The Smiler's troubled first year at Alton Towers reached a new low on Saturday when several riders were injured by falling guide wheels. But why has the park's new roller coaster suffered from so many problems?
2013 was supposed to be a banner year for Alton Towers. It planned to open an innovative new roller coaster that would shatter two world records: the most inversions in a coaster's circuit, and the most track per square foot. The last time the park opened a new coaster - Thirteen, in 2010 - it boosted attendance beyond the 3 million visitor mark. The latest addition would be even more spectacular.
A carefully timed publicity campaign was designed to reveal the nature of the ride's "world's first" just before it opened in March. A mobile game for iPhone and Android devices to heighten the anticipation. The Internet was buzzing with rumours about the ride, which the park revealed would be named The Smiler.
Then the season started - and things began to go wrong. What was supposed to be a glorious debut year for The Smiler ended with a rider being led away from the ride by medical staff, reportedly covered in blood. How did it come to this?
The Smiler - a timeline of frowns
The issues with The Smiler began early, and Alton Towers has constantly been fighting a race against time to keep the ride operational:
- January 2013: Alton Towers is forced to concede that The Smiler will not be open in time for the start of the 2013 season. The park begins a series of promotions to try and prop up attendance during the opening months of the season, including offering guests the chance to return for just £1 to ride The Smiler later in the year. The coaster is expected to open in May.
- March 2013: The 2013 season begins at Alton Towers. Scarefest horror maze The Sanctuary is temporarily brought back to fill the gap in the park's line-up left by the absence of The Smiler.
- May 2013: Alton Towers announces that The Smiler will open on May 23. However, following a disastrous media day in which celebrities and reporters are trapped on the ride, this date is missed. The Smiler does finally open on May 31, with guests waiting as long as 3 hours to ride. The ride receives rave reviews, and it looks as if Alton Towers' problems are finally behind it.
- June 2013: The Smiler is up-and-running, attracting enormous queues. There are, however, still frequent periods of downtime.
- July 2013: Alton Towers hits the headlines when a bolt falls from The Smiler's track, causing two track sections to separate. The ride is closed for several days, but the park insists that no guests were in danger.
- October 2013: In the run-up to the busy Scarefest Halloween events, Alton Towers begins closing The Smiler at midday to enable maintenance work to take place. Despite this, a second bolt falls from the track onto a toilet block below, although the ride reopens quickly this time. Then, four riders suffer minor injuries when falling "small guide wheels" strike them.
What went wrong?
It's not unusual for a roller coaster - or indeed any new theme park ride - to suffer from issues during their first season. Undoubtedly, though, The Smiler's issues have now gone beyond what would be considered normal teething problems, and have become a major PR issue for Alton Towers.
What exactly has gone wrong? There are a number of contributing factors:
- The construction schedule was very tight - Alton Towers has often found itself with vanishingly small time-windows in which to complete its new rides - Thirteen was barely finished in time in 2010, for example. With The Smiler, though, it simply overstretched itself, leaving very little window for problems with bad weather or errors. And there were errors...
- Drainage problems - anyone who has stood in The Smiler's flooded queueline or seen sandbags in the ride's indoor sections will be able to tell you that the pit in which the ride sits features inadequate drainage. This caused serious delays during construction, and further problems since.
- Structural problems - The Smiler's extraordinarily compact layout has led to some serious challenges, and it seems that the stresses on the ride are, at times, literally causing parts of it to fall off. An excellent article on RideRater attributes the falling bolts to the slight misplacement of the ride's supports - a problem that may need to be fixed at great expense during the fast-approaching off-season.
Can the problems be fixed?
The simple answer is "yes" - with time and money, The Smiler's problems can probably be ironed out. The issue this season has been that Alton Towers has been facing a constant battle to keep The Smiler operational, when what is really required is to close the ride for a lengthy period to enable major work to take place. Luckily, as UK theme parks do not operate year-round, there is a five-month period during which The Smiler can undergo some serious revisions.