Up, up, up we went, the grey of the launch area suddenly giving way to daylight, an expanse of treetops and the metallic confusions of the other rides, which seemed far flimsier from up here than they had looked on the ground. A downward glance brought a fleeting moment of nausea. I caught my son's gaze. This was being a father: we were playing this game with fear and mortality together. Now we were looking way beyond the park to the distant cities and remoter landscapes of the Midlands. Was that the spire of Coventry Cathedral and there the Malverns through the haze? As we continue to rise, we are suddenly tipped forward so we have no choice but to contemplate the awesome distance we are about to plunge. Then the sensation of ascent stops, replaced by a portentous stillness. One is conscious of the wind, the ethereal light, an intimation of being. This is the moment of The Drop and I am about to experience it with my Joseph. I see a transient expression of fear in his normally bright, eager face but I have been on many such rides and he seems to find reassurance in his father's outward serenity. Then nothing. Just wind, visceral nothingness and a sheer absence of solidity as we plummet. Consciousness returns as the giant magnets dampen the plunge and we are back, still in our harnesses, at the launch point. Joseph and myself are unbuckled and we walk back, elated, to Colin Bryan, the genial and urbane boss of Drayton Manor theme park, who has been looking after my younger son. Christopher is still chuckling with delight at the sight of us in our moment of mock terror.
Or that is how it was supposed to be.
But on a theme park ride in the US, my knuckles had once turned too white, an experience which had reduced me to quivering cowardice when it came to big rides. Yet here I was, with my sons, charged with testing the ultimate ticket to ride: the Staffordshire Thrill Hopper, which gives a family of two adults and two children admission to the Drayton Manor and Alton Towers theme parks, the Tamworth Snowdome and the Stoke Waterworld. (You don't have to visit them in one go, the ticket is valid until November.) I had put in practice on rides at Thorpe Park in Surrey and thought I was cured. But when we arrived at the base of Drayton Manor's 180ft Apocalypse I became like an astronaut, who, contemplating his tiny perch atop the fuel-laden rocket aimed at the unknown, declares at the moment of boarding, "Nope, I can't."
As my phobia prevailed, Joseph displayed no such inhibitions. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has opined of the fox, my elder son apparently does not have the mental capacity for fear. He voted Apocalypse easily the best ride at Drayton Manor. This fiendish device offers three kinds of ride: sitting (bad), standing (worse) and sitting but with absolutely nothing below the level of the posterior (ghastly). Should one of your shoes come off, it would fall, to its doom.
Our VIP tour in the company of Mr Bryan next took us to the Maelstrom. This is a suspended roundabout where you face outwards and spin. Then swing as well. The experience is a multi-layered cake of motion, fear, apprehension and extraordinary abdominal sensations, one piled thrillingly on top of another. Or so I'm led to believe.
Then it was on to the pièce de résistance, Shockwave. It is Europe's only stand-up roller coaster and has been voted by the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain the best stand-up roller coaster in the world. In a moment of bravado, I declared I was up for it. Eight-year-old Christopher was reluctant, but as we mounted the steps to this impressive £4m confection of engineering and sadism the beguiling Mr Bryan told him he seemed big for his age so probably just about tall enough to ride. Such flattery conquered his apprehension, there was a quick discussion about seating and suddenly the machinery's powerful safety clamps were down. A hum of motors was followed by a startlingly rapid ascent and then noise and wind as everyone was inverted, thrusted and swung in measures that bordered on the violent. It was spectacular. Christopher manifested no distress as he climbed off the ride. It was shock and awe.
We were at Drayton Manor on a Friday during term time, which meant that the hysteria that one associates with theme parks was absent. Such sparse queues as there were, we were able to jump with the magic powers that come with being in the company of the good Mr Bryan. One of our favourite rides was the mighty Stormforce 10, whose queuing area is beautifully and imaginatively presented as a faux lifeboat station and whose particularly notable feature is plunging backwards. Theme park aficionados put a ride's G-forces as the main measure of excitement and Mr Bryan, an engineer, said the G force on Stormforce 10 was the highest of any of his rides. Joseph the empiricist, and with reasonable claim to be a ride connoisseur, did not believe it, but I found Stormforce just the right mix of terror and thrill. I can do water.
Drayton Manor, which is privately owned, is superb and certainly a match for its Southern rivals, Thorpe Park and Chessington. Like them, however, it is an aesthetic nullity. Not so the Tussaud-owned Alton Towers, where world-class rides can be enjoyed in spectacularly beautiful, hilly gardens, which can be experienced on foot or viewed from the cable cars that traverse the valley. We were here on a Saturday and whatever superlatives could be applied to the variety, sophistication and sheer physical size of the rides applied in equal measure to the queues, though a timed fast-track system is taking the sting out of the worst. The rides are simply extraordinary. Oblivion takes you to a seemingly astronomical height before stopping. At that point you are best advised not to look down. Then you plunge almost vertically, face-on, into a black hole in the ground before soaring out again. Air is a face-down roller coaster where you feel you are flying (should that be dying?) Nemesis gives awesome G-forces and the experience of weightlessness ("Cool", in the argot of Joseph). Hex, within the edifice of the Gothic Towers, is a feat of sensory illusion - and scares - which reduced Christopher to obscenity (sadly, not difficult). A superb laser-shoot ghost train, far better than the equivalent at Drayton Manor, and an excellent hi-tech show on ice also featured in our day at Alton.
Staffordshire's thrills now include skiing on snow. The Thrill Hopper ticket gives admission to Tamworth Snowdome, which has a 170-metre slope that is open all year. It is hardly black-run but ideal for learning, with none of the discomfort and dislocated digits associated with dry-ski slopes. Boarding, blading and snowmobiles are also on offer. However, our session was for tobogganing, something I had not done since the white-out winter of 1961. The glass-fibre, steerable toboggans zipped down at just the right pace for a danger-free thrill. Christopher had the pleasure of a spill and a collision or two during our descents, of which there can be as many as you want, because an efficient travelator speeds you back to the top.
There was not enough time during our weekend to try out Stoke-on-Trent's Waterworld, the UK's largest water theme park. But we have our Thrill Hopper ticket, so we're licensed to plunge ...
The £119.85 Thrill Hopper family ticket admits two adults and two children once to each of Alton Towers, the Snowdome, Drayton Manor and Waterworld up to November. There is also a single Thrill Hopper ticket available for £39.95. Book through www.thrillhopper.com
A thrills and spills guide to Britain's best rides
(0870 444 4466; www.thorpepark.com)
The big attraction this year is the Nemesis Inferno, which has 750 metres of suspended track, 360-degree loops and reaches G forces of 4.5. Colossus is another favourite: the world's first roller coaster whirling passengers through 10 full 360-degree loops. Open daily, 10am to 5pm (weekdays), 6pm (weekends). From 25 July to 7 September the park closes at 7.30pm.
Light Water Valley
(0870 458 0060; www.lightwatervalley.co.uk)
Jaw droppers include The Ultimate and, from 1 July, The Grizzly Bear. Open daily, 10am to 5pm, until 3 September. From then to the end of November open weekends only (daily during the half-term break, 27 to 31 October).
Blackpool Pleasure Beach
(01253 341033; www.bpbltd.com)
New for 2003 is Spin Doctor, which hurtles riders through the air to heights of 120ft at speeds of more than 60mph. Try Pepsi Max, Europe's tallest and fastest roller coaster reaching 235ft with more than a mile of twists and turns at up to 87mph. Open 11.30am to 10pm until November, then weekends only.
Chessington World of Adventures
(0870 444 7777; www.chessington.com)
Hocus Pocus Hall is the latest addition to this theme park, a magical "4D", walk-through experience, home to wizards and goblins. And the Vampire ride is back to give the whole family a fright. Open daily, 10am to 5pm (weekdays), 6pm (weekends). From 25 July to 7 September the park will close at 7pm.
Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach:
(01493 844 585; www.pleasure-beach.co.uk)
East Anglia's most popular tourist attraction has a nine-acre, seafront site with more than 70 rides and attractions. Adults should go for a spin on the Mover, while children enjoy the Gallopers horse carousel. Open daily at 11.15am to 5pm until 11 July, from 12 July to 31 August 11.15am to 9pm/10pm.
(0870 124 0044; www.oakwood-leisure.com) Set in the stunning Pembrokeshire countryside in west Wales, Oakwood boasts white-knuckle roller coasters, a family fun zone, and 40 rides in 80 acres of grounds. The rides on offer include Hydro, Europe's fastest and wettest water coaster and The Bounce, where you can expect a G force of 4 on the UK's only shot and drop coaster. Open daily 10am to 5pm until 28 September, 10am to 10pm from 26 July to 31 August.
Suzy StrongReuse content