The gravity-defying rides of Alton Towers can throw some excitement across the curriculum, says Roger Frost
Alton Towers is a visit that comes close to being every child's birthright. You wonder how such a staple of school trips came to be a guaranteed part of the service, like medicals or exams. You wonder too if there's education in it.
Come the end of a day at this, the UK's flagship theme park, the word "Nemesis" is on most teenagers' lips. It is the name of the star ride, the treat of four seconds of weightlessness, and a force four times' gravity trying to throw your shoes off. If ever there was a best time to raise a science teaching point about gravity, this is it. So to mix fun with your forces, it helps to know that behind the rides, shows, shops and amusement arcades is an educational opportunity that brings in mathematics, science and design and technology at time when it might be thrown out, at great speed, from any student's mind.
But first some history. Alton Towers, once home to a titled family that lost its money, began to take shape as a theme park at the end of the Seventies. It is now part of the Tussauds group, in turn part of the Pearson empire. In its early days the park image was strictly for adolescents, but today the offering is more balanced - meaning more families, more young children and more money - making nearly three million visitors a year.
Surprisingly, great efforts are taken to keep the number of visitors down, as peak season - where the weather is perfect for your maiden Nemesis ride - is also a time of queues. Outside early July - what they call "schools fortnight" - the school rate is slightly better.
The Alton Towers story is an unusually good case study for GNVQ leisure tourism. How they market the place, plan new attractions, and recruit and manage 1,500 staff is part of a pack produced for visiting groups. Rather than spend the day here in a classroom, groups get a 45-minute talk on arrival and then go off to play real tourists. The serious work can begin back in class with activities that get them planning events, training programmes, and business building ideas.
For key stage 3 students, the pattern - arrive, talk, and play - is similar. Using a pack for design and technology they go round making notes and focus on sensors, feedback, structures, and linear motion. The ride quality is, I'm told, hardly spoiled. The pack, quite good value for a tenner with its video, has about 10 topics with information about the rides, mechanisms to look for and ideas for activities back at school. The video is designed for the classroom, and so is broken up into discrete segments, each lasting a few minutes and concentrating on one idea. Used before a visit, it could tune pupils into observing how things work as they play, used again afterward, a lot of fuzzy ideas could become clarified and reinforced. Similar style packs are available for science and maths.
As pupils tour the park and queue for rides they are encouraged to observe, measure times, and see things differently. As not everything will fit your agenda the advice is to match the activities to your work - milking the anticipation before a visit and the Nemesis talk afterwards for all it's worth. If it seems like Alton Towers across the curriculum, the payoff looks promising.
Like any attraction, new things need to be brought in each year. The Ripsaw sends you and a huge gondola through three spins, and pauses as you hang upside down over rusting, jagged edge saws. Finally, to prove you can have too much fun, it squirts you with jets of water. For the younger ones, there is Nickelodeon "Outta Control" where the satellite TV characters take them on a tour so bizarre that only kids can understand it. It's a modern day "house of fun" but the secret is that you're filmed as you scream, wave, and look in mirrors. And after they had told us so unenthusiastically to cheer and yell, I nearly screamed again when the two tour guides told us all how bored they were! Can't get the staff, I suppose.
After two weeks of rain had kept away the visitors, on the first sunny day the white knuckle rides had 25-minute queues while the Runaway Mine Train, The Log Flume and Congo River Rapids - less queezy thrillers -were ready for the taking. Next year, we only know that there's "something new" as signs tell people to keep away from a screened-off building site. It's a tease to make everyone peep through the fence - and you do.
For Science Week in March they have lined up a scientist celebrity - this year astronaut Helen Sharman came along, the obvious expert to talk about gravity and forces.
And finally for the management teams who always miss out on school trips, there are team building weekends where you stay in the resplendent Alton Towers Hotel, with its themed bedrooms and eccentric decor. Even the lifts throw a scare as the lights flicker and make breaking down noises.
Alton Towers, Alton, Staffordshire ST10 4DB. Tel: 01538 703344 and 0990 20 40 60. Open daily mid-March to 2 November. Groups of 12 or more Pounds 8.99 each plus free places. Education packs with video and worksheets for key stage 3 maths, science and DT, Pounds 9.99