- Angry Birds Land
- Lost City
- Old Town
- Port and Basecamp
- Swarm Island
- The Dock Yard
- The Jungle
10 years ago, Thorpe Park opened their - as of writing - most recent roller coaster, The Swarm. To celebrate, we take a look back at the history before the ride opened, its construction and what's happened since the ride opened!
Back in the 00s, Thorpe Park was going through a period of accelerated development. The level of development was unlike pretty much any theme park across the continent, and it made Thorpe Park one of the most exciting parks to follow. The owners at the time, The Tussauds Group, wanted to make Thorpe Park a destination for thrillseekers, and keep them on the map. They added Colossus and Nemesis Inferno in consecutive years, with Stealth following three years after Inferno. In between, they added thrill rides, like Rush and Samurai, creating a truly exciting thrill line up for the park.
One potential issue that Tussauds faced with Thorpe Park was space: they were running out. Fortunately, this is a problem which could be solved. With the park being surrounded by a lake, it is possible for them to 'infill' land; effectively creating new land. The park had already done this in the past (for example, for Tidal Wave), and though not a simple or cheap thing, it was certainly feasible. So in the mid-00s, the park started infilling, including an area next to Samurai, as well as two 'islands' behind Stealth.
In 2007, Tussauds was bought by Merlin Entertainments. Ultimately, this created a change in philosophy for new investments, whereby theming, story and overall experience of rides and attractions was just as important as the hardware itself. This ultimately led to Thorpe Park getting the Gerstlauer Eurofighter we know as Saw - The Ride in 2009, instead of a wooden roller coaster or flying roller coaster, as was the original plan.
Another key feature of the Merlin takeover was that they wanted to make one major investment into each park once every 3 years. Of course, things have changed since then. But once Saw opened, attention turned to the next big thing, set to open in 2012.
Senior management at Merlin had connections with Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M), along with John Wardley, who was working as a consultant for the company on new rides too. It is believed that when Merlin approached B&M, some figures were keen on the idea of installing a B&M Hyper Coaster - a ride traditionally greater than 200ft in height, which does nto go upside down and focuses on airtime. Though it is unknown why, this plan did not really materalise.
Instead, it seems Thorpe Park and Merlin were more keen on a different ride type: the wing rider. At the time, the B&M wing rider was a new concept which hadn't been built. Indeed, only one "winged" coaster was open in the world: Furius Baco at Port Aventura, built by Intamin. B&M had been working on create a model which was smoother and more graceful, and Merlin wanted in on it. Another Merlin park, Gardaland in Italy, were to get the first ever one (Raptor) in 2011, with the second to be Thorpe Park's one.
Fast forward to 2010, and work was already beginning on Raptor at Gardaland. Thorpe Park meanwhile had submitted their Medium Term Development Plan (MTDP) to the local council. This document outlined roughly what sort of rides they expected to add, and where within the park. Swarm's location had been marked for a "2012 coaster", and was to not exceed 40m in height. It showed a rough layout which, whilst not exactly like Swarm's today, was remarkably similar - the park already knew what they were doing at this point.
Raptor at Gardaland features many 'near miss' moments, and also makes use of the terrain and surrounding area pretty well. Unfortunately, the land planned for Swarm was completely flat, meaning that designing the ride would require the park to be more creative and theme from the 'ground up'. The park also wanted to make use of the reasonably unique winged trains, and for this to play into both the imagery and theme of the ride.
Given Merlin also required a big push on theming and experience, this was a big focus of the ride. The park considered giving the ride an IP, especially following the success of the Saw IP, but eventually opted for an in-house theme. As the ride was opening in 2012, the park opted for an 'end of the world' / apocalypse theme, since 2012 was the Mayan-predicted year that the world would end. The winged seating of the trains led to the park choosing an alien invasion, with the trains being themed as the aliens themselves.
The park then chose to include various vehicles for theming and near miss opportunities. A particular focus was put on 'flying' vehicles - the plane and helicopter - since these would show that the alien race dominated the sky. Further focus was put on emergency service vehicles, like the fire engine, as well as safe havens, like the church-themed station, to show that "nowhere was safe". Though some may say the theming of The Swarm as it is now is disjointed or lacking, everything was designed carefully and with an underlining psychological purpose in mind.
When it came to the layout, the park wanted to create something that was visually stunning. Quite quickly, the first inversion and drop was designed and born. The unique seating arrangement meant that doing a half twist into a drop would look stunning off ride, whilst also providing a great on-ride experience. When it was announced that another B&M wingrider was opening at Six Flags Great America in 2012 that also featured this drop sequence, the park coined that this inversion was to be called the 'THORPE PARK Inversion'. It didn't quite stick, and instead is now referred to as a 'dive drop' by most.
The rest of the layout allowed for inversion which would look great off-ride, whilst being a joy to ride as well. It also allowed for close calls with the theming and ride itself, as well as low-to-the-ground moments, which would give the opportunity for water splash effects as well.
Plans were submitted in February 2011, and approved shortly thereafter. The ride was codenamed LC12, although what LC12 stood for was anyone's guess at the time...
Construction for The Swarm was exciting to follow as an enthusiast. Despite being away from the main park, there were still lots of good viewing points, such as by the marquee, in Depth Charge's queue and around by Stealth too.
More interestingly, the park went in hard on marketing and building anticipation for the ride.
In April 2011, the park started 'fly posting' around the park. These posters stated that the 'End was coming', and to go to a website - LC12.net - to find out more information. The minisite featured a sign up change and teases about the end of the world, and so forth. And even more excitingly, the park introduced a roaming character around the park!
Lez Cougan, as he introduced himself, was a crazed conspiracy theorist. He would roam the park, warning of an alien invasion, telling people to protect themselves and that the end was coming. He was accompanied by two security guards (also actors), who would try to silence him. All of this was designed to ramp up attention and hype for the ride. This on park marketing campaign paired nicely with the working happening on what would soon be called Swarm Island, with foundation work starting in late May, and track arriving to the park in August.
On 1st August 2011, the park announced the name of the ride: The Swarm. This followed several teasers from the park that "War is coming" - the 'war' being that between humans and aliens. This confirmed a bit more about the theme and style, and updated the minisite. Lez Cougan set up a base in the Stealth plaza, since this was an area with high footfall, and also a good view of construction.
Construction of the track started on 2nd October, and finished on 18th November. Theming work followed shortly thereafter. Much of the theming is actually real too. An engineer at the park at the time was a big plane enthusiast, and knew of how to get decommissioned plane parts cheaply. All of the plane parts were bought, made safe, and scattered where they are now. The fire engine is a local, decommissioned engine, and the helicopter made its final flight just a couple of weeks before heading to the park.
The park also created a Developer's Diary page on Facebook, posting updates on construction. We include some of those photos here:
During early commissioning of the ride, it was found that some of the station theming was with the train's envelope around the final inversion. This meant that they had to effective knock down a few inches off a corner of the station, so guests could not touch it on ride. Never a park to miss a trick, Thorpe Park used this in marketing, stating that a test dummy lost a leg during testing. Of course, this never happened (test dummies don't even have legs!), but it built up the hype for exciting near misses. Unfortunately this particular campaign did not age particularly well, and is not referenced by the park any more after the tragic Smiler incident.
The park had other marketing successes though. For example, local-based band You Me At Six worked with the park to release a single related to the ride, called The Swarm. The instrumental of the song can be heard in the ride's area.
Following a successful press night on 9th March, the ride opened on a mild Thursday, the 15th March to be exact. The ride was well received by fans and guests alike, and was helped by being a simple, reliable ride with a solid throughput which ate through the queue well. The level of theming might not be Disney or Universal standard, but it is something never before seen at Thorpe Park, and on par with the best that the UK has to offer.
The park added further theming throughout the 2012 season. The telephone box and upturned ambulance were introduced in the summer, being physical sets that guests could interact with as they please. It was later revealed that "LC12" stood for "Long Count 12"; 'Long Count' being the name of the Mayan calendar. The toilet block found on Swarm's island has the roman numerals "LCXII" on it; a little Easter Egg to the codename of the ride.
For all of Swarm's successes though, it can be said the ride missed the mark a little bit. Swarm was never meant to be an intense thrill ride akin to the likes of Saw, but instead a graceful, yet forceful, flight through the apocalypse. However, this isn't what the wider audience wanted or expected, meaning that the introduction fell short of internal targets. This is perhaps further understandable given 2012 was the year of the London Olympics, when people were less interested in theme parks, and coming off of 2011, the park's most visited season, when numbers were almost certainly going to fall regardless.
So the park found themselves needing to evolve The Swarm...
Whilst Swarm's near misses were good, it is fair to say they are subtle when on ride, and more appeasing when watching the ride. The park needed something which was more in your face. So the park introduced the billboard feature after the zero-g roll; again, this was a great thing to watch off-ride, but also added a real 'near miss' feel on ride too.
More surprisingly, the park added two backwards rows to each train. Rows 6 and 7 had new chasses built by B&M, so that the rows could face the other way. "Brave it Backwards" as the park called it, was born. This helped up the intensity factor of Swarm, and gave a complete new twist to the ride. This was also at a time when B&M were experimenting to adding backward rows to many of their existing rides; it was a big fad in the industry at the time. It also happened at a timely moment in the park's history, as they rethemed X:\ No Way Out to X, and turned the trains forwards.
Brave it Backwards was a popular new twist, even if it did go against the 'near miss' idea of The Swarm. It took some time to bed in operationally (creating a new queue and managing it was difficult), but it soon became a good, fun addition to the park's line up.
Given the area is under constant alien attack, Swarm Island is holding up pretty well. The area still looks great. The ride remains reliable and, more importantly, popular and well received. Though it was not the instant hit that the park might have liked, it has stood the test of time, and remains a ride which the masses always flock to, and always want to ride. It is highly rated by guests too, even after the backward rows were removed for the 2016 season. The special effects of the ride are less reliable, however. The water jets and fire effect are seldom seen, but we believe that the park are looking to address, giving us hope for the future.
During the resort's Fright Nights event, Swarm Island is transformed into a scare zone - Swarm Invasion - which extends the story of Lez Cougan, his follows and the fight against The Swarm. Though not a traditional scare zone, the extension to the story and the presentation of it is something which should not be overlooked.
10 years on, The Swarm is standing the test of time. It's addition diversified the park's line up, and it is still a spectacle in its own right. And its wider importance cannot be understated: it grew the park's phsyical space by a lot, increasing the infrastructure of the park with new shops, toilets and eateries, and sets the park up for further expansion with its connected island. It is a ride which serves its purpose in the park's past, present and future, and we look forward to seeing it for the next 10 years and beyond!