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The One Where Alton Towers is Busy

Will

Active Member
It’s too hot today and yesterday marked only my second proper theme park visit of what’s obviously been a truly crappy 2020 so far, meaning it’s time for a review of sorts.

On returning home, I had a scan through the report @Matt N had just posted, thinking that at least one person would have had a worse day than me. After all, he’d been at Thorpe and I hadn’t. Annoyingly, I was quickly proven wrong. (No need to apologise, Matt!!)

Anyway, my first indication of how the day was likely to go came around 9:30 when, before I’d even reached the resort, I found a queue to get onto Beelow Lane. Another queue was quickly located within a minute of passing through the main resort gate – aside from fireworks events, I couldn’t remember it taking 20 minutes to get parked up since I came with my parents in the nineties and this did not fill me with confidence. Part of the problem seemed to stem from the fact that, with the monorail closed, the uptake for premium parking was high and the next-to-the-entrance spaces had been massively oversold; there was a lengthy tailback to access the premium car park and by the end of the day, there were cars scattered seemingly at random across the overflow gravel coach parks.

The other issue seemed to be the fact that we were being parked at a ‘social distance’ – this did not prevent the car behind me parking around 2 inches off my tailgate. More worrying than the car park queue was the slow moving line of people I’d spotted along the main footpath to the entrance; this was also to a level I hadn’t seen in some considerable time. I’d be lying if I said that the temptation to turn around and head back home wasn’t real and indeed, I saw a not inconsiderable number of people doing so, but decided to stick it out, at least for a bit.

In reality, the walk from the main car park to the entrance shouldn’t take much more than around 10 minutes, but on this occasion, I hadn’t even reached the road crossing adjacent to the Mine Train’s maintenance gates when the crowd slowed to a funereal pace and would continue as such for the remainder of the path. Needless to say, this crowd was fairly closely squashed together and whilst I may not be the most Covid-fearing of folk, I certainly felt happier keeping a face covering on.

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By 10:30, I’d finally had my temperature checked, opened my bag for a thoroughly disinterested security guard and scanned my season pass for the first time. It’s noteworthy that nobody asked to see my reservation voucher (possibly to prevent the queue from coming to a complete standstill!) and the turnstiles were perfectly happy to accept the plastic card alone.

As you can imagine, dear readers, I was thoroughly cheesed off by this point but decided I’d hit control+alt+delete on the day and try again, grabbing a latte from Corner Coffee and sitting on the grass to appreciate the weather and my surroundings for a while. Aside from being plagued by small irritating flies, this worked, up to a point.

I also noticed there was already a very lengthy queue of people outside Guest Services and whilst I’d like to think this was criticism of the obvious (and arguably irresponsible) overselling, they were more likely to be collecting season passes. Fasttrack is obviously not on offer at present, which was a mercy, considering!
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My plan had been to try to be in the park for 10ish and work my way across the left side towards the Valley, but I’ve since learned from other goons that main gates are currently being open well in advance of 10 in order to prevent the entrance line from becoming any more obnoxious. As such, it was already packed on park with waits between 45 and 100 minutes for all major rides which didn’t seem hugely desirable and a quick look at the melee outside Wicker Man confirmed this.
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I decided I’d wander over to Sharkbait Reef and see how busy that was. As generic as Merlin’s interpretation is, I’ve always been a big fan of aquariums so had been looking forward to checking this out again and was pleased to note that very few people were venturing inside. Obviously, face coverings are required and there’s a spiel from the staff member manning the door reminding you about distancing from other groups and touching as little as possible. Inside was notably very clean (and the combination of endless harsh cleaning products and fish tank water must be a nightmare for the staff) but otherwise, there were very few changes.

What used to be the cleaner shrimp touch pool now has chocolate chip starfish, vampire hermit crabs and a very bored looking staff member supervising.

There’s a fairly basic new tropical area towards the end and spotting some large spotted characins with glittery bellies raised my eyebrows until I overheard a staff member explaining to a new starter that these were just spotted silver dollar. She talked to me for a minute or so, but obviously had training to get on with. The new tank also has oscars in. Oscars are cool.

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I liked the misprint on this sign. So far, Alton Towers was causing me ‘the distress’.
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I was also amused by someone I heard saying “I want to get out of here, this ‘ghosts of the sea, ghosts of the sea’ thing is freaking me out". I tried to have a look around the shop, but it had malingering people and people not in masks who got in my way.

Next up, I headed towards Katanga Canyon. It was warm, but the rapids were busy and not a massive amount of fun to ride on your own anyway. The area wasn’t the busiest I’d ever seen it, but I decided to pass on Runaway Mine Train where the queue was filling most of the extensions. Mine Train is a ride which doesn’t have the greatest throughput at the best of times, but I did notice the area seemed to have been changed around a bit and (aside from the screens over the bridge) this looked to be an improvement.

The next ride I passed was Duel and as this had no queue, I decided it was worth a go. A large amount of the old queue line was open large crowds from forming inside the main ‘building’ and it seemed to be working; one group is currently batched into each car, but aside from when you get a lone goon, this doesn’t run much more slowly than usual. What I’d forgotten is that Duel had a ‘revamp’ in 2018 and has never been quite the same since – I’ve still not learned to accept the new soundtrack or the funfair style glow-in-the-dark paint that was liberally slathered over many of the effects. On top of this, there were noticeable sections of the ride where nothing was working other than sound and I was plunged into darkness with nothing to either look or shoot at.

Upon exiting, I wondered if each individual car and set of ‘blasters’ was being wiped down before passing through to the other side of the station, but this did not appear to be the case. I did hear a few parents telling their children they could ride, but not shoot, which… made little sense. What made even less sense was the number of people queuing to buy picsolve ride photos despite being barely recognisable!

I’ll also mention at this point that the ‘Katanga Canyon bypass’ path behind Wickerman which is usually only used during fireworks is currently only, but NOT a compulsory one-way system as it was at the beginning of the month. As Haunted Hollow exists, I didn’t really see the point of it.

Now, it was hot so I changed into shorts in the Gloomy Wood toilets before carrying on to Forbidden Valley and Nemesis. Nemesis was advertised as a 40 minute wait and it took me a while to decide whether I could be bothered, before I reasoned that the weather and the ride were good and I had nothing better to do. Many queue line extensions were open, which meant I got the rare views from beneath the lift hill – I’ve always said I’d like to explore the rest of the old queue line switchbacks but many are ludicrously overgrown and others are now classed as ride areas. The queue passed pleasantly enough and moved reasonably quickly as trains were dispatched about every 90-100 seconds. It would have moved faster, but here one group per row was the process (again, lone goons caused hold-ups!).

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During the queue, I amused myself by taking the usual generic photos (under sunshine, for a change!). By the time I reached the station (about 35 minutes after joining the queue), the line had grown substantially and was now coming out of the entrance, estimated to be 70 minutes in length. The main line in the station is closed and all guests expected to make their way down the front row line – I rode in the seventh as the back row was closed off for disabled guests, exempt as they are from the face covering rules.
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You all know what Nemesis is by now, so I don’t need to go into any great detail at this point, but I enjoyed feeling the rush and the force for the first time since October and was also glad that the best coaster I rode in 2020 wasn’t going to be the uninterestingly meandering Icon!

Boarding and unboarding in the cramped Nemesis station was a little chaotic for my liking, so I ran away in the direction of Air. Air seemed to be experiencing a temporary delay (or possibly the routine cleaning); whichever, I noticed a large number of people were leaving the queue line, which appeared both cramped and lengthy. I’d toyed with the idea of riding, but I was hungry.

I also noticed at this point that a hotel guest entrance has been set up by the second gate; this is a step in the right direction, but when the monorail is closed, having to head all the way back to the main entrance and THEN doubling back to the car park has always been a bone of contention and this idea needs to be expanded upon. This would control crowds up to a point, but the cynic in me says they won’t do it as they make too much on premium car parking. The tent is also perfectly positioned to ruin any pictures of the Galactica ‘gateway’.

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I had a quick look around the rest of the Valley; there was a significant queue to get into the Rollercoaster Restaurant and Blade’s queue had been linked up to use parts of the abandoned Ripsaw line, meaning this was now more than 30 minutes in duration. Blade also looks the cleanest and most well looked after it has in some considerable time.

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In the hope of escaping the crowds (and avoiding the sizeable Skyride queues which are now arranged in rather confusing fashion), I decided to head through the gardens towards the Towers. I joined the gardens path behind the Prospect Tower and headed towards the pagoda fountain, which I was happy to see still clean and in operation, over a month after the shortlived Gardens-only event had come to an end.

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The gardens seemed busier than usual and I think there were a few reasons for this – insufficient signage, skyride queues and inexperienced people attempting to navigate using the new app. I don’t dislike the app, but it’s a poor replacement for adequate signage. I’m always happy when I can survive the cross-valley pathway post-Lockdown, but many people attempting to use it clearly didn’t know what to expect. I also had a look at the Swiss Cottage.

It was now shortly after 1PM and I was still looking for food. My personal preferences are the Welcome Inn barbecue thing and the Bar and Grill near Hex – I wasn’t sure the former was serving, so I had a look at the latter. There was a queue outside and whilst many guests were seated outside, as many people as possible seemed to have been crammed inside; I didn’t want to think what the ordering system or wait times would be like. I also had the feeling that a lone goon would be about as popular as a horny stray at Crufts.

Whilst I’d wanted to have a nosy inside the Dark Forest, the next try was Burger Kitchen in Cloud Cuckoo Land (or whatever name it now goes by). This was a non-starter as, much like the nearby Hex, it was completely closed.
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Out of frustration, I ended up heading for X-Sector to the chicken restaurant; even this had a queue out of the entrance and looping around the back of the building. There were signs inviting me to order on a phone app. After over a decade of service and realising that under current circumstances, it might be helpful if people could actually contact me, I’d recently retired my old Nokia and upgraded my phone, so I decided to give it a try. This took 10 minutes or so, by which time I felt my time may have been more productively spent in the queue.

The signage of how to pick up the food once it was ordered was far from clear; lots of people were sat outside appearing to be queuing, whilst not queuing. My chicken was adequate and better than I’ve had at many other UK (and French!) parks but at £9.05 for a few bits of chicken, some chips and a water bottle, I labelled the value poor. Having said that, I easily got a table and was impressed with the cleanliness inside as well as the one-way system actually working. There’s also a lot of new artwork and ride stuff on the walls since last I visited.
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As I enjoyed a cigarette in the ‘Submission memorial garden’, I realised it was 2PM and I’d only been on two rides so far. Smiler makes me feel yucky and so too does its overly claustrophobic queue line, so Oblivion was the way forward, especially as this seemed to have only just re-opened following 30 minutes downtime. The queue was not as well spaced out as I’d have liked and didn’t move at all for the first 15 minutes after I moved – I was just considering giving up, when trains with people on began to be dispatched. After this, the queue moved fast and it only took around 10 more minutes to spiral up to the station.

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Oblivion’s batching system is that alternate bays as loaded and one empty seat is left between each party; although nobody told the pair to my left this! I also realised I’d been stupid and sat down still wearing one of my slightly tattered old F1 hats but a familiar face was on hand to point this out. CF oldies like myself may remember a member styling himself ‘AIM@ME’ and be pleased to know he’s still working at Alton and was very recognisable, even behind the PPE visor. Didn’t make me feel any less daft for boarding with my hat on though!

As for Oblivion, like Nemesis it was as enjoyable as I remembered it and worth the wait, though disembarking was slightly chaotic, particularly with disabled riders making their way in through the exit gate.

I wasn’t sure what to do now – all queues remained excessive with Smiler’s spilling out of the entrance and back towards that of X-Sector and Spinball Whizzer’s too well exceeding the available space. It wasn’t getting any quieter or cooler and I decided I’d had enough. I checked out Towers Trading on my way to the exit – it was too busy and warm in here as well and I couldn’t see anything I felt like parting with money for. Even more annoying, I found the one-way system didn’t apply to those who hadn’t made a purchase and I had to make my way back around and out of the entrance which was an added irritation.

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I really grudged paying my £6 for parking when I finally found there were machines outside the entrance plaza and I didn’t have to faff around trying to use my phone again. It was just gone 3PM (another 3 hours until ride close) as I headed back towards the car and I observed I definitely wasn’t the only person who’d had enough – there were also a few family groups having domestics along the path.

To add insult to injury, I got stuck on the A500 for half an hour on the way home – in 27 degree heat. This was the first bad traffic I’d met in months. Seeing a cat on a country road was the highlight of the journey.

Overall, as you may have gathered, I don’t recommend making a trip to Alton just at the moment and I’m glad I put it off as long as I had. I very much doubt I’ll be back before September – assuming schools are even back then! This was likely my worst visit in around 7 years and it's rare I enjoy a park that isn't Thorpe less. I’m sure some of you are thinking ‘Hmm… Will spends a few thousand words slating a Merlin park – there’s a shocker! What does he expect visiting in the Summer holidays?’

By contrast, I visited Blackpool Pleasure Beach a couple of weeks back – also on a weekday and while I know which park I prefer (I don’t really rate ANY of Blackpool’s coasters), the Pleasure Beach was the far superior day, as there were very few non-Nickelodeonland rides I didn’t get to experience as well as the atmosphere being more pleasant.

I will admit though that it’s a tricky one and short of reducing guest numbers, or maybe entry time-slots, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

With regard the C-word, I’d have to say I wasn’t overly impressed with precautions or guests either. There were clearly too many guests on park given the situation and Brits really do seem to struggle with the idea of distancing in queue lines – I don’t get this one, as particularly on a hot and clammy day, it’s just more comfortable if you’re not all breathing down each other’s necks! In the past, I’ve been something of a mask cynic (I wear glasses for a start), but as I’m currently spending as much time as possible with the family to avoid drinking myself to death or going mad with boredom and they’re not overly keen on me going out unnecessarily, the last thing I want to do is bring something home. In short, the mask was on whenever I was close to strangers – not just on rides.

…and in true Matt N style – sorry for the long post! As I mentioned, it’s too hot today.
 
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Matt N

Well-Known Member
Nice report @Will; I very much enjoyed reading! It’s a shame that you didn’t have a particularly enjoyable day at Towers; we had a rather nice one when we visited on the 12th.

I must admit, however, we also learned the same lesson as you about getting there early, as we arrived at Towers for about 10am when we visited (very much as you did) and Wicker Man already had a 120 minute queue just after we got out of the car. One thing I did learn, however, is that the queues were quite often shorter than what was advertised (for example, Wicker Man was advertised 100, but only took 35 for us. Galactica was also advertised at 50, but only took around 20-30. The odd exception to this was Smiler, which was advertised at 60 when we joined, but quickly rose to 120 and took around 105).

If there’s any advice I can give you to make the most of a theme park day at the moment, from what I’ve found, it’s that you should try to arrive as early as possible (we arrived at Thorpe yesterday a good 30-40 minutes before opening time and pretty much walked straight into the park, and we were able to get on 4 of the 5 large coasters within 2 hours. I admit that that same feat is nigh on impossible at Alton due to the size of the park, but I definitely think it would increase ride count for sure).

I’m not trying to preach to you about what you should do, I’m only trying to give some advice to make the most of your theme park visits during this odd time, from my personal experience.
 
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