When Disney introduced its first FastPass in 1999, theme park fans rejoiced at the prospect of skipping long lines for ‘E ticket’ attractions. Now, technology-led virtual queuing is commonplace in theme and amusement parks, increasingly via guest’s mobile devices.
However, there is another way to reduce queues: more rides. Of course, not every park operator has a spare million or 10 to spend. Especially in the current climate.
Yet for the price of one mid-sized roller coaster, you could pick up a handful of ‘flat’ rides to help gobble up capacity. You don’t even need to buy them new. Five years ago, the LA Times reported that Cedar Fair was scouring Europe for carnival rides to install in its North American parks. Such a move, said chief executive Matt Ouimet, was about “playing to nostalgia and just having fun.”
In fact, you don’t even have to buy them at all. The three ‘Retro Squad’ rides unveiled at Alton Towers on 12 April 2021 have been hired in for the season from travelling fairground operators. Each has been placed strategically close to one of the park’s popular coasters, Nemesis, Th13rteen and Oblivion.
Flat rides and social distancing
Filling the gap left by the removal of earlier flat rides such as Ripsaw and Submission, the pop-up rides will provide nostalgic fairground fun. But they also have another role to fill. It is hoped the trio of spinning attractions will help disperse guests throughout the park so social distancing can be maintained, during another season adapting to the challenges of COVID-19.
When it comes to launching rides and attractions, Alton Towers excels at marketing, and it couldn’t just drop in a bunch of ‘off the peg’ flat rides without making them its own. So, the Retro Squad concept was developed in-house by the resort’s marketing and PR team. In a fun video animation, each attraction is depicted as a Transformer-like robot that turns into an amusement ride.
Presenting the Retro Squad
Meet Roller Disco, Mixtape and Funk ’n’ Fly. These three rides were formerly known on the fairground circuit as Thunderdome, Jumper Jumper and Super Trooper (seen in action, below).
In spite of the ‘80s theming, the attractions aren’t that old. In fact, Alton Towers will be Roller Disco’s first public appearance. Yet as a modern version of a Waltzer, similar to Tilt-a-Whirl, the latter offers a ride experience that has been a staple of British fairs for generations.
Alton Towers’ amusement park roots
Due to the pandemic, Alton Towers‘ 40th-anniversary celebrations were understandably low key last year. The stately home in Staffordshire became an amusement park when entrepreneur John Broome added rides and attractions in the 1980s. As well as the iconic Corkscrew, these included flat rides favourites such as a Flying Carpet, Enterprise and Pirate Ship.
Previously fairground rides were operated on-site by showman Brian Collins. Later John Collins OBE, who went on to become both IAAPA and BALPPA chairman, worked with Alton Towers during its days under the ownership of the Tussauds Group. Great-grandson of the famous showman Pat Collins, he grew up in the family’s park at Barry Island, South Wales.
The Retro Squad pop-up rides at Alton Towers this season appear by arrangement with The Mellors Group. This family firm has a strong fairground track record, and now operates rides at Winter Wonderlands in London, Nottingham and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It also runs static sites like Fantasy Island near Skegness and, as from this season, the town’s pier too.
Pulling together in the pandemic
Alton Towers is not the only European park to add travelling rides to its line-up of late. Both the Prater in Vienna, Austria, and Bavaria’s Skyline Park have introduced pop-up attractions of their own for 2020/21.
Such arrangements have been useful for the ride operators concerned given that fairs have had more difficulty getting open during the pandemic than theme parks. The latter is owned by the Löwenthal family, whose huge log flume used to be a familiar fixture of Oktoberfest. “Showman helps showman,” says a statement on the park’s website.
How much pressure the Retro Squad will take off the queue lines at Alton Towers remains to be seen. However, we understand there may be more pop-up rides on the way. Will Merlin repeat the strategy at any of its other parks?
Retro Squad and Gangster Granny new for 2021
It’s interesting to see Europe’s largest attractions operator turn to the travelling sector for assistance in this most unusual of years. Parks and fairs may function sometimes as separate sectors of the industry, but it wasn’t always that way. When it comes to recovery from COVID-19, it seems all events and attractions, static or travelling, with or without rides, are in it together.
However, with Gangsta Granny still to come, perhaps the real winners this season will be Alton Towers’ guests.