Sometimes, a coaster is more than the sum of its parts. The Smiler has a lot of parts (fourteen inversions to start with), yet it only seems to deliver the mean. Let’s explain…
The Smiler definitely looks like the kind of coaster you could spend all day just watching. It’s a fantastic spectacle in Alton’s X-Sector as the cars twist, dive and roar around the area. It’s a mass of steel and with two cars often on the track at the same time, keeping a track of which is which and where they go is a serious mental work out.
You’ll be watching the bright yellow cars dance around the track like bees in a flower patch as you head down the steep steps into the queue “pit”.
It really is a pit as well. Raw concrete and metal fencing gives it an industrial feel and not a deliberately themed one either. The ride in constant, dizzying motion above you helps to distract you from the dismal area; as do the cleverly printed texts that can only be seen from certain angles. After a while though, the metal, concrete and caging over your head will start to make you feel a little oppressed.
The theme is provided by a blaring, horrendous/fantastic (*delete as appropriate) soundtrack and the gigantic “Marmaliser” spider structure. The Marmaliser has legs covered in ridiculous gimmicks and a giant screen throwing flashing images and animations at the crowds.
Here we start to see the issue with the ride. It gives you the super duelling action of the coaster all around. The sound and monstrous Marmaliser add a real depth of immersion into this weird and bizarre world of “The Smiler”. Yet you’re trapped in the nasty industrial area, with fences and cages blocking some of the best views. It’s being brilliant, and then awful at the same time.
The best thing though is those trains duelling around the track. It may be a fluke and not intended, but when they're working closely, it's incredible. To have two trains racing each other as the pass overhead is sublime. I said above; “you could spend all day just watching” and its gorgeous.
By the time you reach the station, there’s no doubt you’ll be apprehensively looking forward to the ride. Where will the quality of the ride lie? In the dreadful concrete mess, or the or the delicious spectacle it gives?
Your hopes are dashed as you reach the station. The station entrance area is ugly, bland and nasty. There’s “crinkly tin” all around it (much like the cargo storage containers Merlin seem to favour) and it’s not a great look at all. It’s hard to retain positivity when faced with this.
Inside wasn't much better. A few projected illusions that Drayton Manor would have rejected. It’s a superb idea but it just looks “cheap”. It certainly doesn’t look like the quality production of the world’s second largest theme park chain.
It's claustrophobic like Thirteen's station, dark and a bit miserable.
The queue whizzes through though once inside, just a few minutes and it's bag drop burden and station. The bag drop is also like Thirteen's, so if you're in a group and some don't have bags, you end up split and having to force past people on the stairs to rejoin. Eugh!
The station is very open, bright and airy. It's a bit of a shock after the gloom of the building queue line. You're pretty much right onto a train though and off.
Here there be spoilers:
The ride gets off and there's a decent drop much like Saw's, into the inline. I loved this. I usually hate inlines, but it really worked. There's something really odd though about it and it feels like you're still sideways when you're actually flat. It's a bit like the spinning tunnel effect in a ghost train - I loved it. It left me a bit dazed and my head took a while to realise we were on the lift section and heading up.
We were lucky and had a good duelling train going up the vertical lift. People knew each other on each train and were shouting and cheering to each other. It's very cool actually. Once again, offering more than you bargained for.
Then you drop and head for each other and the ride starts.
It's what you'd expect, inversion after inversion. If you watch the track and ride into it, it was "fun". The air time hill is mild, but pleasant. You don't really notice much else though. The odd glimpse of another car, but the Marmaliser you pass by without a glance. It's incredibly disorientating though. You do lose track of if you're inverted or not or where you are on the track.
It's a weird mix of forces assailing you constantly. It also has fit and spurts of speed and slow. There’s no real air time, hang time, floater or high g. It’s just swooping and diving around as it pleases.
You hit the mid brakes and hill and my head was spinning. I've never, ever been made dizzy by a coaster before. It’s quite a shock actually that a ride can do something new and interesting. Hopefully it’s an effect most will experience. The mid hill brought a very welcome break from the ride otherwise you'd be puking your guts up.
The second section wasn't as dizzying, but the airtime hill was better.
Then you hit the cobra roll and...
Wallop! It's a big crunch and it's jarring.
The rest of the ride I found "reasonably comfortable". No awards for smoothness, but it's just a little shaky and juddering - nothing horrendous. It's much as I found Saw really.
It does seem that there is a train issue, where one or more trains are abysmal. I was lucky (like Saw). I guess that's pot luck then.
The ride finishes with a quick flurry of inversions and you're home. The exit has a few extra painted bits and bobs and the shop is bright and happy with some great merchandise. There's also a CGI make yourself an advocate mirror thing.
So the ride looks great. The duelling is brilliant. The views when you get them from the queues are also superb, as is the atmosphere created by the music and Marmaliser. The ride itself offers a bit of fun and is “curiously interesting”. Yet it never does anything brilliantly, but it does do a lot of it.
So you add them all up, divide and you have the mean of all parts – a little more than “meh”. For everything it offers in wonder, it takes away with a cheapness or tiny bit of poor design aesthetic.
I enjoyed it. I honestly, really enjoyed it. The problem is "it's cheap". Everything is as little as is needed to be done to make it as good as "required". Everything.
The ride sits alongside Rita, Air and Sonic I think. It's a competent ride and will offer bags to those who enjoy what it offers. If you love Saw, then The Smiler will blow you away. For the rest of us, it's exactly what you were expecting - it's a slightly rough, inconsistent, Gerstlauer multi-looper with a (sometimes) great setting. I'll ride Rita every time I go with new people; and Air and Sonic. Yet most days on park I just ignore them. The Smiler will fit in here with those rides, only I probably have a little more love for it than those - we'll see how it beds in over time.
It's easily a 7/10 coaster, and realistically an 8/10 if "you like that kind of thing".
If you had a bad train, probably a 0/10
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