Top 5 Best Themed UK Rides
Photo by Thorpe Park Official
Theming can make or break a ride- and in some cases, it can define the whole experience.
No matter how smooth a ride is, or how intense it gets, or how basic it may seem, the look, atmosphere and storyline of an attraction can elevate- or sink- it to a completely new level. In today’s Top 5 Tuesday, we’re counting down the best-themed rides across the UK’s parks to celebrate the difference good theming design can make.
For this list, we’re abandoning four of our five usual criteria and just focusing on how the ride looks, sounds, smells and feels, as well as the strength of the story it tells. I should say that picking these five was hard and there were at least ten other rides that we considered before narrowing it down. This list is pure opinion and disagreement is encouraged.
5. Pirate Falls: Treasure Quest (Legoland Windsor)
This Legoland classic has been operating under various names for almost twenty-five years, and it’s probably the best-themed log flume in the country right now- we’re not counting Valhalla, since we have no idea what it will look like next time it’s open. Pirate Falls sits towards the back of the valley that holds most of the park, in an area that never fails to conjure nostalgia and an instant sense of the quintessential pirate theme.
From the moment guests board Pirate Falls, the stars of the show are the LEGO models that depict the deeds of various menacing but cartoonish pirates. As the logs rush smoothly towards a crescendo, the models get more outlandish and extravagant, the centrepiece being a huge battle scene which sees half a dozen life-size LEGO pirates struggling to stay afloat as their ships plummet into the lake.
It all culminates in the peak of the lift hill, which takes rider into a dark cabin where they’re confronted with the truth that has been hinted towards the whole time: dynamite is about to ignite the building with the pirates- and you- inside. After a few rides, when you start to peel back the layers of the story, there’s an art to the craft going on here. Even if you don’t, the models themselves are impressive enough to make Pirate Falls: Treasure Quest worth a ride.
4. Tomb Blaster (Chessington World of Adventures)
There was only room for one shooting dark ride on this list- and for me, Chessington’s Egyptian-themed Tomb Blaster just edges it. Depending on the angle you approach from, Tomb Blaster is either deep in the Forbidden Kingdom or the first thing you see of the area. Either way, it has a great facade that sticks out in the mind better than most rides in the park.
From there, you’re taken through an intelligently designed queue line that gives you a first-floor view of this immersive area before taking you downstairs and inside to switch the mood completely. Once you get through a queue decorated with ancient-looking artefacts and mysterious boxes, it’s onto the ride.
In this dark, enclosed space, the set pieces grow increasingly intimidating- you start with a pit of animatronic snakes and by the end of the ride guests come face-to-face with an enormous stone cobra that looms menacingly over their heads. Between these, there are mummies popping out of tombs, boulders rolling overhead and skeletons closing in before riders finally stumble into the light outside to reflect on what they’ve seen. We often take this ride for granted because it’s so close to home, but it deserves so much more credit.
3. The Dragon (Legoland Windsor)
The imperious stone castle alone is enough to earn The Dragon a spot on this list, but as so much more than just a facade- a queue line, a restaurant, a ride photo shop and more. With The Dragon, the experience really does begin as soon as you enter the area. It entices you, old or young, to cross the drawbridge and rush around the top of the castle walls to the station building. I’m genuinely unsure how it fits the rest of the dark ride section into what looks like such a small space.
Once inside, you travel through half a dozen scenes, each representing a different room in the medieval castle. There’s something deeply unsettling about the LEGO figures inside, from the way they move to the contrast of the yellow skin against the more realistic colours used elsewhere in the park. With that said, none of the scenery you pass competes with the enormous dragon that bursts through the wall of the final room, smoke billowing from each nostril. From there you exit the castle into an unthemed roller coaster section, but it’s the dark ride segment of this classic that sticks in the memory for most.
2. Wicker Man (Alton Towers)
The newest ride on this list is also one of the most expensive and visually complex, due to the way that the theming is integrated into the ride structure itself. The big talking point here is a colossal wicker statue of a tribal head with fire effects at several points. During the ride, trains pass through this statue multiple times, and in the short time since opening, this structure has become one of the most iconic images at Alton Towers.
Wicker Man‘s theming isn’t just surrounding the ride, it’s attached, and the clever use of colours creates an impression of the statue rising out of the tracks of the coaster itself. These themes of wood and smoke and fire are crucial when it comes to creating an image for the ride, to selling the personality of Towers’ newest coaster. Throw in a fantastic soundtrack and interweaving queue line and you’ve got yourself a beautifully themed attraction.
1. The Swarm (Thorpe Park)
Few rides in the UK have had as much attention to detail put into their theming as The Swarm. From the moment you cross the bridge onto Swarm Island, you’re immersed in a world of apocalyptic chaos. The greys, whites and browns of a city sapped of colour make this one of the few roller coasters in the world that actually looks better on a cloudy day, as crashed vehicles and destroyed street scenery lay strewn about the paths.
Travelling through the queue line, visitors can hear snippets of news reports created especially for the ride, telling the story of devastation that has struck the island in the build-up to your arrival. Even the station building is heavily themed- a decrepit old church with an upturned emergency vehicle for an operator’s box. Riders sit on trains designed to look like a swarm of alien creatures themselves.
From the top of the lift hill to the brake run, there’s rarely a moment here where riders aren’t passing over, under or through a piece of theming, from a helicopter with the rotors still spinning lazily to a half-submerged fire truck which spits dragon breath every minute or so. More so than any other ride in the country, you genuinely feel like you have been placed into this world, a world where human survivors are thin on the ground. Put simply, The Swarm is the best themed roller coaster in the country, and it could be a long wait before something tops it.
Do you agree with our picks? Comment your thoughts below and tell us what your #1 would be. Thanks for reading!