2016 Year in Review

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2016 Year in Review

2016 marked a new start for Alton Towers Resort following a difficult 2015. With the promise of a transformation for Air, an exciting new food and beverage offering, a programme of refreshes across the Resort in the form of Towers Loving Care, plus the unveiling of plans for Secret Weapon 8 it certainly hasn’t been a quiet year for the Resort. TowersTimes take a look back at all the highs and lows of the last twelve months.

As the new year commenced it wasn’t long before we were given our first hint as to what was to come for the new season at Alton Towers as the Resort unveiled a teaser for the space based re-theme of their B&M flying rollercoaster, Air. It would be ten days later when the Resort confirmed that, following various rumours, Air would become Galactica for the 2016 season and incorporate virtual reality technology to take guests on a ‘journey beyond’ into outer space, visiting Keplar 9 and Nero 5 whilst guided by ‘Eve’ the on-board artificial intelligence system. The announcement was met with mixed views with some excited to see the new technology giving new life to the fourteen year old ride, whilst others were concerned that the use of the VR system would drastically decrease throughput and be temperamental leading to increased queues and periods of down time.

Galactica wasn’t the only change announced to Forbidden Valley in January as Alton Towers confirmed that the area would become home to the UK’s first Rollercoaster Restaurant. Offering guests a unique dining experience which would see their food delivered on a series of rollercoaster tracks suspended 8 metres above their heads. Open for both lunch and dinner service the restaurant would be set to provide much needed additional capacity. January drew to a close with the confirmation of the Early Ride Time line-up for the new theme park season. The line-up saw the removal of Nemesis from the ERT line-up, but the addition of Oblivion. The announcement also gave the first hint that Sonic Spinball would revert back to its former theme and become Spinball Whizzer once again.

With the arrival of February came the submission of plans to extend the Enchanted Village, an extension which would see an additional 35 double lodges, tipis for an entertainment area, play areas, and a reception building added to the first phase of the Village which opened in 2015. Proposed to be built in three phases, the first phase would be built in June 2018 for a March 2019 opening, phase two would have construction commence in March 2020, whilst the final phase would start construction would begin in 2021.

MI7 took to the skies once again to provide an exclusive glimpse of developments across the theme park. In Forbidden Valley the work on Air’s transformation into Galactica and the extension of the former Air Shop was well underway, whilst Nemesis was in the process of receiving a track repaint and the site where Ripsaw once stood had been paved over. Across the theme park a number of rides and attractions were undergoing their annual maintenance. With the theme park closed for February Half Term there wouldn’t be a further chance to see any changes across the park until the main season began in March.

Following an extensive investigation into the incident on The Smiler which happened on 2nd June 2015, the HSE confirmed on 25th February that it would be prosecuting Merlin Attractions Operations Limited for breaching Health and Safety law. However it would be April before the first of a series of court appearances which would determine what action would be taken against the company.

February also saw a number of smaller announcements with the launch of the Galactica app and the news that Extraordinary Golf would be undergoing a refurbishment. Also announced was the official opening date for Galactica. Set for 24th March the Resort’s virtual reality attraction would open five days after the rest of the theme park opened for the 2016 season. However, this news was perhaps overshadowed by the confirmation that The Smiler would re-open with the rest of the theme park on 19th March after the rollercoaster had remained closed following the events of 2nd June 2015.

As February drew to a close it was confirmed that family favourite ride, The Flume, was officially being retired and would not be open for the 2016 season. The announcement gave rise to a range of speculation regarding the future plans for the site, but it wouldn’t be until March that we discovered just what was in store for the area.

With the main 2016 season just a few weeks away, the Resort finally confirmed their 2016 ride line-up and opening hours at the beginning of March. As part of the ongoing Towers Loving Care programme a number of attractions were confirmed to not be operating for the new season, including Hex; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Driving School; and Wobble World. Nemesis: Sub Terra would also remained closed, although the description used for the closure of the attraction suggested it was for a separate reason to the TLC programme. Opening hours for the first few weeks of the season were also confirmed with the Resort seeing much shorter hours than in previous years, a decision which disappointed many people. However, one announcement which did stir up some excitement was the confirmation that the Resort’s next Secret Weapon, SW8, would be located on the site of the recently retired Flume.

After what seemed like a longer than usual closed season due to the absence of the February Half Term Event, the theme park opened its gates for the 2016 season on 19th March. All eyes were on The Smiler with the national media descending on Alton Towers Resort to report on the re-opening of the rollercoaster for the first time since the incident on 2nd June 2015. The ride opened to enthusiastic crowds and attracted a queue of 45 minutes which held steady throughout the day. What was noticeable was a number of subtle changes to the ride’s theme including the removal of any references to ‘correction’ or ‘marmalisation’. Galactica, the Resort’s virtual reality re-theme of flying rollercoaster Air, offered limited previews to passholders who were lucky enough to secure a pre-booked ticket, whilst elsewhere in Forbidden Valley the new Coffee Lounge opened to positive reviews. The opening of the theme park also offered the first opportunity to see first-hand the changes and refreshes made as part of the Towers Loving Care programme, including a re-paint of Nemesis’ track and a partial refurbishment of the monster; the restoration of the Nemesis Gun; re-paints of the Woodcutters façade and fountain in Fountain Square; and façades in Cloud Cuckoo Land and Towers Street. Prospect Tower had also been beautifully restored and stood proud against the backdrop of the gardens. One noticeable absence from the theme park this season was the Alton Towers Traffic Patrol and Pirates of Mutiny Bay, both of which did not return for the new season. However, entertainment was refreshed and increased in CBeebies Land with new shows and new characters whilst over in the Alton Towers Hotel, The Fabulous Scott Family provided the evening entertainment. Elsewhere across the theme park, Sonic Spinball had reverted back to its original name, Spinball Whizzer, whilst changes were made to the retail and F&B offering with a number of units closed.

Five days after the start of the main season, Galactica launched to the general public. The re-theme included the addition of an impressive new theming feature in the guise of a portal surrounding the base of the first drop, a feature which tied in with the on-board visuals. The station had been fully enclosed with new videos playing to inform guests about the journey they were about to embark upon whilst in the background a new soundtrack created by IMAscore played. The on-board experience was met with a generally positive response with just a few glitches being reported on some headsets. Although at the start of the season it was compulsory to wear the VR headset, this policy was soon changed with guests having the option to ride with or without the VR.

April would see The Smiler incident in the news once again with confirmation that Merlin Attractions Operations Limited, the parent company of Alton Towers Resort, would be pleading guilty to breaching the Health and Safety Act in relation to the incident on 2nd June 2015. Having pleaded guilty, District Judge Jack McGarva told the company they would face a “very large fine”. He went on to say, “This is a very serious case… it is a case which involves high culpability on the part of the defendant.” Concluding the hearing, District Judge McGava referred sentencing for the case to a higher court with a sentencing hearing set for Stafford Crown Court on May 20th, however it would be September before the case would return to the court to hear exactly what the punishment would be.

With SW8 having been confirmed for the site of the former Flume earlier in the year, towards the end of April plans appeared on the Staffordshire Moorlands District Council Planning Portal for a ride development located between Katanga Canyon and Mutiny Bay. Indicating a proposed track layout which would feature a high point of 11.5 metres above ground level and a series of tunnels as well as three theming features located at various points around the ride, and what appeared to be a pre-show, the plans gave us our biggest insight yet into what will become SW8. It would be a full month later, on 31st May, that full plans would be submitted confirming for the first time that at long last Alton Towers Resort would finally be installing a wooden rollercoaster, plans which would also indicate that the ride would be manufactured by GCI.

The Rollercoaster Restaurant, Alton Towers Resort’s newest food and beverage offering opened on 13th May offering a UK first dining experience. Located at the far end of Forbidden Valley, on the location of the former Air Shop, the new restaurant offered both lunch and dinner service where meals were delivered to diners via a set of rollercoaster tracks suspended 8 metres above their heads. Set as being very much the premium food option at the Resort, the Rollercoaster restaurant received positive reviews with many people impressed by the unique atmosphere in the building. What sets Alton Towers’ restaurant apart from the other Rollercoaster Restaurants located on mainland Europe is the unique décor which features a range of nods to past attractions alongside plans for many of the current major rides at the Resort. Although at the start of the season the restaurant required a reservation for both lunch and dinner service towards the end of 2016 the reservation system was suspended for lunch service meaning guests could just walk up to get a table. The restaurant proved to be extremely popular with peak days seeing queues of up to 45 minutes for a table.

June proved to be a rather quiet period at the Resort, however towards the end of the month we got our first hints as to what to expect for Scarefest 2016 with confirmation that the Resort’s signature scare maze, Terror of The Towers: What Lies Within would be returning alongside an all new maze, details of which were being kept a closely guarded secret.

As the busy summer period began at the start of July thoughts were already starting to turn towards new additions for the 2017 season with the submission of plans for a new ride in CBeebies Land. Set to be located between the Big Fun Showtime Arena and Tree Fu Tom Training Camp, the ‘rotating ride’ would be the second extension to CBeebies Land since its opening in 2014. Plans also detailed a separate entertainment building in the newly developed area and whilst the precise theme of the ride was not confirmed, rumours circulated that popular programme Go Jetters would be used as the basis for the new addition.

Having given the first hints as to what to expect from Scarefest 2016 at the end of the previous month, at the end of July the Resort made a series of daily announcements unveiling the full line up for the much anticipated Halloween event. As well as the return of signature maze Terror of the Towers: What Lies Within, and Sub Species: The End Games – which earlier in the year had won the coveted SCAR Award for ‘Best Halloween Scare Attraction’ – 2016 would see the introduction of new scare maze, Altonville Mine Tours: Uncover the Legend of the Skin Snatchers, plus the addition of a family maze, House of Monsters, which would be located in the building previously home to Wobble World. Also confirmed as returning was the Forbidden Valley scare zone, Dark Apocalypse, along with an all new circus themed scare zone, Freak Show. With the full details for the 2016 event confirmed, expectations were high that 2016 would once again see another impressive Halloween at the Resort.

With the confirmation of the theme of the new hotel, August would see construction of the new accommodation pick up pace with the main concrete foundations laid and the closure of the aqua relaxation rooms at the Alton Towers Spa to allow for the demolition of the conservatory. August would also see the confirmation of the Christmas offering from the Resort in the form of Santa’s Sleepovers. For 2016 guests could book an overnight stay which would include access to CBeebies Land and the Waterpark, Christmas Carvery, and exclusive pantomime, Aladdin.

At the end of August, and following the submission of some minor amendments to the original plans, the news that many enthusiasts had been waiting for was confirmed – Secret Weapon 8, the Resort’s first wooden rollercoaster was given the go ahead by Staffordshire Moorlands District Council Planning Committee paving the way for construction to begin later in the year.

September would prove to be a month dominated by one event, the two day sentencing hearing for The Smiler incident which occurred on 2nd June 2015. On 26th September both senior figures from Merlin Entertainments, including Nick Varney, and the victims of the incident attended Stafford Crown Court to hear the prosecution outline what happened on the day of the incident and the impact it had had on those affected followed by the defence explaining what lessons Merlin Attractions Operations Limited had learned from the incident and the various measures implemented to ensure nothing of a similar nature happened again. In passing sentence, Judge Michael Chambers QC described how there was a “catastrophic failure to assess risk” and that what happened on that day was a “needless and avoidable accident in which those who were injured were lucky not to be killed”. He described how Merlin Attractions Operations Limited “fell far short” of the safety standards that the public should expect of a theme park explaining how whilst the fun of the fair is an established tradition where visitors experience the illusion of danger this danger should only be an illusion. Merlin Attractions Operations Limited received a fine of £5 million plus costs of £69, 955.40 payable within 28 days. Due to Merlin Attractions Operations Limited’s early guilty plea the fine was a reduction from the £7.5 million it would have been had the case had to go to full trial.

As the Resort headed into October everything was focused on Scarefest. With the event opening earlier than previous years on the 9th October, and promising a new scare maze, new family maze, new scare zone, as well as the return of classic and award winning attractions the event had a lot to live up to and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Altonville Mine Tours: Uncover the Legend of the Skin Snatchers took guests through the now disused Altonville Mines which were once home to a family of outcasts who harboured a dark secret. Utilising new technology from Haunted Lantern, and featuring some of the most elaborate theming ever seen in a maze at Alton Towers Resort, the maze proved to be an outstanding addition to the Scarefest line-up receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews. House of Monsters, the new family maze which followed a vlogger on a mission to discover if monsters were real, was also a fantastic addition to 2016’s event with it utilising a mix of lively performances and highly themed rooms it provided an ideal attraction for the whole family to enjoy. The high production standards which had characterised 2015’s Scarefest had been clearly continued for 2016 with all of the attractions and entertainment, both new and returning, being executed to a high level and helping to make this year’s Scarefest arguably the best yet.

The 2016 season drew to a close in November with the annual Fireworks Spectacular event on the 5th and 6th November. Using an intergalactic theme to tie in with Galactica, the show would use a combination of fireworks and video projected onto a specially constructed portal to create an impressive display set to a well-considered soundtrack, including a grand finale set to an 8-bit version of In the Hall of the Mountain King. The weekend would prove to be the Resort’s busiest of the year with the theme park reaching capacity on the Saturday leading to long traffic queues on the approaching roads and guests being turned away at the gates leading to anger from Annual Pass Holders who did not have the ability to pre-book their visit in order to guarantee their entry. Sunday would prove to be almost as busy with the park nearing full capacity once again.

With the last fireworks having fizzled out and the rides silent, news came of further job losses at Alton Towers Resort with up to a further 70 jobs confirmed to be being cut across the Resort. Stated as being part of a continuing review of operations across the Resort, the cuts came 12 months after plans were announced to cut 198 salaried roles at the end of 2015.

Over by the Resort accommodation, with construction now well underway on the CBeebies Land Hotel, full details were released regarding the new accommodation offering for 2017. The full range of characters to feature in the hotel’s themed bedrooms were confirmed including the CBeebies Bugbies; Postman Pat; Octonauts; Something Special, featuring Mr Tumble; Swashbuckle; and In The Night Garden. Also detailed was the entertainment programme on offer with live shows, meet and greets, story time, and games with Postman Pat and Bing already confirmed for meet and greets, and the Swashbuckle Gameshow, Bing; and Andy’s Dinosaur Hunt heading up the live shows. Details of the hotel’s dedicated restaurant, The Windmill Restaurant, was also confirmed.

In an unexpected piece of news, further details came to light surrounding SW8 at the end of November as the Resort submitted documents to Staffordshire Moorlands District Council as part of the process of discharging the conditions of the planning permission. As had been previously thought, Great Coasters International (CGI) were confirmed as the manufacturers of the wooden rollercoaster with the ride having a total construction cost of £15 million (however this figure would not include the cost of marketing the ride meaning the total investment cost would be higher). We also got our first hint at the potential opening date for the ride. With the construction scheduled to take 58 weeks, followed by 11 weeks of testing and staff training this indicated a potential opening date of end of March/beginning of April 2018, a date which was potentially be in line with the start of the 2018 theme park season.

As we entered the final month of the year substantial progress had been made on the site of the CBeebies Land Hotel with the exterior skeleton now complete and work commencing on fitting the interior walls and external cladding. What was particularly evident was the impact the new building would have on the view from the Alton Towers Hotel with the previous uninterrupted view of the hotel gardens and woodland now replaced with a view of the new hotel building.

Although the Resort didn’t open to the public as it had done for Christmas 2015, guests who had booked a Santa’s Sleepover were still able to enjoy a selection of attractions, including CBeebies Land, Mutiny Bay, Spinball Whizzer and Cloud Cuckoo Land as well as enjoy Alton Towers Resort’s exclusive pantomime, Aladdin. Towers Street was also decked out in festive finery as the Resort celebrated the Christmas season.

It wasn’t just over by the Resort hotels where construction was taking place. The start of December also saw work commence on the future site of SW8 with demolition work beginning to remove The Flume. With the bulldozers having moved in, the site of the former family favourite was almost unrecognisable as the final drop and station had been completely removed and the lake in the process of being re-landscaped ready for the first groundwork to take place for the Resort’s wooden rollercoaster. Mexican Cantina had also been demolished leaving just the former ride entrances and a few lonely fence posts as evidence of what once occupied the area.

2016 has certainly not been a quiet one for Alton Towers Resort. From the excitement of the re-opening of The Smiler and launch of Galactica and the Rollercoaster Restaurant, to a Scarefest which was viewed by many as the best yet and the theme park hitting capacity for the Fireworks Spectacular, plus not forgetting the news that SW8 would be the long awaited wooden rollercoaster, there has been a lot to discuss throughout the season. As the Resort moves into 2017 there will no doubt continue to be numerous developments to focus on. Whilst the new additions for the year may be targeted towards the young family market, many will also be looking to see if the new season will see the return of some of the attractions closed as part of the Towers Loving Care programme, most notably Hex. What are your thoughts on 2016? What are you looking forward to in the 2017 season? Make sure you have your say over on the TowersTimes and SouthParks Forum. As 2016 comes to a close and a new year begins TowersTimes will continue to bring you all the latest news surrounding SW8 and all the developments at Alton Towers Resort.

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2017-02-26T15:47:40+00:00 December 30th, 2016|