The last time I went on a legitimate roller coaster thrill ride was when I was eight years old at Lotte World in Korea. Since then, I found little joy or desire to go on roller coasters, attributing this aversion to my fear(s) of a) adrenaline itself (a hormone that I am more familiar with in states of anxiety rather than excitement and thus has left a bad taste in my mouth), b) heights, c) losing control of my own body movements (which in this case refers to being jolted around aggressively at very high speeds) and d) involuntary paranoia of something going wrong.
Morbid and downer facts aside, I paid heed to none of those antipathies and said yes almost immediately upon hearing that Weston Hall was organising a trip to the renowned Alton Towers theme park, mainly because it was free for us residents and also because my friends were going. I mean, had nothing to lose even if I chickened out of all the rides.
The coach ride to Stoke-on-Trent took about two hours and my motion sickness didn’t fail to pay me a visit, so I spent a good deal of time clutching onto a plastic bag as placebo and trying to ignore the tendrils of nausea curling nastily within my guts. We reached Alton Towers at around 10AM, vomit-free, but I was greeted with another calamity upon alighting from the coach in the form of unexpectedly cold weather. But there was still warm morning sunlight in sporadic places if you stood at a correct angle unblocked by the clouds so that helped alleviate my nausea and coldness a lot in the queue to enter the theme park.
The first place we headed to after acquiring a map was The Smiler, one of the more, if not the most, infamous rides at Alton Towers for an accident that occurred a year ago that led to victims suffering from crippling injuries and leg amputations. But that wasn’t the first thing that I thought of when I saw the roller coaster tracks; what I thought of was leaning more towards variations of holy shit.
It was just loops upon loops of 360-degree loop tracks. The eerie laughter sound effects and flashing static screens of distorted human laughter expressions that played up to its thematic attraction was nothing short of disturbing. If this ride had a theme song, it would be a jarring melody weaved from the screams of human beings. Which was why I was truly so in awe when my friends all immediately went “Let’s go” and proceeded to head for the entrance while I adamantly posited myself before it, unmoving, out of fear, volunteering to take care of my friends’ stuff in the safety of two feet placed firmly on the ground with my body the right side up.
I had a 20-minute live viewing session of the ride and it remains to this day the scariest roller coaster ride I’ve seen. Just seeing the cart go upside down repeatedly at speeds that made even the metal tracks echo in their vibrations sent additional goosebumps all over my skin. When my friends emerged from the ride in whole pieces, I honestly could not have admired their guts and dauntlessness more. I have amazing daredevils as friends.
And so this group of daredevils proceeded to the next terrifying ride: a 90-degree vertical drop into, well, Oblivion. Jia Yang stayed with me on the ground for this one, but I have to admit that I had tiny impulses to go on it because this didn’t look as bad as The Smiler and I didn’t want to be such a bad sport so early into the trip. But as always, I refrained from subjecting myself to fear-incurring situations and instead laughed and took videos of my friends on the ride.
It was already noon when Rumin, Pui Jen, Ernie and KY returned so we decided to have lunch at The Burger Kitchen. After that, because it would be the worst idea of all the ideas in the world to go on a thrill ride immediately after a meal, we decided to watch a 4D Ice Age movie at the area where all the kids’ rides were. We had to wait an hour for the next movie viewing, so what better to do than embarrass ourselves among Caucasian toddlers by going on the merry-go-round.
And so it was to be remembered in the history books that my first ride at Alton Towers was the merry-go-round.
We also went on the 80% children-populated Spinner-style ride with swings that get rotated continuously (which I was also not a fan of because of the heights and speed and dizziness) and then watched the 4D Ice Age movie (the other D in this circumstance materialised in the form of artificial snowflakes raining on us and quick, sharp gas releases aimed at our legs).
Our next stop was the Dark Forest (Alton Towers really play their intriguing concepts well), home of the Rita and Th13teen rides. We bumped into Puru and the other RA members prior to that and they’d recommended Th13teen, so that was where we headed first.
At this point, I was starting to feel tired of being a bad sport by refusing to go on rides, but at the same time also feeling terrified beyond belief at the mere notion of going on one. Regardless, I didn’t want to wait outside anymore so I joined the queue with my friends, reasoning that I could still get out of here if I chickened out in the end. I told myself that, then told my friends that, and then got the same reassuring response from them but truly I knew I had to do it, in a “now or never” debacle I waged within myself during the entire queue. We got up to the bag counter where I deposited my bag. There was no going back now. And so I tried to console myself by asking my friends rhetorical questions like, “It’s not going to be as bad as The Smiler right?” “This is probably more of a scarehouse than a thrill ride right??” “There are no over-the-shoulder harnesses so there shouldn’t be a 360-degree loop right???”
Indeed, those were the truths I’d chosen to believe in (maybe not 100% but a convincing 60%) due to the way the ride was publicised (green lights and an ominous dried-up clawed hand on the poster, making it seem like a haunted house more than anything) and the fact that the only restraints we had were lap bars. I could do haunted houses. And as long as there weren’t any loop-the-loop tracks, I should be okay. I thought.
And then our cart was deployed into the unknown.
Here’s the thing about Th13teen: unlike all other rides at Alton Towers, Th13teen’s tracks were hidden from view, mostly blocked by Rita’s tracks. You couldn’t see anything from the queue, or anywhere at all, rendering my initial excuse of “I’ll decide whether I want to go on the ride after I see the tracks” useless. Anyone’s guess was as good as mine when it came to what was to be expected on this ride.
And so I expected very little. Way lesser than what was actually in store for us.
I was already beginning to laugh-cry a little when the roller coaster left the sheltered station into the chilly open and Jia Yang started apologising profusely for convincing me that the ride wouldn’t go very high because the cart was slowly and painfully crawling up a rather steep slope. At the pinnacle, I sent an arbitrary prayer for this ride to Not Go As Fast As I Am Beginning To Think It Will but I was interrupted once the descent commenced and there was nothing I could do but close my eyes and scream and cling onto the meagre lap bar for dear life, the only glaring thought that stood out among all other thoughts in my head at that time being PLEASE GOD DON’T LET ME FALL OFF BECAUSE THE ONLY THING I’M FEELING RIGHT NOW IS THE FEELING OF FALLING OFF
Halfway through, the cart slowed down and I allowed myself to open my eyes in relief but that relief was short-lived when I noticed the cart entering a shoddy off-white warehouse-looking structure and I thought, okay, this is where the scarehouse part begins. No more screaming my ass off while feeling the very same screams being forcefully dashed by the rapid winds as I try to regain a feeble semblance of control over my motions.
We entered the building and green lights lit all around us — and then the cart stopped. After regaining senses of my surroundings, I realised why that was. There was a wall right in front of us where the track ended. I was allowed the luxury of confusion for a while before the cart jolted and dropped a bit. Paused for two seconds. And then FREE-FALL DROPPED BEFORE IT STARTED MOVING BACKWARDS IN PITCH BLACK DARKNESS AS FAST AS IT CAME FORWARD
I honestly don’t remember much in the panic of that moment because I wasn’t expecting it to move backwards and the horror at the beginning of the ride was amplified that much more. Until we finally emerged into the bright open and the cart stopped for a while before moving forward again.
It was moving slower this time but the sluggishness was reminiscent of the suspenseful build before a fall so I still kept my eyes closed, until I was told that it was over. The ride was finally over. I could see the station where we had set off from and it was filled with people but I was still afraid of more unexpected things happening, like an extra track pulling us sideways or the cart speeding ahead past the station without stopping, launching into another alternative track route. But this time, none of my fears happened and I got out of the cart with shaking legs, amazed that I was still alive and breathing.
It turned out that none of us expected the things that happened to happen either, and we collectively exchanged shocked exclamations of the unexpected on the way to the Skyride cable cars to get to the other side of the park.
We saved the best ride (subjective, but objective in terms of newness and specialness) for last, which in this case was Galactica, the first virtual reality roller coaster in the world (apparently). I was quite excited for this because my first experience with VR at the Nottingham National Videogame Arcade with a HTC Vive was AMAZING and coupled together with a roller coaster ride should be pretty mind-blowingly impressive. I was still nervous of course, but going on Th13teen lent me some courage (more accurately adrenaline, probably) and this time, I could see the tracks and they looked okay, not too much loops and not much screaming either. Plus, the VR would probably make things less scary as opposed to seeing myself actually being whirled around in real life.
The queue took up to almost two hours because it was a new ride and let’s face it, VR gets all the hype it deserves. It was cold and I gradually needed to pee as the queue continuously moved forward but it didn’t really feel that long with my friends around.
Galactica’s immersion was really well done; they had monitor screens displaying departure “destinations” and “times” narrated by an AI ala a real space station situated where the queue was. When we got to the front of the line, the set-up itself looked like a space station. We deposited our bags and got into our seats before putting the VR headsets on. Before departing, our seats were turned 90-degrees upwards into a crouching position facing the ground, except in the VR, it wasn’t the ground I was facing, but a white bottomless pit surrounded by suspended robots that were preparing for my departure into outer space.
The ride started speeding up at the first “wormhole”, which brought me out into space and if I looked down, I could see Earth. I suddenly realised that, VR or not, this 3D illusion of me floating in space was actually also still very frightening. The next couple of minutes quite literally flew by, as I was brought through multiple other wormholes at increasing speeds, soaring over different planets constituting both hot and cold terrains. There were even parts where the seats turned around so I was facing skywards while moving backwards. The speed of it all still made me scream, and there were moments when I was more concerned about the headset falling off than immersing myself in space, but it truly was an experience like no other. I can’t say that it’s something I’d willingly go on again and again because it is after all, a roller coaster, but it’s definitely something worth trying out at least once in your life. I doubt you’d find the same experience anywhere else with anything else.
It was already half past four when we left Galactica and we had to get to the coach by five so we took the cable car back to the main entrance, where we had some doughnuts before sauntering back to the coach park. I was asleep throughout the whole coach ride, thankfully, and after reaching Weston, we had Mala steamboat dinner at a Chinese restaurant at Princess Street for three hours.
It was one of the best and most fulfilling days I’d had in Manchester so far, and I fell asleep that night cherishing that.