A ride is Beornen
By Kevin Dazey – exclusive to InPark
ABOVE: Wicker Man at Alton Towers park Photo courtesy Holovis
Good things come to those who wait – at the Alton Towers Theme Park and Resort. Wicker Man opened March of 2018 as the park’s first wooden roller coaster, 10th coaster overall, and is also ranked the distinction of being the first wooden coaster to be built in the UK in two decades.
Wicker Man also joins a growing list of hard rides distinguished by a rich back story and elaborate theming. Roller coasters with a plot offer an extended experience beyond the basics of height, speed and inversions. An engaging queue, pre- and/or post-shows, and on-ride theatrics can turn good to great, and unique.
Alton Towers’ parent company Merlin Entertainments found design partners in Holovis and Scruffy Dog Global Creative Services who would work alongside the inhouse team of Merlin Magic Making (MMM). “We first got involved with the project a year and a half before opening,” says Peter Cliff, Creative Director at Holovis. “From the onset the vision was always for this to become the UK’s most immersive coaster, combining technology and storytelling in new and unique ways.” Holovis, experts in immersive and mixed reality, would provide all multisensory aspects of the attraction, produce media, and deliver AV throughout.
Theming and experience company Scruffy Dog were commissioned during the creative and schematic phases. “Scruffy Dog has had a strong relationship with Merlin Entertainments over the last few years,” says Chantal Kelders, Scruffy Dog Business Development & Marketing Manager. “On this particular project we were brought in at the initial concept stage and developed this all the way through with the client and the creative leads at MMM.”
Also vital to bringing Wicker Man to life were music producer IMAscore and wooden roller coaster manufacturer Great Coasters International, Inc (GCII). Continuing collaborations were plentiful on this project which paired GCII and Holovis for a second time while Wicker Man became IMAscore’s fourth ride soundtrack for Alton Towers.
We are Beornen
Residing on the site of a former log flume ride, the world of Wicker Man lures guests in to learn of the Beornen, a fictional people who – as the story goes – are living in the woods surrounding Alton Towers. Having a somewhat dark theme at the outset, this ride’s story does not quite follow the “something goes terribly, terribly wrong” template. Rather, in this case the something wrong is apparent up front as eager riders choose to become part of a make-believe ceremony. Historical references were the basis for a burning effigy, but otherwise the story is distinctly original to Alton Towers.
The entry plaza offers a partial view of the ride layout along with a massive focal point, a 57.5-ft (17.5m) Wicker Man figure displaying a human face and ram’s head on opposing sides that also allows trains to pass through multiple times during the 2,028-ft (618m) course. Laura Gerrard, Head of Brand Marketing for Alton Towers Resort, explains why the off-ride appeal was important. “When planning the ride, we considered how to maximize the impact of the Wicker Man from every vantage point – throughout the queue and the plaza. It really helps to build anticipation as guests can see other people racing through the flaming Wicker Man from wherever they stand. And of course, everyone loves a selfie – so we wanted to ensure we created the best setting for guests to capture that vital image!”
As Gerrard indicates, a combination of real flames and fire effects are visible to on-board passengers as well as non-riders. LED screens embedded within the main body of the structure display content to simulate fire glow, while actual flames project from the upper exterior. “These elements aren’t difficult to source on their own, but the clever combinations and immaculate timing that synchronizes the effects makes them look spectacular, especially at night,” says Cliff.
The detailed queue, which quickly places riders near supports and track, allows the story to evolve through typical visual cues along with audio that enhances the overall experience. “Along with visual storytelling we created a dynamic soundscape that was specially designed to evolve at the pace of the queue flow,” says Cliff. “This told the story through subtle audio changes, narrative voiceover and key messaging, so no matter how long or short the queue time we are communicating that narrative with our guests.”
Xaver Willebrand, Managing Director and a co-founder of IMAscore, also talks of the audio progression based on guest location within the attraction. “We produced more than 60 minutes of music for the ride including a zone concept. This includes areas that play the music in sync so the guests are able to go from one zone to another, with the intensity and mood of the music slightly changing, but in a subtle and not obvious way.”
Essential to complete the story buildup prior to boarding is the one-minute, Holovis produced preshow. It is here, in this darkened room, where riders’ fate fully becomes known; they will become a “gift” or among “the chosen few.” This unsettling bit of multimedia and story immersion combines projection mapping synchronized with other sensory elements such as vibration from subwoofers and DMX-controlled scent effects.
Once that element of story has been communicated, the “chosen” board one of two customized GCII Millennium Flyer trains. Statistics may seem modest with regard to height and speed, but this is where GCII has excelled for the last two decades. Exhibiting a fairly compact layover of crossovers and direction changes, this is a good example of how to best use a limited ride footprint. “Wicker Man uses the park’s dynamic terrain to have an exciting triple dip first drop into a sweeping curve,” says James Swinden, GCII Design Engineer. “The interaction between the show elements and the ride help make it breathtaking to view on and off the ride.” A keen eye will notice a lift hill subject to a unique design limitation, as Swinden describes. “Alton Towers has a unique restriction where their rides may not be taller than the tree line. The two angles were to achieve the lift hill below the tree line, but in the confined space of the site.”
Holovis’ ability to preview all aspects of Wicker Man using a proprietary program called RideView, allowed Alton Towers and MMM to pre-visualize the final experience. After important dimensional data had been gathered a 1:1 scale visualization could be created. It’s here where project teams could explore the site in real time via projection mapping. Per Cliff, modelling the entire experience proved invaluable and gave the opportunity to adjust early on. “By using RideView, we discovered that the capacity in the pre-show room with the design being proposed wouldn’t hold the desired amount of people, so we were able to amend that to make sure we met the theoretical throughput.” At the Holovis Demonstration Campus, a full mock-up of the preshow room was constructed that also gave opportunities to refine effects and key features, and identify potential problems early.
Decisions made about the back story, transitional characters involved, and guest involvement would dictate the tools and technology used. For instance, one path discussed for the preshow room would have employed the use of a live actor, according to Cliff, who explains, “As the creative phase continued and the character had been defined, it was decided that this approach wouldn’t be operationally viable or impactful enough. The Wicker Man needed to have an air of dark magic around it, so we wanted something that was mystical and almost not human. We chose projection mapping as the digital medium to create that.”
Attractions and IMAscore
IMAscore was founded in 2009. One thing led to another, and the leisure industry grew into one of the company’s major markets after delivering its first ride soundtrack in 2011. Today, IMAscore can proudly claim its work as an integral part of dozens of theme park attractions or park lands. Given that audio is such a large part of conveying an attraction’s mood or feel there is no doubt Wicker Man required a precise touch. “Thrill rides do not necessarily need to have the most dramatic soundtrack,” says Willebrand. “Wicker Man is a good example of a soundtrack that leads the guests to the right uncomfortable mood without being in the foreground all the time, similar to the case at The Smiler (Alton Towers) for example. It’s subtle and highly connected to the ride’s inner spirit, story, and theming. It works best when all aspects come together and all of this creates the total picture in the end.”
Alton Towers and guest reaction
Wicker Man followed the marketing direction of Alton Towers’ previous major attractions and was teased to the public as Secret Weapon 8 (SW8) before the official unveiling. Laura Gerrard says the Secret Weapon program was originally for internal designation only, but later became a marketing tool. “Guests understand that if a new attraction is a ‘Secret Weapon’ it means it’s a really significant investment for the park and that’s all good for building excitement and ensures a successful launch.” Prior Secret Weapons over the last 25 years also possess original back stories proving a formula for success at Alton Towers that offers advantages. Owning a ride’s story gives the park control of development and how the reveal should happen. “These back stories are certainly more detailed over time as guests want more detail and information, and more opportunities to engage with the story through games and other brand extensions,” says Gerrard. Those paying close attention would have noticed the Wicker Man mythology actually premiered the previous season during the park’s annual Scarefest, in the form of a maze titled “The Welcoming: Be Chosen.”
Several months after the debut positive reactions and surprise have been the word coming from guests all along the age range. It appears that GCII and Merlin have crafted a thrilling, yet approachable ride for a broad audience, giving Alton Towers a new category of ride to fill out its lineup. “For the general public the overwhelming comment has been that Wicker Man is much faster and much more exciting than they’d expected it to be,” says Gerrard. “Guests love the ride from start to finish – they’re wowed by the pre-show and theming throughout, and can see it’s also a really great roller coaster.”
Modern wooden roller coasters have come a long way since the early days over a century ago, but can still be counted on to provide a unique feel that steel can’t duplicate and is still popular with riders today. Swinden states it best with regard to past meeting future: “Typically, wooden roller coasters are considered classic rides and using thematic elements helps bring them into the modern theme park experience.”
The business model
Not every roller coaster opening in 2018 can claim Wicker Man’s level of detail, but several examples do incorporate a basic narrative and theming elements providing guests more to explore. These highly themed thrill rides are making the case that a park can benefit from them in ways that justify the investment. Additional marketing opportunities and stronger public interest and media buzz that lead to higher counts at the gates would be a few reasons.
Scruffy Dog’s Chantal Kelders shares thoughts on this model and how it pertained to Wicker Man. “By
combining the explicit storytelling in the queue and ride, and the implicit storytelling in the pre-show, we created the perfect experience for guests to be immersed and add an extra dimension to their excitement. Furthermore, adding a story to a thrill ride can generate repeat visitors due to those that want to find new details in the story which can only be found when entering the ride.”
Gerrard suggests that layering a full arsenal of stimuli (in addition to the physical motion of the ride) into attractions such as Wicker Man is the most thrilling, immersive and effective way to go, once the story has been set up. “Where the story comes in is to ignite the imagination, so that all of those senses are heightened before you even embark. This is certainly the case with Wicker Man as guests have already traveled through the themed queue and 3D pre-show before even entering the station, so their bodies and minds are ready to take on the thrilling adventure.”
Holovis gained valuable insight from their involvement in related roller coaster projects, 2017’s Mystic Timbers for Kings Island [see InPark issue #69, “The mysteries of Mystic Timbers”]] and a second 2018 ride at another Merlin Entertainment property. Based around the hit TV show, “The Walking Dead: The Ride” debuted at Thorpe Park and was a complete re-theme of an existing attraction originally opened in 1996. Holovis used their capabilities to bring traffic back to an older ride now based around an IP.
The story should never get too complicated, while enabling those who want deeper immersion to be able to find it, indicates Cliff, who has this to say about Wicker Man and future rides going this direction: “For this next generation of coasters that are driven by story, the key is about ensuring there is enough simplicity in the narrative for guests who have a lower level of engagement to still get have an understanding of what’s going on. At the same time, all of our attractions feature deep and rich narrative offshoots for those who want to delve a little further.” • • •
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Kevin Dazey has a mechanical engineering background and works in R&D at a manufacturing company in St. Louis. He writes about ride engineering, roller coasters and related topics for InPark. [email protected]