Travel: Alton Towers theme park

The Smiler features the most loops in any roller-coaster in the world. Picture: Alton Towers
The Smiler features the most loops in any roller-coaster in the world. Picture: Alton Towers
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GRIN and bear it at Alton Towers and you’ll have the time of your life

Do you go loopy for rollercoasters? I didn’t, until I met the Smiler. Then again I didn’t really have a choice – the new main attraction at Alton Towers features the most loops in any rollercoaster in the world, 14 lunch-losing revolutions along 1,170 metres of track. And I’m about to go on it, in a pitch dark Halloween night, white-faced and trembling, watched by my three cowardly, snickering children, egged on by their mother.

I take my seat in the carriage, the safety harness comes down. Disturbingly, the seat head rest has a faint whiff of vomit about it, but by then it’s too late for me to back out. Yet three minutes later, after being hurled, twirled and birled, hither and yon at 85km/h, screaming my lungs out, the joke’s on my family as I emerge grinning from ear to ear. The Smiler has lived up to its name – and I can vouch it’s awesome for thrill-seekers and fearties alike.

We’d set off early from Edinburgh the day before and, after a four-and-a-half-hour drive to Staffordshire, arrived at the Splash Landings Hotel, which has direct access to the amazing Water Park. It’s one of two hotels at the resort, the other being the Alton Towers Hotel, and both are full of fun and quirky features, from flying galleons to fish tanks. There are lots of themed bedrooms, from pirates to Ice Age, Sonic the Hedgehog and, of course, the Smiler, but we stay in a colourful Beachcomber room, which has a double bed, bunk beds and a fold-away sofa bed, bathroom and shower, as well as a flat-screen TV and tea and coffee-making facilities. It’s clean and comfortable, though we don’t spend a great deal of time in it – there’s just so much going on elsewhere.

Excitement mounts as we exit the hotel and walk a few yards to the monorail (which comes in a variety of funky liveries, such as jelly beans, strawberries and nautical). Five minutes later we’re in the vast Theme Park itself, and amid more than 800 lush acres of gardens and woods are scores of rides and attractions, offering thrills, scares, laughs and adventure for visitors of all ages.

Alton Towers’ annual Scarefest is under way, with extra ghoulish goings-on all over the park, but we start at Mutiny Bay, where a fairly gentle Heave-Ho pirate ship and waltzer-eqsue gunpowder barrels prove a hit with all the children (Dan, 11, Joe, 9, and Hope, 6). Emboldened, we then skip to the front of the queue for the wet and wild Congo River Rapids raft ride (Fastrack tickets are worth their weight in gold if time is tight and you want to avoid waiting an hour or longer for popular rides at peak periods – they cost from £6 for young explorers on three family-friendly rides, and go up to £90 for the platinum pass that gives unlimited speedy access to 19 top rides).

The afternoon whizzes by as we catch the Runaway Mine Train (perfect for young ’uns with a sense of adventure), amble through the atmospheric Gloomy Wood, and watch a live pirate show while munching chicken goujons and lattice fries at the Courtyard Tavern. Other highlights include Cloud Cuckoo Land with its driving school and Wobble World giant soft play area (both a hit with Hope), the 4D Ice Age Experience, and Twirling Toadstools (a bit like the Skyrider in Edinburgh, only the seats don’t fall apart). Dan’s favourite is the Sharkbait Reef aquarium, where you can put your hands in a tank and let cleaner shrimps nibble away at your mucky digits, while the mind-melting Hex attraction gets the thumbs-up from my wife and Joe.

Finding ourselves fairly exhausted at the far end of the park after all our walking, we round off the afternoon by boarding a gondola on the SkyRide cable car and take in jaw-dropping views all the way back to the monorail.

That evening we enjoy every mouthful of a superb all-you-can-eat buffet at Flambos Exotic Feast, with delicious dishes from all over the world, including Caribbean specialities (goat curry heartily recommended), traditional roasts, mouthwatering Mexican and Oriental cuisine, as well as unlimited soft drinks, a chocolate fountain and ice-cream bar (£19.95 per adult; 12-15 years, £15.95; under-12s, £10.95; under-7s, £6.95; under-3s, £1.95). It scores ten out of ten from the children and adults alike, and there’s just time for a nightcap in Ma Garrita’s bar before bed.

The next morning, after a full English buffet breakfast at the busy Secret Garden restaurant at the Alton Towers Hotel, we head back to the Theme Park for adrenaline rushes (for me and my wife) on Nemesis and Thi3teen, and (for all of us) the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ride, a grand water-fight on the Battle Galleons and a thorough soaking on The Flume.

Deciding we can’t get much wetter, we head to the Water Park and have an absolute blast. There are shallow pools with loads of interactive water features for little ones to splash about in; older children will love the Master Blaster water coaster, Rush N Rampage high-speed slides and Flash Flood outdoor flume; while everyone will like the lazy river, Volcano Springs heated tub and Bubbly Wubbly outdoor jacuzzi. If you’re feeling mischievous, climb up the Wacky Waterworks treehouse and squirt jets of water on unsuspecting bathers below.

After hours of awesome aquatic entertainment – and that nocturnal ride on the Smiler – we’ve built up an appetite and dine on skewers of chicken, steak and fish at the Emperor’s Grill (mains from £13.95). Sadly we have to check out the next morning at 10am, but after loading up the car we spend the rest of the day on the site, taking in our favourite rides at the park, a final few flumes at the pool, a last trip back to the hotel on the monorail – and another outstanding meal at Flambos. Now that is worth going loopy for.

• Hotel stays start from £33.75 per person per night based on 4 sharing on a B&B basis. Theme Park tickets available from £36 for an adult and £30.60 for a child. Theme Park is open from 15 February until 23 February, and then from 22 March until 9 November. Hotels are open all year round. New attraction CBeebies Land opens at Alton Towers in May. (0871 222 9901)