TPT logo

Your guide to theme parks in Orlando and beyond


Main menu

CURSED: The Inside Story of Thirteen – The Biggest Coaster Let-Down EVER

Brave the Black Forest(s)

Though Thirteen may have been the first of its kind, it wasn’t the last.

Image: Anna Marie, PullOverandLetMeOut

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.

Image: Busch Gardens

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...

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

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.

Image: Alton Towers

"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!

Lessons learned?

In any case, hopes that Merlin would learn from its mistake would soon be dashed.

Image: Alton Towers

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.

Image: Alton Towers

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.

Image: Alton Towers

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.

Image: Thorpe Park

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).

Image: Alton Towers

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.

Click and expand for a much larger and more detailed view. Image; TowerTimes

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.

Go to page:


There are no comments so far.

Connect with Theme Park Tourist: