Since the Wicker Man wooden rollercoaster opened at Alton
Towers in the Spring of 2018, I have had many coaster enthusiasts ask me if and
how I was involved in its development. To put the record straight, here’s an answer to that question.
For fifteen years I had tried to persuade Alton Towers and
their owners Merlin Entertainments to build a wooden rollercoaster. Before the
decision was taken to build the ill-fated Smiler I had lobbied strongly that a
woodie was the most appropriate, cost-effective coaster to develop. I had
concurred completely with Merlin’s reservations on the likely public attitude
towards such a ride, but felt that with the application of the company’s
formidable creative talents, the same approach could be taken with a woodie as
we had taken with Nemesis, and that the ride hardware could form part of a
completely immersive themed experience. Right from the start, I had never built
a roller coaster that was just a coaster. We had always put as much effort into
the theming, decoration and storyline of the attraction as we did into the ride
hardware itself, and my concept of a woodie would be no different.
Candy Holland and I had conceived woodies themed on various
super-heroes, cartoon characters, and even a spooky horror circus. I produced
layouts and profiles for these rides that took into account all the various
planning criteria that had been taken into consideration for our previous
rides. But to no avail, nothing was going to persuade them, so the Smiler was
In October 2016, when Alton Towers was still reeling from
the Smiler incident, I took a phone call from Mark Fisher who was Merlin’s main
board director responsible for the theme parks. The conversation went something like this:
“Hi John. Just thought I’d give you a call to see how the
SW8 coaster project is going”
“Pardon?” I said. “What SW8 project?”
“Alton’s new woodie. How is the project looking” he
“I know nothing about it” I responded. “I’d heard rumours
that you were thinking of building a woodie, but nobody’s been in touch with
“But I thought you were on the project team” Mark replied.
“I don’t know what’s gone wrong. Leave it with me.”
And the phonecall ended.
I felt on the one hand elated that at last Alton Towers was
going to have a wooden coaster that they rightly deserved. But on the other
hand very saddened that the dream I had had for so many years was taking place
without my involvement.
Later that day, the phone rang again. It was Mark.
“John, there’s obviously been a major misunderstanding. The
project is already designed, and we’re five months into the schedule.But we need you on the team. I’m arranging to
send you some plans and other details of the proposals that have already been
finalised, but I’d like you to look at them and give me your opinion.”
“But if it’s already been designed, what good is my
involvement?” I said. “I’d be on a complete hiding to nothing. You obviously
want me to say that the project is all very wonderful, in which case there was
no need for my involvement anyway. But if I show any reservations or voice any
criticisms, I will be seen as an interfering outsider who resents not being a
key part of the team from the start. I can’t win.”
“Look, we’ve made a mistake. Do me a favour, go to a project
meeting and give the project the once-over.”
“I’ll only go to a meeting if the key members of the team
invite me” I protested. “I want to know that I’d be genuinely welcome on the
team, and not just dropped in from above at your insistence”.
“I’ll make sure of that” Mark replied.
Over the course of the next couple of days the phone was
red-hot, and emails were whizzing around. Yes, I was a welcome member of the
team. So I attended a project meeting.
What I found encouraged me enormously. The team comprised
some very experienced people in project management, and the creatives under
the leadership of Bradley Wynn had come up with a very imaginative theme based
loosely on the horror movie “The Wicker Man”. They had also engaged one of the
industry’s leading wooden coaster manufacturers, Great Coasters International,
as the supplier of the ride. The layout of the ride in plan was good, too, but
when I then projected the profile in the vertical plane onto this and produced
a computer simulation of the ride on NoLimits2 it certainly wasn’t as thrilling
as it potentially could have been. In particular, the first two drops after the
lift hill were extremely disappointing, together with a rather dull section of
track towards the end which could easily have been made more exciting. But I
was told that it was too late to change anything, as contracts had been signed,
and the structure’s foundations had been designed.
So I politely said that if changes couldn’t be made and my
recommendations taken on board, there was no point in my being on the team.
After much deliberation, I was asked to prioritise the alterations I felt
necessary, and the team would decide which could be implemented. I re-profiled
the first two drops, produced a NoLimits2 simulation of the ride with these
changes in place, and everyone agreed that it was a huge improvement, and these would be implemented. However, no other changes could be made. I conceded this point, and
happily remained on the sidelines of the team right up to opening, offering my opinions from time to time when requested.
The ride has been a huge success, and putAlton Towers’ fortunes back on track.