When visiting an amusement park, there is an underlying expectation that rider safety is always a top priority. From the moment you step into a ride, you are placing your trust in the manufacturer, maintenance, and ride operators to make the right decisions when it comes to your safety and enjoyment.
For the majority of the time, your trust is placed and in the hands of qualified and well-trained individuals… but every once in a while, this exchange of trust is misplaced. Accidents at amusement parks are thankfully rare–but that is thanks to the ever-growing science of rider safety and the lives that have been lost that drive this field of study forward into a brighter, safer future.
As grim as some of these dark park history stories are, it is important to take a deeper look into the incident and aftermath to understand how rider safety evolves and shapes the way we experience theme parks today. Today’s topic is from Staffordshire in the United Kingdom–a popular steel coaster known as The Smiler.
Alton Towers is a popular resort in the United Kingdom that operates consistently from March through November. During the off season, the park remains closed while other features of the resort continue to operate through the winter months. The park gets its name from the ruins of the on-site historic home, The Towers, which has been left in a state of disrepair since the early 1920s. The ruins are currently undergoing an expensive renovation to restore some of The Towers’ original beauty, but guests are encouraged to explore and visit the attractions inside the historic house during the operating season.
The real star of today’s show is The Smiler, a popular attraction that boasts a whopping fourteen inversions–a record-breaking number that the park proudly boasts. The ride was originally meant to open in March of 2012, but construction constraints pushed back the opening until May of the same year.
The ride replaced Black Hole, an enclosed steel coaster that had closed in 2005. Perhaps the most impressive part of The Smiler’s construction was its marketing strategy, where the creepy grinning logo was projected across the country on billboards, storefronts, and even Big Ben. The logo was also spray painted onto flocks of sheep from various areas.
Despite the ride’s record-breaking number of inversions, the coaster itself takes up a relatively small space. The condensed area allows for a wide range of motion and inversions, making it one of the most thrilling attractions in the park. The ride was also equipped with various theming elements such as spinning spiral disks, screens, and mist. Although its first years of operation were rocky with an abundance of technical issues, the ride was well-received by the public.
Then, in June of 2015, two years after its opening, the worst accident in The Smiler’s history took place...