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.