There are thousands of roller coasters on Earth… but there are very few that we can all agree deserve the title “legend.” From Millennium Force to VelociCoaster; Top Thrill Dragster to El Toro; The Voyage to Lightning Rod. Each of these rides is renowned for its speed or height; its launches or drops. But one of the world’s greatest roller coasters isn’t a record-breaker at all. Instead, it’s a one-of-a-kind ride born of a park’s need to keep its coasters quiet and hidden.
Spiraling out from underground caverns; looping through narrow, jagged canyons; plunging over rivers of blood… Is it a coaster, or a creature? That’s the question of NEMESIS – the game-changing roller coaster at Alton Towers in the U.K. This landmark ride invites you to climb aboard the exoskeleton and tentacles of a hideous creature – part deep-earth crustacean, but interdimensional nightmare – and brave one of the most intense, unusual layouts on Earth. Ready to ride?
In the beginning…
Image: Alton TowersAs you’d expect, the story of how an extraterrestrial, crustacean-like alien creature crash-landed at an amusement park in the British countryside is a story right out of the X-Files. Suffice it to say that even though the namesake Gothic estate its built around is an really-for-real, authentic, two-century-old manor house of the Earls of Shrewsbury, the story of the theme park that shares its name begins much more recently.
Even though the gardens and grounds of Alton Towers have been open to the public for recreation for the better part of the 20th century, it wasn’t really until the arrival of the legendary Corkscrew – an inverting Vekoma classic – in 1980 that Alton Towers began its evolution toward a true, modern amusement park.
Alton Towers, 1989. Image: TowerTimesIn quick succession, the park added a host of staples: the Log Flume water ride, an Around the World in 80 Days dark ride, an enclosed Schwarzkopf coaster called The Black Hole, the Grand Canyon Rapids… Indeed, like many parks built “A.D.” (that is, After Disney World), Alton Towers was shaping us to be a quality family amusement park.
That was interrupted by a figure who saw more potential in the park than your run-of-the-mill amusement. Employed by the Tussauds Group (known for Madame Tussauds wax museums), attraction designer John Wardley had just successfully overseen the 1987 rebirth of the declining, London-area Chessington Zoo into Chessington World of Adventures – a more refined theme park that had seen visitation triple.
Image: TowerTimesWhen word came down that Alton Towers was to be sold by the developer who’d owned it for decades, Wardley made it his personal mission to convince Tussauds to purchase the park. In 1990, for £60 million, Alton Towers became Tussauds’ newest property… and Wardley’s pet project. Wardley set out to supercharge Alton Towers as a true theme park, yielding the new Katanga Canyon area with the Runaway Mine Train roller coaster; the misty land of Gloomy Wood with its iconic Haunted House; and the beloved classic dark ride Toyland Tours. But that’s just the start…
Wardley may have had big plans for Alton Towers… but he quickly ran up against one of the park’s more unique limitations.
Image: Alton TowersTheme parks come in many different forms. Some develop over a century or more. Some pop up, master-planned and perfectly formed, practically overnight. But they all have one thing in common: neighbors. By nature of reading this, you might daydream about living close enough to your favorite theme park to walk by after work. But you can no doubt imagine that not everyone appreciates their local theme park… or more to the point, the sights, smells, sounds, and traffic it brings. Such is the case with Alton Towers – a park otherwise tucked into a rural hamlet and historic estate, and whose neighbors would probably prefer that you not scream into their backyards, thank you very much.
It’s from the mindset that Alton Towers deals with one of the more unique restrictions in the industry: limitations on sound, of course, but also the requirement that no ride breaks through the park’s “treeline.” In other words, Alton Towers is a park without a skyline of steel rides and coaster track. Instead, all of its rides exist out of sight, tucked away among the trees.
For some, that might’ve been an excuse to stick to meager mine trains and fanciful family coasters. For Wardley, it was a personal challenge. And if you can’t build up, then the next best thing is to build down.
Image: S&S SanseiAs the story goes, Wardley’s first proposal was to create a new area of the park themed as an off-limits military base, all built around a new model of roller coaster by Arrow – a heartline-oriented, Pipeline roller coaster – he planned to call “Secret Weapon.” Space limitations apparently yielded a draft layout that would’ve been pitifully short. As a result, Alton Towers began rock blasting to create man-made canyons in the park’s southwest corner, determined to work backwards from whatever canyons they could create to add more length to the concept – a revised “Secret Weapon 2.”
Luckily, Wardley managed to score a test ride on a prototype version of Arrow’s Pipeline model and returned with unfortunate news: after all the work they’d done to prepare the site, he found the pipeline coaster was “very slow,” “rather boring,” “looked cumbersome, and was very energy inefficient.” (Arrow never ended up selling a Pipeline coaster.)
Image: B&MBut across the globe, something new was in the works. Through some industry connections, Tussauds apparently became aware that upstart coaster manufacturer Bollinger & Mabillard (B&M) of Switzerland was secretly working on a brand new kind of roller coaster for Six Flags Great America in Chicago – one where riders would hang beneath the tracks with their legs freely swinging like a ski-lift.
And unlike Arrow’s placid, swinging, family-friendly Suspended Coasters, the B&M Inverted Coaster was shaping up to be an intense, inverting thrill ride that just might change the game… (Indeed, the Inverted Coaster is inarguably one of the major revelations that lead to the Coaster Wars of the ’90s and 2000s.)
Image: B&MSix Flags Great America’s manager, Jim Wintrode, agreed to disclose information about the inverted coaster to Tussauds’ management and even invited them to the May 1992 opening of the coaster – Batman: The Ride. Instantly convinced of the model’s merits, Wardley returned to the U.K. and took another look at the blasted-out site once planned for “Secret Weapon 2.”
Though an off-the-shelf clone of Batman: The Ride would never work, it stood to reason that if Tussauds was willing to invest the cost of an incredibly custom ride, the world’s second B&M Inverted Coaster could be a landmark, and could catapult Alton Towers into the nascent Coaster Wars… Read on…