Why I Won't Recommend Alton Towers Theme Park

by JoHarrington

Over-priced and lacking customer focus is only the start of it. My second visit was free, as an apology for the first. I won't be going again.

It takes an age just to get through the entrance gates, but at least you've caught your breath in the queue after the long walk from the parking lot.

Queues. Get used to queues. You will be in them a lot. Feet aching and boredom quickly setting in. There's nothing to do in those queues, but wait, wait and wait. Hours of waiting, often not even resulting in a roller coaster ride at the other end.

Those break down a lot. If you're lucky enough not to be on one at the time, then you may be evacuated from the queue. But no-one will tell you that's what's happening.

It costs £42.50 for anyone aged 12 or over to enter Alton Towers Theme Park, in Staffordshire, England.

That's just the standard entrance fee. To avoid the queues and fast-track onto rides, there's a sliding scale of extra costs. It starts at an additional £10 to access just three of the roller-coasters, then escalates to £85 for them all.

Our extended party arrived in two cars (£6.00 each for parking, which involved a 20 minute walk to the main gate). We were four adults and three young people, aged between 12-15. 

All told, vouchers notwithstanding, that cost £297.50 ($465.92)  in tickets and £12.00 ($18.79) in parking, just to get us through the door. We didn't add the fast-tracks, nor have I factored in here the expense of over-priced and unsatisfactory food.

But was it worth it for a single day out at one of Britain's top theme parks?

We had reached our conclusions long before four of us were being winched to safety from the top of a stalled log flume. We wouldn't go back if you paid us.

Postcard of Alton Towers in the Snow

The theme park has been established in the grounds of a stately home. The ruins have been rebuilt to accommodate an indoor ride.

Two Terrible Experiences at Alton Towers in 2012

Every business can have a bad day. But putting it all together, you have to wonder if it's ever entirely safe at this particular attraction.

I'm starting to think that I'm a masochist.  However a free ticket cannot be sniffed at, especially when there were reasonable excuses for the inadequacies of the first visit. I went again.

Round one was in February, when snow and ice lay thickly on the ground. That time our party was massive. 

Over 100 Runescape players had amassed for a real life meet up. We'd filled hotels from Ashbourne to Uttoxeter, only gathering in the same place at the gates of Alton Towers.

With such dire weather reports, several of us had anxiously been checking for days to ensure that the theme park would still be open. Some had cancelled in the expectation that it would close. In the hours over breakfast, the on-off nature had seen us looking for alternative places to visit.

Then the call went up. Alton Towers could open. We were going. Dozens of cars entered the parking lots that day.  Shouts of exhilaration went up, as we came face to face with on-line friends for the first time ever. People had traveled from abroad to be here; while others had journeyed from all over the United Kingdom and Ireland.

We paid our ticket money and strolled happily through the gates. There we were met with more staff handing out letters.  Snow and ice had forced the closure of the majority of the rides. This entitled us to return for free when it was warmer, as long as that was before the end of June 2012.

As if that was going to happen. Would you travel back from Belgium or Belfast to take advantage of that offer? 

I was one of the few who could conceivably do that.  Thus it was that I returned with my letter on a blisteringly hot day at the end of May. It caused confusion.  After a twenty minute wait in a ticket booth queue, I was informed that they could not validate this ticket here. I had to go to another desk.

By now, it had been nearly an hour since driving in through the huge metal gates of Alton Towers. We had sat in a traffic jam for ages, then parked up and completed the long trek to the theme park entrance. 

As I remonstrated with the ticket officer, she left my letter on the shelf between us. A gust of wind took it high into the air. It was only due to the quick actions of my teenage nephew, who bolted after it, that the letter was retrieved at all.

She remained unmoved. So we joined yet another queue. But at least that prepares you for what you'll be doing for most of the day.

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Endless Queues with Uncertain Results

Waiting for hours in utter boredom is probably in the theme park planning. It renders shelling out for Fast-Tracks look more attractive.

98% of what you'll ever be doing at Alton Towers is queuing. The way in is good practice for it.

There is nothing to do in these queues. No street jugglers, no entertainment screens, often not even any pretty scenery.

Just rows of humanity snaking in and around themselves, each wearing expressions of blank weariness. They paid £42.50 to be there.

In February, engineers managed to get Air active. This huge roller-coaster is one of the park's biggest rides, so everyone present converged upon it. Slip-sliding up walkways and standing in freezing temperatures, we were warned that it could take up to an hour and half to get to the excitement at the end.

Some of our party actually managed it. I and two friends lasted about half an hour, until the first announcement of a temporary delay.  Air might have to close after all. We watched the test rides fly back and forth. It didn't look promising, so we left the queue.

By May, everything was open. A capacity attendance of 28,000 could be dispersed across a wide range of attractions. This did nothing to greatly reduce the waiting. Huge dynamic boards list the times upon them: 70 minutes for Nemesis; 90 minutes for its Sub-terra twin; 50 minutes for Rita.

We had split into two groups. My friend waited for 40 minutes to get onto the aforementioned Air, before an announcement came that it was experiencing a temporary closure. They waited and waited.

Meanwhile, myself and my two nephews had opted for the mere 25 minutes for Th13rteen. The sun beat down upon us in that queue. I watched my fifteen year old start to look quite ill. Beyond him, a young girl appeared to be on the verge of fainting. I came close to offering her a drink, but her father noticed and took her away.

Half an hour passed with us still not even within sight of the ride's terminal. It had already made a mockery of the estimated waiting times, when we too received the dreaded announcement.  'Experiencing difficulty', 'technicians working rapidly', 'back as soon as we can'.  We sat on the ground, physically struggling in the shadeless heat; and bored beyond question.

Finally there was movement!  Forty-five minutes after entering the queue, it was suddenly moving quite fast. I started to become suspicious. This was too fast. But there had been no announcement stating anything other than they were working to get us started again.

As we passed through a gate, a member of staff merely said, "You have to go this way."  There was no explanation about where 'this way' led, nor why we were going there. Sheep-like, we did as we were told.

And ended up back outside the ride, into the rest of Alton Towers.  Th13rteen had been closed down completely and the queue evacuated. None of us had been any the wiser, just moved like livestock through a gate.

Dangerous Rides Constantly Closing

In some ways the queues are the better option. At least you know that you're safe in them and can leave at any time.

Suffering from a little too much sun and a touch of motion sickness, I sat Oblivion out. While my two nephews rushed to wait 45 minutes for an adrenaline inducing plunge into the bowels of the earth, I was content to find a nice corner in the shade.

A cup of tea and a cigarette. A chat with a couple of people equally chilling out. This was more like it.  We got to watch the ride flash by far overhead, punctuated with regular screams of terror and delight.

But then, they stopped.

A rider's eye view of Oblivion at Alton Towers

We could see quite clearly the double-rowed train trapped hundreds of feet above our heads. There was no telling who was on it, as we could see only the legs dangling. My two had been gone well over 45 minutes. They could be on it.

I collected up my bags and raced closer, trying to find a viewpoint where I could see faces. The queue is largely hidden from sight, so I could only see sections. I scanned them for my nephews. No sign of them there.

Craning my neck, I witnessed two engineers climbing with harnesses up the steep ladders alongside the trains.  There was a second one stuck further down the track, closer to the station.  A man arrived at the very top, just before the final plunge, secured his rope and worked on a control box.

My mind span through my options and I realized that I was fundamentally helpless. If my boys were trapped up there, then all I could do was wait. I couldn't even call them. I had their belongings in their rucksacks over my shoulder.

"They will be perfectly safe," I reasoned to myself. Even suspended so high up, at such an angle, the people there are nowhere near the edge. There was a ladder from which they could be evacuated. It would surely be alright.

It was.  The engineers eventually climbed down and the ride started again.  My two turned up about half an hour later, filled with excitement from the plunge. They'd been in the queue at the time of the closure, staring at a third car stalled near to the end of the ride.

They were fine, but across the theme park, the rest of our party were not.

Runaway Mine Train Accident at Alton Towers in 2006

46 passengers were on the ride, when two of the carriages came loose and crashed into the remaining nine.

Evacuation from The Log Flume at Alton Towers

This time members of our party were actually on the ride, when the people were all taken off.

Tucked away in the Merrie England section of the theme park is The Flume Unplugged. It's a traditional log flume (one of the first in fact, and custom made for Alton Towers) with a bath-tub theme.

Two of my adult friends and the younger tweens queued for an hour and twenty minutes to get onto it.

Finally in a tub, they set off along the waterways, slowly being conveyed to the very top.  Then they stopped.  A car in front of them had 'come off the side' and completely jammed the way ahead. No-one was injured, but the ride was naturally shut down.

Everyone on The Flume Unplugged had to be fitted into harnesses, in order to be led to safety, my friends included.

The rest of us didn't discover this until we were driving away. We'd already had enough.

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Expensive Prices for Unappetizing Food

And did I really order an onion pancake?

It is possible to take a picnic into Alton Towers Theme Park, but you'd be carrying it around all day. You really don't want to be weighed down, when standing on your feet in long queues is the main event.

The alternative is to purchase sustenance from the many fast food outlets dotted around the park. I'll comment only on those we used.

A box of ten donuts were over-priced and each one was crispy and hard on one side. We'd only just made it through the gates and we were very hungry. We ate them.

When it came to eating lunch properly, my eldest nephew headed for the familiar menu of a Burger King. It wasn't the full range. For example, the chilli cheese bites, which I'm currently quite partial to myself, weren't available here. While he queued for a burger, we fixed a meeting point and wandered off to look elsewhere.

The Mexican Cantata was unbearably hot.  My youngest nephew braved it because he really likes the food. I had to step outside and leave him to it.  It cost nearly £7 for a burrito and 'Mexican style potato wedges'. (I'd be fascinated to discover which part of Mexico inspired the latter.) My nephew declared himself satisfied with the meal.

I opted for a cheese and onion pancake.  As a vegetarian, there wasn't much on offer anywhere that was particularly exciting. I felt like we were a bit of an afterthought. What was attractive about the pancake stall was the lack of anyone waiting to be served. I should have taken my hint from that.

It took a couple of minutes for anyone to venture onto my till to take my order. Though the row appeared from the outside to be separate places - burgers, jacket potatoes and pancakes respectively - it was all the same place once you peered over the counter.

Finally a lackluster lady grudgingly agreed to take my order.  I watched the pancake being made from scratch.  It looked fine, so I took my eyes off her to check for my errant teenager.

It wasn't until my family were all back together and I started to eat my food that I found the flaw. It was all onions inside.  Brown and soggy with oil, as if they'd been previously cooked and just left stewing.

Where was the cheese?  It turned into a joke amongst us, as it failed to materialize through each mouthful.  I eventually located it in a small solid ball at the point of the fold.

It didn't surprise me to learn, upon returning home, that three-quarters of the food units at Alton Towers had once failed a routine food safety check.

Would you Recommend Alton Towers to Family and Friends?

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No! Because...
kate on 05/29/2012

i would not recommend it because the focus from the moment you arrive until the moment you leave is all on getting money out of you. Customer satisfaction seems to come low down on the venues list of priorities. I felt like I was being 'processed'. All in all the whole day out was very disappointing. For a quirky day out which avoids the crowds try 'forbidden corner' in Yorkshire or Alnwich Gardens in Northumberland ... much better and A LOT less draining on the emotions and the purse

Recap of my Main Criticisms of Alton Towers

This is why I don't recommend a visit to Staffordshire's premier theme park.
  • Lack of customer focus. People are herded like livestock and treated like inconveniences. From the long walk to and from the car-park, to the unhelpful ticket desk, through the terrible service in food outlets, to the non-existent communication when the Th13rteen ride was being closed. 
  • Constant, tedious queuing.  The long, enclosed pens are exposed to the elements with nothing to do in them. People stand for hours in utter boredom waiting for the rides. A bench along the fences would help the physical discomfort this causes. Some kind of entertainment along the way would stop an hour wait feeling like three.
  • Rides stopping or breaking down all of the time. The primary concern is safety, but it also prolongs the queuing even longer. If they have to keep pausing, then are they fit for purpose?

I would also add that the maps and signposts are confusing. They may also be wrong. Our map placed a toilet in the square by Burger King. The reality was a signpost indicating that the restrooms were apparently inside Nemesis. They were actually a five minute walk away near Gloomy Wood.

We left an hour before closing (after finally making it into the park an hour and 40 minutes after it opened). We made the decision to go when we eventually faced facts - none of us were having fun.

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Updated: 10/12/2012, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 03/06/2013

Hi Ryan,

Thank you for your comment. It's good that those visiting here get to read two sides of a story. You and I both wrote as we found. You had good experiences and I had bad ones.

Queuing is to be expected at all theme parks, but at Alton Towers that's like herding cattle into pens. I've been to other theme parks where the tedium (and physical discomfort) of long queuing is taken into consideration.

There is entertainment laid on while you're doing it. Street performers move up and down doing their thing. It might only be a bit of juggling or someone doing tricks on a unicycle, but it's something to look at. You queue just the same, but you're having fun doing so. You don't notice the time so much.

I'm confused by what you said about taking a drink into the queue. I did that and was glad for it. It kept me and my nephews hydrated while the sun beat down upon us.

Oblivion didn't stop at the point of the actual drop. But you have a long haul to get up to it. You reach the summit, then push forward, before you reach the drop part. The trains that I saw were stopped right at the top of the summit, before it flattened out. Engineers climbed the steps to get to them.

It was the log flume from which my friends were evacuated. They were actually on the ride and had to be fastened into harnesses to be removed.

As for February, we'd phoned both the day before, and on the actual day before setting out. We were told that weather conditions had improved to the point where the rides would be working. That is why we set out. That is why we were given letters of apology and free admission on a future trip. If not for that phone call, our party of over 100 would have gone somewhere else.

You must have have been very lucky with your queues to have got on every major ride twice in a day without fast tracks. Most of mine were double the time advertised, then broke down before we reached them.

But thank you again for your insight.

Ryan on 03/05/2013

I think this review is extremely biased against Alton Towers. You have give them nothing but criticism, for things that really shouldn't be moaned about.

The 'long walk' to and from the car park really isn't that long at all, and Alton Towers operate a Monorail service which runs frequent monorails from the car parks to the entrance. Queue you might have said, yes I often queue for the monorail, along with everyone else from the car parks, but never longer than 10 minutes.

Queuing, this is to be expected at all themeparks, and actually having visiting a large variety of themeparks across the world. Alton Towers' queues are some of the most appealing and attractive queuelines for a UK themepark. Entering into the queue with a drink is your own fault, they offer a shop halfway through all the big ride queues.

Ride breakdowns are also expected when visiting themeparks, these are not breakdowns rather the many fail safes that are included on the ride picking up an error, often quickly resolved. Also I would like to point out that Oblivion can't actually stop on the drop, it is physically impossible. This has been confirmed by Alton towers many times in the past.

February Half Term. In February it is clearly advertised that not all rides will be open and a list of available rides is on their website, this is why entrance price is normally reduced.

During my many visits to Alton Towers of the past couple of years I have only ever encountered a few things that have disappointed me, food being one of them, but the variety of food available on park is massive, there really is something for everyone. The only issue I had was it being cold, they quickly replaced it with a hot portion though, nothing that needed complaining about.

Also everytime I visit Alton towers I manage to ride all major rides at least twice, without any need for fasttracks, I just plan my time effectively.

I'm sorry to sound so opinionated but I just felt that you were giving an unfair opinion of Alton Towers that could tarnish someone else's opinion.

JoHarrington on 05/30/2012

All of this is precisely why I wanted to write this review. It's all well and good telling people about great places to visit, but warning them off bad ones (particularly very well marketed ones) is equally important.

Everyone expects to queue. That is a given. But not like this, without any regard to anyone who isn't already on the ride. That's taking the proverbial.

katiem2 on 05/30/2012

Its so refreshing to have an honest review of a theme park detailing the good the bad and the outrageous. These places are so costly thanks for getting the word out a hard working wage should be able to buy an honest good time. Waiting is pure torture and in no way a fair way to treat park goers, this is a big problem. Maybe you should start a movement, boy cot ridiculous theme parks that charge outrageous prices only to make you wake the day away never to come near getting your monies worth.

JoHarrington on 05/29/2012

It's not on your list of things to see and do in Britain then? :p

See, I wouldn't mind queuing if all of that was going on. That's the theme park acknowledging that queues will happen and that they'll be long, then taking steps to ensure that a great day out will still be had.

Alton Towers doesn't care about any of that. They already have your money and the longer you wait, the more thirsty and hungry you'll get, so you'll go and buy more stuff.

Ember on 05/29/2012

Yup! True true. The lines in Disney Land are entertainment in and of themselves. Like for example with Indiana Jones you are walking through these tunnels, and there is a cave bit where everything is dark and there are spooky noises, and like there is a bridge you have to cross, and room with a rope that if you pull it you get screamed at by...something... and just before you enter the room where they put you on the ride, you have to stop for a warning that you are not to look into the eyes of the mummy or you'll die. Stuff like that, so it is a lot more fun. But yeah, the place you described was the first I've ever heard of it, and it truly does sound horrible. It's not likely I'll ever head that far just to go to a theme park...but, uh... good to know? XD

JoHarrington on 05/29/2012

Decapitated after a hat? Wow...

The thing about Disney Land is that there's entertainment in the queue. You have the characters walking around and such. Even music would have been good. We could have had a sing-song and maybe a little dance in our queuing pens.

It's always been a problem queuing in Alton Towers, but it does seem to have got worse over the years.

Ember on 05/29/2012

At first everything you described sounded pretty typical theme park, but then this place sounds like it went severely downhill, and not much like it is actually worth visiting.

Disney Land tickets are typically 90-something dollars. You don't have to pay for parking if your hotel is close enough for the shuttle system. Disney Land entrance is really pricey, but once you're in the entire place is pure magic. I actually cried watching one of the parades once, because the atmosphere had taken me. And, you can get a fast passes for free using your ticket for rides.

For the price of theme park food, it really is worth finding the actual restaurants and eating there. Disney actually has some amazing restaurants.

Six Flags sounds a lot like what you described, but if you're smart you can get tickets online tor beyond cheap for a theme park. There is not entertainment like Disney, because it is a park with nothing but roller coasters, and it appeals to tweens through young adults looking for thrill rides, typically. You buy fast passes at this place, and you pay parking. But there's always music blasting from somewhere. For lines you always have a nice covering and a mister going for hot days. Six Flags has some rather famous horror stories...the girl whose face got ripped off by a snapped cable cord on the Superman, the woman who fell over a hundred feet to her death on the Deja Vu when the front car's seats harnesses decided they wanted to open. (oh yeah, and the guy who got decapitated after climbing a fence to retrieve a fallen hat >.>)

Disney Land has a problem with rides shutting down a lot, but they usually get them back up pretty quickly too, unless it has to be closed for the day. On one visit, they were having a bad day, and it was a bit like you described. Everything kept shutting down, and I was actually on Indiana Jones when it broke down, and sat there for half and hour before a worker came and escorted us out. He pretended to be Indiana Jones rescuing us.

Yay theme parks! But the wait times you described sound really typical for every place I've been. I think if a person is not one to wait like two hours for a thirty to ninety second thrill, theme parks just aren't for them, in general. But this place sounds like crap from what you've described.

JoHarrington on 05/29/2012

Ouch! I didn't realize that they were sending some rides out not to capacity. The only time that I saw that happen on my rides was the Enterprise. Random carriages had their doors closed, so that people couldn't get in. We were wondering about it at the time. My nephew theorized that it had something to do with balance, which is a bit worrying when you think about it...

I definitely agree re the map/directions and the waiting times.

kate on 05/29/2012

The map and directions (where you can find them) are pathetically inadequate and misleading. When i visited the whole day was frustrating from start to finish. In terms of safety though I would rather they stop, check and evacuate rides if necessary. I just think they should be honest and communicative when these delays occur . Also (you have started a right old rant here) they need to do more to reduce the waiting time on the rides. They could start by ensuring the rides are at full capacity. On most occasions the log flumes which carry 5 people held only 2 or 3 and on one occasion a single rider! This was repeated at the rapids where couples were rattling around a compartment designed for 8! No wonder we had to wait for 1 hr and 20 minutes on one occasion


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