Ripon, England. It's a smallish town of around 17,000 people, a place mostly known for its 1300-year-old cathedral. You could easily assume that you'd not find an amusement park here, but you'd be wrong. You could also assume that any amusement park in a town this size would have no noteworthy attractions. And you'd be even more wrong.
You might even chuckle at the park's tagline: "The Ultimate Adventure," especially after having a quick look around. The park is clean and cute, but hardly deserving of that moniker, you think. And again, you'd be wrong.
Nestled in the English countryside, Lightwater Valley has a collection of mostly-standard flat rides and a handful of smallish coasters. In addition to two kiddie coasters, there's a spinning mouse coaster and a Schwarzkopf Wildcat themed to a Raptor Attack and located underground.
So far, so ordinary. Then you see this.
Well, now.... that's more like it. This is the first of many times I'll say that pictures (or video) don't give you the whole story. That hill looks absolutely enormous in this photo and considering that it's the only thing in the area with any height, it rather looks that way in person as well. It's only around 100ft tall, though, which isn't really much to crow about in this day and age, let alone be considered "The Ultimate Adventure." Then you realize that the coaster is called "The Ultimate" and you chuckle at the play on words. You might think that the ride itself is as average as its mid-sized lift hill. Sure. Go ahead and think that. Watching the train exit the station, you notice that it's really long, that there's a little locomotive facade on the front car, and that it takes forever to climb the lift hill. You'll also notice that it doesn't come back to the station for nearly seven minutes. SEVEN. MINUTES. Holy crap. Of course, as slow as the thing is going when it finally returns, you'd probably assume that the whole thing was basically a scenic train ride. And you'd be wrong.
Now I come to a dilemma. This coaster hides its secrets better than any other ride in the world. Part of me wants to just end this article right here and suggest that you travel to Ripon right now and experience this thing for yourself without being told in advance what will happen. But another part of me knows that even though I had read up on this coaster and seen pictures and videos of it before I rode it, I still wasn't prepared for the experience... so with that in mind, let's have a history lesson.
Robert Staveley, the park owner (at the time), wanted a coaster that would put Lightwater Valley on the map. He found a spot in a wooded valley that he thought would be perfect for a terrain-hugging ride, but it was a long way from the rest of the park. He'd need another transport ride of some kind to get the guests from the existing park to this piece of land. Or.... he could just put the coaster station at the edge of the park and build more coaster track from the station to the 'good part.' This is the sort of thing that can happen when you aren't a big corporate park chain. It's a crazy idea, but hey, why not? The result is an insanely-long ride, nearly a mile and a half of track, one that would snatch the World's Longest Coaster record (which has since been taken by Steel Dragon 2000 in Japan). How big is it? Let's look at the satellite image:
I should explain: The yellow and purple ovals on the right completely enclose a full-sized coaster. These rides are the size you'd normally find in parks all over the world. The red line is the track for The Ultimate. It covers 44 acres. The top half is the bit that gets people from the park to the 'good part' and the bottom half is the 'good part.' More on that later. Suffice to say that this thing is freaking long.
But even if you know this going in, nothing that you can see from the park gives you any clue as to what the ride will be like. You can see the lift hill, you can watch the train take a full minute-and-a-half to crawl over it, and you can watch the train meander back to the station seven minutes later, going so slowly that it needs another lift hill just to get back up to the station house. Long coaster. Check. Boring coaster? Um.... let's just get on and see.
When the trains leave the station, they're often accompanied by applause and cheers from the riders. It really feels like you're about to embark on a journey to an unknown adventure. The fact that these riders won't be back for a long, long time really adds to that feeling. Soon enough, you're sitting in the trains and embarking on your own adventure. That begins with climbing the lift hill.
It seems to take forever. Unless you're the type who gets nervous as the coaster climbs the initial hill, you're going to be lulled into thinking that this ride is going to be every bit as tame as it appears. The countryside is nice and scenic, though, and you might even wave to the cows as you climb.
After what seems like an eternity, the train finally reaches the peak of the hill. Because the train is so long, however, if you're in the front half of the train, you'll just creep slowly over the crest for awhile until enough of the train is on the downward slope and it finally begins to pick up speed. While you're creeping over, you notice how the track just sits right on the ground. This is the "getting you to the good part" section, remember. Basically, it's just a Point A to Point B trip.
The long train is quite heavy and even though the track is sitting right on the ground, hills have been formed into the terrain to provide a bit of interest along the way. Folks in the front of the train might even get a bit of airtime on a hill or two. It's faster than you probably expected, but it's still fairly tame. Nothing at this point is going to change your belief that this is basically a train ride.
The train loses speed rather quickly and it's not long before you're looking at another lift hill. But first, how about six tiny little bunny hops for no reason? It's a goofy, silly addition that makes no sense, but it's quirky enough to be endearing. Plus, it makes the train look like an inchworm, especially from the back seats. Then you're faced with the second lift hill and another agonizingly slow climb. It's right about now that you might remember that this coaster was featured in the old RollerCoaster Tycoon game in a park called "Katie's World" (or "Katie's Dreamland," depending on which version you have). It was called The Storm and it looked weird.
Oh yeah, that strange second lift hill is a dead giveaway. Not only does it take forever to climb the hill, but the big turn at the top is also speed-regulated with lift chain as well. You've got lots of time to enjoy the scenery, to notice that the coaster station is about a half-mile away at this point, and the fact that you can't see any of the return track. Everything after this is hidden.
The train creeps around the corner, the clunk-clunk-clunk of the chain lift is loud and rhythmic, and as you approach the drop into the forest, you anticipate a similar speedy jaunt across the ground like the one you just had. You slip over the edge into the drop, again having to wait for the back half of the train to finally get the thing up to speed....
....aaaaaaaand that's when The Ultimate tries to kill you.
Seriously, that's going to be what you think. Nothing you've experienced on this ride so far is going to prepare you for the insanity of what follows. There are trees blocking your view of what's coming next, there are corners taken at blistering speeds, there are sections of track clearly banked at improper angles, you're being thrown back and forth in the car with reckless abandon, and the only thing you can do about it is nothing. The Ultimate is going to do whatever it wants to do with you at this point, it's going to do it without caring about what you think of it, and it's going to do it in ways that you've never had it done before.
The train eventually tires of the brutal slalom through the woods and breaks out into a clearing. It looks as though things might be returning to normal now, with the track looking a bit like the first half: hugging the ground, lots of straightaways, not many hills.
And you'd be wrong. At this point, you should realize that nothing you predicted about this ride is going to come true. Those innocent-looking turns and hills are going to be much more intense than they look. You're going to be tossed around in the car like a rag doll. And in spite of everything, in spite of how you might feel about yourself later on when you reflect on this moment, in spite of everything that you think you should feel about this experience right now, the shocking truth of the matter is that you are loving this. Nothing you've ever done, no matter how many coasters you've ridden before, is going to prepare you for this. Nothing. And we still have nearly a half-mile of track left to go.
Back into the woods we go, slamming into a couple more corners and then a quick tunnel. Spiraling up out of that, we reverse directions with another good jolt and spiral back into the tunnel again, using the terrain to slow the trains down while the ride is still hidden from view. Eventually, the last tunnel ends with a burst of sunlight and the park comes into view again...
and you're going nice and slow, meandering along the ground, little choo-choo engine up front, barely making it back to the station. Onlookers see your return and imagine the coaster is a lovely, scenic ride through the countryside. Maybe they'll hop on board and have a ride. You chuckle to yourself as the train climbs up the short lift back into the station. "A lovely, scenic ride..." to hell and back. They'll find out soon enough.
Postscript: The Ultimate coaster is likely the ultimate coaster (see what I did there?) when it comes to "you can't judge a ride by watching a video." Because of that, I almost hesitate to include any video links here because I know that the prose above is going to depict a much, much different experience than any video can show. Still, because the ride is so incredibly unique, I feel that the sheer scope of this thing can only be appreciated with a full-length video of the experience. The first video is from YouTube user (Zilch: Mister Dobalina, Mister) Bob Dobalina and was taken on a cool, rainy day from the back seat. While you can't always see much, I think it comes closest to relaying the intensity and brutality of the second half of the ride.
The second video is from CoasterForce and shows the whole layout from a fixed camera on the front of the train. While this video really gives you a good idea of just how odd, spread out, and long the layout is, it can't possibly show the incredible intensity. In fact, it's likely to look a bit boring, which I assure you it is not. It is a good-quality video, though, and worth watching.