Yesterday I had a real once in a lifetime opportunity. I was invited, along with a select members of the theme park press, to 'Meet the Maker' of the new Wicker Man ride at Alton Towers Resort. Obviously, there isn't just one person behind such a massive project, there are hundreds of people who have contributed to the ride. However, yesterday we had a chance to meet, and question three of the team. The trio was Bradley Wynne - Creative Lead, Neil Walker - Senior Project Manager and social media sensation Francis Jackson - Director of Operations.
We gathered and were told how the event would run. First thing on the agenda was a surprise - A ride on the Wicker Man! I'd HOPED we'd get to see the it, I was over the moon that we'd get to RIDE it. The staff lead us to the ride area. The Wicker Man is on the site of the old Log Flume, on the edge of the Mutiny Bay, Katanga Canyon and Gloomy Wood. The first thing that is immediately obvious is how 'finished' the area looks. There weren't any workmen hurriedly paving, or building the queueline, no gardeners quickly popping in plants - it's done. The landscaping is actually growing in - it's been there a while! The station was finished and themed in November last year - they have clearly planned well, and were bang on schedule.
We walked through the entire queue line to get the a real 'feel' of the queue. It's long - this ride is going to attract a lot of riders. Thankfully though, the queue snakes around the ride itself. At points it feels like the track is in touching distance, the train thunders past so close to where you're standing - it's quite forboding. The soundtrack (by IMAScore) is piped around the queueline changes as you move closer. It starts in a fairly jovial fashion on the entrance, but gets darker as you move closer to the ride. When you reach the ride station, there is a baggage hold, then, in groups of 24 - you're led into the pre-show.
I'm not going to say ANYTHING about the pre-show. It's VERY well executed, and I think you'll enjoy it. The ride has 1.2m height restriction, so it is suitable for younger guests. You can skip the pre-show section if you're concerned it's too scary. It's not like a scare maze, and I would happily let J (5) see it. I can picture him hiding his eyes for some moments, but it won't scar him for life. I'd highly recommend doing it, I experienced it several times yesterday and got more out of it each time I experienced it!
Then you're into the station. There is no front row queue. I imagine they will want to batch and dispatch as soon as possible. They are planning on running three trains at all times.
So, how does it ride?
It is MAGNIFICENT. There is a surprising amount of track crammed into the ride area, it just seems to go on and on. They use audio throughout the ride too, with carefully positioned speakers so the audio isn't heard outside of the park. There are smoke and fire effects, the fire isn't just yellow and red lights. They've used special effects that will be visible on the darkest, or brightest of days. The breeze whips the smoke around too, sometimes the track is engulfed in smoke - other times, it isn't. The ride looked a little different each time we rode. One thing that is always the same, the flames on the shoulders of the Wicker Man exploding when the train is flying through it. It is a spectacle.
At the end of the ride one of the effects wasn't quite firing at the right time. However we were told that this was being fixed before the opening. If you've missed it - the ride opens on 17th March. When you leave the station you walk past the baggage collection point, and then through the photo point / gift shop. The shutter was open a little for us to see a TINY bit of the shop. I saw some Wicker Man branded mugs, I imagine there is a LOT of merchandise.
I've chopped up a video of the queueline and ride area, and now - I have exclusive on ride footage too!
After having a handful of rides on the Wicker Man, we went back to 'Meet the Maker' and were able to put questions to Bradley, Neil and Francis. It was really interesting - we got to hear about some of the ideas that were on the drawing board. One of which was a film IP. We also found out about John Wardley's involvement and opinion on the ride. It was a real ride nerdfest and I LOVED it. If you've got any interest in ride design, or the process involved in getting a ride off the drawing board and built then I recommend a watch. I've chopped it all together into a handy video, also there are NO pre-show spoilers either.
As an additional bonus, while walking to the ride, Bradley Wynne spoke to us about why the 'Wicker Man' has a human face on one side..
"The human side of the Wicker Man structure is symbolic of the powerful god, gazing ethereally up at the heavens. He is intentionally in a 'power stance' as the Beornen want him to lure us in with his splendour."
"The human side intentionally faces guests as they come round the corner of the courtyard, the way most guests will first see him as they approach from Towers Street. The Ram's head on the reverse side looks imposingly down over the riders as they burst through the chest - and represents the darker side of the story, where the guests have been lured in by the Beornen and their fortunes turn as they are offered up in the ritual."
I am SO excited about Wicker Man, I'm stoked to see what everyone else thinks about it. The gathered ride nerds all seemed to LOVE it. If you know ride nerds, you'll know we are a TOUGH crowd. I heard lots of folk say "I'm surprised just how GOOD it is", or "It's so much longer / faster than I imagined". It's probably the most immersive thing Alton Towers has built since Hex, it's a ride, it's theatrical, and most of all it's FUN. It's VERY, VERY fast.
I'm heading back next week to cover the official launch on Friday night, and I'll be there on opening day too! I think you'd be hard pushed not to come off the ride smiling - it's a lot of fun.
If you're around on opening day, and want to say "Hi!" or even feature on my opening day vlog giving your opinion on Wicker Man, then make sure you grab me. I'll be brandishing a camera no doubt.