This is part of my ongoing series of posts about a 2007 trip we took to the UK to ride roller coasters and see the sights. Here are the previous installments:
Though we visited Blackpool Pleasure Beach primarily for its coasters, it has a host of other rides and attractions that are notable. Some are rare or even one-of-a-kind, and many have historical significance. Since rumor had it that such rides might not be around much any longer (and some had even been removed already), we wanted to sample everything possible that was of interest for fear that we might never have another chance.
As with my last report, I will begin and end with the chronological aspects of the day, but write non-chronologically about the attractions themselves, covering in no particular order the non-coaster attractions we sampled over the three days we had there. Many of these attractions we tried to sample twice, once with camcorder in hand and once without so we could get the full impact of the experience.
We didn't have to travel anywhere for the next day of the trip, we could just walk right over to the park from our hotel when we were ready. I thought this might give us the chance to "sleep in" somewhat, but upon learning that breakfast would only be served until 10, I realized I still had to get up pretty early (by my standards) to take advantage of it.
Though we were going down to breakfast, I had a bit of a snack from some items that had been placed in our room. Besides chocolates, we'd been given little pieces of shortbread. I liked them because they were shaped like the old Blackpool smiley face logo, known as "Mr. Funshine".
There were a couple of stories of interest on the TV news. One was about the plans the town of Blackpool had to create an artificial aurora. There was also a story about the high alcohol content of modern wines, which actually featured the anchors drinking on TV! It was yet another of those cultural shocks with respect to everyday things one occasionally gets during international travel; I couldn't imagine seeing such a thing on American TV.
We went down to the breakfast room to meet Tim. There was only half an hour left in their breakfast period but they were busy, and we had to wait for a table. We sat on a couch in the lounge area across from the bar for a few minutes. The breakfast buffet was typical English breakfast food. I had scrambled eggs (a bit watery), hash browns, mushrooms, bacon, sausage (the usual bad English sausage), stewed tomatoes, and a chocolate pastry. I also had a few of Janna's "fruits of the forest" berries, which turned out to be very tart. To my surprise there was only one choice of tea, the standard English breakfast variety. The breakfast was good enough to go for seconds, but not spectacular.
After going back to our rooms briefly, we met up with Tim and headed out to the park. The gate wasn't yet open, so we had to wait. A large group was just coming out of the Star Tavern, and wound up in front of us. The weather was getting unpleasant, with wind and a drizzle that slowly increased to a shower. Fortunately the wait wasn't too long; we were let in at 11 just as I was really getting uncomfortable. While getting my own wristband, I was asked to show ID, unlike the day before. The guy asked me for my postal code, and laughed when I said USA.
It was rainy off and on almost all of our second day, which was disappointing. The one benefit was that it gave us a chance to ride some more of the non-coaster rides, and did give us the one very memorable Big Dipper ride I mentioned in my prior post. However I'd have loved to have been able to ride the coasters, particularly the wood coasters more. It got so tiresome at one point that we made our way back to the hotel briefly (a real benefit of staying right next to the park).
Still, there is plenty to do in Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and we tried to sample it all. Even before the rides themselves, there are other interesting things of note. Just walking around the park, I saw several quirky things that are unlikely to be at any other amusement park, such as the family of cat figurines parading along the roof of the River Caves ride, a statue of a man holding up the monorail track, a sundial with the joking sign "insert 20p to operate", and a tiny building dubbed "The Thinnest House in the World". Such touches are all over the park, making it a great place just to walk around and take in the sights.
Apart from these incidental touches, perhaps Blackpool's premier non-coaster attractions are its dark rides--non-thrilling rides that consist of viewing a sequence of scenes. Blackpool may be second only to Disney in the number of dark attractions.
In fact, Alice in Wonderland is one such attraction that you might expect to see at a Disney park. I wonder if Blackpool had to make a special deal to get the rights to create such a ride, but perhaps Disney only has rights to their movie rendition, not to the story itself. However, another oddity is that the interior music is the Willy Wonka "I've Got a Golden Ticket" theme. There is music outside too, which I couldn't recognize, but a certain flute theme stood out and I could hear it even while clattering up Grand National's lift. The cars have the Cheshire Cat's face on their fronts. One had a Mad Hatter figure sitting in back as if riding with you, but we were not fortunate enough to get on it.
The ride really has two parts, beginning with an indoor section with a seemingly random selection of scenes from the Alice books. They were apparently not in any particular order, though the fall down the rabbit hole (through a rotating tunnel, for a nice effect) came early on. It was all somewhat confusing and disorienting, but that's not entirely inappropriate for the subject matter. At the end we emerged outdoors again. The track descended and wound around a while to get back to the station; it seemed rather peaceful compared to the chaos within, but also seemed to lengthen the ride unnecessarily.
Nearby was the Ghost Train, a form of haunted dark ride, iconic enough that such rides are often just called "Ghost Train" in Britain. The line was pretty long, but we appreciated the shelter since it was raining at the time we rode. Most of the ride is indoors, but one drop happens in full view of the queue. I had a memory from our 2002 trip of a figure that would rise angrily up out of its seat whenever a car went over this drop. Sadly, it no longer seemed to be working. However, the noisy clatter as the car pulled out of the drop was still very familiar. There were some other nice little touches, such as a sign indicating symbolically, "Ghostbusters not allowed", and a legend saying "this ride operated by skeleton staff". Near the entrance to the ride's first tunnel was an odd figure that looked kind of like a headdress made of lights.
There was a queue of cars for boarding. As another came in after unloading, it would just push the rest of the cars in the queue forward. Since we were loaded in the rear of this queue, we had to wait to slowly go forward before we could finally ride. Cars would go over the drop right next to us every minute or so.
As is all too typical for such rides, I could not absorb all the details, and my film footage did not come out. Suffice it to say that there was a lot of scary activity hidden in the dark parts of the ride, but the only thing I remember specifically was a set of skeletons riding bicycles in a circle.
Around the corner (several of these rides share the same building, the entrances are scattered around its perimeter) is one of my favorite dark attractions of all, the River Caves. It is a gentle boat tour of scenes depicting various famous rivers worldwide, culminating in a short splashdown drop, something like an early version of a log flume. It is somewhat reminiscent of an old "Tunnel of Love" ride, and riders even pass under an arch with that phrase in lights as the ride begins.
In spite of the somewhat peaceful connotations of a tunnel of love, the ride is quite dramatic. Even outside the ride there is a tape loop of an orchestral fanfare that suggests something cinematic. Some scenes within are bucolic, but the depiction of the Egyptian Valley of the Kings is quite elaborate (backed by some rousing Vangelis music), and the Angkor Wat scene is perhaps even more so. There is a narration at several points of the ride but I only remember the way it reached a crescendo when the voice said the phrase "Angkor Wat". Though a lot of work was put into the scenes, they can't all be taken that seriously, as at one point people and dinosaurs are depicted together.
The Pleasure Beach has another indoor water ride, kind of like a very modernized version of River Caves called Valhalla. River Caves may be elaborate, but Valhalla is spectacular, featuring fire and wind effects, as well as segments where the boat travels backwards, and several big drops that drench riders. We were eager to ride, but didn't want to have to walk around in soaked shoes all day, so the day we rode we brought some flip flops and stored them in a locker. We also acquired some plastic ponchos, sold at a nearby store for a pound apiece. We purchased them, but did see people getting off the ride passing them to people getting on rather than buying more. There weren't enough people riding that day for us to want to wait for that, so as far as we were concerned the one pound was money well spent.
Valhalla is elaborate in every way. The façade contains a huge working waterfall, yet is probably the cheapest-looking part of the ride. The station was intricately carved. A plaque indicated it had been designed by a Russian.
The ride itself is very impressive. There were two big drops going forward, and one in reverse (turntables the boat's direction of motion at various points during the ride). However it's the other effects that really make the ride--impressive fire, wind, and water effects. Previously my gold standard for themed shoot the chute rides was Busch Garden's Escape From Pompeii. It also has many fire effects, but Valhalla puts it to shame.
The biggest problem I had on Valhalla was that I had to continually struggle with my poncho to keep from getting wet. The many wind effects caused it to get blown around so I had to keep holding it over my head. At other times it would blow in my face and obscure my view of what was going on around me. This did give the ride a more chaotic character than it might otherwise have had! But I imagine it can really only be experienced fully by somebody who does not care if they get soaked to their skin.
Another dark ride at Blackpool of a much older vintage is the Western-themed Gold Mine. Sometimes European interpretations of the American Old West can seem a bit strange, but Gold Mine doesn't seem to be inauthentic--or at least it's no worse than any American amusement park's version. It was too dark to get very good videotape of; all that really comes out on my footage is some vague moving lights and the roaring sound of the cars. It has some up and downhill sections, and the cars can start moving at a pretty good clip on the downhills.
The last dark ride at Blackpool is Magic Mountain, located in the kids' section. It's a strange ride, kind of like a version of "it's a small world" but accompanied by the FAO Schwartz "Welcome to our world of toys" song. There were scenes representing different nationalities. When we rode in 2002, some were distinctly racist, but they seemed to have changed it since then. Regardless it's quite a strange ride.
The Pleasure Beach also has several attractions that can't really be called "dark rides" because you have to walk through them, but they otherwise explore similar territory. The first, Trauma Towers, is kind of a hybrid, because after the walk-through portion, there is a ride of sorts. The walk-through portion (including the queue) is done with a standard "haunted hotel" theming. I loved the animated desk clerk at the entrance with his deep, threatening laugh. Inside was a tilt room, a room with a soft floor, and even a bridge passing over a bit of water. After a very dark section we came to a room with an organist. This led to the "Baronial Hall", which was where the ride was.
The ride is called a "Tagada", a variety that would never be seen in the US because it has no restraints whatsoever. Riders sit around the edge of the circular ride platform facing inwards. The ride then spins quickly enough to pin them against the wall, while bouncing up and down somewhat to jostle them around. At one point I heard a coin rattling around, and felt it hit me. Clearly it was from somebody's pocket. I had ridden such a ride at Prater in Vienna and found that one more powerful, but Blackpool's might be scarier since it was taken in the dark. There were also some water guns, which took me by surprise.
Noah's Ark is another Blackpool attraction that can't really be considered a "dark ride" but is along the same lines. It's a once-popular variety of fun house-like attraction that is now extremely rare. In fact, only two remain in the world, and I've been on both (one is at my local park, Kennywood, and the other is at Blackpool). The two resemble each other from the outside but are significantly different within, as each has gone through several remodelings since installation. For my money, Blackpool's Noah's Ark is the more impressive of the two. It's less technically sophisticated, but has more activities and retains much more of the feel of an old-fashioned fun house.
The path through Noah's Ark goes both indoors and outdoors. It begins with a suspended bridge, then a set of tilting rubber stepping stones leading to a stairway into the Ark itself, where we encountered a cow turned away from us, with a brush tail sticking out. The rest was painted to be looking back at us. When we stepped on the floor it farted at us.
One of the ark's main features is that the entire building rocks back and forth, as you discover when you reach the main room. Of course this makes walking awkward for those who don't have sea legs. At times the passageways are narrow, and one even has to walk tilted at some points. There were other effects tied to this rocking motion, such as a table that would elevate and sink as the ark rocked. Stairways were sometimes very steep and narrow.
As befits a fun house, the Ark had a lot of other interesting, often interactive, features. Janna got a picture of me with a big goofy grin on my face while I rode a rocking pig. There are sections where the floor or walls are soft and squishy, and another section where there are plastic feelers near your feet to make it feel as if you are walking among rats (though this trick is most effective in the dark). There was also a platform on the floor that knocked as we stood on it. There was a bit of dropaway floor at another point, and another point where the floor rocked up and down.
There were many other interesting items to see, such as a miniature model of the ark itself, as well as a tank of live goldfish (as best I recall, these were at least not in the rocking part of the ark!). There were several optical illusions, such as a "long hallway" created by diminishing sized doorways, and an "endless well" created by mirrors. The final effect of all was the typical air blast from the floor, less effective now that fewer women wore skirts.
In keeping with the Noah's Ark theme, there were several animal-related displays. Early on painted on the wall was a pair of what looked like frogs, which looked like one was copping a feel at the other. Midway through the Ark we emerged onto an outdoor platform with a number of animal figurines, such as a stork carrying a baby. The re-entry to the interior was through a whale's mouth. This was a strangely nostalgic experience to me because it was similar to the original entrance to Kennywood's Ark, which had since been removed. One of the most amusing of the animal exhibits was a room labeled "the weirdest animal in the world", containing just a mirror.
One of the interesting things about the Ark was the music. On one floor they played "Bare Necessities". I wasn't sure how they got the rights to Disney music. On another floor there was a cute song with a line about Noah not bringing any unicorns on the ark.
All in all, Noah's Ark is one of the treasures of Blackpool. I am glad it's there, I'm glad we visited multiple times, and I'm glad I got some film footage (however poor) of it, as I really don't know whether it will be there the next time I have a chance to visit, or if it will have been radically changed.
Across the midway was another walk-through called "Impossible", which I'm very fond of, from the clock face on the outside with a running figure whose legs represent the hands (of course it doesn't really tell the time), to the recorded professorial voice with the German accent saying "Impossible!" repeatedly. Inside there are a variety of optical illusions and simple scientific demonstrations to view. At the end was a "haunted swing" ride, in which the room rotates around riders to give the illusion that they are going upside down. I don't really care for such rides, but I like the buildup to it that Impossible provides.
Blackpool has plenty of outdoor rides as well, several of them classics. First is the Derby Racer, of which there are only a few left in the world. It resembles a carousel, but the horses are all made to look like racing thoroughbreds in mid-gallop, and the turntable moves considerably faster, turning it into more of a thrill ride. The outside horses are particularly fast, though this isn't the fastest such ride I've been on. That honor goes to the one at Rye Playland in New York, in which they warn you to lean inward while riding for fear of being thrown to the outside. Though the brochure in our hotel room said that the horses would move both up and down as well as back and forth, they only did the former. In fact there were pieces of wood covering the slots along which the horses would have moved back and forth.
There wasn't really any line; we just had to wait for the previous ride cycle to end. The ride seemed to have been glitzed up quite a bit; there was a mirrored horse in the middle that I didn't remember from our 2002 visit. There was also a very nice band organ. Unlike so many left in scattered traditional amusement parks, this one sounded well-tuned, one of the best I'd heard. It also had an interesting selection of music, including the Can Can, the Carousel Waltz, and Bolero (at least the latter was also playing in 2002). All of this is backed by the deep rumble of the ride as it runs.
A nearby ride is one of the rarest and most classic of all. Called Sir Hiram Maxim's Flying Machines, it's a version of a ride called the Circle Swing. Cars shaped like rockets are suspended from a central boom, and as the ride spins faster and faster, centrifugal force makes them fly out. Once common throughout classic amusement parks, it is now extremely rare (though Disney did resurrect the idea for their California Adventure park). The tubs, it turned out, just rested against a rubber bumper on the side of the platform until the ride started. The ride started out very slowly, but after a few minutes (and it was a very long ride) we found ourselves going quite fast! The wind was pretty strong.
I enjoyed riding it a lot; it was a more vivid reminder of our past visit than Derby Racer had been. Though far from a thrill ride, I was surprised by its speed. It seemed to have a kind of burst of new speed at one point to bring it to the maximum. After the ride we went to the shop below its platform. There was a window within that laid bare the ride mechanism, which was fascinating to watch. It really had a Jules Verne look to it, with lots of wheels turning. The main visible wheel had decoratively curved spokes and was painted green. It was an impressive sight, even though all one could see was the wheels turning faster and faster. The mechanism had an odd hollow sound.
Another classic style of ride at Blackpool is the bumper cars. It is not nearly as rare a ride as some of the other classics there, but Blackpool's has its own special twist. It's called the Super Bowl, and the cars were made to look like football players. It was a clever idea, with the drawback that head-on hits were not permitted, as real football players would have done. However this was a quibble. Not only was the theming clever, but the ride was pretty good. We got in some hard hits. It was good enough that we rode it a second time on our final day in Blackpool, quite a credit to it since we only had a limited amount of time to spend.
One of the newer rides at Blackpool (in fact it hadn't been there the last time we visited) was rather amusingly called "Bling". It was an extreme flat ride that looked like a propeller on a large arm (on the opposite end from riders was a big eye). It looked like there was a lot of spinning involved so I was a little nervous about riding, but didn't want to pass up the opportunity to try it. After all, I didn't know of any park in the US that had a ride like this, so like their more classic rides it was also a rarity. It did turn out to be quite intense, but had an interesting pause midway through the ride where we were just held high in the air for perhaps the best view from anywhere in the park. It was a good ride but I was glad when it was over and I was back on solid ground.
There are also three "scenic transportation" rides that we tried during our trip. The train and the monorail are relatively unremarkable, apart from the way they wound through the densely packed rides of the Pleasure Beach, offering all sorts of different views. The Grand Prix electrically powered car ride was more interesting to me. It had two multilevel helixes, as well as a pretty long stretch of track through one side of the park. Just before the upward helix, we saw some guys stuck in front of Janna. Because we were on a track we had to wait for it to clear. I forget exactly how the situation was resolved, but have a vague recollection of the occupants of the cars trying to leave them.
There's one more miscellaneous attraction we tried, the Hedge Maze. It's not particularly exciting in and of itself, but it's a type of attraction not seen at American parks (with the possible exception of temporary hay mazes set up at Halloween), and as with everything else in the park it wound around several other rides. From within I got the best views possible of the Steeplechase; we walked directly underneath the track. Blackpool's maze is Asian themed, with a Chinese-looking gate and dragons spitting water at the beginning. The exit emerged directly by some of the drops of Roller Coaster.
In spite of this plethora of diverse attractions, there are some things that we sorely felt the absence of. Blackpool Pleasure Beach used to have two very classic and rare rides, the Whip and Turtle, both of which were gone as of 2007. The Turtle was a particularly sore spot with us. It was one of only three operating rides of its sort in the world, so now there are only two left (both of which are within a couple of hours of me, actually). I liked Blackpool's because the small hills of the ride conformed with the terrain it was built on. The space was now empty, so the ride had been removed without even being replaced.
Since I'm covering non-coaster aspects of Blackpool, I'll say a few words about the food at the park. In spite of all the time we spent at the Pleasure Beach, we really only ate twice there, both times for lunch. The first was at a place called the Magnolia Food Court. It wasn't quite the type of food court one might see at an American mall, but it did have several choices of food. I chose the Southern Fried Chicken (which was a rip-off of Kentucky Fried Chicken, as far as I could tell), together with an "orange Tango", a UK soft drink. They had to bring up some change, which came in a yellow cloth bag. Tim and I both wound up being given many single pound coins as change, which was quite inconvenient. I had to make sure to use them over the next couple of days.
The main attraction of the Magnolia for me was less the food (which was adequate), but the fact that its seating area was next to the back side of the Gold Mine and the River Caves, so that every so often we'd see a train or a boat pass by. I also filmed the bar nearby, which was behind a fence that was labeled as a Corn Fence. A sign explained that there was a New Orleans connection to the fence.
Our other meal was at a restaurant near Space Invader called the Cotton Club. I'd seen meat pies for sale there, which intrigued me somewhat. I'm sure it wouldn't have been all that great, but I would have been eating something genuinely English. I found they were only sold at an outdoor window and we decided to eat inside instead so I missed my chance. I probably should have just gotten one anyway, as the interior selection was not all that great. They were out of soup (which would have been great, since it was a damp day). Their "scampi" was really just fried shrimp. I was served by a dark-haired man acting somewhat disinterested. He was clearly foreign, but I didn't quite catch what nationality he was. Tim wound up with the best meal of all of us, a roasted chicken with chips. From the description on the menu I'd expected it to be chicken strips, or else that's what I might have gotten. The décor of the room was somewhat interesting, with fans above us all connected by belts. The tables were not really clean, however.
I'm sure by this point I've said more than enough about Blackpool Pleasure Beach! To wrap up, it is an amazing place, densely packed with attractions that span many years of operation, and far more with historical significance than the average amusement park has. In our slightly over two days there we did a lot, and yet I left feeling like I could easily have spent at least as long again taking it all in.
Having described the Pleasure Beach, I'll return to a chronological account of our second evening in Blackpool. We returned to the hotel room for a brief stop. I changed into a long sleeved T shirt and jeans--summer or not, northern England is still chilly, particularly on the Irish Sea! I also had a chance to change shoes and socks--For all the attempts to keep my feet dry on Valhalla, they still had gotten wet in the rain. Frustratingly, the sunlight had returned after the park closed, and there was no more rain that day.
We walked along the main street in search of a place to eat. It ran between the park and the beach, and for the first time since I was in Blackpool I heard the surf. There was a restaurant called Coasters that we'd eaten at in 2002 but we remembered it being nothing special, so we decided to continue walking.
We continued well past the Pleasure Beach. We found a little park that we'd seen from the monorail. There was a little flooded miniature golf course, but the centerpiece of the park seemed to be a rocket, reminding me a bit of the whimsical town of Fremont, WA, which has a similar rocket. A restaurant called Fish Inn looked interesting but was about to close, so we had to continue on.
We walked quite a distance down the main drag, not finding anything that looked suitable. There were some fish and chips stands, but not much more, and no place that seemed to offer sit down service. Finally we came upon a place called the Eating Inn. Tim and I, after some thought, realized it was the very same place we'd eaten at years ago. As about the only place that seemed to be open, and knowing that it was at least acceptable, we decided just to eat there. Even if we'd continued looking, other places might have been closing up.
We sat at a table right by the entrance. There were two doors, an inner and an outer. Whenever the outer was opened, the inner would blow open, once even blowing over a vase. We were across from a fish tank which I enjoyed watching, as an aquarium-keeper myself. There had been a chalkboard outside with the special posted, but none of us could remember what it was. In the end Janna was able to find out by looking at a photograph she'd taken.
I ordered a dry white "house" wine, and chicken Kiev, which was all right, but not special. My dinner came with tomato, peas, and chips. I hadn't asked for the chips at all, and I believe Janna got them though she'd asked for a jacket potato. Fortunately the chips were quite good.
The illuminations were not lit up that night, but we did see an "I'm Lovin' It" sign suspended across the street near the McDonald's. We wished we could have taken a picture of it lit up. Looking the opposite direction I noticed that the Ferris wheel on the pier had some very interesting lighting effects. They would move rapidly and had a kind of fuzzy look like comets.
We just missed the trolley, so we just walked back. We passed by the South Pier, which had spotlights shining up into the clouds. It was a very windy walk. We started on the median, perhaps hoping that we might catch another tram but it wasn't to be. When we got back to near the Pleasure Beach, we crossed the street and walked next to it. We went straight up to our rooms and got ready for bed.