2015 has proven to be one of the most challenging years in the history of Alton Towers Resort. From the 21st birthday celebrations of the iconic Nemesis, the opening of brand new accommodation and High Ropes course, and what was described by many to be the best Scarefest yet, to an event which would prove to have a huge impact on the Resort. TowersTimes takes a look back at all the key moments from 2015.
As the year began construction was well underway on the Resort’s newest accommodation offering, The Enchanted Village. Located in the field to the east of the Alton Towers Hotel, the New Year marked the half way stage in construction of the new lodges and tree houses which would open in April.
TowersTimes’ very own MI7 took to the skies once more in the middle of January to get the first glimpse of how the closed season work was progressing. Alongside the usual general park maintenance, which included the installation of a new roof for the Congo River Rapids, MI7’s flyover revealed that a new attraction was being installed on the former site of the Beastie (the popular children’s rollercoaster which had been removed during closed season 2012/13 after ceasing operation back in 2010). With the area cleared and concrete foundations in place the Resort took delivery of rollercoaster supports and track later confirming that a new children’s rollercoaster would be joining the CBeebies Land line-up. After much speculation surrounding which CBeebies character would lend their theme to the new attraction it was confirmed at the start of February that the new attraction would be called ‘Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure’ and would offer children the opportunity to experience their first rollercoaster whilst also becoming Octocadets and learning about various aspects of life under the sea.
February heralded the first opening of the Theme Park to day guests in 2015 during the February Half Term event, which this year had a CBeebies focus in the form of live shows from Mr. Bloom and Justin Fletcher, and presented the first chance to take a look at any changes which had taken place over the closed season. The track for Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure had been fully constructed and the train added to the circuit leaving just the area’s theming to be added. Elsewhere across the park many attractions were still undergoing their routine winter maintenance, including Rita, and Twirling Toadstools, whilst the Congo River Rapids was receiving particular attention with the installation of a new roof. Not all improvements appeared to be for the better however with the Runaway Mine Train having many of its headchopper elements removed, something which disappointed many fans of the ride.
With the arrival of March came the unveiling of the Theme Park Map for the new season. Despite having had no previous announcement from the Resort, The Blade – the popular pirate ship ride located in Forbidden Valley, had been left off the new season map leading many to speculate that the attraction would be left Standing but not operating for the 2015 season or removed completely. However, come opening day The Blade opened along with the rest of the Theme Park, much to the delight of many guests.
On 21st March the main season finally began meaning that the Resort’s newest attraction, Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure, opened to guests for the first time. Utilising a range of theming elements as the train completes two circuits of the track, the attraction proved to be an extremely popular addition to CBeebies Land and strengthened the existing area line-up. Elsewhere across the park a number of changes and refreshes had taken place. Guest Services had been merged with the Resort Box Office, whilst over in Katanga Canyon the Congo River Rapids had had its new roof completed giving the station a more open appearance. In Forbidden Valley work was underway on the restoration of Prospect Tower which will see the gothic monument restored to its former glory. The live entertainment also made a return with the ever popular Pirates of Mutiny Bay and Alton Towers Traffic Patrol both being refreshed for the new season. There was also frustration for many guests with the introduction of staggered ride openings across the Theme Park which saw both Dark Forest, Cloud Cuckoo Land and Hex not opening until 11am, whilst Nemesis: Sub Terra, Ripsaw, Congo River Rapids and The Flume not opening until 12pm. These staggered openings were reversed later in the season with the areas and attractions affected opening with the rest of the Theme Park. Changes were also made to the queues for Nemesis and Rita which both saw the single rider option removed – a change which dismayed fans of both rides. The new season also brought a new marketing campaign with guests being invited to complete ‘The Big 6 Challenge’. Accompanied by a specially designed app, guests had to ride each of the Resort’s six flagship rollercoasters, Nemesis; Air; Rita; Th13teen; Oblivion; and The Smiler, checking in on the app at a special checkpoint by each ride. Those who successfully completed all six rides received a wristband entitling them to a free return visit on November 4th.
Just one week after opening for the new season the Theme Park was to lose one of its food and beverage outlets. A fire broke out in the kitchen of the Fish & Chips Restaurant in Forbidden Valley, the result of which would be the closure of the outlet for the rest of the season.
March also saw one of Alton Towers Resort’s most iconic attractions reach its milestone 21st birthday. Opening in 1994, Nemesis has been thrilling guests and is still one of the Resort’s most popular rides. In recognition of 21 years of ‘fright time’ the Resort held a special event which saw John Wardley and Nick Varney give talks recognising the special part the rollercoaster has played in the Resort’s history. The signage around the ride was also changed to special Neme21s branding, something which was also seen on a range of limited edition merchandise introduced in the Resort’s retail outlets.
After much anticipation April saw the opening of the Resort’s newest accommodation offering – The Enchanted Village. Located to the east of the Alton Towers Hotel the village was constructed on what was formerly an empty field and had been used as the location of the ‘Field of 1000 Screams’ scaremaze. Offering accommodation in either a Woodland Lodge, or a Luxury Treehouse, the new accommodation option offered a much more relaxed atmosphere to the sometimes hectic feel of the Resort Hotels. One of the stand out features of the new area was the programme of entertainment put on throughout the day which included nature trails, treasure hunts, games on the ‘Village Green’ and archery. Led by enthusiastic staff, who actively encouraged participation from parents and children alike, the activities proved to be very popular and allowed children to explore the Enchanted Village in a fun, safe and supervised way. The Enchanted Village also offered a new dining option for guests – The Crooked Spoon – which was decorated in a way in-keeping with the enchanted theme, including custom music composed by IMAscore. Despite a number of teething issues on opening night, both the restaurant and the Enchanted Village would go on to be a popular addition to the Resort.
Later on in April we gained some of the first glimpses into the future plans for the Resort. A planning application was submitted to transform the retail outlet for Air into a new Rollercoaster Restaurant. In a UK first, the plans would see the space transformed into a Food Loop style restaurant, similar to the one at Europa Park in Germany, where guests would see their food deliver on tracks which would run above their heads. The Resort also submitted a screening application for an unknown addition to the Forbidden Valley area of the Theme Park. Widely speculated to be for Secret Weapon 8 the report described a ride of ‘timber truss construction’ which would have high points ‘enclosed within sound tunnels’ and would require the removal of some existing buildings and ride structures. Despite this screening report no further information has come to light regarding the proposed additions detailed within the report.
With the main Theme Park season well underway over by the Resort Hotels the newest addition to the activities line up, Enchanted Forest Tree Top Quest, opened to the public. Offering a high ropes and a low ropes course, guests traverse a selection of challenging obstacles, from tightropes, to rope bridges, before facing the final zip wire to complete their chosen course. The new attraction offered something different for guests to try and complimented the other Resort attractions and would prove to be an excellent addition to the Resort’s overall offering.
On 2nd June an event took place which would completely change the course of Alton Towers Resort’s season. A train carrying 16 guests collided with a stalled train on the batwing element of The Smiler resulting in 5 guests being seriously injured, 2 of whom later had to each have one of their legs amputated. As a result the decision was taken to close the Theme Park, a closure which would last until 8th June with X-Sector not re-opening until 15th June to allow the Health and Safety Executive to carry out their initial investigations. The effects of the incident would also have an impact on Merlin’s other theme parks in the UK with Dragon’s Fury and Rattlesnake at Chessington World of Adventures Resort, and Saw: The Ride at Thorpe Park Resort as well as Sonic Spinball at Alton Towers Resort being temporarily closed to allow for enhanced safety procedures to be implemented. The Smiler itself would remain closed for the rest of 2015 whilst both the Resort and the HSE carried out the necessary investigations. In the weeks following the incident the Resort was placed under an intense amount of media scrutiny, with seemingly every detail of the Resort’s attraction operations being reported on regardless of whether they fell within the normal operating parameters of the ride concerned. The ‘Big 6 Challenge’ marketing campaign was also cancelled, although those who had already received their wristbands for completing the challenge were assured their free return visit on November 4th would be honoured. Attendance figures also dropped significantly just at the part of the season where visitor numbers would be increasing as the summer holidays approached. This in turn had further knock on effects to operations across the theme park with certain rides on staggered openings, and other attractions closed early, in the middle of October, for the remainder of the season. Merlin Entertainments would later go on to issue a profit warning for its Theme Park Division revising its profit forecast down to between £40m and £50m, a decrease from £87m in 2014. Merlin also stated that profitability could also be affected into 2016. Later on in the year it was also announced that up to 190 salaried jobs would be lost at Alton Towers Resort as a result of a re-structuring of the business in time for the 2016 season. It would later be confirmed by the Resort that what happened was the “result of human error culminating in the manual override of the ride safety control system without the appropriate protocols being followed. The investigation also identified areas where protocols and the training of employees should be improved. There were found to be no technical or mechanical problems with the ride itself.” It was confirmed that the £18 million rollercoaster would re-open in 2016 with “an extensive set of new safety measures”. Some positives did come of the incident and the resulting rescue operation with the announcement that three of the emergency workers, Army doctor Major David Cooper, aircrew paramedic Tom Waters and North Staffordshire BASICS volunteer Doctor Ben Clark, received a Pride of Britain award for their work during the rescue operation which saw them climb the structure of the ride to administer treatment, despite not having received full training to climb difficult structures.
Following what could be seen as the most difficult month in the history of the Resort, July saw a re-focus from the Resort’s marketing department with the launch of the Towers Tastic summer campaign. Implementing a number of initiatives, including competitions across the Resort’s social media channels, discounts on Resort accommodation, and random giveaways to lucky guests visiting the Theme Park. A new Food and Beverage outlet also debuted in Gloomy Wood offering something a little bit different. Nitrogenie was the first outlet to offer ice cream made from liquid nitrogen in a UK theme park and proved to be hugely popular with guests visiting the Theme Park.
The first clues to the Resort’s plans for the 2016 season would come at the end of July with the submission of a planning application for ‘improvements’ to Air, the Resort’s B&M Flying Rollercoaster which first opened in 2002. The proposals, which would go on to be approved by Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, outlined the addition of two new theming structures and alterations to the station area which would see the station become enclosed and indicated a pre-show would be added. Although precise details on what the new theming would be were not included within the submitted plans many speculated that the ride would be re-themed and re-named for the 2016 season and that the rollercoaster would become the first in the UK to offer a virtual reality experience, similar to that tested on Alpenexpress at Europa Park in Germany.
Shortly after the plans for the changes to Air were submitted the Resort also submitted plans to further extend their accommodation offering. An application was submitted for a 76 room extension to the Alton Towers Hotel which would also include a new restaurant, café and bar, and a re-landscaping of the Hotel gardens. The plans would see the further development of the Resort’s strategy to encourage more multi-day short breaks and would be the second major development of the accommodation offering following the addition of the Enchanted Village earlier in the year.
With the Resort facing reduced visitor numbers the decision was taken to reduce the operating hours of certain attractions and food and beverage outlets during September and October, as well as closing the Theme Park at 4:30pm on selected off-peak days. A small number of attractions were also closed for the season early with Wobble World and The Flume both joining Nemesis: Sub Terra and The Smiler on the list of attractions unavailable for the rest of 2015.
The arrival of October meant it was the time of year where all things spooky arrived at Alton Towers Resort and 2015 was to see a completely re-vamped Scarefest. Featuring two terrifying new mazes The Haunting of Molly Crowe, and Sub Species: The End Games – the first maze at the Resort to offer multiple routes and 2 possible endings, alongside the return of the Resort’s signature scaremaze, Terror of the Towers: What Lies Within with a new route for 2015, this year’s event promised to offer something different to that seen in previous years. There was also a brand new after-hours experience on offer. Instead of the overnight experience offered in previous years, the Resort introduced Sub Species: Operation Lockdown – a 2 hour escape experience which challenged guests to solve a series of puzzles to find their way out of the alien infested underground sewer system and included multiple endings depending on the choices guests made. Scarefest would prove to be the best yet with many who visited commenting that Sub Species: The End Games was the best scare attraction Alton Towers Resort had ever created. Across all of the scare attractions the production value was of an incredibly high standard and it was clear that the 2015 offering has set the foundations for Scarefest to go from strength to strength for years to come.
With a successful Scarefest coming to a close all that was left for the main 2015 season was the annual Fireworks Spectacular. For 2015 the show included a more theatrical element with Sir Algenon presenting his ‘Sonic Visualizer’ alongside 6 musicians located on podiums throughout the audience. To complete the spectacle the finale of the show featured an especially composed piece of music by IMAscore and recorded by the Budapest Film Orchestra which included soundtracks from many of the Resort’s most popular attractions from Hex to Nemesis.
As the festive period approached selected areas of the Theme Park would open to day guests for the first time on selected dates during December. Primarily aimed at families, the Resort opened CBeebies Land, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Sonic Spinball, and Mutiny Bay as well as offered a new Christmas experience, Elves Emporium.
The Resort also looked ahead to what was to come in the 2016 season, announcing a series of information via their blog. Amongst the information revealed was a series of teasers for the forthcoming changes to Air, describing it as a ‘ground-breaking ride experience’, as well as using a range of seemingly space themed language – from 2016 being a “meteoric year” to the Resort preparing for an “out of this world season” – the Resort have dropped their strongest hints yet that the re-vamped Air will indeed have an intergalactic theme when it re-opens in 2016. The Resort also announced an extensive three year maintenance scheme under the name of “Towers Loving Care”. The scheme will see a whole host of improvements from re-paints of areas and improving signage, to the refurbishment or redesign of attractions. Some of the details for the opening times of the Theme Park were also confirmed with some closures scheduled for off-peak days during April, May, September and October, an opening pattern which is in line with the planned opening calendar for Merlin Entertainments’ other UK theme parks. It was also confirmed that the Theme Park would not be open for February Half Term in 2016.
2015 has certainly seen the Resort face many challenges, especially in the second half of the season. However, despite these the Resort is continuing to look forward with a range of plans set for the forthcoming 2016 season and beyond – from the changes to Air and the introduction of the Rollercoaster Restaurant, to the wider “Towers Loving Care” programme. As the Resort moves towards the start of the 2016 season there is certain to be plenty of focus on the Theme Park as many wait to see just when The Smiler will re-open for guests to ride. What are your opinions of the 2015 season? Are you looking forward to a fresh start for the Resort for the 2016 season? Make sure you have your say over on the Attraction Source Forum. As 2015 comes to an end and the New Year begins TowersTimes will continue to bring you all the latest news and developments from the Alton Towers Resort.