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 were developed throughout 1992 with John Wardley working alongside Ing.-Büro Stengel GmbH 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.
It would be eight years before the next Secret Weapon would open at the Resort. By 2004 the Resort management were trying to move away from the ‘magic’ branding which was characteristic of the 1990’s, a move which saw the loss of many well-loved features of the theme park, including the dropping of the use of In The Hall of the Mountain King, a track which had become synonymous with the Resort and known to many as the ‘Alton Towers theme tune’.
Gone too, appeared to be the use of the Secret Weapon codename. Whilst the first rollercoaster to be installed after Air, Spinball Whizzer, was a relatively minor addition and not one that would have been expected to have the SW code attached to it, the Resort’s next installation just one year later in 2005 was the one which would surprise enthusiasts as, despite being of a similar size and cost to the previous Secret Weapons, Rita: Queen of Speed was built lacking the familiar code name.
To many enthusiasts, both Spinball Whizzer and Rita: Queen of Speed lacked the complete package that had made the previous Secret Weapon installations standout. They just didn’t have the landscaping, immersive theming, exciting marketing or the truly unique ride experiences the previous coasters had been known for.
In 2007 Tussauds were bought by Merlin Entertainments marking another change in management for the Resort. To the delight of many guests, a number of the well-loved features which had been discontinued by the previous management made a return, including the use of In the Hall of the Mountain King. In October 2008 the Resort announced that the iconic Corkscrew, the rollercoaster which had been a part of Alton Towers’ line-up for 28 years and helped put the park on the map, would be removed with a new attraction to take its place. It was soon revealed that this new attraction would be a rollercoaster being developed under the codename Secret Weapon 6. The Secret Weapon programme was reborn.
With plans having been approved for SW6 in March 2009, construction got underway and throughout the summer of 2009 various snippets of marketing were released to tease the Resort’s newest addition, including the promise of a ‘world’s first’ element. Speculation also mounted of a re-theme to Ug Land following further marketing taglines which told guests to ‘surrender in 2010’ and to ride the ‘Demon of the Dark Forest’.
As the 2009 season progressed, the marketing for the ride picked up pace with the Resort providing construction updates via a Flickr account, including the arrival of a truck carrying a mysterious load labelled ‘Authorised Personnel Only – Secret Weapon Inside’. A glimpse was also given into what the ride’s trains would look like as sculptors made use of the heavy snow which had fallen at the time. On 11th December 2009, it was finally revealed that Secret Weapon 6 would be named Th13teen.
When Th13teen opened in March 2010 as the world’s first vertical freefall drop rollercoaster, many guests were not happy with the way the ride had been marketed. Having been billed as the ‘ultimate rollercoaster’, as well as claiming it was a brand new form of attraction known as a ‘psychocoaster’, guests were expecting a high thrill ride, when in fact it was a rollercoaster all the family could experience. However, despite this initial backlash, Th13teen soon cemented its place as part of the Resort’s line-up.
Following the opening of Th13teen in March 2010, it wouldn’t be long before work got underway on Secret Weapon 7. Planning applications submitted in December 2011, and appearing online in January 2012, would show a new rollercoaster featuring eight inversions located on the site of the Black Hole. What’s more, as well as a number of theming elements – including a giant six legged robotic spider structure -the ride would be manufactured by Gerstlauer Amusement Rides GmbH, and have a 1.4m height restriction meaning it was almost certainly a high thrill rollercoaster.
Construction would commence in March 2012, shortly after receiving permission form the local planning authorities. As the 2012 theme park season began, construction fences were erected around the site in X-Sector and the dismantling of the disused Black Hole tent began. By May, groundwork was underway and the full extent of the construction site became apparent as the fences were pushed out further into X-Sector. September would see the steel for the station and interior queueline arrive as well as a further expansion of the construction site. Track started arriving at the Resort in October 2012, and by December vertical construction had begun.
However, the excitement of the start of vertical construction was short lived as come January 4th 2013 the countdown timer which had been placed on the SW7 minisite was removed leading to speculation of delays meaning the rollercoaster would not be ready in time for the start of the 2013 season on 16th March. On 21st January the Resort officially revealed that SW7 would be named ‘The Smiler’, however, with this announcement came confirmation that the ride had been delayed and wouldn’t open until May 2013. Sadly, this would prove to be just the first in a series of delays to the ride’s official opening.
As time passed the ride reached a number of milestones in its construction, from the arrival of the ride trains on 28th March, the topping off of the track on 24th April, to the unveiling of what made The Smiler so unique, that it would be the world’s first fourteen looping rollercoaster, on 9th May. The official opening date was also confirmed to be Thursday 23rd May leading to excitement building once more. However, just 24 hours before it was due to open the Resort announced that due to unforeseen teething problems the ride would not open as planned and did not confirm a new date. Eventually, and without warning, The Smiler opened at midday on 31st May.
As with previous Secret Weapons, SW7 was subject to an extensive marketing campaign with its own minisite set up in March 2012, and the ride becoming the first at the Resort to have its own app created offering the public the opportunity to play The Smiler game and win prizes from entrance tickets to hotel stays. As well as the usual banners surrounding the construction sites, the Resort’s marketing team also carried out some more unusual campaigns to raise awareness of the upcoming world beating attraction. During Scarefest 2012 a series of smiley face logos were spray painted across the Resort, little did guests realise at the time that this was in fact the logo for the rollercoaster itself. This logo would also later make an appearance nationwide from ticket barriers in train stations, a projection onto Big Ben in London, and even painted onto sheep!
As part of the marketing for the ride, during Scarefest 2012, the Resort would also debut The Sanctuary scaremaze, introducing guests to the sinister Ministry of Joy and their experiments to make people Smile. Always. It would later be revealed that this maze was directly linked to The Smiler with the ride being the latest in The Ministry of Joy’s experiments. The Sanctuary made an unexpected return at the start of March 2013 to try and bridge the gap caused by the ride’s delayed opening.
Just two years after it opened, The Smiler would enter the headlines once more. On Tuesday 2nd June, a serious incident occurred which saw a train carrying 16 guests collide with an empty train which had stalled on the batwing element of the ride. Five of those on board suffered serious injuries. The incident led to the theme park being closed for 5 days whilst investigations were carried out, and The Smiler would not re-open until Saturday 19th March 2016 when it would become apparent that a number of changes had been made to the ride’s theme.
During early 2015 rumours began to circulate that the Resort had started work on the next installment in the Secret Weapon Canon – SW8. These rumours were fuelled by the appearance on the Staffordshire Moorlands Planning Portal of a Formal Screening Option for an attraction based ‘nearby Nemesis’ in Forbidden Valley. This detailed a ride of ‘timber truss construction’, which would have three high points, station and pre-show building, details which led many to speculate that the Resort may finally be investing in the wooden rollercoaster many enthusiasts had been hoping for. However, due to a number of factors, these plans were later dismissed by the Resort.
Twelve months later, in February 2016, the retirement of popular water ride, The Flume, was confirmed by the Resort fuelling speculation that confirmation of SW8 was imminent. Sure enough, on March 16th 2016, official confirmation that SW8 would be built on the former site of The Flume came via the Towers Loving Care Twitter account (@AltonTLC). Details of the attraction planned for the site emerged on April 21st 2016, a new rollercoaster which would include a station located to the north east area of Mutiny Bay, maintenance building, shop, pre-show, games unit and a food kiosk. Plans showed a track layout which would encompass much of the former Flume area and include a turn just behind the Congo River Rapids in Katanga Canyon, as well as showing three theming features. What would generate the most excitement though would be when formal plans were submitted on May 31st 2016. Plans which confirmed that the Resort’s newest rollercoaster would be constructed from Southern Pine and be manufactured by Great Coasters International (GCI) – Alton Towers Resort would at last be getting its long awaited wooden rollercoaster.
Despite planning documents suggesting construction would start in September, demolition of The Flume ride structure began in December, with the ride troughs in the area over what was the lake, including the final drop, being destroyed and placed in a pile waiting to be taken away. The queueline fencing had also largely been taken down with just the fence posts and ride entrances remaining to mark the path the queue once took. The building which once housed Mexican Cantina had now been completely demolished leaving just the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream unit standing. The Flume bathtubs were being temporarily stored in an area normally used for staff parking in the main season.
Marketing began with the new season in March 2017, when the banners on the fences around the construction site were updated, along with the launch of a dedicated SW8 page on the Resort’s website. The Flume had been completely removed, bar a few stray supports and footers in the adjacent woodland, whilst foundations for the new ride were being prepared, alongside the station’s skeleton being constructed. With the ride being built in the middle of the theme park, the Resort closed the main entrance to Katanga Canyon for the season to allow vehicular access, whilst a new walkway dubbed “one tree path” was paved alongside the edge of the construction site, allowing guests to reach the back half of the park. This pathway would later go on to form part of the rollercoaster’s extended queue.
Construction would continue at a steady pace throughout the year; both steelwork for the main theming feature, alongside the rides support structure, would start to rise in June.
On National Rollercoaster Day (Wednesday 16th August) the Resort released a video which included a teaser for SW8 at its end, stating that guests would ‘be chosen at Scarefest’. This also saw the Resort’s SW8 page updated to reflect the new branding, taking on a darker tone and introducing runic symbols, providing the first real insight into what SW8’s theme would be.
A few days later, on Friday 18th August, the Resort announced that their brand new, fourth scare maze would be called ‘The Welcoming: Be Chosen’. The inclusion of the runes associated with SW8 in the maze’s logo suggested a link between the two attractions, similar to what there had been between The Sanctuary and The Smiler.
The Welcoming: Be Chosen introduced a peculiar and secretive cult who had banished themselves to the woodlands hundreds of years prior, and teased themes of enlightenment and rituals, with key phrase “Feed the Flames” being chanted by the villagers and written in runes throughout the maze. Eagle-eyed guests could also spot a mysterious effigy in one scene, which also appeared on the rising theming feature in the construction site next door.
Throughout the closed season the website was updated with further teasers about the group, now called the Beornen, before the ride was revealed to be called Wicker Man on Monday 8th January 2018, billing it as “the world’s first rollercoaster experience fusing wood and fire”.
On Thursday 8th March, TowersTimes and other communities were invited to a special “Meet the Maker” event, to get a special preview of the ride. Later that same day, the Resort confirmed that the ride was due to open with the park on Saturday 17th March.
Unfortunately, the incredibly cold and windy weather conditions over what was intended to be Wicker Man’s opening weekend prevented the Resort from opening the ride; its official ceremony was therefore rescheduled for Saturday 24th March, although the ride soft-opened to the public for the first time on Tuesday 20th March.
The ride was praised by both enthusiasts and the public for its boisterous and unexpectedly intense layout, alongside its high level of theatricality and detail; something which hearkened back to the “magic” of the 1990s.
Alton Towers Resort are yet to submit a planning application for their next major rollercoaster. Whatever comes next, it will to add to an already strong line-up of innovating and immersive coasters. From the early days of Arrow Pipelines to the fiery heat of Wicker Man, the community will always wonder what the next Secret Weapon will be.