3 Reasons Why the UK Hasn’t Built a Wooden Coaster in Years
Of the 169 roller coasters currently operating in the UK, only 9 are made of wood.
Wooden coasters have reached acclaim amongst enthusiasts around the world. Their forces feel uncontrived and imperfect, unpredictable and somewhat dangerously out of control. Even tamer ones are fairly intense compared to steel coasters of similar scale. They are, I suppose, the very essence of what a roller coaster fundamentally should be – thrilling. So much so, that the more perfected ones receive a lot of criticism for not feeling like a real wooden coaster should, as in the case of the Intamin pre-fabricated wooden coasters such as El Toro.
“It lacks soul” I’ve heard people say, or “It rides like a steel coaster”. I’m inclined to somewhat agree, but I’m not sure these are negative points. El Toro is, in my opinion and that of many others, a fantastic coaster. One of the world’s best, and not just when talking wood. The blurring of the line between wood and steel shouldn’t be a bad thing and what makes El Toro so good isn’t its rejection of typical woodie features, it’s just that it’s of an exceptional ride quality. Coasters vary in their reasons for being so good, but the thing about most wooden coasters is that they don’t appear to need to try very hard to be good. They are also very cheap to build, so they must be appealing to parks, the problem, even in the US, is how to market them.
A lot has changed in the world of amusement parks since the golden years when wooden coasters reined amusement parks. A shift from a focus on visceral thrill to one of experience, started by Disneyland, has shaped the industry into what it is today. Rides, which focus on essentially throwing people around, are still very popular, but today they mostly take the form of flat fairground rides. Amusement parks, theme parks and the rides themselves have evolved with society. Innovation in roller coaster design now is almost entirely based on otherwise unattainable experiences. – flying, racing, etc. Such a focus opens a whole world of possibility for marketing and creating variety between what can be very similar hardware.
Wooden coasters mostly sit outside of this, lacking the variety possible with steel. Woodies are self-representational, representing the very concept of the roller coaster in its most basic form. It is just a roller coaster, and the ride experience is about being thrown around on a roller coaster. When Disney decided to build a roller coaster for thrill sake, what did they turn to for visual inspiration? The image of a classic wooden coaster on a boardwalk fairground. California Screamin’ is a steel coaster themed to a wooden coaster. When you stop to think about that concept, you realise just how powerful the roller coaster is in popular culture, especially the form of a classic wooden one, and the addition of the loop brings together everything the public associates with a “roller coaster”.
At the start of this article, I mentioned that only 9 of the 169 operating UK coasters are wood. That sounds like a huge discrepancy, but of the 2,077 operating coasters in the USA, only 113 are wood. If you look at that in percentages, then 5.4% of US coasters are wood and 5.3% of UK coasters are wood. It stops sounding like the UK has too few wooden coasters and starts to sound like the USA has far fewer than you first thought. It’s worth busting that myth that the UK has so few, because by comparison it really doesn’t. The difference is that the US is still building them often, where as the UK hasn’t in years.
1. Perception of wooden coasters as old, boring and unsafe
The UK hasn’t had a new wooden coaster since the acclaimed CCI Megafobia opened at Oakwood in Wales in 1996. This is what is important. 7 of the 9 wooden coasters in the UK are classics, and 5 of those are at Pleasure Beach in Blackpool. The only other modern woodie is a family coaster called Antelope, generally forgotten about because it’s not very good, at Gulliver’s in Warrington. Megafobia generally has good reviews. I like it a lot, one it’s most impressive features is how fast it’s moving when it hits the final brakes. You can hear the wheels continue to spin loudly at speed underneath the train. It’s certainly world class in a wider sense, but it’s location at the far reach of south Wales means it’s possibly the most hard to reach major coaster in the UK. Only locals and some strange holidaymakers are likely to ride it, along with enthusiasts.
Suddenly you realise that the majority of the British public have no experience with a wooden coaster at all, and of those who have it’s more than likely a very old one on the coast somewhere. The two classic side friction Scenic Railways in the country, one at Great Yarmouth and the currently SBNO and severely fire damaged one at Margate, are obviously incredibly tame. The Blackpool woodies are pretty good. Grand National is far superior to the mobius coaster at Kennywood in the USA, but that’s not exactly difficult – I found the ride to not utilise the racing element properly, and it didn’t really do much. The problem with them is that they are ultimately all very old, very rickety and uncomfortable. Fine for the enthusiast, but they do nothing to aid the public perception. Grand National is pretty brutal on a bad day, in a good way, of course. The intensity caused by aging isn’t going to be seen as anything more than that by the general public, where as age/roughness-related intensity on a steel coaster, even if worse, is perceived very differently. It doesn’t help that all the wooden coasters in locations Brits like to go on holiday are pretty dreadful too, such as Gwazi at Busch Gardens Africa, Stampeda at Port Aventura and Magnus Colossus at Terra Mitica.
2. A Marketing Nightmare
I have no doubt that if someone opened up a world-class modern wooden coaster anywhere in the UK, anyone who rode it would be converted. The problem is getting people to come to the park and ride it. How do you market a ride like this to an audience whose perception of these rides is that they are old? There’s nothing new, worlds first, record breaking or interesting about it. It doesn’t go upside-down, particularly fast or pull a particularly high g-force. These are the concerns that have supposedly been voiced by Merlin Entertainments. A report on TowersTimes.co.uk covering talks given by marketing at Alton Towers along with John Wardley (Merlin consultant and the man behind Nemesis) stated:[quoteicon author="John Wardley"]From a marketing perspective, a wooden coaster was determined to be unsuitable for the park. Surveys have shown that a large number of people perceive these rides to seem unsafe, therefore any wooden coaster at the park is considered to be highly unlikely.[/quoteicon]
John Wardley’s efforts to get a wooden coaster at Alton Towers are well known. It’s rumoured he came up with several different plans that never went through. SW6, also known as the “cross-valley wooden coaster”, could have potentially had the longest drop of any wooden coaster in the world, thanks to the unique landscape at the park. It would have dived over 200ft into the valley and back up the other side. For a park that can’t build much higher than 5 metres in some areas due to strict building regulations in the countryside, that’s one heck of ride. I think there’s more to the wooden coaster not happening at Alton than just concerns about marketing though, or else surely we’d have seen a steel coaster utilise this space by now, and I’m sure some of the other ideas for a layout at Alton would have been elsewhere around the park. Noise is a huge concern working with any ride, but wooden coasters are particularly noisy.
3. The issue of space and planning restrictions
There aren’t many parks in the UK that have the space and lack the planning restrictions to build a woodie in the first place. They are noisy, with large footprints. Thorpe Park is one of the only parks in the country which lacks planning issues, so what about there? They certainly have space for an out and back woodie, along the side of the park where the useless railway-to-nowhere currently lies. But, audience wise? I would have thought that in market research, Thorpe’s target audience of young adults would turn their nose up at a wooden coaster, but Thorpe’s popularity doesn’t seem to require them to add something new to get insane numbers through the gates. I do wonder if a woodie at Thorpe could single handily change the nation’s perception of wooden coasters. But is it worth the risk? Probably not. Why do that when you can pick an easy to market ride that takes up less space? There are other parks that could potentially do it, but I fear they couldn’t do it well enough to change perception.
That said, when I spoke to the Gravity Group at the Euro Attractions Show, I asked if they’d had much interest from the UK. They said whilst no confirmations had been made, surprisingly high interest was shown. I wonder from whom. The Gravity Group produces incredible wooden coasters and they seem to genuinely have the same cares as many enthusiasts. They expressed interest in going to Blackpool to ride the classics there.
So all in all, the issue of space is the nail in the coffin, really. That coupled with the risk involved in experimenting with the wooden ride type on the British public, whose perception of wooden coasters is that they are old, dangerous and a bit, well, rubbish. It’s simply not worth the hassle. If Alton spent so many years exploring the idea, yet ultimately concluded it was a bad one, I think it’s safe to say it probably is. It gives all us Brits a proper excuse to get out to the USA and ride some of the quality on offer there. There’s also a couple in Europe that receive good reviews, such as Balder at Liseberg in Sweden, Colossos at Heide Park in Germany and Tonnerre de Zeus at Parc Asterix in France. Interestingly, Europe has an even smaller percentage of wooden coasters overall than the UK alone. I wonder if it’s for the same reasons? Europa Park in Germany will be opening a brand new Great Coasters International woodie next season, so it will be interesting to see how that will be received as Europa is a huge resort park which receives British guests.