Hold on to your dinner

25th September 1998 at 01:00
To explore the limits of the roller coaster experience, among masses of other exciting rides for all ages, Roger Frost hurtles around theme parks across the country


There's 100 years of history at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, the United Kingdom's most visited tourist attraction. With 145 rides, from theme park antiquities and modern thrills, it's no blemish that few of the eight million coming here this year want to learn any history. As a robotic laughing clown at the entrance hints, this is a place of fun.

Start with the Big One - the world's grandest roller coaster, which is breathtaking in the extreme. Locked in a seat, and turning pale, I was counselled "You'll be OK," by the attendant, who added conspiratorially:

"The camera's in front of the tunnel."

Within seconds, you hurtle at 85 miles an hour down a 65-degree drop. The severity of this, and the sharp twists and jolts, make two minutes seem an age. There's no point in fighting it, so just "go with the flow". Screaming is a back-up strategy: just hold off long enough to smile for the camera, so the class can see how much you enjoyed the ride.

As the noise from the Big One spooks you throughout the day, plenty more star turns are available to thrill teenagers especially. Playstation takes them higher than Nelson's Column and offers heart-stopping seconds of free fall; the Revolution sends them in a full loop and then backwards for good measure, and in the Avalanche you roll freely like a bobsleigh.

The antiquities are to be savoured too, quaint wooden coasters such as the Big Dipper hark back to the 1920s, while the Wild Mouse is a most rickety ride. The Steeplechase perches you on a glass-fibre horse that seems to want you off. Add more low-tech oldies such as the petrol-driven Veteran Cars, and the unsteerable Swamp Buggies and enjoy the fact that they still work. Blackpool has history, but it's very much alive.

For the infants come scaled-down rides - Log Flume, Big Dipper, Tea-cup Ride and a few more. Although it's a separate area, losing a few children would be easy here. That the staff are older and can even smile is a feature other parks should copy.

Easily missed, but try not to, is a lavish, dazzling ice show with costumes that may be too racy for a school trip, and Ripley's - a museum of curiosities, such as the Mona Lisa made of toast. Ask for the quiz sheet.

Offers great variety and many unique rides. Electric atmosphere created by rides literally on top of each other, though some will see it as crowded. All but infants will find plenty to do, although without ticket sheets, a full day could be pricy. Available for booking, at a cost, are a talk, parking and coach travel. Free entry - pay as you go. The "10 rides sheet", enough for about three hours, is good value when pre-booked, at pound;6. A free sheet is given for every 10 bought. Most rides cost pound;1 to pound;2.Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Ocean Boulevard, Blackpool FY4 1EZ Tel: 01253 341033 www.bpbltd.com THORPE PARK

When ride signs warn: "You will get wet," there's really no point in thinking the odds are in your favour.

As well as a place to meet life's certainties, Thorpe Park is a huge, 500-acre site, more than half of which is water. Those with no penchant for intense rides will find most of its 30 or so attractions well within their mettle.

The Depth Charge, where you ride smartly down a flume in a dinghy, is recommended to get the adrenaline going. Or pass swiftly on to a short spell on the bumper cars on water called Dino Boats. They are a warm-up to Thunder River, where you sit in a huge tyre raft and ride waves beside waterfalls in a very wet canyon.

Once saturated, some will be ready for the Log Flume. This top ride features a rather speedy fall from a great height, a surprise drop in a dark tunnel on the way there, and all washed down with a guaranteed final drenching.

Rather than dry off, get out your swimming things and slither down Wet Wet Wet, three twisting and turning water slides. They could be the first swimwear-only theme park rides. They land you in Fantasy Reef, an artificial beach with pool, sand and sun loungers.

Done doing nothing, take the free water-bus to another haven, Thorpe Farm. You'll find a display of antique farm equipment, a crafts centre and animals at rest. With cows, calves, pigs and 100 or so sheep, there will be times in the year this merits a special visit.

There are new dodgem cars and lots of easy rides for pre-schoolers. It will ready them for The Flying Fish - a moderate roller coaster - and one day for No Way Out - a disorienting coaster in the dark.

I'd only grumble that queues run very slowly - it was not busy - it just seemed understaffed. Still, Thorpe Park delivers the joy - it's easy to do, easy to get around and easy on everything but a hairdo.

A variety of wet rides and a real farm make this a day out for a primary school but it's just too tame for secondary. Fairly easy rides, but very slow queues. Ask about the school brochure, disabled persons booklet and education input: KS1 farm pack, KS2 pack on the nature reserve, KS3 pack on maths and science. Also, GNVQ leisure and tourism seminars.Outside July and August, pre-booked groups cost pound;5 per pupil and pound;3.50 for infants. Normally pound;13 under 14s; pound;16.50 for anyone older.Thorpe Park, Staines, Surrey KT16 8PN. Tel: 0990 880888 www.thorpepark.co.uk ALTON TOWERS

Walking around theme parks is easy - you look, you choose and you ride. Walk into the new X-sector at Alton Towers and you can only stare and wonder. How could anyone make a ride as awesome as this - a vertical roller coaster, a face-down drop from 60m into a dark hole under the ground? It is Oblivion, a new keynote ride that has cost millions. Even the queue is scary.

No thanks to seven shuttles which save on loading and unloading time, you move uncomfortably fast to the dreaded fall. In the space of a breath, you've hit a misty hole at frightening speed and felt a rush like nothing you've ever known before.

Ejected into a souvenir shop, you'll feel you're hallucinating as you see Oblivion theme mugs, pencils, key rings, sweatshirts and more. In this condition, buying Oblivion body spray seemed a perfectly sane thing to do.

But don't think the Nemesis roller coaster is tame. Its brilliant valley setting, with dramatic waterfalls, provides ample preparation for being suspended in a seat, sent downwards and spun mercilessly through 360-degree turns. But in a different setting -say a science lesson - it's also great preparation for learning about the four times gravity force you've suffered.

Faster than it takes kinetic energy to turn into potential energy arrives an opportunity to switch on students who don't see the point of it and maybe never will. Helping to turn this teacher's fantasy into something manageable is a set of worksheets called Science Alive. The packs, for maths and technology, are good value at pound;10, with a video to help relive ride traumas back at school.

Nearby you can find the Ripsaw - new last year - still hanging people over jets of water and sending them through fierce somersaults to dry them off. It makes The Corkscrew looping coaster seem easy and asserts Alton Towers as home of the white-knuckle ride.

The young ones are catered for well. A few balk at the Log Flume or The Blade - a sort of swinging boat - but none refuses the wet fun of Congo River Rapids. In their own themed sections are big slides, soft play and bouncy castles. There's a farm area, tractor rides and a full-scale Peter Rabbit ice show. Add Toyland Tours - a colourful boat tour and Squirrel's Nutty Ride, a mini-sky ride - and you're still not done.

While this is a large site, and miles from anywhere except Alton, this is a fun day out, and for the adventurous teacher, a serious way into many school topics.

Excellent range of rides to satisfy teens, primaries and younger. Good educational support material, free talks, wheelchair access and facilities. Normal price: child pound;13, adult pound;16. Schools should ask for group price details to be posted or faxed to a teacher. Ask for the schools leaflet and pack order form. Alton Towers, Alton, Staffs ST10 4DB Tel: 01538 703344www.alton-towers.co.uk LEGOLAND

People can spend a lifetime searching for paradise, but children as young as three will tell you they've found it at Legoland in Windsor. More than just rides, it's a parkland of Lego animals and characters. It's the dream where your toybox comes to life.

You could rush to the Driving School and get free rein of a Lego buggy, then off to Boating School to get the same command on water. But there's much to distract on the way. There's Miniland, with a scaled-down Tower Bridge, sights of the world, and boats and trains that children just have to chase - it must be in their genes.

Or there's Duplo Play Town, with its water cannons and fickle ground tiles that send out water jets. Very young children will find an hour of splashy fun here.

Mindstorms is a new workshop using Lego's "intelligent brick". Pay no heed to any whinging, it's fun and an excellent introduction to control technology. The mission is to build a robot that can follow a track, throw sponge balls and score as many goals as possible. Normally, doing half of this with a computer would give you super-teacher status - but here you'll find "control" as it should be - more about teamwork and decision-making than technical genius.

Though now overshadowed by Mindstorms, other workshops are available - on gears, mechanisms and other topics that are bang-on curriculum target. Book for mid-morning or afternoon, when queues for the other attractions are peaking.

Back outside is Castleland, home to the Dragon, another addition this year. This roller-coaster is the most fearful ride Legoland can shake a brick at. For the top end of the audience, it rates as charmingly terrifying. It enchants visitors with a dark ride through Lego scenery and sets hearts racing with a good enough drop. Older kids get their money's worth, and you can learn the art of expert coasting - enjoying the trauma with arms outstretched - a neat trick I picked up from the nine-year-old in front.

There's a cleverness in Legoland. Many rides demand some effort on your part - to drive, move or pull yourself up. Children can even pan for gold in a water trough - earning a medal for collecting enough. It's impressive - but many older children. will seek more danger than the place can deliver, resulting in mischief. Take yourself and enjoy the paradise you missed.

Plenty for the under-10s. Education workshops are well tied in with the curriculum. The large site is delightful and easy on the eye, just a bit painful on the feet. School price: pound;6.50 a pupil pre-booked, adult pound;16. Available are a school programme, free teacher planning visit, and disabled people's fact sheet.Legoland, Windsor, Berks SL4 4AY Tel: 01753 626100 www.legoland.co.uk

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