Over the years the ‘Secret Weapon’ codename has become synonymous with Alton Towers Resort’s largest developments. From the now iconic Nemesis, to the twists and turns of The Smiler, the SW name has delivered some of the most unique rides to the Resort. But, where did it all begin and how have the Secret Weapons developed as the years have gone by? TowersTimes takes you through a history of Alton Towers Resort’s Secret Weapons.
Although it would be several years before the “Secret Weapon” codename would come into existence, the tradition of Alton Towers bringing the fastest, newest, or most unique rides to their guests can be traced back to when John Broome owned the park and entered into talks with Schwarzkopf to build the park’s first custom rollercoaster. Had the plans gone ahead the coaster would have been one of the largest steel coasters around at the time and would have featured three lift hills and racing elements, where the tracks would run parallel to each other.
It is widely believed that the coaster was planned to be built in Abbey Wood alongside the Corkscrew, on the site that would eventually become part of the development area for Th13teen (SW6). Had it come to fruition this coaster would have been the biggest project the park had undertaken and was in many respects was on the same scale as the Secret Weapon projects that followed, and indeed it is often labelled incorrectly as SW1.
When Tussauds bought Alton Towers the plans for the Scwarzkopf rollercoaster were shelved due to them not being in-keeping with Tussauds vision for the theme park.
The first work on the original Secret Weapon began when the Resort were developing plans for a ride to replace Thunder Looper, the Schwarzkopf Shuttle Loop coaster which occupied the site where The Blade now resides. Work had already started on blasting out a pit on the site in 1991(with many of the resulting rocks being used to theme Katanga Canyon), even before the Resort had decided what the development was going to be. Plans were drawn up for an Arrow Pipeline Coaster themed around a secret military facility, and given the codename Secret Weapon (later to become known as Secret Weapon 1). Due to the restrictions placed upon the park, the ride was planned to have a track length of just 300 metres (980ft). However, due to a combination of technical issues with the design of the ride and financial problems being encountered by Arrow Dynamics, the project was placed on hold.
Twelve months later the project was revived, this time under the codename Secret Weapon 2. Rock blasting was undertaken in the area the development was to be located in order to accommodate a larger ride. However, the attraction was not to be. Having ridden the prototype ride developed by Arrow Dynamics, designer John Wardley described it as being slow, cumbersome, boring and inefficient and the project was abandoned.
Had the project gone ahead, Forbidden Valley would be very different to the area we know today. The pit in which Nemesis now resides would have been a very different shape, and the ride would have extended into the area which are now home to Galactica and Nemesis Sub-Terra.
In 1992, Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M) had opened their first inverted rollercoaster (where the trains are located beneath the track and guests’ legs dangle freely) opened at Six Flags Great America. John Wardley entered into discussions with the general manager at Six Flags to gain further information regarding the ride and, after experiencing the completed attraction, Batman: The Ride, wanted to add a similar ride to Alton Towers – development on SW3, the ride which would put Alton Towers on the world theme park map, began.
The proposals and design for the ride was developed throughout 1992 with John Wardley working alongside Stengal Engineering to develop a layout which wouldn’t just thrill and excite those on the ride, but also appeal to those watching with many elements being at eye level for non-riders to observe. It was the then Marketing Director at Alton Towers, Nick Varney, alongside John Wardley who came up with the name Nemesis and the concept of an alien creature trapped beneath the ground. When the ride first opened guests would be able to hear the Nemesis myth, which had been specially written for the ride, narrated by none other than Tom Baker! The ride also had its own range of merchandise offered in The Nemesis Shop, from Nemesis’ very own comic book right through to a specially commissioned range of drinks.
The ride finally officially opened on 19th March 1994 (having had soft opening from 16th March). It was the first B&M attraction to be installed outside the United States of America and proved to be a huge success. Nemesis would prove to be a ride against which future developments would be measured, and the pioneer in a series of innovative thrill rides to use the ‘Secret Weapon’ code name – a code name which would become synonymous with future first of their kind and world beating attractions at Alton Towers Resort.
During 1997, the area which up until then had been known as Fantasy World became one giant construction site with all the rides except for The Black Hole being re-located to other areas of the park. The site was surrounded by an air of secrecy, with the Resort even employing a guard to patrol the perimeter of the construction site. As the 1997 season progressed, the hole which was being excavated seemed to grow ever deeper and it wasn’t until the arrival of the first sections of B&M track that fans got the first clues as to what was coming.
It would be Christmas 1997 that would provide the biggest clue yet as to what would make SW4 so special, with the release of a rather unique Christmas Card. SW4 would also see Alton Towers Resort become one of the first to embrace the power of the internet as a powerful promotional tool, creating a special promotional site for Oblivion, including an impressive piece of flash animation for the website’s intro page.
Oblivion opened in March 1998 to a flurry of media attention, including being featured on The Gadget Show and Blue Peter. Oblivion’s military theme wasn’t just confined to the ride itself, with the theme extending across the entire area in which the rollercoaster was located. Fantasy Land was no more, in its place was the mysterious and sinister government facility, X-Sector. As with Nemesis, Oblivion would also see a dedicated range of merchandise created, including the rather unusual inclusion of an Oblivion condom and the attraction’s own range of deodorants!
Secret Weapon 5 would see another B&M prototype arrive at Alton Towers Resort with the addition of Air, the world’s first B&M flying rollercoaster (the first flying coaster of any type having been installed at Granada Studios in 1997, although it was closed just one year later in 1998). The concept for the ride was originally conceived by John Wardley back in 1994, however, due to technological limitations it would be 8 years before he saw his vision become reality with B&M manufacturing the ride, Consign the computer systems, and Tussauds Studios creating the theming.
Unlike with previous projects, the Resort were much less secretive about the construction of SW5, even installing a model of the new attraction in Towers Trading on Towers Street, as well as encouraging guests to have a look through the construction fences at the building site for the rollercoaster which was located at the far end of Forbidden Valley in an area which had lay empty since the departure of The Beast at the end of the 1997 season. The construction of SW5 also saw the emergence of a number of enthusiast websites, dedicated to following the development of the project. One of these was SW5Live, a site which would eventually become TowersTimes.
Secret Weapon 5 also saw a departure from the dark and menacing aura of Nemesis and Oblivion, with focus of the ride being the exhilarating flying experience the ride created. Air was to have a much more natural feel with the landscaped gardens around the ride designed to create an oasis at the end of Forbidden Valley, although the futuristically designed ride shop was somewhat of a contrast to the naturalistic landscaping. Marketing for the ride very much focussed on the family market, including a campaign in partnership with Cadbury Heroes which saw an extensive advertising television advertising campaign.
Air was a true prototype and an ambitious project not just for Alton Towers Resort, but also B&M, with the ride containing a range of new technology. As a result, Air suffered a difficult first couple of seasons which saw several periods of downtime whilst issues with the ride were fixed. This was something of a departure from the previous secret weapons, which had relatively smooth openings; it would however prepare guests well for the following two coaster installations, which would also be plagued with issues during their opening seasons.
In July 2015, thirteen years after Air opened, a planning application would be submitted which would signify the start of the process to re-brand Air making it the first of Alton Towers Resort’s Secret Weapon projects to be completely re-branded from its opening format. Whilst there would be no changes to the rollercoaster’s layout, the attraction would receive a new theming feature in the form of a giant ‘portal’ and have virtual reality headsets installed as the ride became Galactica, taking guests on a ‘journey beyond’ into space.