Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Swarm at Thorpe Park... One Year On

One year ago, I posted my review of Swarm. Despite being 4500 words or so, there was a lot I didn’t cover and, more importantly, an awful lot has changed in a year….

Photo by author.

…Which is a point worth noting in itself. A lot has changed. Literally, in a physical sense. Throughout 2012, theming elements were added to Swarm. Effort was made to improve the already better-than-average presentation, some of which are solutions to previous criticism. The open plaza is now home to an ambulance perched precariously on its rear and telephone box turned on its head, pummeled into the ground. Together, those elements help to combat the open blandness of that area, but they also added audio to Swarm’s already impressively chaotic soundtrack.

The impossible positioning and scale of the ambulance
creates tention and a perpetual sense of immediate disaster.
Photo by author.

The ambulance is great piece. I’ve heard others criticize it for the unnatural positioning, but I think that’s what’s so great about it. Theming isn’t meant to be about true realism; it’s about meaning and mood, using symbols to convey ideas.  The vehicle’s awkwardly impossible gravity defiance sets the space on edge and keeps it in a perpetual state of the now. It looks like it will topple down at any given moment, with lights flashing and the loop of a disjointed siren running, they’ve achieved incredible drama within a static object. See this amazing blog post on the subject of Tension by Disney imagineer Don Carson which explains why the ambulance works.

Visually uninteresting... The Swarm phone box.
Photo by author.

The telephone box I can’t praise quite as much. It’s upturned, but it’s not obvious at a glance. Theming struggles to work unless it’s subjectively readable immediately. The burned effect is overdone and that has further damaged the semiotics, because whilst telephone boxes do come in other colours, red is iconic and would have saved it from obscurity. But it does have another great piece of audio, which whilst illogical, is again supurb at conveying a sense of immediate drama. The phone rings as if left off the hook and there are also mutterings from someone on the other end of the line.

Video of The Swarm at at night, demonstrating audio from 
the telephone box and ambulance, the fire effects and train lights.

Swarm area soundtrack.

Audio plays a huge part in the area to make it feel more alive than it is. The few moving visual cues such as the ambulance lights flashing, the helicopter blades spinning, the smoke effects, the flotsam bobbing about in the pond and the roller coaster itself swooshing about the track, really do lift the place from otherwise lifelessness. But its not quite enough – I think had the aeroplane engine span and glowed, and fabric pieces fluttered in the wind attached here and there (police tape and clothing debris, etc) it would have helped to further dramatise the area and combat the problem of openness. It’s difficult and costly to make immersive theming, with high walls and the sense of enclosing guests within a space to transport them to another world. Certain thematic subjects struggle more than others to be believable unless the standard of immersion is high.

The rumoured fire effects came into action late last year, spewing from the wreckage of a fire engine as the train leaps into the zero-g roll above it. Anyone who remembers the fire effects on Tidal Wave’s oil drum theming will have been skeptical of their d├ębut on Swarm, and will continue to be skeptical as to whether or not they will work consistently or stay. And, they have failed to work properly on every visit of mine thus far, often misfiring to engulf the train in a cloud of gas. You can bet someone will eventually complain about this seemingly hazardous problem, and instead of fixing it, the fire will just be stopped forever. (I do not personally believe it to actually be a hazard, it’ just unpleasant. But I know all too well about the public’s perception of “dangerous”.) And after queuing, it just seems a little unfair if you don’t get the full effect of the attraction, you know? Fire effects are great. The alarming noise as the flames erupt will cause everyone to turn and look at the striking visual and sensual experience from the spiky flames and burning heat. They are a sure-fire method of creating awe and I perhaps shamefully fully endorse their use in even irrelevant context. The effect is, like all of Swarm’s theming, unnoticeable on ride, but you should know by now how much I love spectator effects. 

Fire effects and the new billboard... Please note, Thorpe Park isn't usually this quiet.
Photo by author.

There’s also a new near-miss for 2013 in the form of a giant billboard. On the one hand, it’s great to see another large-scale thematic element added to Swarm and an attempt to correct the problem of the failing near misses the ride opened with. The billboard is the only near-miss that works, but it’s still not fantastic. A review of Swarm over at Theme Park Tourist hit the nail on the head when they said Although the clearance is tight, it doesn't cause the same surprise and terror which better-incorporated near-misses on other winged coasters generate. On these rides, the track is banking or inverting as it approaches the near-miss, giving riders the impression that the train has to suddenly manoeuvre twist in order to fit through the gap. Conversely, on The Swarm we always know we're going to make it though.The near misses are simply in the wrong places along the track and the perfect post-box cut shape in the billboard is no unconvincing it might as well, a friend of mine joked, have a flap on the other side and a barking dog. Besides, since when has a small English town ever had a giant billboard like this one? Amongst the mountain of other setting issues I discussed in the previous review, I’m not sure I really care about that point. It looks good, it’s scale impressive, but it could have been so much better had it just incorporated the drama they got so right with the ambulance and the near misses on Raptor.

The splashdown effects also now seem to work properly, reaching up onto the “splash zone” I criticised them for failing to do before. And that pile of rubble next to the brake run is also gone, so I guess it wasn’t theming after all…  The number and scale of improvements is really quite incredible. The question is, why make all these improvements? And, does anybody actually care? The media attention surrounding a ride on opening is far greater than it will ever have again, so if the pressure wasn’t on to get it right then, why is it now?

During the winter of 2012/13, a rumour began circulating fan communities that Thorpe’s indoors coaster X:/No Way Out, known for being the first (and only?) backwards coaster in the dark, would be running forwards in 2013.  Makes sense, I thought, they seem to have quite a lot of issues with people being sick on this ride. But then the rumour seemed to mutate. Before long, there were suggestions that Swarm would be running backwards in 2013…

HAHAHA! Ridiculous! How utterly ridiculous. Where do you even begin explaining why that’s ridiculous? We’ve got to 2013 without a large looping coaster running backwards for a reason, surely!? I have no idea what that reason is, but there must be one, right? Besides, Swarm’s only been open a bloody year!

And then, independently, a rumour arose about Six Flags Great America running their inverted coaster Batman in reverse… And then, Universal Studios Japan announced that Hollywood Dream, their megacoaster, was going to run backwards. All three coasters are manufactured by the same company, B&M. Oh my god… Never before has industry news shocked me quite this much. Yet I didn’t really know why it sounded so ludicrous, it just did.

Unlike Hollywood Dream, which will only be running backwards short term, and Batman, which will have both trains completely reversed, only Swarm’s last two rows would be turned round and, at the moment at least, it seems to be long term. As you may expect, my initial reaction was not “Wow! What on earth is that going to feel like!?” but rather “there’s going to be so much vom... And how will they deal with the queue?!” But today, even after a few rides on mrawS, my biggest concern is simply why? Why did they need to do this? They wouldn’t waste the time and money for no good reason.

Turning Batman round makes sense… It’s old; it was the very first of it’s kind. Local visitors who’ve grown up riding it will have lost interest in the ride. Now it’s time to revitalize this classic! But Swarm is only a year old and the only one of it’s kind in the UK.  Was there really the need for this marketing boost?

It seems Swarm wasn’t all that well received by the general public. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s not an enthusiast has said things like “it’s boring”, “it’s slow” and “it’s not scary”.  This is merely anecdotal I realise, but it is important. And I think I know what the problem is. Swarm suffers from the same problem Thirteen at Alton Towers did – presented as a big thrill ride, when really, the experience is more akin to Air.

Saying Swarm is like Air perhaps seems a touch unfair… As I mentioned in my previous review, Swarm is actually surprisingly intense. But that “surprisingly intense” is from the perspective of an enthusiast who has experience with a range of different rides. In the context of Thorpe Park, Swarm is the least intense major coaster, despite being the second tallest after Stealth and the… Er, second meanest looking, after Saw? With such high expectations of this big mean looking ride, painted in stark grey and with that atmospherically intense soundtrack, it’s no wonder people think the ride is “boring”.

Saw is a less intimidating looking machine than Swarm because it's small and doesn't interact much with 
spectators, but the theming makes up for it and the ride experience lives up to the expectations of riders.
Photos by author.

Dressing rides up to look scarier than they are, or in rarer cases like Air less intimidating, is generally a good thing. But when you take it to extremes it just doesn’t work. It’s about enhancement, not blatant lies. It’s almost insulting to the audience to think they will fall for this, and so we watch guests rebel against the Swarm in defiance of thematic bullshit as they exit the ride uttering things like “that was crap.” Perhaps had they been presented with a theme that promised less, they’d think more highly of the ride? Thinking back to my comment about Saw being the “meanest” looking ride on park, perhaps I should retract that, because it’s not until you’re in the queue that you meet thematic intensity, whilst Swarm is boasting it from the carpark! Saw works, because the ride experience is snappy, brutal, quick and dramatic, living up to promises of horror that are gradually communicated as you traverse the indoor queue. And, of course, through it’s name and associations. Saw had to live up to promises, and whilst I personally hate the ride, I think it is a highly successful attraction and the comments I hear from the average guest echo that. Swarm’s the complete opposite for me. I love the ride – it’s my favourite at Thorpe, but do I think it was right for the park’s audience? No.

So, is mrawS a marketing boost for an expensive new attraction criticised for lacking intensity? I have no real evidence, but that’s my guess, yes.

I went down to Thorpe Park on Annual Pass day and a few days later to Brave it Backwards. After queuing extra for the pleasure of the very back row, I sat looking out at the break run psychologically preparing to move forwards. I had to keep reminding myself that, no, we’re going to go backwards… And when it finally happens, the entire station watches you leave in an awkward build up before tilting onto the lift hill, and strangely the sound effects, that have always existed as the train is dispatched, now feel like a rewind. The lift was, for me, a bizarre experience too. Those who’d ridden X at Magic Mountain found it familiar, but for me it was just… Unnatural, in a great way. You get great views of the track you’re about to pass through and the beautiful station building below. When the train finally begins to flip you into the drop, you’ll find the decent is genuinely incredible and the rest of the ride a unique and interesting roller coaster experience. After a few rides, there were some things I began to notice. The ride experience on the far side of the station is significantly less intense and that this is a good thing, for the near side left everyone in my party complaining of nausea. We couldn’t work out exactly what was causing this, because I’ve never noticed a massive intensity difference between the sides going forward, so any theories from you guys would be great! It also became apparent that the gimmick of riding backwards was really, really short lived. It’s a fantastic one off experience, but it’s not better than riding forwards. And so far, the same opinion seems to be coming from the general public too, as I skim the park’s Facebook page.

Swarm's two backwards rows make the train look interesting and less uniform.
Photo by author.

In light of this, the choices of the other parks to run their coasters backwards for only a limited time makes sense – to encourage guests for a “limited time only!” one off experience, because in that sense, mrawS works. And because it hasn’t been advertised as “limited time only!” they’ll miss out on that marketing potential if they do decide to turn them back round. Instincts tell me that Swarm will be like this for some time, because they’ve made physical changes to signage in the queue… Yeah, it’s that time again...

You’ll remember my dismay at the illogical cluster that is Swarm’s queue. Well they’ve made it WORSE!

There’s a pretty simple way to deal with the backwards rows on Swarm. It’s the same way you’d deal with a front row on any normal coaster. But Swarm isn’t a normal coaster. Queuing for Swarm’s front row involves getting a special ticket and then bypassing a load of confused people in the station, or something like that... I'm still not clear as, despite having ridden the front row numerous times, I've never had to do it because the system doesn't work and it ends up being luck of the draw. Back row, I wrongly assumed, would be the same ticket system.

But no, mrawS has its very own queue that starts at the entrance. Yes. The entrance. 8 people per train, have a queue, all the way… From the ride entrance. 

Inside the station, they’ve made an extended queuing bay especially the back two rows, which is surely all it needs! The idea with a normal front row queues is that you queue the standard amount and then you CHOOSE to wait extra time for the privilege of the unobstructed view. With the back rows, I’d have done the same, but in having an entire separate queue you risk two problematic scenarios. That queue could potentially be shorter than the normal one, or it could get so ridiculously long it causes problems at the end of the day. What do you do if, come 6pm when the entrance gate is closed, the back row queue has an hour wait whilst the main queue has only a half hour wait? They’ll have to start closing it off earlier, at some arbitrary time. With only 8 seats per train, mrawS has a capacity of around only 300 people per hour (a hopeful estimate there), so each side of the station is only taking 150 or so people an hour...  An extension rather than a separate queue would also keep those back rows as something special and exciting, because having to make a last minute decision in the station to enhance your ride is intense. The problem is that Swarm's station was not built with any of this in mind - even a front row extended queueing bay was either overlooked or deemed unimportant or perhaps there was simply no room with the space available. I still think the best thing would be to simply let the extension bay for the back rows fill with people who wish wait extra, which will likely add an extra 20 minutes, rather than giving them an entire separate queue.

The reverse side of the billboard is theming just for backwards riders!
Photo by author.

The addition of the backwards ride experience has been promoted as a “mutation” and a “sting in it’s tail”. The limited availability of a more extreme ride experience concept is in itself interesting and thematically relevant. But part of the package Swarm promotes is that the scenery matters, and the reversed seats disregard that in favour of the visceral thrill, because you won’t be seeing where you’re going. There’s an ironic problem here though. The theming in this example should be thought of as packaging that communicated something the ride failed to deliver. Atmospherically, Swarm’s theme sets guests up with expectations that are not a reality once on board. The ride must rely entirely on the physical aspects of being a roller coaster, with little to no enhancement from the audio-visual theming, besides the occasional screech from the creature you’re being carried away by. And even those are almost always out of sync. But they did think about how the ride’s concept, as a themed roller coaster that interacts with scenery (despite it’s failure at doing this), could be made relevant on the new backwards ride experience. The billboard has a different image on both sides, and one of them is clearly designed to be predominantly of benefit for the very back row, and it works rather well. Luckily, being able to see where you’re going isn’t in reality an issue on Swarm, because there’s very little scenery to enjoy on board anyway, even in the very front row.... Even though the scenery fails to blatantly affect you on ride, something about front row is just better. Perhaps it’s the unobstructed view you get from being so outstretched and far from the track, with nothing between you and the open air. Back row is the same, with added nausea, and something about it just doesn’t feel quite right. It’s as if there’s a certain way a roller coaster should feel, and backwards Swarm doesn’t play by the rules.

In some ways, Alton Tower’s The Smiler, due to open in May of this year, might have been better suited to Thorpe by concept alone, whilst Swarm would have been more at home in the gardens of Alton. I wonder if the choice to go back to Gerstlauer, the same manufacturer responsible Thorpe Park’s Saw: The Ride, was a response to Swarm’s apparently poor reception? Even the enthusiast community is often torn with manufacturer B&M, for whilst their rides are of clear quality, they lack what some would describe as a soul. They can be too perfect, too controlled, whilst other manufacturers provide excitement from their seemingly haphazardness. With its 14 or more inversions, sheer length of mangled track and likely snappy transitions, Smiler is probably going to provide an exciting and relentless ride experience. That’s what the Thorpe Park audience probably wanted from Swarm’s aggressive theme. The disjointedness between actual ride experience, theme and all that goes with it, like marketing, is clearly not something easily avoided, because it’s not just Merlin encountering the issue, as demonstrated in my review of SkyRush.

As always, thank you for reading and please leave your own thoughts in the comments section below!

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  1. I agree with pretty much all the points you have raised here - I havent been back to Thorpe yet this season, but the backwards element is a definite afterthought. Its a shame beacuse the ride promised so much, but with a subtle tweaking of where the near misses happen it could be so much better. Merlin seems to be in the habit of marketing their new rides as extreme thrill rides no matter what, so its not surprising the reaction to Swarm was muted. I was lucky enough to be there on a day last summer where the ride was virtually a walk - on, but even then it only justified one ride. Maybe the next major installation in any of their parks needs to rely less on gimicks and themeing and more on the ride experience itself. Fingers crossed for Smiler....

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  3. Finally got to ride Swarm backwards today - nearside back (right going forward) and once was enough. Not pleasant.

    However Swarm overall is one of my favourite rides, especially farside front (left going forward). Hard to put my finger on why - I guess 'Air Plus' sums it up. It is a ride I enjoy and am happy to ride again and again without walking it off. And it is 30 minutes away which makes it worth a trip out on an afternoon off.