Ride Review: The Smiler – Alton Towers

Alton Towers’ newest coaster, The Smiler, smashed the world record for inversions on a coaster when it opened in 2013. Sadly, it is perhaps best known today for the terrible incident in June of last year when two trains collided on the track, resulting in multiple severe injuries to riders on the front row. But, with it being scheduled to reopen next month with the park, it’s a good time to find out whether the coaster itself lives up to the hype…

It was in December of 2012 that plans were first submitted by Alton Towers to the local council, revealing to all what their next “Secret Weapon” coaster would be (all Alton Towers developments since 1994 have been referred to under the codename SW). SW7, as this one was known, was at first (according to the plans at least) believed to simply be an 8 inverting coaster – and indeed, fans of the park were very pleased at that development alone. It wasn’t until much later that it become clear that the top-down only plans had deceived everyone – and in fact the coaster had almost double that number, 14 inversions! This destroyed the previous record of 10 track inversions, held by several Intamin coasters (one being Colossus at Alton Towers’ sister park Thorpe Park), and lead to heavy speculation as to what manufacturer would be crazy enough to hope to cram that many inversions into such a small area, and still maintain comfort on-ride.

In the end, the manufacturer turned out to be German company Gerstlauer, who at the time (and indeed still) are best known for the Eurofighter model, with single cars seating 8 people. However; The Smiler, as Alton Towers revealed later to be its new coaster’s name, was to be a completely new model of coaster from Gerstlauer. They called it the “Infinity Coaster” – and what differentiated it from the Eurofighter was its unique, 16-seat trains (double that of the Eurofighter), and its interesting new vertical lift rollback system, which allowed for easier evacuations when the coaster was stopped on the vertical lift. Interestingly enough, the coaster also utilised magnetic braking on the lift hill in place of the traditional ratchet system – and so The Smiler doesn’t sound like a traditional coaster when ascending its first hill!

Both lift hills on The Smiler, with trains about to reach the top of both.

The eventual most ridiculous aspect of this coaster though was its layout. The ride’s footprint was positively miniscule – situated opposite the world’s first B&M Dive Coaster “Oblivion,” it took the place of an old indoor coaster called the “Black Hole” – which had been removed some years previously. The track of The Smiler is twisted beyond belief, moreso than perhaps any other coaster in the world. After the lifthills, there is barely a single track piece that even vaguely looks straight. And to pack 14 inversions into this footprint, it isn’t surprising!

X-Sector as it was before (top) and after (bottom) The Smiler. The big black building housed the “Black Hole coaster.” Oblivion, the B&M Dive Coaster can be seen at the bottom. Note the tiny area in which The Smiler resides (Bing/Google Maps)


Aside from the track though, the most distinctive aspect of The Smiler is its theming. The coaster is themed around a sinister organisation known as the “Ministry of Joy” – who use experiments in order to establish social compliance. In the case of The Smiler, this social compliance is to be achieved through…smiling!

The most notable themed aspect of The Smiler is the huge, 5 legged, spider-like structure that sits in the centre of the track, its individual legs actually overarching sections of the coaster. This is dubbed “The Marmaliser” – and each leg contains a specific device for making the rider smile, including laughing gas canisters (mist spray) and a “hypnotiser” (disorienting, circular patterns that rotate). In the centre of The Marmaliser is a giant, 360 degree screen – which shows disturbing, fast cutting footage of experiments and creepy statements being read out loud regarding the Ministry of Joy’s social compliance experiments. All of this is underpinned by a loud, and repetitive soundtrack that we can assure you, after an hour spent in line, you struggle to get out of your head. The hypnotisation has begun!

The Marmaliser as it appeared on The Smiler’s opening day of May 31st, 2013

Yet while all this theming is good, once you’re on ride you really don’t notice any of it. The ride itself is as crazy and disorienting as its theme. You depart from the station, directly into a sweeping left hand drop, that transitions into an indoor Inline Twist, the first inversion. The train then pulls up into a brake run, before leaving the station building and ascending slowly, 72ft up the first (normal) lift hill. From here, you take a right turn, and enter into the first outdoor inversion, a fast “Inverted Drop,” which leads straight into inversions 3 and 4, both in the a large Sea Serpent Roll. The train then passes underneath The Marmaliser, over a small airtime hill, and enters a Batwing element, which comprises inversions 5 and 6. The final inversion of the first half of the coaster is a Corkscrew, which pulls out into some brakes.

The train pauses on these brakes, and screens above the break run show more disorienting and creepy video, whilst mad laughing blasts at rides through speakers at the side. The train then slowly catches onto the lift chain, before ascending once more up the second lift hill, this time vertical. The second half of the layout starts the same as the first, with another inverted drop, which leads into two back to back Dive Loops – this takes the total inversion count so far to 10. The train now passes over another, this time much large and stronger airtime hill, and heads back towards the station building into a Cobra Roll. This is followed finally by two consecutive Inline Twists, both which whip you around with considerable force, and indeed reinforce the complete disorientation you are by this time feeling.

The “Inverted Drop” on the second half of The Smiler

If you are lucky when riding The Smiler, you will occasionally duel with another train – as the first and second halves of the layout are designed that if the trains pass over the lift hills simultaneously, then they will duel throughout the ride. This is particularly enjoyable over the airtime hills, where the trains almost seem to race each other, and then in the final elements of each half – the intertwined Cobra Roll and Batwing elements; which form a new elements dubbed by enthusiasts as the “Staffordshire Knot” (owing to its twisted appearance, and the park’s location in the county of Staffordshire).

Two trains duel on the “Staffordshire Knot” (Michael Garnett)

Although this review has given off the impression that The Smiler is perhaps a fantastic coaster, both ride and theming-wise, it is time to let you know the not-so-good side. The coaster has aged horribly. Its tight layout means that there was very little room for error in track fabrication, and there were errors noticeable from even the first day (we were there, and rode it on its opening day back in May 2013!) This includes a terrible jolt on the second half of the Cobra Roll, as well as persistent roughness and vibration throughout the layout, particularly on the transitions between elements. As well as the rough ride, the actual landscape of the coaster does not make for a good experience when queuing. The whole coaster is set partially into the ground, in a concrete pit (so as to remain below tree-level, Alton Towers’ persistent nemesis), and this means that in the summer, the sun insulates the pit and almost produces a greenhouse effect; whereas in the winter, the inadequate drainage guarantees that there will be huge pools of water to navigate as you walk through the maze of black metal fences that make up The Smiler’s queueline.

The Smiler by night.

This is not to mention the persistent issues that the coaster has had structurally, with bolts having failed, track sections coming apart due to the poor fabrication and stress on the joins, as well as multiple occasions on which it has stalled on the circuit (attributed to wind, but most likely also in part due to poor design on the Staffordshire Knot side of the circuit). And of course, one of these stalls lead to the terrible incident in which two people lost a leg.

All in all though, The Smiler is truly an insane roller coaster – and it most certainly continues Alton Towers’ tradition of groundbreaking coasters, albeit even if this one is not as grand as Oblivion, nor as good a ride as Nemesis. Its 14 inversions make it a must-do if ever on a trip to the UK – as if nothing else, you can get through more inversions in a single ride on this than you can having ridden every coaster in most other parks in the world!

Thank you very much for reading this ride review of The Smiler. Please keep in mind, all images found on this site, unless otherwise stated, are owned by European Coaster Kings! Sharing them is fine, but only if credit to europeancoasterkings.com is given!

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