You're twice as safe in a theme park as you are in your own home, all thanks to computers. George Cole reports.
From the moment you book your ticket to a theme park to the time you check out, information and communications technology (ICT) plays a central role during your visit. Bookings and reservations are stored in databases, and data on when and how many people enter the park is often collected, as well as any purchases they make.
ICT also plays a huge part in the park's rides, which are monitored and controlled by computer systems using data picked up by an array of sensors. These tell the system information such as the position and speed of a roller coaster car or when to trigger any computerised effects such as 3-D imaging.
But more important than this, the sensors ensure the safety systems of each attraction are working. In the UK, some 500 million rides are taken each year - almost 10 rides for each person in the country. But thanks to technology, you're safer in a theme park than most other places; the thrill of a day on a park's rides is about twice as safe as the car journey that took you there, roughly 20 times safer than horse riding and twice as safe as staying at home.
Such laudable statistics are due to the complicated systems that have controlled most rides for the past 15 years and made today's advanced rides possible. Dr John Roberts, director of Allot and Lomax, a Manchester-based engineering consultancy, says: "The computers used to run the safety systems are not like a normal PC because a PC and its software are not stable enough."
Instead, rides are controlled by Programmable Logic Controllers, or PLCs, that run software designed for a specific task. The PLC works with a series of sensors along the track that provide data, such as whether a train has passed through a section of the track. All rides work on the premise that the car brakes should be applied unless there is a positive signal from the PLC to release them. This means that if a sensor fails or the power supply shuts down, the brakes are automatically switched on. There are also back-up systems and "handshake" procedures, where computers share and compare data to check the safety systems are operating normally. If one check fails, the system will stop a ride while further checks are made.
But despite the sophistication of safety systems, Dr Roberts admits that no ride is fully automatic. "You still need two operators to start a ride," he points out. "If it was all left to the computer, you could find the ride starting before people were safely strapped in."
Note that some rides have height restrictions or limited access to people with physical disabilities. Also note that some attractions may incur additional charges.
* Organisation: Alton Towers, Alton
What it offers: Attractions include UG Land, a Stone Age theme park, Corkscrew roller coaster, gardens, 3D cinema, riverbank eye-spy, a river ride which involves spotting cartoon animals hidden in the undergrowth.
Other information: Open March 24 to October 31. Discounts for groups of 12 or more.Contact: 0990 204060
* Organisation: The American Experience, Ilkeston What it offers: Sporting Challenge, treasure hunt, kart racing, skycoaster, river boat, shows and more.
Other information: Open March 27 to October 31.
Price: Adult pound;12.99, child pound;9.99, group rates available. Contact: 01773 531521
* Organisation: Disneyland Paris What it offers: Rides and attractions, plus activities such as swimming, tennis and ice-skating (seasonal).
Other information: High season is March 26 to October 31.
Price: Variable (see also Study Experiences listing on previous page). Contact: 0990 030303
* Organisation: Drayton Manor, near Tamworth
What it offers: Attractions include Stormforce 10 water ride, Shockwave, the only stand-up roller coaster in Europe, farm, museums, zoo, garden centre and activity park.
Other information: Open between March 27 and October 31.
Price: School rates available, pound;6 per pupil (pound;7 in July), one teacher free per 10 pupils. Contact: 01827 2877979.
* Organisation: Granada Studios, Manchester
What it offers: Futurevision with interactive TV systems, Internet access (via CD-Rom), a virtual classroom with distance-learning and video conferencing systems in place. Other attractions include 3D cinema and studio tours. Worksheets are provided on request.
Other information: Open all year. Price: pound;5.99-pound;6.50 per pupil with free worksheets. Teacher place free for every eight pupils. Free pre visits for teachers available. Contact: 0161 828 5423.
* Organisation: Legoland Windsor
What it offers: Park built with 27 million Lego bricks. Has seven workshops linked to national curriculum key stages 1 to 3 in IT and design amp; technology. Some workshops use Lego Dacta control systems. Mindstorms Robosports covers robotic technology and uses 'intelligent' Lego bricks (see feature below).
Other information: Open March 13 to October 31.
Price: School price pound;6.50 per head, free or reduced prices for teachers for every 10 children. School rates apply Monday to Friday during term time. Contact: 01753 626100
* Organisation: Wicksteed Park, Kettering
What it offers: Variety of rides including a monorail, roller coaster, pirate ship and Cine 2000.
Other information: Open April to October.
Price: pound;11 per child, pound;7 per adult. School parties during term time: pound;3.50 per child, teachers free. Contact: 01536 512475
* Organisation: Pleasure Island, Cleethorpes
What it offers: Around 70 attractions, with some organised along themes, such as Morocco, Spain and Old England. Rides include Boomerang roller coaster and ParaTower, on which you free-fall over 100 feet.
Price: School rates pound;5.50 per person on the day or pound;5 pre-paid. Driver and one person per coach enters the park free of charge. Contact: 01472 211511
* Organisation: Pleasureland, Southport
What it offers: Around 100 attractions including the Traumatizer, go-karts, flying elephants, Viking boats, entertainment centre and educational tours.
Other information: Open March to early November.
Price: pound;12.99 adults, pound;7.50 children. Group rates for 12 or more visitors. Contact: 01704 532717
* Organisation: Thorpe Park, Chertsey
What it offers: Pirates 4D, where you also feel the action, park, fantasy reef, farm complete with pot belly pigs.
Other information: Open March 27 to October 31. Has service for groups and school parties. Price: pound;17.50 per adult. Group rates for 12 persons or more. Contact: 0990 880880