After a season of much downtime (often 'planned', check the Alton Towers website before visiting!) I have at last ridden The Smiler and to honest I'm still not entirely sure what I think about it.
First off, reliability is still clearly quite a considerable issue. I had about 7 or 8 goes on it with wait times varying between 5 mins and 30 mins. It was no problem really seeing as it was a quiet day but I would honestly guess I spent more of that time waiting for a closed ride to reopen rather than waiting for the open ride to process the people standing in front of me. The thing was continuously going down for between 5 to 15 minutes, at busier times I imagine the queue times will not be pretty.
The ride invites you to 'get corrected' by riding through the record breaking 14 inversions with some optical illusion type effects to enhance this theme. I don't know if it is deliberate but the queue line itself seems like the first optical illusion as when people are streaming through it without having to queue it feels like it is some sort of mirror maze, very disorientating, but just a painful cattlepen when it's busy. It's a shame the mesh has gone over the whole thing, I bet the views of the ride soaring overhead were stunning originally. The indoor queue with projection mapping effects is a neat touch and keep the wait interesting, although all the projectors on the right hand side are about half inch out, spoiling the effect and showing a concerning little movement in the building maybe? I love the score which sounds stunning throughout the queue. Up into the rather bland station and ready to board...
By pure chance all of my rides were in either the front a back rows, you do not get to choose. I'm told the ride start is supposed to be accompanied by a blast of smoke, but all I ever got was a bright light in my eyes. Why do we find such simple little effects so hard to maintain? So we are off with little fanfare into a drop and the first inversion which should be dark but isn't as the building seems to be coming away from the ground letting in a swathe of light. The front row gives a neat trick of not being able to tell which way up you are once you've levelled out but it doesn't work at all in the back. The direct comparison has to be with the Saw (Thorpe Park) indoor section and this is a bit of a non event. It's a shame there isn't more of it and more of a shame that what is there isn't properly dark and doesn't just look like a dank dull space. A missed opportunity.
Up the standard lift hill and the main event begins. What I was expecting was a sequence of inversions that felt shoehorned together to meet the magic number, but it is better than that. A lot lot better. The sequence flows really well and the inversions all feel natural. It is incredibly disorientating and even with my knowledge of what was going to happen I still had trouble identifying what I was doing at any given point. Then the half way brake run, which offers a much needed rest, before more of the same on the other side of the vertical hill. As a ride, I loved it. It is relentless and goes on and on without becoming overwhelming or dull. By far the highlights for me are the two final corkscrews, the airtime hills and the dive loops, some beautiful manoeuvres. But it is far from being perfect...
There are two points on the track that are very unpleasant to get through, the lesser being the exit of the first corkscrew with a nasty jolt and the greater being a deep thud that slams through you in the cobra roll. They wouldn't be acceptable in an old ride, they certainly shouldn't be in a brand new one and knowing the one towards the end is coming is always in the back of your mind. They also exacerbate the other huge issue, and that is the restraints. On a ride like this even on sections of good track the tight transitions are always going to cause your head and upper body to shift about, what you don't need then is a big slab of useless hard plastic an inch away from your face and torso. The result is obvious, and should have been to the fool who decided not to go with lap bars. My wife hit the side of her head so hard the back of her earring pushed into the side of her neck cutting her, she also has sore visibly red shoulders, I just have some tenderness to my neck. The other problem with the restraints is whatever they have made them from stinks, a vile musty damp smell that you can't escape on the ride and gets in your clothes to follow you round for the rest of the day too. Rough and unnecessary.
My other problem is with what should be a massive strength from the effort that has gone into it, and that is the theme. The marmaliser structure (big spider thing straddling the track), the tricks in the station entrance and exit, the strong brand and logo. But what is the story? Why are we there? Why are we riding? The story has a middle, where you are on the ride and being marmalised, it has an end where you now belong to The Smiler, but it doesn't have a beginning so the rest of it doesn't mean much. There needs to be a point to the whole thing, as it is it has a style more than a theme even if it is a good one.
It's a good ride which could and should have been a lot lot better with a bit of thought. It is like it is trying to sabotage itself and not give the amazing experience it surely could with the many things it has going for it. At the same time I somehow loved it but struggled to actually enjoy it.