Alton Towers to open virtual reality rollercoaster

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

  • Published
Media caption,

Alton Towers plans virtual reality ride

Alton Towers has announced plans to open a rollercoaster ride on which passengers wear virtual-reality headsets.

The Staffordshire-based adventure park said Galactica would open in April, following two years of planning.

It is resort's first big new ride since one of its rollercoasters crashed in June, seriously injuring five people.

Visitor numbers have been down since the accident, which Alton Towers blamed on "human error".

It said 190 jobs remained at risk and the park would close on several mid-week "quieter days" this year.

Image source, Merlin Entertainments
Image caption,
The VR visuals have been developed by the UK's Figment Productions and run on Samsung Gear VR headsets

Space travel

Several virtual-reality recordings simulate rollercoaster rides, but Alton Towers said Galactica would combine the two experiences for the first time.

Over the course of the three-minute ride, the headsets will show passengers a journey across a series of different galaxies, timed to coincide with the ride's twists, turns and falls.

Lying facedown, they will experience a maximum g-force of 3.5gs, which the park says is more than astronauts typically experience during rocket launches.

Gill Riley, the park's marketing director, said it represented a "multi-million pound investment".

Image source, Merlin Entertainments
Image caption,
Passengers will lie flat on the Galactica rollercoaster

"Obviously the safety and welfare of our guests is our number one priority," she added.

"Following the incident last year, we immediately put into effect additional safety protocols on our multi-car rollercoasters, of which this is one.

"In addition, once this ride is installed, as with every other new ride and experience, it will be subject to comprehensive pre-opening assessment [by us] and by an accredited independent inspection body."

Rather than build the ride from scratch, the park has re-engineered an existing rollercoaster the Air, which originally opened in 2002.

It experienced technical problems of its own last July when dozens of passengers were trapped face-down for up to 20 minutes.

Image source, Merlin Entertainments

Galactica in numbers:

  • Each train will contain 28 passengers, and three trains will be set into motion at one time
  • The track length is 840m (2,755ft)
  • The height of the biggest drop is 20m (66ft)
  • The maximum speed is 75km/h (47mph)
  • The ride duration is 189 seconds
  • The capacity per hour is 1,500 passengers

Safety precautions

Two women had legs amputated after the carriage of the Smiler rollercoaster they were riding in collided with an empty carriage on 2 June.

Fourteen other people on the ride were also injured.

Alton Towers' owner, Merlin Entertainments, later said the accident had been caused by operator error rather than a mechanical fault.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
The Smiler ride has been closed since the accident in June

"A ride shutdown message was misunderstood by staff at the ride," it said in November, adding workers had overridden the control system to manually restart Smiler.

Ms Riley said the park had learned from the mistake.

"We have enhanced our training and also included an extra level of authorisation when we have to stop and reset and restart a ride, which involves senior management," she said.

She confirmed that Smiler was still set to reopen in 2016, but was unable to provide a date.

Merlin Entertainments' share price sank by more than 20% following June's accident, but is currently trading at about 4% below its pre-accident level.

"Certainly, the accident at Alton Towers has been difficult for Merlin and been a drag on its performance, which is not surprising," said Keith Bowman, an equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

"But other parts of the business - Legoland in particular - have been making progress and generally compensating for this."

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