Staffordshire is well known as an industrial powerhouse and once upon a time a small part of that heritage could be found at Alton Towers, home to the most fantabulous toy factory in all the world.
Your portal into this magical world is the S.S. Toyland Tours, a paddle steamer which acts as the launch dock for a magical boat tour. A tour that begins, like all great ideas, in the Think Tank. Teddy Bears are on hand as the tank bubbles with inspiration for new toys such as the Elecopter, which is ready to take off from the Jumbo Airways launchpad opposite.
As you go round the bend, don't worry, you're not going crazy - those really are a pair of bouncy castles... bouncing on trampolines. They're probably trying to get a good view of the big race that is happening over the way - the Snailextrics are on the track and they're Go! Go! Slow! Unfortunately you may not be around long enough to see who wins as you're due on the production line, where the Chubby Checker is over-seeing the Teddy Stuffer and Dolly Mixtures.
Normally Bath Time means it is nearly time for bed, but not in Toyland Tours where it actually means it's nearly time to meet Sonic the Hedhehog in his Alton Towers debut. After a quick stop in Teddy Town to meet Geronimo Giraffe, it is all aboard the Party Train as you head into the ride's finale.
The music reaches a crescendo as you enter the Party Room to a fanfare from a troop of Toy Soldiers. And what a party - hippos are dancing on the cupcakes to the sounds of the ride's in house band, Kool Kat and the Teddy Bears, whilst a mermaid looks on from a giant jelly and a teddy bear water-skis past.
As guests pull back into the station they are waved off by Busty Hippo, possibly one of the most iconic characters in Alton Towers' history.
The Life & Times
1994 was a bumper year at Alton Tower, not only did the park build their most popular coaster, it was also the year they created arguably their best and certainly most fondly remembered family attraction.
Whilst thrillseekers were introduced to Nemesis for the first time families were invited to discover a wonderful world of toys in Toyland Tours, a magical new boat ride in The Land of Make Believe.
The factory complex was sprawling, taking over the original ride system for Around the World in 80 Days and expanding into the neighbouring Doom & Sons, Sepia Photo Studio and Ice Cream Bakery. Mr Doom had been evicted and gone were the quaint vignettes from around the globe replaced by the manic scenes of a toy factory run by the toys themselves.
Outside, the Victoriana and castle walls of Talbot Street were transformed with a bright pink and pastille makeover. The former castellated turrets of Around the World in 80 Days were now guarded by Toy Soldiers whilst many of the old shop facades hinted at their past appearance and were still recognisable in their new Toyland form. The most notable change was the entrance to Doom & Sons; it is quite difficult to give a funeral parlour a fun makeover, so this facade was mostly removed to be replaced by a more fitting green dolls house.
All the signatures of an early-era Tussauds dark ride were here, from the clear and well told storyline filled with easily identifiable characters through to the lovingly crafted sets, which were brimming with gags no matter which direction you looked. The ride was completed by a glorious soundtrack that perfectly captured the essence of the ride and was sure to have guests humming along for days to come.
What Happened Next...
It has never been entirely clear what lead to the demise of Toyland Tours but the most likely the combination of high maintenance requirements and dwindling guest numbers are likely to have played a hand.
After its first few seasons the extended queueline was surplus to requirements and the plaza was fenced off to be gradually reclaimed by the neighbouring forest. Meanwhile, inside the factory itself, it became increasingly frequent that effects would stop working, most notably in the party room where the Mermaid's Jelly and Water Ski effect ceased operation several seasons before the ride closed.
It was still rather unexpected however when it was announced in 2005 that the ride would be closing mid-season to make way for a new experience. The park considered various options for a replacement, including attractions based on Road Runner, Scooby Doo or an experience based on a Playstation franchise, before settling on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But the story didn't end there... and when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in 2006 two elements of the old Toyland Tours themeing were hidden away in the Inventing Room. Guests might have recognised the Everlasting Gobstopper machine as the hopper that once held the stuffing for the Teddy Stuffer. And, slightly more obscurely, the machinery used to bounce Violet Beurgarde was originally used to power one of the Bouncy Castles just across the channel.
Later in the attraction, the addition of the Great Glass Elevators meant that the channel of the boat ride was re-routed to add a new off-load platform through the former Teddy Town scene. The new layout left the Party Room as a backstage boat charging area, where it was less crucial to remove all traces of the old attraction. As well as old wall decorations from Toyland Tours the room also featured the remains of the original water channel that was cut off when the ride was re-routed.
The S.S Toyland Tours largely survived the transformation, walled off to become an extremely well themed service corridor. With off-loading no longer occurring in the station, the area where the paddle steamer was located was no longer needed and it was more economical to build a wall across the station than to demolish the theming attached to the bridge over the ride channel.
It is unlikely that the Towers would ever try to recreate Toyland Tours, but if they did they might have a head start, as many of the original moulds used to create the ride's scenery, such as the toys from the Bath Time scene, were stored in the Towers well after Toyland Tours had closed and may still be in storage today.