton Towers's radar. Little did many know that the park was about to smash the current inversion record by an astonishing 4 elements; bringing the ride's total inversion count to a "marmalising" 14.
The Smiler marks a new chapter in Alton Towers's thrill ride catalogue; borrowing the ride system used by the highly successful EuroFighter series, which has become the flagship product for German coaster supplier Gerstlauer since its first incarnation in 2003. With its signature vertical lift and compact steel circuit that allows for endless track configurations, it was able to reach the demands of Alton Towers for their next "world's first". The ride system received a unique facelift with 16 passenger trains (compared to the more traditional 8 abreast), allowing an increased capacity.
After a series of marketing and teaser campaigns, in January 2013 the news finally broke. "The Smiler" was the name chosen for the new development that was to set "marmalise" your body and brain as you become a smiling advocate.
With the coaster costing Merlin an astonishing £18 million (the most expensive roller coaster ever built in the UK), and the last of a plethora of attractions designed by the legendary John Wardley, the price tag and credits certainly impress. But the marmalisation process got off to a rocky start - plagued with delays until finally opening its gates on May 31, 2013.
Get ready to smile
Despite its outrageous marketing claims, construction delays, awe-inspiring inversion count and truly ridiculous name, The Smiler's experience and niche theme is proving to be a hit across the board. Experiencing the attraction for yourself, it's not hard to see why.
Approach the X-Sector area of the park and the site that once held the iconic blue tent that was home to a Schwarzkopf classic has at last warped its way into the deepest and darkest areas of a black hole, and a colossal mess of twisted steel has taken its place. Completed by the thumping dub-step soundtrack, the atmosphere created is somewhat spooky and ambiguous. But then again, for a coaster that is claiming to transform the innocent park guest into a "smiling advocate" with its "all controlling force", there should be some mystery surrounding this inversion machine.
Heading into the ride's main queue line with the yellow Smiler logo emblazened across the terrifically vibrant entrance arch, chances are, you see going to come face-to-face with a member of The Smiler staff. Following in the footsteps of many major theme park powerhouses such as Disney and Universal, Alton Towers has made the effort to dress its staff in authentic costumes to match the mood of the ride. Looking as eye-catching as ever in yellow shades, flat caps and boots is one thing, but their customer service, willingness to help and make the experience as memorable as possible is also another factor that contributes to The Smiler's experience being so enjoyable. Let's hope they can keep it up throughout the season.
As expected from most Merlin attractions, entering the obligatory cattle-pen queue line, guests (or should that be advocates?) gain terrific views of what is about to marmalise them to a point of complete disorientation. Gaze upwards, and there's nothing more than an abundance of inversions, loops and corkscrews mashed together in a compact space. Complete with two lifts (one of which is completely vertical), the trains duel as they race around the circuit.
Seeing the ride cars swooping around the inversions is quite a spectacle, and the criss-cross of roller coaster track is a true work of art to see in person and a stunning engineering feat. Complete with the LED screen on the signature "Marmaliser" structure and flashing images as the trains whizz past the five "mind manipulating" elements, the ride certainly makes a lasting first impression.
Meander into the ride building and The Smiler has another treat in store for the waiting riders. In a new queue line experience for the UK theme park industry, the park hired 3D mapping experts to produce a terrific projected sideshow for the waiting public aiming to work everyone into a slight frenzy as they await instructions within the low-lit corridors. Reach the end of the queue, and the smiling staff guide you up the stairs and into the beautifully themed ride loading bay. It is at this point you really feel as though you are starting to belong to The Smiler...
Look around and the white and yellows of the station contrast superbly to create the idea you are in a clinic of some description about to discover your fate. It’s eerie, intimidating and atmospheric; just what the doctor ordered for a new multi-million pound thrill ride.
Pull down the conventional EuroFighter over-the-shoulder restraints, and the ride soundtrack begins to kick in. "You belong to The Smiler" - a voice is heard, before a curtain of mist is blown in your face, the lights in the station dim, and the first steps towards complete marmalisation start to come into play. It's a dramatic start, but is by far one of the most memorable send-offs to any coaster in the UK, and demonstrates that Alton Towers is trying to push the boundaries to create such unique coaster experiences.
I look to my right and the jolly ride host is smiling at me with a wide grin as he dispatches the train. It is as though I have entered this process slightly naive, not understanding what is about to follow. And what does is something that will certainly make any thrill seeker smile.
SPOILER WARNING: this section contains a detailed description of The Smiler's circuit.
As the train snakes its way to the left, there is a surprisingly sharp banked drop that is accompanied by a sudden burst of strobe light as the cars race towards the park floor. Before anyone on the train has even a chance to grin, we are suddenly catapulted into a heartline roll element that flings everyone head over heels; inversion number one over with, just another thirteen to go. As the trains come to an abrupt stop, a creepy giggle is audible as we make our way skywards; the warm-up act left behind us.
Ascending the 72-foot lift hill, beautiful views of the surrounding area are visible as far back as Towers Street and the park entrance. But there's hardly any time to soak in the atmosphere of the surrounding gardens as The Smiler bites back.
Bank to the right, and it's another inversion; a barrel roll that leaves riders briefly suspended upside down as the cars catapult their way to the top speed of 52 miles per hour. The force and adrenaline rush is quite something, before the trains suddenly ascend upwards, inverting once more as they traverse two dive loops consecutively and narrowly missing the bright light of "The Flasher". A great moment of ejector airtime is felt as the cars continue to race with fury around their serpentine tracks.
Heading towards the back of the coaster, riders are then flung into another inversion; the ride briskly turning upside down to the right and the left in a unique batwing element. A brief moment of hang time is felt as guests' bodies are pushed into the shoulder harness before the train plummets downwards once more towards the concrete floor. The minds of all riders are almost completely disorientated at this stage of the process as we catch a brief glimpse at the iconic Smiler logo plastered over the surrounding area.
The Smiler shows no sign of calming down its craving for inversions as the trains scrape past the legs of The Marmaliser and fling themselves into another corkscrew. The smooth magnetic breaks bring the brisk train to a smooth halt. But seven inversions down, the ride wants more upside down goodness... look around and it's soon apparent the ride is only halfway to fully correcting its advocates.
Gaze upwards and there’s an even more terrifying obstacle in the way in the form of a second, stomach churning lift hill. Unlike the conventional lift that offers a brief escape from the bedlam of the coaster's layout, as the motors slowly squeak into action, riders are left lying on their backs like an astronaut about to take flight. As some thrill seekers raise their arms and scream with delight, groans of fear can also be heard as The Smiler delivers another abundance of mayhem.
The cars repeat the earlier process by banking this time to the left and somersaulting over the queue line into another inverted drop before another two inversions follow as part of a roll over element.
At this point, guests' ability to even comprehend their whereabouts in the world has diminished as the Innoculator of the Marmaliser attempts to inject some much needed happiness back into their lives as they narrowly miss the spinning cogs of The Hypnotiser.
Brainwashed, some more injector airtime follows before we duel head-to-head with another Smiler train; weaving around it as we enter the cobra roll with a complete loss of well-being. As more screams follow, we are then abruptly tumbled in a double barrel roll segment over the waiting passengers providing some awesome moments of hang time. Then, it's over. Roll back into the station, exit through a spectacle of light in the narrow corridors, feeling completely defeated in the battle to survive the all controlling force that is The Smiler.
In the grand scheme of things, The Smiler impresses in every shape and form. A visual spectacle, the ride experience is as good as its first impression. Smooth and enjoyable, the diverse range of inversions, disorientating experience and ultra-modern-meets-super-retro theme equates to a phenomenal and unforgettable experience.
Proudly taking the inversion world record away from veteran Colossus at Thorpe Park, The Smiler’s world's first is a gimmick. But, it being executed in such a sublime way and with a lengthy 3-minute duration and a clever theme has resulted in Alton Towers gaining a superb addition with a worthwhile gimmick and world record under its belt. The Smiler is not only one of the most influential roller coasters ever built in Britain, it stands up to anything on the world stage, too.