Since the Wicker Man wooden rollercoaster opened at Alton Towers in the Spring of 2018, I have had many coaster enthusiasts ask me if and how I was involved in its development. To put the record straight, here’s an answer to that question.


For fifteen years I had tried to persuade Alton Towers and their owners Merlin Entertainments to build a wooden rollercoaster. Before the decision was taken to build the ill-fated Smiler I had lobbied strongly that a woodie was the most appropriate, cost-effective coaster to develop. I had concurred completely with Merlin’s reservations on the likely public attitude towards such a ride, but felt that with the application of the company’s formidable creative talents, the same approach could be taken with a woodie as we had taken with Nemesis, and that the ride hardware could form part of a completely immersive themed experience. Right from the start, I had never built a roller coaster that was just a coaster. We had always put as much effort into the theming, decoration and storyline of the attraction as we did into the ride hardware itself, and my concept of a woodie would be no different.


Candy Holland and I had conceived woodies themed on various super-heroes, cartoon characters, and even a spooky horror circus. I produced layouts and profiles for these rides that took into account all the various planning criteria that had been taken into consideration for our previous rides. But to no avail, nothing was going to persuade them, so the Smiler was built.


In October 2016, when Alton Towers was still reeling from the Smiler incident, I took a phone call from Mark Fisher who was Merlin’s main board director responsible for the theme parks. The conversation went something like this:


“Hi John. Just thought I’d give you a call to see how the SW8 coaster project is going”


“Pardon?” I said. “What SW8 project?”


“Alton’s new woodie. How is the project looking” he continued.


“I know nothing about it” I responded. “I’d heard rumours that you were thinking of building a woodie, but nobody’s been in touch with me.”


“But I thought you were on the project team” Mark replied. “I don’t know what’s gone wrong. Leave it with me.”


And the phonecall ended.


I felt on the one hand elated that at last Alton Towers was going to have a wooden coaster that they rightly deserved. But on the other hand very saddened that the dream I had had for so many years was taking place without my involvement.


Later that day, the phone rang again. It was Mark.


“John, there’s obviously been a major misunderstanding. The project is already designed, and we’re five months into the schedule.  But we need you on the team. I’m arranging to send you some plans and other details of the proposals that have already been finalised, but I’d like you to look at them and give me your opinion.”


“But if it’s already been designed, what good is my involvement?” I said. “I’d be on a complete hiding to nothing. You obviously want me to say that the project is all very wonderful, in which case there was no need for my involvement anyway. But if I show any reservations or voice any criticisms, I will be seen as an interfering outsider who resents not being a key part of the team from the start. I can’t win.”


“Look, we’ve made a mistake. Do me a favour, go to a project meeting and give the project the once-over.”


“I’ll only go to a meeting if the key members of the team invite me” I protested. “I want to know that I’d be genuinely welcome on the team, and not just dropped in from above at your insistence”.


“I’ll make sure of that” Mark replied.


Over the course of the next couple of days the phone was red-hot, and emails were whizzing around. Yes, I was a welcome member of the team. So I attended a project meeting.


What I found encouraged me enormously. The team comprised some very experienced people in project management, and the creatives  under the leadership of Bradley Wynn had come up with a very imaginative theme based loosely on the horror movie “The Wicker Man”. They had also engaged one of the industry’s leading wooden coaster manufacturers, Great Coasters International, as the supplier of the ride. The layout of the ride in plan was good, too, but when I then projected the profile in the vertical plane onto this and produced a computer simulation of the ride on NoLimits2 it certainly wasn’t as thrilling as it potentially could have been. In particular, the first two drops after the lift hill were extremely disappointing, together with a rather dull section of track towards the end which could easily have been made more exciting. But I was told that it was too late to change anything, as contracts had been signed, and the structure’s foundations had been designed.


So I politely said that if changes couldn’t be made and my recommendations taken on board, there was no point in my being on the team. After much deliberation, I was asked to prioritise the alterations I felt necessary, and the team would decide which could be implemented. I re-profiled the first two drops, produced a NoLimits2 simulation of the ride with these changes in place, and everyone agreed that it was a huge improvement, and these would be implemented. However, no other changes could be made. I conceded this point, and happily remained on the sidelines of the team right up to opening, offering my opinions from time to time when requested.


The ride has been a huge success, and put  Alton Towers’ fortunes back on track.