Theme Parks are some of the most popular group destinations of all, with Alton Towers being so well recognised as a destination for coaches it has hosted the UK Coach Rally for the last two years. James Day examines what the attractions have to offer
A good theme park is one of the best days out around – acres of space dedicated to rides, shows, games and activities. A good theme park will have something for everybody, making it an ideal destination for a variety of groups. However, school groups are best placed to take advantage of the group offerings from most theme parks, since they offer heavily discounted rates during off-peak term time. Many parks in the UK offer similar rides, with the key differentiators tending to be the rollercoasters and educational experiences they offer.
Many of the UK’s best known theme parks are part of Merlin group. The group owns four large theme parks, each of which is catered towards different audiences.
Thorpe Park in Chertsey, Surrey, calls itself the UK’s thrill capital, and it’s easy to see why. The park boasts seven rollercoasters, five of which feature inversions and lean towards the extreme end of the spectrum. The Swarm is the UK’s first winged rollercoaster, where riders are seated on ‘wings’ to the side of the train. Riders can choose to travel backwards, as two rows of the train’s seats are inverted. SAW – The Ride is a combination of rollercoaster and horror experience, with rotating blades and pyrotechnics. Stealth is an enormous launched rollercoaster, where the train is catapulted from 0-80mph and 205ft in the air in under two seconds, instead of climbing a hill at the start of its course. Nemesis Inferno and Colossus are two more large rollercoasters with a number of loops, corkscrews and inversions between them. There are also six extreme tower rides, ranging from the spinning Vortex and Samurai, the swinging Rush and Slammer, or just offering a straight-up drop in the case of Detonator and Nemesis: Sub-Terra. While there are some tamer rides available, and a new Angry Birds Land opening for younger visitors this year, Thorpe Park is definitely a venue for a group looking for thrills.
CHESSINGTON WORLD OF ADVENTURES
Chessington’s theme park in Surrey is at the other extreme. While there are four rollercoasters, Vampire, Rattlesnake and the brand new Scorpion Express are for the most part much smaller and more family themed than Thorpe Park’s offering. The exception is Dragon’s Fury, an unusual rollercoaster with individual cars which spin on the track. Even this rollercoaster, at 59ft high, is dwarfed by the steel beasts at Thorpe Park and Alton Towers. However, Chessington has far more to offer than just rides, as it includes a zoo with over 1,000 animals, including lowland gorillas, sea lions and Sumatran tigers. Much of the park is themed with this in mind and it is probably its strongest selling point. This makes Chessington one of the best venues for young groups and schools, who are looking to combine a theme park experience with education. The park offers a variety of workshops and special events for schools, and can allow entry from as little as £6.50 per head for primary school children during term time.
Probably the most famous theme park in the UK, Staffordshire’s Alton Towers is for those looking for a balance of the Thorpe Park and Chessington offerings. The park boasts eight rollercoasters, some of which are absolute classics. Nemesis, which opened in 1994, is still consistently ranked as one of the world’s best rollercoasters. It is incredibly well designed, reaching speeds of 50mph despite a maximum height of just 43 feet above the ground, and really makes the most of its four inversions and proximity to the ground. Oblivion, a vertical drop rollercoaster, has aged somewhat since it launched in 1998, with many other rollercoasters offering vertical drops with a significantly longer ride-length. However, it is not to be underestimated, with a staggering 180ft drop and top speed of 68mph, only beaten in the UK by Thorpe Park’s Stealth and the gigantic Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The most recent rollercoaster, The Smiler, is a new design of rollercoaster known as an Infinity Coaster, and launched in 2013. It holds the world record for the most track inversions on any rollercoaster, at 14, and has replaced the disused Black Hole. As impressive as the ride experience is, it has suffered from reliability issues. Other attractions include flying rollercoaster Air, launched rollercoaster Rita – Queen of Speed and Thirteen, the only rollercoaster in the world where part of the track freefalls. The classic and more tame Runaway Mine Train is still operational, as is the Sonic Spinball wild mouse. It’s not all rollercoasters though. This year Alton Towers is launching CBeebies Land, an area dedicated to the youngest of visitors with characters from the children’s TV channel. The attraction is due to open on May 24 and will have plenty of links with the primary school curriculum. There are also several water rides, a combined haunted house laser-shooting ride and the famous Hex, an experience surrounding the legend of a cursed chained oak tree which packs a big surprise. Alton Towers also has its own separate award-winning water park, with attractions ranging from a peaceful river ride to the ‘master blaster water coaster.’ While Alton Towers offers group discounts for parties of seven or more, it remains one of the most expensive parks in the country. As usual, schools can get the best rates during term time, with a number of free tickets available for teachers depending on the size of the group.
Legoland Windsor Resort puts the theme in theme park, completely revolving around the well known children’s construction toy. The park is clearly aimed at younger audiences, an excellent destination for young school or youth groups. Older visitors may be interested in Miniland, where the worlds landmarks are faithfully recreated using around 40 million Lego bricks, but otherwise won’t have a great deal to do. Legoland does have a large number of rides, but most of them are relatively small. While The Dragon rollercoaster dwarfs most other rides in the park, it still pales in comparison to attractions elsewhere near London like Thorpe Park. Still, that’s not really the primary reason for visiting, with many attractions geared towards education – and there are a large number of them, more than enough to fill an entire day out. Legoland is also a fantastic venue for those on a budget. School groups can gain entry to the park for as little as £6.75 per head. You would be hard-pressed to find entry to a park with as much to offer as Legoland for less.
It isn’t just Merlin which offers a theme park experience to fill an entire day. There are several other large parks in the UK.
Drayton Manor is another hybrid of theme park and zoo. While it does have a handful of rollercoasters and thrill rides, it is primarily a family park. The most unique of Drayton Manor’s rides is Shockwave. It is the only standup rollercoaster in Europe (where riders are standing instead of sitting) and the only one in the world with a zero-gravity roll. The park also offers G-Force, a fairly small rollercoaster with a deceptively intense maximum G force of 4.3. Another attraction for thrill seekers is Apocalypse, a 54m drop tower. Drayton Manor is opening a new ride for 2014 – Air Race. Due to open in the summer, the stomach-churning twist-style ride will have riders soaring and diving through the air in aeroplane-style cars. Drayton Manor’s 15 acre zoo holds over 100 species of animals, including meerkats, a pair of endangered black leopards and a young Brazilian Tapir, which was born last November. Younger visitors can also enjoy Thomas Land, which has 21 rides and attractions based on Thomas the Tank Engine. Groups travelling from further afield, or simply wanting to extend their day trip, can book a stay at the onsite Drayton Manor Hotel. The four-star accommodation has 150 bedrooms, including Executive rooms, Presidential Suites and 15 Thomas & Friends rooms. The hotel also has two bars and restaurants.
BLACKPOOL PLEASURE BEACH
One of the oldest theme parks in the UK and also its most visited tourist attraction, Blackpool Pleasure Beach has it all. While many of its rides are substantially older than in other parks, it certainly doesn’t weaken its offering, with 10 rollercoasters and a dedicated children’s area, Nickelodeon Land, which was rethemed in 2011. Many of the classic rollercoasters are wooden, such as the Big Dipper, built in 1923 and extended in 1938, Grand National, a dual track racing rollercoaster, and Nickelodeon Streak, a recently rebranded rollercoaster from 1933. The blue flyer children’s rollercoaster also dates back to the 1930s, while Wild Mouse, one of only three operating wooden wild mouse rollercoasters in the world, dates from 1958 and is still hailed as one of the most intense rollercoasters of its kind in existence. There’s also some heritage to be found in the park’s steel rides with Steeplechase, a three tracked racing rollercoaster, which is the last of its kind in the world. Moving to more modern rollercoasters, Revolution is a simple ride which sends a train through a loop forwards before launching it backwards. Avalanche, a rare steel bobsled rollercoaster, is sure to be popular this year following the Sochi games. There is also the rather large steel inverted rollercoaster Infusion, which is built completely over water. But of course, the real reason thrill seekers flock to the park is for the Big One. The steel hypercoaster’s highest point is 213ft above the ground and it reaches the incredible speed of 74mph. It was the tallest and fastest rollercoaster in the world when it opened in 1994 and is still one of the UK’s most intense rides to this day. Aside from rollercoasters, the park features five water rides and a plethora of other smaller rides to keep those who shy away from larger, scarier rides thoroughly entertained. The park’s business model is somewhat different from other parks of its size, allowing greater flexibility. Park entry costs as little as £6, but in doing so you will need to purchase individual tickets for rides. Wristbands are available giving visitors access to all rides. Essentially, visitors can pay for what they’re likely to do, great for group supervisors who do not wish to ride the park’s larger attractions.
Oakwood Theme Park in Pembrokeshire, Wales, boasts two seriously impressive rollercoasters which have helped transform it into a major UK theme park. Megafobia is relatively new for a wooden rollercoaster, built in 1996. However, it is very intense, with a 48mph top speed, maximum height of 83 feet and a track almost 3,000 feet in length. It’s actually a ride which is even better in the rain, when its top speed increases to 55mph. It is consistently voted as one of the best rides of its kind. Speed: No Limits is a Euro Fighter model rollercoaster with a 115ft vertical lift hill followed by a 97 degree vertical drop, allowing it to live up to its name and reach speeds of 59mph. It powers through two inversions, a vertical loop and a heartline roll. When it was built in 2006, its first drop was the steepest in the world. Water-coaster Drenched is also very impressive, with a massive 100ft plunge creating a 45ft wave to make sure bystanders aren’t safe from a soaking. The park also includes a ‘SkyCoaster’ which simulates freefall. It is not a rollercoaster despite its name – riders are attached to a rope and winched high into the air, before being released and swinging at high speed. It is quite expensive to ride at £36 (split between up to three riders, and not included in the park’s entry fee) but is sure to draw the attention of thrill seekers. Aside from this, Oakwood offers three smaller rollercoasters and a number of attractions for visitors of all ages. It is a very good venue for a mixed group needing many different types of rides, without the price tag of Alton Towers. It is coach friendly and offers very competitive rates for schools during term time.
Another park-zoo hybrid, Flamingo Land in north Yorkshire has substantially increased its offering in recent years. It actually has a lot to offer thrillseekers for a park which appears to be focused on younger visitors at first glance. Hero is a flying rollercoaster which opened in 2013, but uses single cars instead of trains like Air at Alton Towers. It has an unusual spiralling lift hill, leaving more space for actual rollercoaster track. Mumbo Jumbo briefly held the title of world’s steepest rollercoaster with a 112 degree drop. The intense ride uses small cars and features a number of inversions. Kumali is one of the larger rides at the park, at a maximum height of 117 feet. An aptly-named suspended looping coaster, it has four inversions and is not for the fainthearted. Velocity, a launched rollercoaster with a train of ‘motorbikes,’ is another high intensity rollercoaster. Along with a selection of smaller rides suitable for a variety of visitors, Flamingo Land’s zoo has over 140 species of reptiles, mammals and birds, also offering a ‘be a zoo keeper’ experience. There is also a prehistoric area of the park where youngsters can become junior archaeologists.
The drawback of large parks is equally large crowds, which mean long queues for the best rides, limiting what you can do with your day. Smaller parks can be a better option which may be closer to home and allows visitors to be immediately off one ride and on the next. Generally these parks are best for youngsters, although some do have more intense offerings.
WICKSTEED PARKOne of the oldest parks in the UK, having opened in 1921, Wicksteed Park in Kettering is best visited during good weather and it is pleasant day out in the summer. Its best rides are its two water rides and is rather sizable swinging ship. The park does have three rollercoasters, but they are quite small, with two of them aimed primarily at young children. ‘Roller Coaster,’ the largest example, is very similar to other small steel rollercoasters and thrill seekers will find it quite underwhelming. The park is best for younger groups, with good value offers for schools, with every fifth child going free for the first 20, and every 10th child going free after that. For short visits, it might be better to simply purchase ride tickets, which come at £1.20 each.
GULLIVER’S THEME PARKS
The family-run business of Gulliver’s Theme Parks has three main theme parks; Gulliver’s World in Warrington, Gulliver’s Land in Milton Keynes and Gulliver’s Kingdom in Matlock Bath. Each offers discounted rates for groups of 20 or more. All of the parks are aimed at younger visitors, with similar rides including log flumes, small rollercoasters, self-propelled cars and ferris wheels.
GREAT YARMOUTH PLEASURE BEACH
Great Yarmouth boasts the oldest operating roller coaster in its original form in the UK. Simply called Roller Coaster, the ride opened in 1932 and has quite an impressive ride length of about three minutes 30 seconds, significantly longer than a lot of modern day rides. The park has a good mix of rides for all ages, many of which are either retro or rare. Mulan in particular could catch unwary guests by surprise, as it resembles a children’s guided car ride, before accelerating dramatically and enveloping riders in a dark canopy as they whirl around. The park is free to enter and like many smaller parks, guests have the option of either a wristband or pay-as-you-ride tokens. However it is very friendly towards groups of 15+. The larger the group, the better the discount offered on wristbands, down to £12 off-peak for groups of over 100. Schools can purchase wristbands for £9 each before July 23. Free on-site coach parking can be arranged for both group and school visits.
M&D’S (SCOTLAND’S THEME PARK)
For those looking for a theme park in Scotland, there is M&Ds. The park has five rollercoasters, the largest of which is tornado, a steel rollercoaster featuring a double-loop. The inverted Tsunami is another for thrill seekers, with its twists, turns and inversions. Space falls in the middle ground, while Big Apple and Runaway Mine Train are aimed at younger visitors. Along with a number of smaller water rides, junior rides and thrill rides, the park is home to an indoor rainforest, a large amusement arcade and a large indoor soft play-area for young children.
Fantasy Island near Skegness is quite a small theme park, with 24 rides, but is dominated by two massive rollercoasters, both of which are within the top five tallest in the UK. Millennium, opened in May 1999, stands at 150ft with a top speed of 56mph. Despite its speed and three inversions, the ride is extremely smooth, not nearly as terrifying as it appears. Suspended looping rollercoaster Odyssey is quite the opposite. . It is very intense indeed. Aside from its extreme rides, the park offers plenty of rides suitable for younger visitors, as well as a game zone. Entry to the park is free, with guests either paying for wristbands or paying per ride. ABROAD For groups touring Europe or willing to go further afield, there are excellent, easily accessible options for theme parks which have proven wildly popular with visitors from the UK.
Disneyland Paris Resort is the most visited theme park in Europe. It is in fact two separate parks – Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios. Both parks have an excellent mix of educational, family friendly and intense rides. Disneyland’s most intense ride has to be Space Mountain Mission 2. Completely indoors and with much of the ride in almost total darkness, the train is launched out of the station, reaching a top speed of 44mph. It reaches a maximum height of 105 feet and features a corkscrew inversion. Space Mountain is challenged by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril, a runaway mine cart-style rollercoaster, which reaches a top speed of 47mph and includes a loop. There’s also the Big Thunder Mountain runaway mine train. Pirates of the Caribbean has to be one of the world’s most famous water rides, having inspired the series of films. It was a ride long before the films existed. Walt Disney Studios has more of a live action theme. Thrills include the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, which is also contained completely indoors and utilises a station launch. The train is catapulted into an Aerosmith concert, with 120 onboard speakers and various concert lights. The RC Racer is essentially a half loop which a large rollercoaster car is propelled back and forth on. While it doesn’t look particularly intense, many riders call it the scariest attraction in the park. Being themed around a film studio, the park has a number of stage shows and so called ‘behind the scenes’ experiences, where visitors become part of a live action film set. It is also due to open a new Ratatouille ride in July, which uses trackless technology to propel cars through an indoor ride experience. Of course, being Disney themed, both parks have plenty to offer younger guests and while the thrill rides are intense, they’re not completely over the top or full of crazy inversions. It makes Disneyland Paris a very exciting venue for younger groups. Discounts are offered to groups of 20 or more.
Germany’s biggest theme park, located in Rust to the South West of the country is well worth a visit, with over 50 rides, including 11 rollercoasters. The park has many themed areas, each made to resemble a different European country. Blue Fire in the Iceland section and Silver Star in the French are the standout rollercoasters. After a launch to 62mph in 2.5 seconds, Blue Fire reaches a height of 124ft before powering through a large number of intense inversions. Silver Star is one of the largest rollercoasters in Europe and is much higher and faster, with a max height of 239 feet and a max speed on 78.9mph, although it does not feature inversions. Euro-mir is a strange rollercoaster modelled on the Russian space station Mir with spinning cars, in which riders are seated back to back in pairs. EuroSat has a similar theme and a similarly lengthy build-up time before spiralling down the inside of a cylindrical tower. Other rollercoasters include a bobsled coaster, a wild mouse, a relatively new wooden rollercoaster and several less intense options. For those wanting to avoid the rollercoasters, there is a plethora of other rides to choose from. The park is opening several new attractions in its enchanted forest area this year which are mostly aimed at younger visitors, including a powered, family-friendly rollercoaster Arthur.