“More than a resort, it’s a park that reflects both the industry’s past and its future. Classic wooden roller coasters and dark rides mixed with the latest coaster technology.” An American theme park professional visits Blackpool Pleasure Beach
By Adam Sandy, President, Business Development of Ride Entertainment
By now the story of the area’s 1970’s decay has had a happy ending with Zamperla entering the picture and updating the area in partnership with the New York E.D.C. While it looks fantastic, Coney feels like a different place than it did when I visited in the late 1990’s.
But, what if Coney had a different trajectory and made it to the current day as some incarnation of its former self? There are some parks like Sydney’s Luna Park and Knoebels Amusement Resort that offer hints of the marriage of classic and modern park, but I knew that I had to get to the Pleasure Beach in Blackpool, England. It is legendary and a survivor against the wind, years and ever-changing leisure habits of the British. In short, it is a story of survival. Robert Owen, the park’s Director of Marketing, Sales and Public Relations, told me, “Our two main audiences are families and thrill seekers. Pleasure Beach is mainly a domestic destination, with around 6% of our visitors from overseas.”
Pleasure Beach – a convergence of the old and new
As it happened, I made my first visit to Pleasure Beach during a 40th birthday trip with my wife to the United Kingdom. After eating and drinking our way through Glasgow, we took the train southwest to England’s most famous seaside resort.
The Pleasure Beach in Blackpool opened in 1896 and has remained a family affair ever since. It has been a place where cutting edge attractions technology has debuted over the years and remains a must visit; a park where the old and the new continually converge.
The forecast when I arrived at the park was intermittent rain but I lucked out. The day developed into one where the sun occasionally tucked behind steel clouds and rain spit at us; but I was more wet than dry as I walked the historic paths. We had spent the night in the beautiful Big Blue hotel, which opened in 2003. It is adjacent to the park and offers early entry into the property for the first 90 minutes the Pleasure Beach is open.
Not old fashioned, but new and innovative
Most of the crowd went to the park’s newest attraction – Icon (Mack, 2018). The park had not added a world-class coaster since the Big One in 1994 and Icon represented a new face for the property. In a 2018 interview with the European Coaster Club, Park President Amanda Thompson said that the park had to work on its financial structure for over a decade and made difficult decisions like closing Pleasureland in Southport.
In many ways, this coaster represented the next chapter for the Pleasure Beach. During the fabrication tour Thompson noted, “It’s a huge investment. I mean, when you talk about over 16 million pounds that’s massive for a family film and we’re a small family business. It will bring new visitors. We’ve been looking at ways for attracting new visitors to the resort. It’s difficult getting new visitors to come to Blackpool, to come to the Pleasure Beach; they all think its old fashioned. But actually, our industry isn’t old fashioned at all. It’s new, it’s innovative, it changes all the time.”
An ICONic attraction
Icon’s concept was very well thought out and I loved the look of the station and queue. Copper-toned gates ushered us down into the queue. The ride starts with a launch and spends its time twisting around the Big Dipper wooden coaster and the Steeplechase. It then pops down in the other direction and does a second launch into an Immelmann turn and speeds through the rest of the course. I rode in the front and back, the latter of which had a much better ride.
Owen told me the reasoning behind Icon’s timing. “Our investment in recent years has been around introducing new family attractions such as Nickelodeon Land in 2011, the Thrill-O-Matic ride in 2013 and The Red Arrows Skyforce ride in 2015. A new thrill seeker ride on the scale of ICON had been in the planning for many years to complement the investment in family based attractions.”
A fun selection of rollercoasters at Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Determined to ride as much as I could, I walked back to the Big One (Arrow, 1994); an Arrow hyper coaster, but it was closed and remained so throughout the day due to high winds. With one Arrow not running I headed toward its older siblings. First was the Steeplechase (Arrow, 1977), which was one of two Steeplechase rides by Arrow. It is some of the most fun I have ever had on a roller coaster. Though S&S has offered an updated version of this ride, the Blackpool installation will be forever a one-of-a-kind; a true connection to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, which had a Steeplechase attraction as its showcase piece.
Just down the midway is the Revolution (Arrow, Development, 1979); a Shuttle Loop, one of three left of this style in the world. I climbed the top and took in just how well the owners had added and moved attractions almost on top of each other; creating a multi-layered experience that was much more than most parks. In fact, the orange Nickelodeon Streak wooden coaster seemed to brush up against the Arrow looper.
Something orange and something blue
Since the orange coaster was hard to miss, I headed towards Nickelodeon Land; which is the Pleasure Beach’s main children’s area. Here there are several rides, most of which are new. However, the Nickelodeon Steak (Charles Paige, 1933) and the Blue Flyer (Charles Paige, 1934) are fantastic anchors for this area of the park. The Blue Streak is arguably one of the best “first big coasters” ever created. The Nickelodeon Streak, which is in many ways a larger version of the Blue Flyer, sports some of the most historic and comfortable coaster trains in existence.
A unique mix of rides with touches of the past
Walking through the park, one notices great little touches and nods to the past. The railroad, which is geared toward families with small children, has all of the accoutrement associated with a rail yard and some beautiful engines. Stacked almost above it is a promenade with a great selection of quick eats that sport neon in the windows as well as the Wallace and Gromit Thrill-O-Matic dark ride. It was re-themed in 2013 to the legendary British children’s show from Aardman Animations. Not only has it fantastic set work, the older vehicles traverse the building at some very unusual angles which is disorienting for new and older riders alike.
The park is a unique mix of classic amusement park and cutting-edge thrill rides. Owen noted that the park has spent a lot of time over the years combatting the environment. Between the rain, salt air and wind it can be extremely harsh. He said, “Our engineers have many years of experience operating an amusement park on the coast and the challenges that this presents. From the paint we use to the steel that we galvanise, the climate is taken into consideration.”
Following Alice into Wonderland
Two more classic dark rides stand nearby, the Alice in Wonderland attraction; which opened in 1962, and the Ghost Train; which dates from the 1930’s, but has gags which have been updated over time. Nestled in a corner toward the front of the park is one of the Pleasure Beach’s most treasured attractions; the Derby Racer (1959).
This funky carousel, which is similar to the versions manufactured by Prior & Church, is one of three attractions of this type left in the world (the others are at Cedar Point and Rye Playland). A large disc with 56 horses in rows of four rotates and gets up to maximum speed. Back in the day, each group of four horses would also jockey for first place as the ride spun, but today everyone just holds on as the attraction reaches max rpm’s.
Experiencing Valhalla (and getting soaking wet)
All this riding had gotten me hungry, so my wife joined me for some fish and chips, which almost feels like required eating in Blackpool. Everything was fried perfection that washed down well with a local beer.
While the Big One might be the park’s most famous attraction, Valhalla (Intamin, 2000) might be its most infamous. This flume, which features 8-seater boats, is categorically unlike any other ride I have experienced. The ride was one of the last major additions by Geoffrey Thompson before he passed away.
The experience begins in a ride station that utilises wood from Russia that was carved by craftsman. After entering the show building, riders are treated to several large drops, a reversing section, and a double-down drop. The theming, a Viking trip through the afterlife, must been seen to be believed. But, heed the warnings at the ride entrance about getting wet. I purchased two ponchos at the ride and was still soaked. When it opened, Thompson told the BBC, “Valhalla will follow in the footsteps of the world’s tallest fastest rollercoaster; Pepsi Max Big One, in setting the benchmark against which other rides of its genre are judged.”
Who doesn’t air-dry on a rollercoaster when they can?
I needed to air dry so I hopped on the park’s other two wooden coasters; the Grand National and the Giant Dipper. The Grand National (Miller and Paige, 1933) is a mobius racing coaster, much like Kennywood’s racer, and has a crisscrossing figure eight layout behind Valhalla. The Big Dipper (John Miller, 1923) was my favourite coaster at the park. It features a beautiful, funky station with a grandiose entrance. Walking into the station you see the retro architecture, complete with a water feature, that showcases the coaster’s comfortable trains. The ride, which features a split chain lift, is classic Miller for the first half. It then does a funky turn-around where it remains roughly on the same elevation and there is track from three other coasters around you. The track back has some more fun airtime hills before the ride hits the brakes.
My last ride of the day was the River Caves dark ride; which has sported a few themes over the years. The trip through time is fun, but even more enjoyable is the classic hardware. The ride is 114 years old and a classic in every sense of the word; it even has kept the “Tunnel of Love” lettering above the entrance.
A special place with oysters and champagne
I ended my day in the shadow of the Derby Racer and Valhalla. The park offered three oysters and a glass of house champagne for 10 pounds. I soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed some of the best oysters I have had in my life. Everything was so good I quickly went back for seconds. Owen later told me that the park, “works with an external professional seafood supplier and operator who operates three seafood units at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.”
As I ate, I reviewed my day and reflected on “what is Blackpool”? It certainly represents British summer seaside resorts, but it is more than that. It is a park that reflects both the industry’s past and its future. Classic wooden roller coasters and dark rides mixed with the latest coaster technology. Most importantly, the Pleasure Beach is its own thing. There is nothing else quite like the experience it offers anywhere in the world. While it makes me sad that there is not a park like this on my seashore, it makes me happy that this is such a special place.
Images kind courtesy of Adam Sandy.