Drayton Manor

25th September 2005

Drayton Manor was my first proper theme park, visited for the first time more than nine years ago. On that visit, time proved to be a problem, and it was only possible for me to do one ride: Shockwave, my first roller coaster. It seems very likely that this was the genesis of my obsession with amusement parks and thrill rides, although it took me several years to realise what happened that day. My second visit was also time constrained, though at least on that occasion I managed to ride the rest of the coasters. Since that time I have wanted to make a proper visit to the park to see what else was available, and a group visit by the European Coaster Club seemed like the ideal opportunity.

It didn't take me long to learn that there is a regular formula for club days at Drayton Manor. An evening session on one of the coasters is typical in any such event, but it is less common to have an exclusive session in the morning too. In this case, after some wake up coffee, we were treated to half an hour of exclusive time on Apocalypse, an Intamin-built free fall ride. Over the last few years I have first defeated and then obliterated completely my illogical fear of drop rides, and as such I couldn't wait to try out the three different types of cars available on this ride; sit down, stand up, and floorless. Of these, only the stand up type would be new to me, and it was that that I was looking forward to most of all.

Apocalypse

However, there was business to attend to that meant the stand up type would have to wait, at least a few minutes. Tom and I gently encouraged James into the line for the first ride of the morning on the sit down car. Moments later, following a siren sound, we were on our way up. Moments later, following a brief mechanical clunk, we were on our way down. In short, a completely standard drop tower, no different to any other Intamin model anywhere else. It required a little more encouragement to install James into the queue for the stand up side. Nevertheless, it was worth the effort; the experience of tilting forward during the ascent was more than a little disconcerting even for those who had done it before, and the standing up made things even more interesting. The freefall also felt more intense while standing, although this was probably due to the fact that I had not experienced a drop tower in that position before. All things being equal I preferred the stand up drop to the floorless one, the reason being entirely down to anatomy. Floorless drop towers were not designed with the male body in mind!

With the exclusive session over, we joined a large mob of people heading towards G-Force (#671). It was, if anything, a little sad to join the queue line for my last new coaster this year, but with a shade under three hundred in that family it seems bad form to complain. Regardless, my mood quickly brightened on observation of the ride itself, and my brain began the inevitable contemplation of what types (and what quantities) of controlled substances had been utilised by the manufacturer during design work.

The track enters the station building at a height which cannot be less than sixty feet in the air. The large volume of steps required to get to the ride platform is an unusual but nonetheless effective method of reducing the number of patrons partaking of the ride, and thus, by extension, the queue time. It would be remiss of me not to comment also on the lift hill design. The train drops out of the station onto a lift hill which looks like a vertical loop. This is because it is, for all intents and purposes, a vertical loop; just one which has been fitted with a chain lift to take the trains through to the highest point of the track. Being inverted at a speed of no more than five miles per hour with your full weight supported by a lap bar is, to say the least, an interesting experience.

Observation of the design led Tom to comment that this was either going to be very good or very bad, and it was hard to disagree with this assessment. The layout looked to be extremely intense, of the sort that would work beautifully if and only if the trains traversed the track smoothly, while if the cars bounced around at all it would be without question a once-is-enough experience. Fortunately, they didn't. While not as smooth as the best coasters out there, the tracking was good enough that we were able to concentrate on having fun rather than bracing for impact. That said, there was one fairly major issue with the ride design that caused me problems both during my first circuit and later in the day. The lap bars have a tendency to close further while out on circuit. This is a safety design feature, and indeed is the same as most lap bar coaster restraints out there. The tendency to close seemed to be far more prevalent here than usual, however, and the forces that the ride generated were enough to leave the bars uncomfortably tight by the end of the second drop. Moments later, the restraints would close further again, to the point of pain.

G-Force

I'm really not sure if there is a good solution to this. It might be possible to design the bars to lock in position in the station and not change while on course, but doing that means that the rider restraints would probably need additional checking, thus slowing down dispatch times. After a few rides I came to the conclusion that the only way I could complete the circuit without being hurt was to push against the restraint with my hands while out on course. This was effective, though it is probably not the most intelligent thing to with a restraint that is supporting my entire body weight. Hopefully the park and the manufacturer will come up with a proper fix at some point.

With the new coaster out of the way, it was time to explore what else might be on offer. We ended up at Excalibur, which is described in concise, if somewhat generic terms by the park web site; A magical adventure through Drayton Manor's own medieval kingdom. Join the knights of yesteryear in a captivating journey as they chase the fearless fire-breathing dragons - but prepare to be surprised! Always one to obey reasonable instructions, I made the requisite preparations, and in due course, it paid off. Just as our boat passed under a waterfall, it shuddered, moved backwards briefly, and stopped dead. Two minutes later, we were still in the same place, and the audio recording on board had come to a halt. The surprise had run its course at this stage, and I remarked as such, but it was still another five minutes before things started moving again. The best feature of the ride was the fact that we got to sit down in moderately comfortable seats for a full quarter of an hour. It might have saved budgetary expenses to set up the aforementioned seating in front of a blank wall; it would certainly have been just as interesting.

We were also able to sit down in the boats for the rather good Pirate Adventure dark ride. Clearly moulded along the lines of the Pirates of the Caribbean rides in the Disney parks, this version was of a similar standard with one major blessing, the complete absence of that godawful yo-ho-ho theme tune. The enjoyment factor was boosted somewhat by a running commentary from the various other club members in the boat, portions of which at least are wholly unsuitable for reproduction on a family friendly web site.

Our last stop before eating was Maelstrom, a rather good spin ride not dissimilar to the Frisbee I enjoyed so much a few weeks ago in Nagashima Spa Land. This version was built by Intamin rather than Huss, but the ride experience was for the most part the same. It is interesting for me to reminisce briefly about my tolerance for spin rides; a few years ago, even looking at such monstrosities made regurgitation a genuine possibility. Now, however, there is very little that I won't ride at least once. Unfortunately, I can still only do a limited number of spinning rides in any given day without an inconvenient response from my stomach. This limit can occasionally be embarrassing.

Maelstrom

Lunch was a traditional roast chicken affair, and to call the food delicious is to do it a disservice. It was a superb meal, and among the best catering I've ever experienced in a theme park. Following the meal, the general manager of the park, Colin Bryan, took the microphone, chatting about the park and what might or might not be on the agenda for the future. There were some interesting tidbits:

  • The Cyclone ride was to be removed imminently in response to a court order over noise. Apparently the park had been fighting a case on this one for three years, and had finally lost. Mr Bryan made some comments about whether the amusement industry is wanted by those in authority or not, especially given that many parks in England are located near to local housing, the best known example being Alton Towers.

  • Somewhat related to this noise issue was the status of the new coaster, G-Force. Those of us who had ridden it during the morning could quickly testify that it was not a quiet ride. It was, apparently, purchased by the park on the basis that it would be. Mr Bryan remarked that this was not his problem, and that his son was working with the manufacturer towards a solution. He felt, not unreasonably, that a multi million pound attraction should do what the manufacturers promised it would.

The Golden Nugget attraction feels like a direct ancestor of the shooting dark rides of today. There are only two major failings. First, is not possible to utilise the guns without developing sore fingers. Second, assuming you overcome the above hurdle, it is essentially impossible to hit any targets. Those in the front of the car might seem to have a huge advantage, given that they see the targets first, but in reality it makes very little difference; on more than one occasion I had my gun within inches of the target, and the hit still failed to register. I might be a rotten shot, but I can still hit something that close!

Cyclone

With the announcement at lunch that the Cyclone was to be removed we decided to give it a go. I am not much of a fan of spin rides, and to be honest Huss Enterprise models such as this one really don't do a lot for me. Nevertheless, it was worth riding once given that I will never again have another chance to try it. Also in the worth riding once category was the haunted swing attraction, Haunting. In this case, the ride falls into that rut only due to pathetically bad capacity. A group of 40 riders is led into the attraction about once every fifteen minutes, apparently about one third of what the ride should be capable of if it is operated with the correct number of staff. The net result was an entirely unnecessary one hour wait. It is a pity, too, as the final pre-show before the ride was surprisingly good, and something I had not come across in any other otherwise similar attractions. In the interest of avoiding spoilers the explanation has been removed; those who are really curious to know what I'm talking about should visit the park!

Next up was a ride I hope I never have to do again. The ride motion was not the problem; rather, it was the horrendously uncomfortable restraints on Pandemonium, a Fabbri-built torture device. Any ride that slowly inverts causes significant pressures on riders shoulders, and one might have assumed that such a ride would have been designed with restraints designed to cope with that situation. Such an assumption would be invalid in this case. As I type this, about two weeks later, the memory of the pain is still crystal clear.

Shockwave has had several coats of paint since my first visit, or more to the point, several incomplete coats of paint. Depending on which section of track you look at, the running rails may be either silver, light blue, or dark blue. Depending on which supports you look at... well, you get the idea. Perhaps the park chooses next years colour scheme based on which paint suppliers have excess stock going cheaply. But decorum aside, the ride quality had improved markedly from what I remembered; Shockwave was still a jarring coaster, but it was nothing like as violent as it once had been.

The rapids ride, Splash Canyon, was arguably the least interesting attraction of the day. That is not to say that it was bad; not by any means; but there was nothing particularly outstanding about it that sticks in my memory. We went from there to the Ferris Wheel. Unfortunately, our timing on this was very poor, and we arrived just as the sky was beginning to darken. The net result was me managing to take a grand total of zero useful photographs.

Splash Canyon

During our exclusive session at the end of the day I managed a total of seven rides on G-Force. It was interesting to watch the line of those going round for multiple rides gradually getting shorter. There is no doubt that Drayton Manor have a winner of a ride on their hands, but unfortunately the restraint problem outlined above really does limit rerideability a lot. With luck this will be solved before my next visit, as I could happy ride for hours in that situation.

And thus my insane year of park visits came to an end. There is absolutely no chance that I will ever experience a year like this again, with a grand total of seventy days spent in amusement parks in eleven countries around the world. I have visited four continents this year, taken six flights of more than ten hour duration, and ridden just under three hundred new coasters. My bank manager feels that I should take some time off now, and he is absolutely right. Until next time.