Imagine a ride so frightening, guests would need to sign a waiver of liability to enter the queue; so terrifyingly intense, no one under 16 or over 55 would be allowed aboard for “physical health and safety”; so dizzyingly, maddeningly extreme, guests would be limited to ride no more than once per day for their own “emotional health”; so cutting-edge, it would feature a mysterious world’s-first element that no other roller coaster on Earth had ever even attempted.
Would you be in line to tackle the world’s first “psychoaster?” If so, that would obviously make you a born-and-bred thrillseeker looking to see just how far a modern roller coaster can go. ...So how might you feel if your multi-hour wait leads to a ride about as extreme as Big Thunder Mountain?
That was the shocking reality faced by guests who showed up in droves to tackle TH13TEEN, the psychological thrill ride that opened at England’s Alton Towers in 2010. The would-be record-breaker promised (and delivered) a world’s first… but as part of one of the most infamously flopped marketing campaigns in the history of the industry. Today, we’ll dig into the clever creation of Thirteen, go for a virtual ride aboard the coaster, and learn from the past to see how a botched publicity stunts forever stunted this coaster’s growth.
But as any reader of our Declassified Disasters series knows, any ride's story – good or bad – begins before the ride is even dreamed of...
Towers through time
Alton Towers is a theme park as only the United Kingdom could offer.
Located in Staffordshire, England about two hours north of London, the park is steeped in tradition… even if it’s technically about as old as Epcot. That’s because Alton Towers is built around the real, true remains of the eponymous Towers – the stately manor home of the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury, completed in 1814 (less than forty years after the United States was born). When the Earl’s family sold the manor a century later, the home fell into disrepair. It was boarded up, its fixtures sold, and left as an empty shell.
However, through the 1960s and ‘70s, the home – and the surrounding gardens – were opened intentionally as an attraction with a boating lake, chairlift, and 2-foot gauge miniature railway. But the park’s formal introduction as a theme park proper was in 1980 when it opened Corkscrew, a double-corkscrew steel roller coaster costing £1.25 million.
That was just the start. Take a look at the park map below, from 1982. Corkscrew was an oddity – a strange, steel roller coaster set down in the otherwise elegant gardens and greens of a growing tourist attraction...
... But before long, coasters would become the norm and not the exception. Alton Towers was purchased in 1990 by the Tussauds Group (today, Merlin Entertainments) – best known as the present owners of Madame Tussauds wax museums, Sea Life aquariums, LEGOLAND parks, the “Eye” Ferris wheels, the “Dungeons” attractions, and fellow U.K. theme parks Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park.
Infused with the new finances and marketing power of Tussauds, Alton Towers went into overdrive in the 1990s, becoming a very unique, world-class theme park – a living example of the complementary balance of “thrill” and “theme” that fans of Cedar Fair, Six Flags, and SeaWorld Parks wish desperately that their parks could get right… To see what we mean, let’s take a look.
In 1994, Alton Towers found its place on the map.
That year, the park debuted a new themed area called the Forbidden Valley, themed to a desolate, post-apocalyptic world of standing stones and the rusted, archaic remains of human civilization. Remnants of human war are scattered about, but all seem to be half-consumed by strange, fleshy, red tendrils reaching through the ground... Though oxidized, gnarled, thrilling flat rides dotted the landscape, the anchor of this treacherous valley was a ride originally known only by the codename "Secret Weapon": Nemesis.
Considered one of the best inverted roller coasters on Earth, Nemesis sends guests twisting and flipping through the air. But that’s not all. They say necessity is the mother of invention. That's never been more true than for the coaster designers adding to Alton Towers...
Due to a uniquely restrictive height requirement (wherein Alton Towers’ coasters can rarely break the treeline), Nemesis was constructed in trenches and valleys, tearing over blood-red rivers and twisting through the horrific, interdimensional, insectoid exoskeleton of an ancient alien whose body serves as its loading station – and the origin of those tendrils consuming the land. Now, the ride's terrain-hugging, subterranean layout is regarded as one of the world's best.
In 1998, the park’s next “Secret Weapon” debuted in another reimagined land. In X-Sector – themed to a mysterious and sinister government facility testing the limits of humanity – opened Oblivion, the first of coaster manufacturer B&M’s now-famous Dive Machines. Seated eight-across, riders were perched over the edge of a vertical drop before plummeting into a smoke-filled black hole in the ground.
Then came the next “Secret Weapon,” Air. B&M’s first-ever flying coaster, this graceful ride was constructed in a new futuristic, green, oasis-like sub-land within the Forbidden Valley, as if nature were reclaiming the vast desolation of the land's post-apocolypse setting. Twisting and diving through the landscape, Air set the intense yet poetic tone for other flying coasters, like SeaWorld’s Manta. And like all coasters at Alton Towers, it laid low, diving and twisting through the treeline.
That's what we mean when we say that in just two decades, Alton Towers had gone from a leisure gardens with a single roller coaster into a park resembling the one we know today... Notably, it was on its way to a balance that parks today seem to find so difficult to strike. Maybe a park can feature spectacular, thrilling coasters, but not at the expense of scenery, special effects, thoughtfully themed areas, and – yes – even story! Alton Towers struck the balance of atmosphere and adrenaline, all centered around that centuries-old manor... Truly one-of-a-kind. And that's important for what comes next...
Dinosaurs, dragsters, and... demons?
And as for the coaster that started it all – Corkscrew? Though Corkscrew hadn't changed much, the world around it had – literally. In the late '90s, the space around Corkscrew was re-themed as Ug Land. This area offered carnival rides like the yo-yo swings and scrambler, dressed in prehistoric styles befitting The Flintstones. Naturally, that meant that to fit in, Corkscrew would be accentuated with dinosaur bones, a ribcage tunnel, and T. rex skulls among its decorations.
But that's not all. In 2005, Corkscrew was joined by a headlining neighbor, Rita - Queen of Speed. Coming just a year after the opening of the world-famous Top Thrill Dragster, Rita operated off the same mechanics and theme (even if it was an eighth the size of the 420-foot tall landmark).
Stepping through a giant rubber tire entrance arch, guests were seated in flame-painted “dragster” style race cars, rumbling beneath a drag race countdown light alongside a modern, corrugated steel Race Control building. Okay, so Rita didn’t make much sense in Ug Land (unless you count that the race track’s name was Thunder Rock Rally). No one said Alton Towers was Disney…
But in 2008, the park announced that Corkscrew’s time was short. The ride that started Alton Towers on its modern theme park path would be closed on November 9, 2008 after 28 years. (Its double-corkscrew was salvaged and relocated to the front of the park, where they act as a centerpiece of the park's entrance plaza.)
Though Ug Land outlived Corkscrew, it wasn’t long for the world, either… The prehistoric carnival with a dragster-themed launch coaster was about to be reimagined from scratch. "Secret Weapon 6" was officially on the way, with a “world’s first” element no one had ever seen before. In October 2009, posters on the construction wall around Corkscrew's empty plot gave just one hint toward the ride that would take Corkscrew's place in spring 2010:
"Ride the Demon of the Dark Forest."
And that's where the problems begin... Read on...
During the fall of 2009, Alton Towers' marketing around the new project began ramping up. This "Secret Weapon 6" – officially, the first "Secret Weapon" since 2002's Air – had big shoes to fill if it were to live up to the "Secret Weapon" name and be worthy of replacing the beloved and classic Corkscrew. Still, aside from "Ride the Demon of the Dark Forest" and recurring images of cloaked and hooded "wraiths" on the ride's dedicated web page, precious little was known about the coaster.
That's exactly how Alton Towers wanted it.
In December 2009, Alton Towers finally broke their silence. "Secret Weapon 6" would officially be called TH13TEEN – a stylized way of naming the ride after the "unlucky" number.
The mystique surrounding the new ride grew as self-made promises of Alton Tower's next headliner likewise inflated in the minds of fans and roller coaster enthusiasts around the globe. The notion of a cutting-edge roller coaster racing through the dense forests around Alton Towers – and with a secret, world's first moment hidden deep in those woods – was writing an awfully big check... Could the park cash it?
To hear them describe it, yes.
Throughout the fall, Alton Tower's sales and marketing director Morwenna Angove embarked on a cross-country press tour, stating: "This new ride will be a shocking, never-experienced-before rollercoaster and we're excited that once again the Alton Towers Resort is able to offer visitors the chance to experience something unavailable in any other part of the world.
"However, just as we take physical health and safety very seriously, Thirteen demands that we also consider our visitors' emotional health, and as such we're not afraid of introducing necessary measures to ensure riders are fully prepared and healthy enough to brave Thirteen."
Promised as "the scariest ride in the U.K.," Thirteen was soon said to have as many "world's-first" restrictions as it had "world's-first" elements: Merlin began to claim that they may limit guests to one ride per day and only allow those aged 16-55 to ride, saying that the age restriction may be deemed necessary due to the combination of physical and psychological terror. After all, Thirteen would be billed as the world's first "psychoaster."
Then came the official story... According to Alton Towers, Thirteen would take place in unexplored woodland where an ancient darkness (remember those hooded wraiths?) had been unleashed. Ug Land would become the Dark Forest, with Thirteen acting as the last outpost for those brave enough to set out into the woods. Their destination? An ancient, undisturbed crypt deep in the woods where something lies in wait...
Concept art produced for the attraction only added to the hype. Just imagine an extreme, terrain-hugging coaster launching guests into the bleak and foreboding Dark Forest, dodging trees, diving into gnarled roots, and plunging into the forgotten ruins of ancient cathedrals and crypts being overtaken by sinister vines...
The cherry on top was a high production value television marketing campaign (an Alton Towers favorite, having produced some truly legendary commercials) that was deemed so intense, it could only be shown post-watershed, after 9:00 PM. That campaign produced memorable images of vines entombing a young girl as she begs, "If you go down to the woods today... You'd better not go... alone..."
Did you watch carefully? If so, hopefully you're okay with spoilers... After all, with more than a year of build-up, increasing public interest, and an actually-successful marketing campaign around the ride's oh-so-secret, world's-first manuever under their belt, you saw exactly what you thought you saw. Thirteen's commercial itself reveals – in a flash – the ride's signature, hidden element. And just in case you missed it, don't worry – Alton Towers invited the media to the park before the ride's opening, inviting GMTV to film the ride's secret... in night-vision!
Okay, so maybe the ride's secret is spoiled. But after that campaign, the rest of the ride must be astounding! Are you brave enough to climb aboard Thirteen? In this case, it couldn't hurt to try.
The Dark Forest
If you've been drawn to Alton Towers by the marketing campaign and the mystery surrounding this new Thirteen (and managed to avoid spoilers that Alton Towers itself is all too proud to share?), you'll likely be impressed by what's become of the old Ug Land. Certainly, there's no sense that Corkscrew existed here whatsoever. And even if the land is currently lacking in... y'know... a forest, there's still plenty of time for trees to fill in the formerly prehistoric parcel.
And to Merlin's credit, each of the land's retail and dining locations has been reskinned in ancient stone and moss, with decaying wraith statues and vine-encrusted pillars scattered about the wrought-iron land.
Rita didn't make much sense in Ug Land, and to be fair, it doesn't really fit in the Dark Forest, either. But phenomenally, the ride has become part of the new land's story. Rita's track – formerly cherry red – was repainted in dull, oxidized brown; its trains have been reimagined from metallic dragsters to old, rusted cars; its audio was changed from high-energy dragster to a desperate attempt to outrun the encroaching forest...
And – most strikingly – the entire ride is being consumed by vines. They've encased the mossy tire that serves as an updated entrance, and have grown up across the ride's station, now made of decaying wood and menacingly labeled simply "CONTROL."
But you're not here for Rita...
Are you ready to step aboard? We'll journey into the Dark Forest on the next page...
Thirteen will make Rita's 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds seem like child's play, right? After all, the former is the scariest ride in the U.K. Although, Alton Towers doesn't seem to have followed through on its outrageous age restrictions or limitations... Turns out, you can tackle Thirteen if you're 1.2 meters tall (about 47").
Passing between the ornate pillars, the queue winds a bit through a clearing. In the woods to the side, you'll see a news van seemingly in the midst of being crushed by vines that have ensnared it. But your attention is likely dead ahead. If you've been paying attention (but not too much attention) to the marketing around this new ride, you'll know that it centers on the discovery of an ancient crypt, inside of which the coaster does something no other coaster on Earth can match.
And judging by the massive petrified tree growing alongside its tower, this may also be the epicenter of the vines that have taken hold of the Dark Forest.
Now, given that you and I both know that that crypt is our final destination – and home to the ride's too-much-talked-about surprise – it may seem odd that the queue leads us toward it, and that the ride's station is inside our destination... Indeed, we can watch trains being dispatched from the building, dip around the tree, and head off to a lift hill alongside the crypt tower. Maybe it might've made more sense for that that crypt to be hidden among the trees, deep in the forest.
But in any case, the queue leads inside where flickering excavation lights, spooky sounds, electrifying and startling science experiments, and an aura of foreboding signal a truly terrifying experience to come.
As our rusted iron train departs the station, it dips into a small valley and banks around the tower we've seen from the queue. Now, we align with the ride's first hill. It's not insignificant at 61 feet high, though it is a bit odd that it's not a traditional chain lift nor even a launch, but a booster wheel lift – literally, powered by turning tires that slowly propel the train upward; a common feature of many "kiddie coasters."
But there's nothing particularly "kiddie" about the resulting drop, which sets the coasters off on a nice pace. Dipping down the first drop, the ride reaches its top speed of about 40 miles per hour – the same speed as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Bottoming out in a clearing, the train twists to the right into a wide, rising helix and jumps over itself, headling out into the woods...
Alton Towers did a pretty impressive job of leaving as much forest as possible out here, clearing only what was needed for the coaster's layout and leaving plenty of barren trunks and branches that appear almost close enough to be a threat. In 20 years, it stands to reason that the forest really will have grown out here... though admittedly, even then it's hard to imagine feeling lost, turned around, or even far removed from the park.
Okay, so maybe the gentle, swooping turns don't quite live up to that blasted concept art... maybe it's our own fault for expecting the ride to have launches and twists, blasting through ruins and slaloming through roots... Our journey through the woods wasn't particularly dark or extreme. In fact, a rider with a stop watch would see that it's approximately 25 seconds from the peak of the first hill to what comes next...
The ride now engages with a second tire-driven lift. But now we can see that this lift leads up to the moment we saw from the queue: the train reaches the apex of the lift and turns right, gliding into – gulp – the crypt.
As soon as the coaster enters, candles glow to life in the ancient stone corridor as eerie green lights illuminate scaffolds and stone carvings clearly being explored. The train coasts ahead until it fills the chamber, then stops. Just feet ahead of the front car, wooden planks have fallen across a tattered black tarp, blocking our path forward. Admittedly, this momentary stop may actually cause you to wonder what will happen next... Will something come out of the tarp? Will we launch backwards? Of course, the truth would be unthinkable (had Alton Towers themselves not spoiled it on national television).
First, it feels as if the train "yo-yos" for a moment, strangely bouncing a few inches up and down in place... Then...
The train falls. Track and all. Thirteen is the world's first freefall coaster, with the track plummeting just over 16 feet. Merlin's marketing, for a moment, was right: the manuever is spectacular and stunning – even on re-rides – creating a sensation unlike any other coaster, gleefully surprising first-timers and leaving the train chattering. As the lights return, we're a story below – in the vine-encased lower level of the crypt, with a statues (or are they?) of wraiths ahead and all around.
Before you can get too worried, though, the train is suddenly propelled backwards, gliding out of the narrow underground corridor and twisting to the side in an elongated turn. When sunlight returns, the train is pulling out of that final helix backwards, coming to a rest between two pillars. Ahead, a switch track slides into place, aligning the coaster back up with the station.
Naturally, we need to end our in-depth account of the ride with an on-ride video to give you a better sense of what it's really like to experience this family coaster in disguise...
So... Is Thirteen the scariest roller coaster in the world? The U.K.?
Let's face facts... Thirteen isn't even the scariest roller coaster at Alton Towers; and depending on your preferences, it's probably not even the scariest roller coaster in the Dark Forest area! And that's perfectly fine, right? Corkscrew was a moderately-sized family roller coaster. And, fessing up, so is its replacement. But try explaining that to fans who'd had been drawn by promises of a ride so visceral, terrifying, and extreme, they'd be limited to just one ride a day for their mental health...
Thirteen isn't a terrible roller coaster; it's not even a bad one. But it's a disastrous reminder of the role marketing and expectations can play in projects like this. What's worse, Thirteen didn't remain the only freefall coaster in the world for long, and thanks to its marketing alone, the others are actually more well-regarded. We'll take a look at a few on the next page and see if Merlin ended up changing its marketing strategy after Thirteen...
Brave the Black Forest(s)
Though Thirteen may have been the first of its kind, it wasn’t the last.
In 2012, Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia – with villages themed to European countries – capped off a multi-year expansion of its German-themed Oktoberfest with the opening of a new roller coaster called Verbolten. Replacing the beloved, family-friendly Lost Legend: Big Bad Wolf (coincidentally, made by the manufacturers of Corkscrew), Verbolten sends guests in German roadsters barreling through the darkness of the Black Forest, diving beneath branches, twisting between trees, and revving into the unknown.
A multi-launch roller coaster with both indoor and outdoor elements, Verbolten, too, boasts a “secret element…” You guessed it – a freefall drop track hidden inside a Black Forest showbuilding, accentuated by three randomized theatrical encounters so it’s a different ride every time.
It’s clear that the Venn diagram of Thirteen and Verbolten would have more overlap than not… So why is the latter the subject of its own in-depth Modern Marvels: Verbolten feature while Thirteen’s opening was a disaster fit for a marketing 101 class? Simple. Verbolten maintained secrecy around its stunning hidden element… but otherwise, fessed up to exactly what it was: a family roller coaster meant to be a “first big coaster” for a generation of visitors; a lightly-themed thrill ride perfect for every member of the family. It skillfully fuses thrill and theme. And best of all, it gets the pacing right in a way Thirteen didn't.
Today, no less than 7 roller coasters feature the clever, surprising freefall drop element tailor-made for a themed family coaster. But both Thirteen and Verbolten are overshadowed by the most recent ride to use the hidden feature...
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Ironically, the ride carries guests through – would you believe it? – Hogwarts’ legendary Forbidden Forest, making the Universal ride the third to theme the freefall drop to a dark and foreboding woods.
It's unfortunate that Thirteen – a fun, thoughtfully-themed, and perfectly-placed family roller coaster – will forever be remembered not as memory-making first "big" coaster for a generation of Alton Towers guests, but as a colossal case study in mistaken identity.
"The ultimate roller coaster?" What would a ride have to incorporate to live up to that promise? And what in Thirteen could've gotten anywhere close? When Merlin Entertainments opted to apply "Secret Weapon" status to this family coaster, they instantly elevated expectations to the level of Nemesis, Air, Oblivion, and Rita – each renowned for its own record-setting world's-first status.
And while Thirteen's world's-first element is stunning and worthy of headlining, its later applications in Verbolten and Hagrid's demonstrate that it works wonders as a brilliant, secretive 21st century family coaster element... not the signature move of an ultra-intense thrill ride worthy of a waiver or a nurse on-site. Besides, Merlin itself let the cat out of the bag before the coaster's much-anticipated opening!
In any case, hopes that Merlin would learn from its mistake would soon be dashed.
2012's new addition was Nemesis: Sub-Terra – a sort of spin-off sequel to the Nemesis coaster, inviting guests into an underground research facility where the creature's eggs were being studied and analyzed by a futuristic military faction. As part of the ride's marketing stunt, the park brought in the British Board of Film Classification, who awarded the ride a rating of 12A – the equivalent of PG-13. Alton Towers stuck to the stunt, insisting (up until the ride's opening, of course) that those under 12 wouldn't be able to ride, even if they met the height limit. The resulting ride – a hidden 20-foot drop tower interpolating moments of Disney's Lost Legend: Alien Encounter – was so poorly recieved, it closed to be retooled after just two months. In 2015, it closed forever.
2013's "Secret Weapon 7" – The Smiler, located in X-Sector near Oblivion – dutifully combined Merlin's better-than-expected theming with an outrageous thrill (in this case, a world record 14 inversions), twisting and diving symmetrically about a massive, mechanical spider structure with each arm of the machine playing a role in "marmalizing" guests. Of course, a horrific 2015 accident aboard the ride forced the park to walk back much of the marketing madness they'd concocted around the coaster and its ultra-extreme, hypnotic, mind-bending, dystopian style.
The next, "Secret Weapon 8," ended up being the terrain-hugging Wicker Man wooden coaster, likewise diving in and around a smoking, "flaming" wooden effigy, with guests being "sacrificed" to the massive wooden deity. But at least it was sold from the get-go as a family ride.
Lesson learned? Maybe... Until you consider that nearby Thorpe Park (also operated by Merlin) opened The Walking Dead: The Ride in 2018, promising it would be "15 out of ten on the scare scale" and "right up there with the best in the world in terms of the whole experience"... conveniently failing to mention that it was merely a redress of a 1996 indoor family coaster whose top speed would barely trip a speed detector in a school zone – 25 miles per hour.
Even once Thirteen ended up being a very different coaster than Merlin had marketed, they still had one more exaggerated stunt up their sleeve. Alton Towers announced that, out of an abundance of caution, Thirteen would not operate on Friday, August 13th (in accordance with the superstition that Friday the 13th is a day of bad luck).
Naturally, they hadn't really planned to simply turn off their new roller coaster for a full day... The stunt did what it was meant to do (make headlines), so they later "decided" to simply temporarily change the ride's name to FOU13TEEN, with signs switched out just for the day, just to be safe.
That alone well encapsulates the story of Thirteen – a mostly-solid (if half-baked) 21st century family coaster with a breakout manuever who served mostly as a pawn for Merlin's marketing madness. The result is a ride that's neither what it promised to be, nor quite what it should be. It's a ride that commits the two worst sins when it comes to attractions: it takes itself too seriously and underdelivers.
It's tragic to think of what Thirteen could've been – and indeed, perhaps to see what it could've been by way of Verbolten. At least in retrospect with the pomp and circumstance removed, Thirteen feels like a complement to the park's ride lineup – even if it's not the end-all-be-all showstopper promised. In any case, Alton Towers took up the mantle once more in building a "Secret Weapon" meant to prototype a previously-thinkable coaster innovation. And in that, they succeeded, and we should all be thankful.