Tuesday 14 March 2017

The Evolution of B&M's Dive Coaster

Liseberg’s upcoming dive coaster “Valkyria” will open in 2018… 20 years after the B&M prototype first debuted at Alton Towers.

Promotional artwork for Liseberg's Valkyria.

B&M’s Diving Coasters have ...come a long way. I’ll explain why I say that so hesitantly in a moment, but now that they come with floorless trains, with rows ranging from 6-10 persons across and capable of inversions, they’re barely recognisable from the single drop prototype that is Oblivion. We haven’t seen this kind of evolution with B&M’s other products, not even close.

Back when I first rode Alton’s Oblivion - the world’s first vertical drop “dive machine” or “dive coaster” - I was so certain it needed more to it. I thought, this… This is awesome, but imagine just how much more awesome it could be if it were like other roller coasters - with a longer circuit, inversions, etc. Years later and I couldn’t disagree with my younger self more. Oblivion is special - and good - precisely because it isn’t like other coasters.

The prototype still feels like the pinnacle of their design to me, with every additional foot of track since a mere distraction from what defines them. Whilst the concept of the inverted or mega coaster has remained the consistent focus with their comparatively minor innovations, the dive coaster seemed to lose its way the moment it ventured outside Alton Towers.

I’ve ridden both the Busch dive machines and Heide’s, along with Oblivion of course, but I’m most familiar with Oblivion and Griffon, so the majority of this discussion will be comparing those two. I’ve not been shy of criticising the dive machine. Griffon and Busch Williamsburg in general have been the inspiration of many interesting critical discussions found on this blog, even where it may not be obvious. Griffon isn’t a bad ride per se, but its flaws sure are interesting.

The problem I have with Griffon is that with their thick track and dramatic vertical drop elements, dive coasters just look intimidating by default. Griffon’s baby blue colour scheme and tranquil French town setting is a strange choice of aesthetic to go with that. Now, I’m sure that growing up with Oblivion has shaped my expectation of how the dive coaster experience should be catered - that’s probably why I feel so strongly at least, but there is surely no argument that a vertical plummet is an inherently scary experience? That the natural form of the dive coaster is an intimidating structure? And that Griffon’s aesthetic is just flat out contradictory to that, right? Oblivion took the concept and elaborated upon it naturally, whilst Griffon delicately places tasteless petit fours on all the sharp edges.

France is easily Busch’s most ordinary and bland environment, with both a lack of visual variety and detailing. But to give it some credit to visual design, it has a Phantasialand-esque layout that forces exploration through shops, over bridges and amongst buildings, with Griffon’s main drop presented for spectators better than Sheikra’s attempt. Although, neither come even close to the masterpiece that is Oblivion’s presentation.

The entrance to X-Sector forces Oblivion's profile into centre-frame, with all attention drawn to the angle of the drop. Then the landscaping not only allows but encourages guests to approach the drop. Being directly under Oblivion's drop makes it seem taller and more intimidating than it actually is; not to mention the effect of the bare concrete walls enclosing it, the interaction between onlookers and scared riders, the sounds the hardware makes at releases the train and roars towards the ground and that "ffomph" sound as the train vanishes, the mist dragged down with it. Oblivion has a presence few rides do.

Photos by author.

But why is Griffon’s ride experience itself so uneventful? Griffon’s stands 125ft taller than Oblivion, but it's easy to forget that the overall drop length is only about 20ft more, with over half of Oblivion's below ground. Every time I visit Alton I’m surprised at just how tiny Oblivion appears, especially now that Smiler stands distractingly in the peripheral senses as another large object to normalise Oblivion’s structure. But I’ve started to wonder if this comparatively short distance between being suspended over that edge and the ground below is the reason why this shorter, slower and slightly less steep drop produces a better sensation than those of its big sisters. If you’re like me and unaffected by height, the closeness of passing objects is where the drama and sense of speed lies, which is why Oblivion’s tunnel is so important. It sounds ridiculous to say a mere tunnel makes Oblivion’s drop better, but it basically breaks Oblivion’s otherwise tremendously short ride experience into two powerfully emotive halves. Everything up to the moment the train makes it through the entrance of that impossibly narrow tunnel is anxious and bleak, before immediately turning to relief. As the mist hits your face and the track begins to level out, there’s a euphoric joy there, a legitimate sense of having survived the impossible. I think a lot of people mistake Oblivion’s emotive power as a result of the videos in the queue, where a man repeatedly tells you that "this ride is perfectly safe" in a rather sinister, calm tone over erratic drum and bass, whilst the same man manically tells you otherwise, "How do we know? How do we KNOW? Don't believe him!" You can listen to the entire soundtrack, including their argument, here on Youtube. Oblivion's queue rarely reaches far enough for guests to become a captive audience of this; I'm not sure I have personally ever waited that long for it and yet the ride still has the same effect. Oblivion just conceptually works in a way so few rides do, the theme itself informed by the very concept of the dive coaster, by the way the hardware naturally looks and sounds and feels. This unity makes for a more compelling experience, with the uncomfortably anxious atmosphere enhanced by the brutalist containment facility architecture, the soundtrack and landscaping.

 Photos by author.

I honestly believe that this is what's wrong with a lot of roller coasters, they fail to have a clear concept and unite it with what we like to call "theming". They fail to provide what they promise and come up wanting, as is the case with Swarm at Thorpe Park. Or, they appear lame or unappealing, as kind of the case with Skyrush at Herysheypark. Oblivion might just be the best example of it working, but a couple of other great examples are Voyage at Holiday World and Maverick at Cedar Point - both rides that do what they say. In the case of Voyage being so long and relentless that it is genuinely tiresome and in Maverick's case, being so rebellious to the Cedar Point conventions and that of coasters in general. These examples rare and arguably rarer still amongst heavily themed coasters, who so often decorate the hardware in an irrelevant way rather than tying the experience together. It feels fanboyish mentioning Air, but that's another great example and I think the point here is that John Wardley’s signature thing seemed to be making sure ride experience and presentation gelled. He goes on about it a lot in various interviews and his creations, well, they just speak for themselves.

The inversions found on dive coasters are big, floaty and forceless. None of these things are necessarily bad and I guess an argument could be made for them doing what Oblivion’s tunnel does - add this sense of relief and joy after such anxiety. But the tunnel is still exhilarating whilst these massive, drawn out immelmans just aren’t and in the case of Griffon and Sheikra, the ride overall is not thematically intimidating to invoke such anxiety in the first place. The wide trains gracefully twist over in the sky like a giant manta ray through those gigantic inversions, pulling out of them to perform a second vertical drop in the case of the Busch sisters. Now that we’re faced with a smaller version of what we’ve just conquered, the impact of the drop already weakened by a lack of focus, is just completely lost. The irony being that Griffon’s smaller second drop is better than the first... So the better drop is the smaller one, the inversions might as well not exist and the layout repeats itself, dampening the effect of the second half. This is the fault with the dive coaster - other than the vertical drop element, they cannot perform compelling maneuvers that allow them to compete with other ride types, whilst repeating the vertical drop nullifies the impact. So nearly 20 years on, little Oblivion remains iconic whilst I fail to be compelled by Baron at Efteling, Oblivion - The Black Hole at Gardaland, Valraven at Cedar Point and now Valkyria, coming to Liseberg. Roller Coaster Philosophy concludes the opposite in his trip report from Alton Towers in 2010 where he asks, is Oblivion still relevant? It's a worthwhile read for the perspective of someone who doesn't have the Oblivion nostalgia bias.

 Photo by author.

I suppose it’s worth stopping to talk about Merlin’s other two dive coasters, Krake and Oblivion - The Black Hole, as they both continue the trend set by the original to be foreboding. Krake utilises what’s available to the dive coaster without losing focus. The looming soundtrack and dark queue, along with the walk-the-plank theme that remains abstract enough to refrain from silliness, all works. The splashdown might be the best visual use of one anywhere and the ride length remains to the point. But in spite of all this, Krake is still merely just "ok" when compared to B&M’s wider catalogue. I haven’t visited Gardaland, so I can't comment on whether that more clinical interpretation of Oblivion's stark narrative works quite as well.

So, what would be an appropriate evolution of the dive coaster?

If the layout could just hold up against the likes of B&M’s other products. That simple. Sadly, the cumbersome trains probably make this dream unlikely. They’re designed to perform those vertical drops and that hinders their ability to do much else, so any variation ends up as a poor distraction from the main event.

But, if one could save a vertical plummet until the end or near end of the layout, I think we would be onto a winner. I talked about this in my Nemesis review, how most coasters start big and peter out to nothing for obvious practical reasons. But on the rare coasters that don't follow this convention, regardless of overall ride quality, an increasing sense of drama or a spectacular end leaves you hyped. My favourite example of this is Mystery Mine at Dollywood, with that dramatic dive into the final breaks. If a dive coaster started small, maybe with a non-vertical drop, or dark ride portion, and finished with the spectacular vertical plummet, I think you'd have a more memorable ride experience. This is what I expected from Efteling’s Baron, but instead, we have a beautifully decorated but otherwise very bog-standard ride. Dive coasters are just kind of there, forgotten amongst a crowd of simply more fulfilling ride experiences and I don’t think that is ever going to change.

1 comment:

  1. I first rode Oblivion in 2002 - I waited for 2 hours in a maddening queue filled with pushing, shoving, and line cutting when the projected wait time out front was listed at 30 minutes. I was frustrated by the time I arrived to the station, but I was still excited. "This is it!," I thought. I had arrived at a great white whale in the hobby and I was going to enjoy it. Then, as we held on the brake staring at the first drop, "This doesn't seem anywhere near as large as I expected". Some 15-20 seconds later we were on the brake run and my opinion of Alton Towers has since forever colored by my 2 hour plus ordeal in line for Oblivion:

    -It basically doesn't do anything other than the drop
    -The drop wasn't even that forceful!
    -Seriously, where's the rest of the ride?
    -The queue was the worst designed of any theme or amusement park in the entire world

    I don't get off rides mad all that often. Especially legendary, beloved attractions. I got off mad on Oblivion. A huge part of that emotional reaction was everything that led up to getting on the ride (and missing group lunch as a result of the queue time). But a great attraction that really fulfilled my desires to go on something that made me say "Wow, I have experienced something!" didn't happen. And that was in 2002, before Eurofighters, Premier Skyrockets, Maurer Sohne Skyloops and all the rest that's happened since. The theme even felt sorta antiquated then, like it was inspired by Nine Inch Nails or mid 90s industrial music/aesthetics that are long, long out of fashion today.