Bolliger & Mabillard's Freaky Mechanical Terror.

Ask any Thrillseeker to name the most breathlessly-anticipated new attraction for 1998, and he or she would utter three simple characters: SW4. This cryptic phrase was Alton Towers' code-name for a project that, for many long months, was the Stealth Bomber of thrill rides - after finally admitting that SW4 did indeed exist, the park would not reveal a single detail about its design, its capabilities or its mission. Thrillseekers around the world were left to engage in endless debate about just what this mysterious device might be. But Alton Towers did make one promise: SW4 would be the most technologically advanced thrill ride in the world.

Fevered speculation ran from the outlandish to the bizarre; just about everything except nuclear propulsion made its way into the theorizing. But slowly, one rumor began to take hold: SW4 would be the first continous-circuit rollercoaster to feature a vertical drop. And when it was made public that Bolliger & Mabillard was the engineering firm behind this ride's development, expectations shot into the stratosphere.

The time for theorizing is over. Alton Towers has pulled the wraps off Oblivion, and as FBI Agent Fox Mulder would say, the Truth Is Out There.

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Located in Alton, Staffordshire, the United Kingdom's Alton Towers is quite different from your typical American-style theme park. First, because of zoning regulations, no attraction in the park may rise over the tree-top level. So, as you drive up to AT's entrance through the rolling English countryside, there's not a single tell-tale rollercoaster peak, towering parachute drop or spinning Ferris wheel to be seen. Second, once you've entered the well-manicured grounds, you immediately realize that the property did not begin life as a theme park - its central landmark is a beautiful manor house, a giant mansion complete with lavish gardens.

The hill beneath Alton Towers, once known as Bunbury or Bonebury, has been occupied by one group or another since as far back as 1000 B.C., when it hosted a small Iron Age community. During the 8th Century A.D., Ceolred, King of Mercia, took up residence in a hundred-acre fortress atop Bunbury, ruling over a domain that included Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, North Warwickshire and Leicestershire.

But Alton's modern-day history really began at the turn of the 19th Century, when the fifteenth Earl of Schrewsbury, Lord Charles, took an interest in upgrading the Alton estate, property that came with his title. The existing house on the hill was known as Alveton Lodge, described at the time as "a comfortable homestead with farm buildings adjoining." Eventually, he and his wife moved onto the estate as Alveton Lodge was enlarged "in the Gothic style" and rechristened Alton Abbey, though it had no religious affiliation. Lord Charles also began the extensive work of creating Alton Tower's famous Gardens, a huge project that consumed his attention for over 13 years, until his death in 1827.

Was Lord Charles much of a Thrillseeker? We can't say for sure. But there's no way the Earl could have imagined what his beloved Gardens would someday become: home to a righteous collection of butt-kickin' thrill rides. Which is what we're really here to discuss, so enough with the windy history lesson.

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The stringent building requirements have forced Alton Towers to come up with some ingenious solutions when installing major scream machines - after all, if you can't build up, then you've got to build down. For example, their awesome Nemesis inverted rollercoaster (also a Bolliger & Mabillard product) races through a fantastically disorienting course dug deep into the ground. Oblivion makes a little subterranean excursion of its own, so's ya won't be seeing any lift hill from a distance.

Facing Alton's signature Towers, you'll veer to the right, passing by one of the planet's most adorable kiddie rides, the Squirrel Nutty. Intended for those whose ages are still in the single digit range, this elevated mini-coaster is loaded with storybook charm. You may invite some ridicule by stopping to sample the Squirrel Nutty, but it's worth it.

With that pleasant distraction out of the way, continue to follow the crowds right up to the imposing gateway of Alton Tower's newest "land," the "X" Sector. This raw steel and poured concrete thrill ride zone has all the cuddly warmth of a secret military base; it looks like the kind of place where nefarious government scientists are reverse-engineering UFOs. As you step through that gate, you can see it only several yards away - Oblivion's infamous vertical dive. Standing there, live and in person, watching as one of Oblivion's custom "shuttles" curls over the near-90 degree bend is a sobering moment: the passenger vehicle doesn't just fall right down. About halfway through the tilt, the shuttle comes to a dead stop, hanging on the edge of the precipice for a long, perilous moment. A deep voice booms from an adjacent speaker: "Don't look down." And then, the shuttle is released, plummeting out of view in an instant.

The "X" Sector is bounded by Oblivion and three revamped attractions: the Black Hole indoor coaster, the Enterprise and the Energizer (both the Enterprise and the Energizer were moved from other locations in the park and given a fresh look to compliment the "X" Sector's High-Tech Terror motif). Standing in the center of this courtyard, you can make a full 360-degree turn and survey the bulk of Oblivion's 1,223-foot-long course. A steep chain lift hill rises up and out of the bunker-like loading station. After making a small-radius turn to the left, the dark metal rails point south and disappear into the mouth of Oblivion's "crater." Continuing underground, the track reappears rising out of a small pond and makes a highly banked turn behind the Enterprise. Finally, there's a small dip and a rise behind the Energizer, the closing stunt that feeds Oblivion's shuttles onto the brake run.

Speaking of those shuttles... these mutated coaster trains are the strangest thrill ride vehicles I've ever seen. Each of Oblivion's seven black and orange cars features two rows of seats, eight across, bolted onto a rectangular metal platform. Of course, this seating pattern was designed to afford every passenger a clear view straight ahead (or, more precisely, straight down), and it makes for a truly unique conveyance. These multi-ton dewhickeys don't come cheap; each shuttle, the single most expensive component of the ride, has a sticker price of £180,000. That's about $302,000 American at current exchange rates, more than you'd pay for an entire fleet of automobiles. And Oblivion's shuttles don't even come with cup holders.

Before entering the queue, you can get a close-up look at what Oblivion has in store, for just behind the "X" Sector's Rehydrator Café is an unadorned viewing area around the fenced-in crater. Tilt yer cranium skyward and watch as the shuttles get released, listening with evil glee at all the frantic screaming (I felt a little like the Marquis De Sade, witnessing this torment with an ear-to-ear grin on my face). Oblivion certainly appeals to the thrill ride voyeur, but it isn't long before your masochistic side reveals itself and the time has come to take yer own face-first trip into the Dark Unknown.

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The queue itself moves at a frustratingly sluggish pace. I have a feeling that once the ride's loading and unloading cycles become more routine, things will improve, but in the meantime be sure to stuff an extra dose of patience in yer fanny pack. Thankfully, there are some amusing distractions along the way. At one point, the path enters a tunnel beneath the small hill that supports the circular queue, and there, we hear a pre-recorded exchange between one very menacing Big Brotherish voice and a much more frantic individual. It starts off something like this:

Big Brother: "Remain calm. There is nothing to fear..."

Frantic Individual: " 'Nothing to fear?!' Then why is it called 'Oblivion?!' "

The dialogue continues in this vein and sets a nicely paranoid tone for the whole affair.

Finally, your slow march comes to an end inside the loading bay. Clambering across the wide aisles of your massive shuttle feels very unnatural; there's never been a sit-down thrill ride with leg room like this. Once you've slid into the seat, however, there is a tiny bit of reassuring familiarity - these B&M cradles are standard issue and they feel as comfy as ever.

But once the shoulder harnesses come down and the ride operators flash their "thumbs up" for release, all sense of comfort evaporates. The shuttle rolls forward and then tips back as it climbs to Oblivion's summit. When the vehicle levels off to make the turn, it does not accelerate. Rather, it seems to slow to an agonizing crawl, making the inexorable approach to the drop even more terrifying. As we inched forward, engaging a second chain drive, the one that would hold us motionless above our impending doom, I couldn't help but admire Oblivion's designers for their brilliant sense of drama. This is psychological torture, pure and simple, and it made my heart pound like a jackhammer.

At long last, the shuttle begins to tip over. Lemme tell you, to peer straight down into the narrow maw of Oblivion's "crater" is to stare into the black core of Fear itself. I began to scream, my body bracing itself for the fall, when the shuttle froze. For one long, horrible 4-second interval, everything was still. And those ominous words echoed around us: "Don't look down."

We dropped.

It's a moment I've tried to replay in my head many times since, in a vain attempt to re-experience the raw brutality of it all: sixty meters - 196.8 feet - much of it straight down, hitting 68 miles per hour, the air clawing at me as that shuttle fell like a dead weight... that, my friends, is one hell of rush. Underground, the track curves back up, fighting our downward progress with tremendous force - 4.5 Gs worth. We explode back into daylight, soar into the turn, drop, climb and glide to a halt. Before you know it, Oblivion's assault has come to an end.

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Oblivion was a tremendous undertaking, both technically and financially. It took 9 engineers, 12 draftsmen, 92 welders, 68 fitters, 57 machinists, 23 painters and 20 quality control experts to shape 42 tons of steel into this one-of-a-kind machine. All told, there are 40 sections of track, 20 columns and 5,550 bolts. The final bill for this effort came to approximately £12,000,000 (over $20,000,000).

Oblivion's promotional campaign is equally impressive. You can purchase a veritable cornucopia of Oblivion-endorsed merchandise: T-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball caps, wallets, pens, keychains, refridgerator magnets... even condoms. Yes, it's the Durex-manufacturered Oblivion Condom (£1.00 per single pack), for a completely different kind of pulse-quickening fun. And the Alton Towers Hotel has added a new themed suite to its special selection of custom-decorated chambers: the Oblivion Room, accommodating up to six sleepy Thrillseekers.

Did Oblivion live up to my impossibly high expectations? Not entirely. I'd hoped it would be longer; I'd hoped that there would have been more of a full-fledged "course" after the initial drop, perhaps an inversion or two. Is it the "rollercoaster addict's holy grail," as Alton Towers would have us believe? No. But should Oblivion be included on a list of the world's premier thrill rides? Oh, yes, indeedy. It may be a quick trip, but it's a trip you will never forget.

A final note - if you're planning a visit to the area during the week of June 22nd through the 26th, be sure to stop by AT and take the Big Five Jelly Challenge. Ride Alton Tower's five major thrill rides (Oblivion, Nemesis, the Corkscrew, Ripsaw and the Black Hole), and earn yerself a free limited edition T-shirt!

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  • TRACK LENGTH: 1,223 feet
  • TOP SPEED: 68 Miles Per Hour
  • MAX. G FORCE: 4,5
  • MAX. DROP: 196.8 feet
  • RIDE DURATION: 160 seconds
  • SHUTTLES: Seven shuttles, two rows of eight per shuttle.
  • CAPACITY: 1,820 guests per hour
  • MANUFACTURER: Bolliger & Mabillard, Monthey, Switzerland





© Robert Coker.
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