Blast off with Galactica Tours at Alton Towers Resort and embark on an intergalactic journey into space on the world’s first rollercoaster fully dedicated to virtual reality. Visit distant planets, twist, turn and soar amongst the stars, and journey through wormholes to undiscovered galaxies, all on a flight which is simply out of this world.
As you approach the entrance to Galactica at the far end of Forbidden Valley the first thing you notice is the change in the theming, from a theme of carnage and destruction caused by the Nemesis creature, to a simple futuristic area. If you look at the floor you will see the Galactica logo embedded within the paving, however, by far the most dominant feature of the area is the giant portal at the bottom of the first drop of the track which uses a range of sound, mist and lighting effects each time a craft passes through carrying the latest batch of Galactinauts. Heading towards the entrance of the queue line you can either join the main queue on the left, or the Fastrack queue to the right. Riders requiring the disabled entrance can find this to the right of the Rollercoaster Restaurant.
Making your way through the queue line you come to a photo point where the main queue and fastrack queue join and a member of staff directs you into the photo booth. Inside the booth, up to six guests at a time can have their individual ‘Space Selfies’ taken by placing their head inside a semi sphere where their photo is then captured and later placed on four different space backgrounds at the exit of the ride. Guests are given a printed receipt to be able to claim their photo one their journey into space is complete. After having your photo taken you are then directed to one of two stations. If directed to the right hand station you make your way straight ahead, down the slope, if directed to the left hand station you take a left turn over an enclosed bridge before making your way down to the air gates. Riders using the disabled queueline automatically go to the left hand station. Both stations have a flap covered entrance which takes you into the enclosed main station area. Screens inform riders of the destinations they will be heading to and also displaying ‘Eve’, the artificial intelligence system which will guide you on your journey into space. The stations also include subtle nods to the past theme of the ride, with signs informing you that the company behind Galactica Tours is called ‘Air Space Technologies’.
Once you reach the station you are allocated into one of seven rows of four. When the air gates open you make their way onto the train placing any loose items into the storage lockers located between the two stations. After taking your seat, a padded over the shoulder vest style restraint is pulled down which simultaneously triggers two ankle flaps to lock, securing your legs in place. Your virtual reality headset will be located in a pouch to the front of your restraint. Each row has its own dedicated ride host whose job it is to aid and assist with ensuring the headsets are correctly put on each rider. This ride host will move along the row, one guest at a time, removing the headset from the pouch, wiping it to ensure it is clean, then allow you to place the headset on your head and make sure it is comfortably in place over your eyes. Ride hosts then instruct you on how to adjust the focus of the virtual reality screen, instructing you to look straight ahead, focussing on the Galactica logo, and informing you to use the wheel located underneath a protective flap on top of the headset to adjust the focus. The ride host can also activate a number of features, including subtitles and audio description should they be required. You can also choose to ride without the virtual reality headset should you desire to do so. Once all the headsets are on and all seats are fully locked, you are raised into the flying position in preparation for the train to depart the station. If wearing the virtual reality headset the video begins when you have locked into the flying position.
Virtual Reality Experience
Once the ride begins you make your way through the Galactica launch station with Eve, your artificial intelligence guide welcoming you and talking you through the first part of your journey. Once you’ve left the station you pass through a round doorway and begin your ascent towards the portal ready for departure. Around and below you droids, service-bots which ensure your individual jet-pack is ready for the journey, can be seen making the final preparations before a countdown from three to one signifies you are about to pass through the portal and begin you intergalactic adventure.
After being transported through the portal to a distant galaxy you are taken on a breathtaking and immersive journey visiting the fiery and hostile Nero 5, the frozen ice flows of Keplar 9, and even witnessing the birth of a new planet as your craft twists, turns and banks throughout the far reaches of outer space, dodging asteroids and space stations before finally heading back towards Earth. Every movement in the virtual reality world is synced perfectly to the physical movements experienced as you make your way along the track, helping to add to the sense of immersion in the virtual reality world.
As your craft returns to the Galactica station you re-enter the tunnel and the virtual reality video comes to an end as you hear instructions to remove your headset.
After leaving the station you turn to the right before ascending the lift hill, travelling over the path leading towards the ride. Once at the top of the lift hill the train takes a small dip to the right before a 180 degree right hand turn which leads into a large drop towards ground level where the train passes through the portal theming element, triggering sound, light and mist effects as it does so. You are then twisted into a ‘fly-to-lie’ manoeuvre so you are now on your back before going through a large, left upward turn, twisting again to return you to the prone position (‘lie–to-fly’ manoeuvre). On exiting the lie-to-fly, you pass under a small ravine before heading up into a tight right hand turn. The train goes into an inline twist, then through a small dip into a left hand 180 degree turn, quickly followed by a right hand turn onto the brake run. You slow to a halt before the train is directed towards one of the two loading stations (usually the opposite station from the one which the train departed).
Once the train has come to a complete stop in the station, you are returned to a seated position. Before the restraints are released allowing you to depart the train, the ride host makes their way along the row, cleaning each virtual reality headset and replacing it in its pouch on the front of the restraint. After collecting any loose items left in the storage lockers, you exit via a set of stairs at the rear of the station emerging into the Galactica Shop where you can view your on-ride photos.
When it first opened in 2002, Galactica, then known as Air (short for Aerial inversion ride), was the first Bolliger and Mabillard flying steel coaster to be created. The concept for the ride was originally conceived in 1994 with John Wardley wanting to create a ride which simulated the feeling of flight. 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.
Galactica is located on the site of the former ‘New Beast’ which called Forbidden Valley home from 1992, until its removal in 1997 (The Beast has previously been located behind Talbot Street from 1988-1992). The New Beast’s removal left a significant gap at the far end of Forbidden Valley and it would only be a matter of time before this was filled by a new attraction.
Plans for Secret Weapon 5 were first submitted in August 2000, with permission being granted in October that year. Construction began in mid-2001 with the site being cleared and Alton Towers Resort officially announcing that the then unnamed ‘Aerial Inversion Ride’ would open in March 2002. Testing of the ride began in early 2002 with specially designed crash test dummies. A full scale marketing campaign was also launched in conjunction with Cadbury Heroes (who had signed a 5 year sponsorship deal), featuring the slogan ‘Assume the position’ – referring to the prone position riders would be placed in to experience the ride – and saw adverts screened across televisions and cinemas nationwide.
The ride finally opened on 16th March 2002, however it was not without its teething problems as the ride experienced a number of reliability issues in its first few months of operation. Despite its early issues, Air quickly became one of the most popular rides at the resort and remains the only flying rollercoaster in the UK.
During late July 2015, an application for minor enhancements to Air, including changes to its station as well as the addition of two theming features and a photo-opportunity kiosk, was submitted to Staffordshire Moorlands District Council. Towards the end of the 2015 season teasers telling guests to ‘prepare for a new flight’ then appeared around Air’s plaza and on the Resort’s website, fueling speculation over what might happen to Air in 2016. On 12th January 2016, at a media event held at the London Science Museum, Alton Towers Resort announced that Air would become Galactica from April of that year, claiming it to be “the world’s first rollercoaster full dedicated to virtual reality”. Whilst there would be no physical changes to the ride’s layout, guests would now have the option to wear a VR headset for the duration of the ride to simulate an interstellar adventure.
In late February 2016, Alton Towers Resort updated their website to state that Galactica would open 24th March 2016, slightly earlier than originally expected. As the opening date approached the Resort offered a series of previews on the attraction with Commander Chris Hadfield (famous for his work on the International Space Station) the first to ride, followed by invited press and media. During the opening weekend of the theme park, annual pass holders who had managed to obtain one of a very limited number of preview tickets also got the opportunity to try out the ride for the very first time. Responses to these previews were largely positive, and although there were one or two technical glitches during the preview stage, most agreed that the ride was a strong addition to the Resort.
On Thursday 24th March the attraction officially launched to the public with guests keen to experience the intergalactic ride for the first time. The ride attracted steady queues throughout the day, averaging at around 50 minutes. Although some guests commented that, due to the process of having to put on the virtual reality headsets, loading times were a little slow, overall the attraction proved popular and has been considered a successful addition to the theme park’s line up.
With technical issues persisting with the Samsung Gear VR headsets, the Resort replaced them with headsets manufactured by Pico in the early part of the 2017 season. However, 2018 then saw the headsets removed from all rows except the rear three, with guests who wanted to ride with the VR having to enter a separate queue upon reaching the station.
Behind the Scenes
In its days as Air, we went behind the scenes of the world’s first flying coaster, including a sneak peek inside the operator cabin and capturing the picturesque views from atop the lift hill.
Through our micro site, sw5live, we extensively followed the construction of this prototype B&M masterpiece, which was a concept first thought up in 1994 by John Wardley and B&M.
‘Air’ and its former shop were together redeveloped into Galactica, the world’s first rollercoaster fully dedicated to virtual reality, and the UK’s first Rollercoaster Restaurant.