Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Swarm at Thorpe Park - Review


“LC12” quickly became one of, if not thee, most anticipated roller coaster ever to planned for the UK. “Looping Coaster 2012” was initially all we had to go on, and then early marketing imagery suggested a theme of the apocalypse. A character, named Les Coogan - a  crazy conspiracy theorist, homeless and shunned by no one who’ll believe him that “the end is coming”, began wondering around the park. When Raptor was announced at Merlin’s Italian park, Gardaland, we expected to see the same ride type at Thorpe, a B&M Wing Coaster. And then it happened; the plans were put up on the local council site… And we were presented with the confirmation of a 130ft tall B&M monster, with a unique first drop and thematic elements including a full size passenger aircraft.

Whilst B&M coasters are more often than not tame and can even be considered dull, they are of highest build quality and they never fall into the category of bad rides. It’s kind of the best guarantee you can get as an enthusiast that the new ride is going to be good. It’s exciting to see Thorpe go back to them after going for cheaper hardware last time, when they went to Gerstlaurer for the Eurofighter Saw: The Ride. Saw, above all else, is an uncomfortable ride experience, and so to know that this next coaster wasn’t going to hurt brought a huge sigh of relief.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Swarm. It’s been almost a decade since a B&M was opened in the UK, and… Well, it’s huge by UK standards. Not just in height, but the sheer amount of space it takes up. We just don’t have rides of this size in the UK. As coaster enthusiasm has grown with the internet, the anticipation for a new ride of this importance was long overdue.


On a very wet Saturday morning, I arrived at Thorpe Park for opening weekend. The ride had officially opened to the public on the Thursday and a week prior had been the preview day, when staff get a practise run with their friends and family as guests. Reviews of Swarm had, for the most part, been very good with the odd excruciatingly negative review that you always see as enthusiasts race ready to be the first to bash the new ride. Liking something just isn’t cool. So I was excited, but composed and trying to be as neutral as possible without expectation. A difficult thing for any sane enthusiast when their home park gets a new major attraction.

Swarm’s visual impact from the carpark is quite spectacular. Thorpe has always had a great skyline, with it’s coasters positioned in such a way as to really show off what they offer. And Swarm, positioned just in front of Stealth, really shows its size.

Approaching Swarm from park entrance behind Depth Charge isn’t the most ideal. This has always been Thorpe’s main problem. The rides are individually themed to what I’d argue is the highest standard in the country, but the areas are not. There’s no sense of master planning or consistency. You pass a mangled fire engine under Depth Charge, an attempt perhaps to take the theming away from the rides and make the areas united, but to be honest it just looks awkwardly placed. The vehicle is guzzling smoke and the sounds of muffled talking through its internal radio, the first sign in the line of destruction caused by The Swarm, and as you pass, the ride soundtrack first becomes audible. The deep and disheartening tone of a bass guitar thuds through you as you cross the bridge onto the Swarm island, whilst your visual attention is drawn to the crazy-looking first drop and down to the plane wreckage below.  The drop is an inversion in itself, as the train twists off the top of the lift inverting in on itself and flies down under the plane wing, pulling with it the smoke coming from the wreckage, the sound effect of the monster scream is activated. And it’s loud, demanding the attention of the open plaza beside Swarm’s impressive spectator-friendly start. 

The ambience here is truly quite special and I found myself standing there and looking around to admire the details before I even wanted to venture further. My attention was first drawn to the side of the pathway that meets the wreckage at the base of the first drop, which has been made to look as though the plane has come crashing down and skid across the ground, upturning the pavement. The light at the tip of the plane wing is on, and there’s debris strewn across the crash site. On my first visit it was all set against a dark, moody grey sky and heavy rain. It really was spectacularly dismal, a sense not of panic like I’d expected from the theme, but of hopelessness. It’s too late, we were warned, the moment of panic has passed, and this is it, this is the end. The atmosphere was greater in that moment than any I’d experienced at a UK park before. And, upon meeting up with fellow enthusiasts, the smiles on everyone’s faces said more about the success here than the rest of my review could possibly hope to.


Straight ahead is the Swarm shop, one of those shipping containers Merlin have managed to make famous with their use on almost every recent investment. They look alright here, breaking up the picture a bit with their splash of green and red as they take the thematic role of a temporary emergency medical centre.  To the right there’s a brand new toilet block, themed as part of a church, with LC12 written in roman numerals on the front. There are some burnt trees, some of their branches snapped and left swaying in the wind and a campsite, presumably belonging to Les Coogan and his cronies, across the stream.

As is the tradition with the premier British parks, Swarm is a spectator ride, guiding guests through the layout and scenery before approaching the entrance in a very similar way to Colossus. It’s a great way to immerse guests in the experience, get them excited and really show them what the attraction is about. Being able to get in and amongst coasters is something we take for granted in the UK, but it is a rare experience across the pond.  It’s an opportunity as well to entertain non-riders, a regularly forgotten about group of people. Spectator elements are increasingly popular worldwide – the “splashdown”, originally found on Sheikra at Busch Gardens Tampa, really began to make spectator interaction fashionable.

Swarm also has splashdown effects, and like Manta at SeaWorld Orlando and Raptor at Gardaland, it’s a simulated splash made to look like one side of the train is dipping into the water. As you move through the area, you approach a pond with a fire engine crashed awkwardly at its edge.  Leaking water, lights still flashing, and it’s siren calling out amongst the atmospheric murmur of other sound effects and guitars. (And I'll take this moment to mention that Swarm's soundtrack is exceptionally good. It's mostly sound effects, but it's varied and works well to create atmosphere.) I really like the fire engine; it really gives a sense of the havoc having just happened. The coaster track curls around behind it close to the pond’s surface and as the train gracefully soars round it the simulated splashdown happens. It’s disappointing. The ground surface changes next to the fire engine pond from bricked pavement to concrete that you usually find in splash zone areas, sloping down to the pond so that the water returns to it. It even says "splash zone" on a sign warning those who wonder past. The problem is, the water doesn’t even come close to the fence blocking off the pond. It’s about 2 metres away. The splashdown isn’t high enough, nor does it go far enough, nor is it immediate enough to be interactive or convincing.  It barely splashes the back of the fire engine. These splashdowns are primarily for spectators, so why is this one barely noticeable, hidden behind the fire engine? And why is the floor designed in such a way to suggest the splash should come up to interact with guests, when it doesn’t? Something’s gone wrong here, and those who had been to Gardaland commented that Raptor’s splashdown effects are much better. I wonder why?

Across from the pond is a prominent structure of the church, a bell tower I pressume, with a large portion of it missing from The Swarm’s attack. The track passes through the top of it, the first of the “near miss” features on the ride, but we’ll get to those later. A large portion of the side of this structure is missing and has been bordered up, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but looks visually interesting. This is one thing they’ve done really right with Swarm, there’s variation in the textures and colours and materials used. At the base of the boarded up opening is a small pile of rubble few will take notice in… But what’s important about this unassuming pile of rubble, is that it’s not a typical Merlin pile of rubble, it looks like theming! If you’re wondering what on earth I’m on about, refer to my previous post on Realism. It all goes wrong though as there are several piles of actual bricks elsewhere around the site, which do tread cautiously into the realm of looking like they haven’t finished with groundwork, rather than thematic rubble communicating destruction. The most offensive of such piles is near the plane crash site, and is literally a pile of clean new red bricks they had left over from paving the floor.

There is a lovely little building ahead, but it highlights something strange with the area overall. None of the structures are purely thematic, they all serve a real purpose. The station, the shop, the toilets and this little building happens to be the queue line tuck shop. In ways, it’s kind of nice there are no false facades and that you can go in and use all the buildings, but because of that there is a limited number of buildings, and that damages the effect of immersion. And on top of that, there’s no suggestion of a road say, or houses, or shops. I don’t quite understand this location anymore. Why isn’t the queue line shop themed to a shop, rather than a church style building? I don’t get why there is just a church and nothing else to this place. What IS this place? Why is there a church anyway? Thematically and narratively there’s no suggestion that the church has any relevance past being a building that looks cool when it’s destroyed.

Swarm’s queue is the next thing you encounter on your right, and it’s fairly well shown off. This is nice for practical reasons of judging queue length , but it’s a little ugly. This area is quite wide, and Swarm dances above your head. There is seating here in the form of military supply boxes, though I’m not sure if many people realise they are seating – I have yet to witness them being used. Off to the left is the other splashdown pond, where the track circles around a helicopter crashed at the pond’s centre.  This area feels a bit like a failed opportunity to engage spectators, as it’s all quite far away. The helicopter blades are still rotating, leaving a sense that it has just come down, with the lights inside the cockpit flickering. They are lovely suggestive touches in conveying the mood, but I feel like few people will be standing at this fence to appreciate them, which is a real shame. The train swoops round the helicopter and skims the water. This splashdown is better than the first you encounter, but it still doesn’t interact with spectators. The helicopter looks a little delicately placed at the end of a small pier, but I’m hoping the reason for the placement is to have access to the helicopter to fix the effects should they break. Speaking of which, I returned to Thorpe for the second visit of 2012 only a few days later, and already found the mist effects off and the monster scream to be out of sync with the train. And what of the rumoured fire effects? Or the lights on the trains we know about from Thorpe Park’s own Facebook page? What is the point in creating these effects for the park if they have no interest in maintaining them, or even getting them working ready for the opening of the attraction? There seems to be a wall of misunderstanding and difference of priorities between the designers and the park management. Do the designers exaggerate the impact such effects have on the public, or are the park underestimating their impact? I’d love to think the later, but I’m not sure.


Finally you arrive at the entrance to Swarm. Having got off to a superb start when you first crossed the bridge onto the island, the standard of theming has increasingly dropped towards the entrance. This is being a little harsh mind you, as its all still very good. The ride entrance is marked by a church gate and mangled modern sign crashed atop it. The juxtaposition of old and new is a running theme throughout Swarm’s scenery, with the church structure, despite being so large and solid, so hopelessly wrecked by the modern form of the Swarm itself. Swarm’s queue is okay. It could be better, but it’s a massive step up from the nightmare that is Saw’s line, and worse still, the likes of Rita and Dragon’s Fury. To start with the good points, the queue line fence varies. It sounds uninteresting, but to have a little break in the monotonous pattern of metal fence is a delight to the eyes. There are some sections boarded up with corrugated metal, wood and such and some sections of concrete sculpted like huge stones of the church. But it’s mostly just metal fencing. The queue-line video is, to give it credit, very, very long and many guests seem to stare at it for long periods of time as if interested. It’s designed to look like a news bulletin, distinctly similar in style to BBC News. Like Hex at Alton Towers, the video isn’t particularly interesting, but it just existing gives a sense of intention, of the immediacy of the event, and it wonderfully ties the attraction to the site by mentioning that there is an incident at Thorpe Park. It does make me wonder though, why is there is a church at Thorpe Park? Though perhaps theming a ride to a destroyed ride would be too far-gone realism even for Merlin? Or maybe I just gave them an idea… When the full queue is open, it utilises that bell tower structure that the ride passes through. It’s the only interaction the ride makes with the queue, and it’s a shame, because watching other riders is something people just love to do. The sound of the monster screaming as the train passes through that structure is rather awesome, but then the queue enters a hidden cattle pen out the back of the ride, and everyone groans.

Like all Merlin’s new builds, Swarm has a bag drop. I’ve not seen these at any other parks around the world, yet I can’t understand why… Oh wait, yes I can. Cost of hiring staff to man it. And we criticise Merlin for being money grabbing? For those unaware, bag drops enable you to hand over your “loose articles” and receive a wristband, and collect them when you exit the ride. No leaving bags on platforms, cages, boxes or being forced to use a locker. Less rushing and faffing on the platform and so faster dispatching. They can make things a little slow getting off the ride, but I’d rather that than the alternatives.

An attendant tells people which side to take, though if you have a preference they don’t mind, after all you’ll just be waiting a little longer so it’s your choice. The system here isn’t obvious, as the stairs to the left side of the train looks like somewhere you shouldn’t go as a guest, and you can tell as an afterthought they had to add a “1” and “2” on laminated sheets and verbally tell guests which side to take. The confusion doesn’t end there though, as if you want to ride front row there is no extended pen in the station. You had to request a ticket, or something or another.... I never did find out the specific details. It’s actually a good idea as it’ll cut down the numbers waiting for front row as no one wil have a clue how to, but I can imagine it causes confusion and I can’t help feel it was a compensation for forgetting to plan a front row only pen in the station.

After that sidetrack of dealing with the real world, we’re into perhaps the best element of theming of the whole ride. The station is incredible. The Swarm has ripped off the church roof, leaving with it a trail of burnt destruction, and the remaining beams are charred and snapped.  The huge glass window has been entirely smashed with only a few fragments remaining, I like to imagine from the creature’s scream, and the remaining windows are boarded up in a pathetic attempt to protect the building from the creature.  At the front of the station is an upturned police/ambulance vehicle (trailer? Yeah I can’t say I’ve ever seen one either. Found objects are full of surprises. Though I've been corrected since I wrote this that "major incident units" are an actual thing and I'm an idiot.) that has been dropped through the roof, taking position as the ride’s control box. It looks incredible, and again breaks up the pattern a bit as well as adding narrative. The loading bays are wooden pews, with matching wooden panelling on the walls. Periodically, the scream of the Swarm can be heard from outside and everyone looks up to see it twist above the open top station – something that was initially criticised, baring in mind the British weather, but I think thematically it looks great. The lights ruined the effect a bit for me, as they are modern lights strung up to look as though they are emergency lighting, but it doesn’t make much sense. I’m being picky, I know. Lets complain about something legitimate… Some of the work in here has clearly been rushed. From afar, it looks great, but get up-close and you see poor joins, crappy paint jobs and some and sections which haven’t been painted at all. All the big important stuff looks great, but the finishing touches aren’t so good.

It’s finally time to board the ride. Are you still with me?

Ride Experience

With the track at rider level, you’re forced to take notice in the sheer size of it. It’s intimidating, and sitting on board you feel quite isolated by this huge piece of steel to your side. The seats are high off the ground in the station, higher than say an inverted coaster. The restraints are snug and comfortable, no complaints there.  But the inside seat has an offensive metal bar to stop you sticking your legs too close to the track. On the front row, it does get in the way as it’s larger, but on the other rows it’s not noticeable during the ride.

For my first ever ride I had the pleasure of sitting on the front row (Due to a confusion caused by the front row queueing system, the row was free. In any normal situation, two people who'd specifically waited for front row could have gone instead of me, but since there was no one inside the station to take it, I happily volunteered), outside seat on the right hand side. Ascending the lift I wondered what the strange upcoming experience would feel like. That slow twist into a drop had the potential to be something I’d hate. Inline twists are horrible, slow and filled with hangtime, and this park has enough of them to last a lifetime of being an enthusiast. The train ascends the lift far quicker than you’d imagine a 130ft B&M could, and began to flip me over.  It wasn’t as weird as I had imagined, and was actually quite fun. There’s no vile hang time here, as the experience doesn’t last as long as you might think, even at the front.

The train plummets down towards the ground and under the plane wing, but is it that noticeable on ride? Disappointingly not. The sense of speed here is however really good and I’m not sure why, as I don’t think Swarm is that fast? The train pulls up into the zero-G, which produces some unusual forces due to the strange positioning of riders out to the side of the train. Forces that feel distinctly un-B&M-like. It’s similar to the forces Sheikra at Busch Gardens Tampa pulls on it’s outer seats of the immelman inversion, but far stronger. (Forces that, for whatever reason, Griffon lacks.) By this point I realised that Swarm was far more intense than I had predicted. Granted, it’s far from truly intense, but it’s not the forceless giant it made itself out to be. Since Raptor at Gardaland, I’d seen the wing coaster type as being very alike Air at Alton Towers – graceful with little to no force, and it’s only just occurred to me how stupid it was be to tar the whole ride type this way. The US flying coaster cousins of Air are far from tame, in fact, they are the most intense of the B&Ms. I cannot compare Swarm with Raptor, since I’ve not had the pleasure of going to Gardaland, but based on the reviews of others it seems that the two differ quite a lot. There’s more to this ride type than gimmick, and throughout the layout that becomes increasingly apparent. In fact, if I have any criticism of Swarm as a ride experience, it’s that the gimmick doesn’t work.

See, like Oblivion and Air, this new type of B&M was pigeonholed from the start by Merlin. I find Sheikra and Griffon, the Busch Gardens dive machines, to be somewhat blasphemous to the ride type. It’s ridiculous that Oblivion has had that kind of effect on me, I know, but Oblivion worked so well and seemed so intentionally designed, with it’s theme and the very concept of a vertical drop coaster emerging simultaneously, that how could you make a dive machine about anything but fear? The same goes for Air, how could a flying coaster possibly be anything but a magical graceful experience? These ride concepts didn’t actually evolve naturally with their themes, but how well they work was so powerfully convincing. The Wing Coaster has had the concept of near-misses attached to it from the start, and it’s been such a powerful concept that even Six Flags have taken it on board with their X-Flight coaster for Great America. Until I rode Swarm, Dollywood’s Wild Eagle actually disinterested me. They’d just built any old sit down coaster and, in my view, missed opportunities to utilise the ride type. Well I was wrong.

Swarm’s near misses aren’t noticeable. They aren’t even on par with the head chopper on Colossus where it dives under the exit shop.  Nothing gets even barely close enough to notice, let alone give the illusion of head, hand or foot chopping. After a pretty incredible and ballsy marketing stunt proclaiming that test dummies lost their limbs, it seemed strange to me how little this effect worked. But I forgot about it pretty soon, because Swarm was a solid ride without gimmick. The positioning of riders provides weird forces, and it’s layout is interesting yet comfortable. 

The splashdowns are more noticeable than I expected on ride as long as you’re nearer the back of the train. They are pretty fun to watch, and have that delicate magical feeling which I associate with Air. It’s not fitting thematically here, but hey. There’s a corkscrew-ish inversion next that is actually rather intense near the back, and I can’t say intense is something I usually associate with corkscrews. They usually just throw you about uncomfortably as your body keeps up with the direction changes. I know this isn’t a true corkscrew, but on a couple of my back row rides it made my vision go a little.  That’s quite impressive for a large B&M.

As the train curves round into the bell tower structure of the church, the monster lets out an almighty scream that can be heard on ride, unlike the one under the plane wing, and the train twists slowly through a barrel roll. Barrel rolls are all awful; this one is no exception to the rule. It’s slow, you fall out your seat, if you like any other barrel roll you’ll like this one. As a local to Thorpe I’ve had enough of them, and I’d like it if I never had to ride one again. Colossus has 5 in a row, Saw has 1 and now Swarm. 7 barrel rolls in one park is 7 too many. I guess it could be worse, it could be Dorney Park's Hydra. That singular roll is worse than Thorpe's 7. There's nothing fun about being slowly rotated upside down.

And then you hit the breaks. Which is a shame, because that was a lot of fun. I guess in some ways it’s good though, it keeps you wanting more, keeps you excited. Or would do if you didn’t then have to turn around into another set of breaks before moving onto the station. Finishes like this are terrible and it matters that they are terrible. There’s a massive difference in the mood of exiting riders between Colossus; which hits its breaks directly after an impressive last surprise inversion and then rolls right into the station, and Swarm; which takes ages to get to the station after the last moment of excitement. And when you’re sat on the last block waiting to go into the station, to your left is a pile of rubble that I couldn’t even begin to guess whether it’s supposed to be theming or if it’s just a pile of rubble. And then a huge bleak open space of transfer track. It’s huge. I felt that some TV screens, or anything for that matter, positioned on the right of the train high enough for everyone to see, would draw attention away from this unsightly area that further kills the mood as you wait, probably in the rain, to move into the station.

Getting off the ride and making your way to the exit, I’m disappointed and confused that Merlin have again decided against exit through retail. The shop is nearby, but you’re not forced through it, and the photos are again separated off in the other direction. I bet most people go to one or the other, and don’t notice the other. I feel like they should be together. There should be that “just-ridden” excitement of wanting to buy thing related to the ride. I’ve always loved looking around Colossus and Inferno’s shops, still high from my last ride. I can’t say I ever go in the other shops on park.


Swarm is good. Personal preferences aside, It’s excellent by UK standards; there’s no doubt about it. It’s an interesting ride with a high amount of and standard of scenery. It’s an awkward use of space, lacks landscaping that I feel would have done it wonders, misses opportunities to really engage with spectators, the theme doesn’t make too much sense and it has an uninspired and dull ending, but overall it’s very, very good, I promise – With an incredible start and scale unprecedented in the UK, forces you won’t have felt elsewhere before and superb atmosphere. Fundamentally, Swarm is a very American-style roller coaster, with typically British theming.

Thorpe Park have recently put some great 360 virtual tours of the Swarm area on their website. They are well worth checking out as they make a great visual accompaniment to my review.


  1. Awesome, very epic review. Very in depth and knowledgeable.

  2. great review! Hopefully we'll make it over there to ride it eventually.

  3. Great review - makes me really look forward to trying it out myself (just over a month to go!). And I'm glad you mentioned the ending. Coaster endings are important...

  4. I'm really glad you brought up the point about the wing riders being gimmick coasters with the near miss effects. I read several reviews of Wild Eagle and many riders said the head and leg choppers were awesome. After two rides I personally didn't notice a single leg or head chopper effect or anything remotely near the track. The ride was cool due to the weird and unique forces felt on about a third of the ride.