With SW6, 2009 sees the return of Alton Towers’ Secret Weapon coaster building programme after a seven year absence. Here TowersTimes takes a look at the tradition, from it roots in the late 80s right through to the most recent incarnation for the replacement of the iconic Corkscrew rollercoaster.
Alton Towers is renowned for thinking big and aiming to bring the biggest, fastest, newest or most unique rides to their customers, a tradition that harks all the way back to the late eighties when John Broome still owned the park and entered into talks with Schwarzkopf to build the park’s first custom rollercoaster. Had the plans come to fruition 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.
It is widely believed that the coaster was planned to be built in Abbey Wood alongside the Corkscrew, in the site that would eventually become part of the development site for 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. For more information on the coaster take a look a Schwarzkopf Coaster Net.
When Tussauds took over the park the planned Schwarzkopf coaster was shelved as it wasn’t in keeping with the company’s vision for the park. Their first big project was the 1992 installation of the Haunted House and Katanga Canyon, but they already had a big coaster project in the pipeline as well.
They knew from very early on where they wanted to build their first coaster and had earmarked a rather unremarkable piece of land alongside the Thunder Looper as the development site. And even before they knew quite what they were going to build their they knew the coaster would be largely below ground level due to height issues that already dogged the existing Thunder Looper. Thus it was in the Winter of 1991 that the park began to blast rocks to form the hole for the park’s biggest project to date. Much of the rock that was excavated from the hole was used to decorate Katanga Canyon, the car parks and what was then known as Thunder Valley, and many of these rocks to this day bear the marks of the explosives used to draw them for the ground.
For the project Tussauds once again worked with John Wardley to create the new coaster and their initial plans were for an Arrow Pipeline Coaster placed within a military base where they are testing a Secret Weapon, a name which would eventually become indelibly linked with Alton Towers coaster projects. Secret Weapon 1, whilst never coming to fruition, had other surprising influences on the park’s development too with the theme later being used for the highly successful Oblivion and it’s site eventually becoming home to Nemesis.
If a pipeline coaster doesn’t sound familiar name, you may know the coaster type as a heartline coaster, the name popularised by the Rollercoaster Tycoon series of computer games. However when John Wardley rode the prototype of the pipeline coaster, he quickly decided the coaster was too slow and cumbersome for what he had in mind for SW1 and so these plans were shelved.
Even then Alton Towers fascination with the new Pipeline Coaster continued, as SW2 was planned to be the same type of ride, though presumably after Arrow had developed their prototype somewhat more. Everything changed though in 1992, when John Wardley rode on Batman: the Ride, the first Bolliger & Mabillard inverted coaster to be built and not long afterwards the plans for SW2 were shelved much like the Pipeline Coaster that had gone before it.
And so development began on SW3, the ride which would eventually put Alton Towers on the world theme park map. Gone was the military theme, replaced instead by a mysterious alien which had been unearthed beneath the Staffordshire countryside. The pit which had been blasted was left with sheer cliff faces and craggy nooks, through which a coaster track intertwined its way, becoming the chains with which the menacing alien, the ride’s station, is pinned down with.
Nemesis opened on the 19th of March in 1994, transforming Thunder Valley into the Forbidden Valley we know today. Consistently voted as one of the world’s greatest coasters, as guests wound their way along the queue line towards the intense ride experience, they were treated to the ride’s specially created myth, narrated by none other then Tom Baker, several years before his renaissance. Nemesis was the first Secret Weapon to come into actual existent, and quickly became a ride against which future coasters would be measured. Beyond the ride itself the park went all out to create a true experience for guests, from the menacing atmosphere surrounding the ride, right through to the interesting range of merchandise offered in The Nemesis Shop, which had all sorts of goods on sale from Nemesis’ very own comic book right through to a specially commissioned range of drinks.
The military theme came back in full force for SW4. In 1997 Fantasy World closed becoming one giant construction site for the season, complete with a guard patrolling the perimeter maintaining the top secret status of the project in progress. In the early days of the internet it was much easier for the park to keep its plans under wraps and so the first many fans knew of what was coming was when the coaster started to go vertical, and vertical was certainly the way the project went as Oblivion opened in 1998 as the World’s first Vertical Drop coaster from B&M.
Themed around a secret military installation SW4 was much more then just a rollercoaster, with the entire X Sector being part of the project, as seen through the prominence of the SW4 logo in the theming of the area. A major feature of the design of the project included the repositioning and retheming of the Energizer and Enterprise, with the latter adding a perfect “near miss” element to Oblivion’s design.
As with Nemesis, the park’s marketing team went all out in promotion of the new ride, even sending out promotional Christmas Cards hinting at what the ride would be like. Alton Towers became one of the first companies to embrace the internet as a powerful promotional tool, creating a special promotional site for Oblivion, including an impressive piece of flash animation for the sites intro page. And again X-Sell, Oblivion’s shop was filled to the brim with specially commissioned merchandise, this time including an Oblivion condom as well as the attraction’s own range of deodorants.
SW5 saw another B&M prototype come to the park with the construction of Air, the world’s first flying coaster. The Alton Towers’ flying coaster had originally been intended to follow Nemesis as the second B&M coaster to grace the park, but circumstance and technology came together to bring the Vertical Drop Coaster to the guests first.
When construction eventually began, the site for SW5 sat at the end of Forbidden Valley, in an area that had sat empty since the Beast’s departure from the park at the end of 1997. As with the previous two Secret Weapons, the new ride required a large level of excavation, but also used the landscaping that had been created for the Beast, to create a sound barrier between the park and hotels.
In a departure from the previous projects, the park was much less secretive about SW5, installing a model of the new coaster into Towers Trading on Towers Street as well as encouraging guests to have a look through the construction fences into the building site of the coaster. At the same time a new phenomena was also starting to appear to help promote the new coaster, with enthusiasts starting to create websites dedicated to the SW5 project. One of these was SW5live, a website created by TowersTimes, a site which was then in its infancy itself.
The theming and marketing of SW5 varied from the previous projects as well. Moving away from the menacing aura of both Nemesis and Oblivion, the new coaster focussed much more on the exhilarating experience of the ride and was marketed much more as a family attraction unlike the previous Secret Weapons. The look of the Air was much more naturalistic as well, focussing much more on the gardens around the ride to create the oasis at the end of Forbidden Valley which the ride sits within. The main departure from the natural feel was of course the futuristic ride shop, which rose spectacularly from the centre of this green oasis, becoming an icon for the ride in itself.
Air was a true prototype and was a very ambitious project for both Alton Towers and B&M, which contained all sorts of new bits of technology, which meant the rides first couple of years were notable for the amount of downtime the coaster had whilst many issues 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.
Guests expecting the next Secret Weapon after Air were in for quite a wait. By 2004, the park management were trying to move away from the “magic” branding of the 90s, loosing many well loved park features such as In the Hall of the Mountain King, the piece of music which had become synonymous with the park since Tussauds took over, being known to many as the Alton Towers theme tune.
Seemingly another victim of this rebranding exercise was that the park’s coaster projects were no longer labelled under the familiar Secret Weapon codename, presumably to give their new projects a different feel to previous installations. Spinball Whizzer was the first coaster to be built at the park after Air, but as a relatively minor attraction, few had expected it to be known as a Secret Weapon. The real surprise came the following year with the development of Rita: Queen of Speed, which was also built lacking the code name despite the ride being of similar size and cost to the previous SWs.
To many enthusiasts, Spinball Whizzer and Rita were also lacking in other essential features that marked out the Secret Weapon series, such as landscaping, immersive theming, exciting marketing or the truly unique ride experiences the previous coasters had achieved. Largely people expect much more from a Secret Weapon coaster then just a new attraction, there is an expectation of a complete package to get people excited and give them something to talk about and really identify the park by; a coaster that everyone seemingly knows.
And so we arrived in 2008, and the park management had changed once again, which meant various discontinued park traditions, such as In the Hall of the Mountain King, were returning much to the delight of enthusiasts and other guests alike. In October, it was announced the iconic Corkscrew coaster would be retired at the end of season, but what could replace this park stalwart which had identified Alton Towers for 28 years? Much excitement was generated when it became apparent that the replacement would be Secret Weapon 6, a new coaster which would eventually become known as Thirteen…