What's The Deal With The Smiler?

Theme park and ride fan bases will come and go but no attraction in the world has made quite as huge a sub-cultural impact like The Smiler at Alton Towers. Having opened in 2013 after a little bit of a wobbly start, this world-beating Gerstlauer Infinity Coaster has sparked one of the most creative and dedicated fan-bases of any ride in the world outside of a Disney theme park. But why? What is it about The Smiler that sparks such imagination, adoration and creative investment from its ever-growing base of Smiler-stans?

From fan-art to cosplay, fursuits to fan-fiction and everything else in between, something about The Smiler just seems to resonate with people like no other coaster before it. To try and get under the skin a little as to why, I spoke to a selection of self-confessed Smiler fanatics to see if I could get to the bottom of what gets people going so much about the world's most loopiest coaster!

The Smiler cosplay by Sanctuary Nurse

Something that came up over and over again in my chats was the fact that The Smiler is a record-breaker. It's iconic and unique and something about that demands that you sit up and pay attention to it - "The Smiler...instantly stands out and 100% makes a statement - I'm here and you WILL ride me!" The way people spoke about it almost seemed to convey an admiration for a coaster so confident in its outrageousness, and that taking elements of this and using them to create a make-up look, a tattoo or an outfit could somehow siphon off some of that powerful energy to help fans be more confident in themselves. 

Mr Burgundy, of The Undateables fame, owns almost every piece of The Smiler merch there is!

This also fed into a love for the actual layout of the coaster too - its record-breaking 14 inversions being a key favourite with specifics such as the sea serpent roll, the surprising hidden barrel roll in the dark and the various airtime hills that punctuate between inversions singled out as particularly favourable elements.

The engineering marvel of the thing play into it all too, with the ride being described as a "technical marvel" - the fact that it even exists and that such a huge, intimidating ride was able to be crammed into such a tiny space is "incredible architecturally" and something that feeds into the plethora ways the Smiler is quite so fascinating to its core fanbase. 

What is clear is that The Smiler is not loved for just one element like its X-Sector sister Oblivion - The Smiler is very much the whole package. Many Smiler fans I spoke too could not identify just one reason why they love the coaster, instead praising it for transcending existing as just a good coaster with a great layout and instead championing the benefits of what many of them identified as the "full package." 

"There are other roller coasters out there which have a better layout, or are more intense, but for me it's all about the overall package." This seems to be the general sentiment among those I spoke too - the vivid and striking black and yellow colour scheme, the sinister IMAscore laughing soundtrack, the twisted and unique theming that combines a kind of optical illusion and hypnotisism with a darker medical undertone, all of which are epitomised with the central theming structure around which the coaster track twists itself. 

The Smiler inspired make-up look by theiconicgeek

"The Marmaliser is awesome- it looks like a video game boss!" The iconic twisted metal spider-legged arrangement adorned with dystopian screens flashing unnerving images seems strikes a particular chord with Smiler-fans - the intimidating aura of the ride seemingly personified by this most strange yet captivating of narrative centrepieces. It plays into familiar nightmares to elevate a sense of fear - arachnophobia, the nostalgic nervousness we felt when taking on the aforementioned video game boss, the way the screens flicker and seem to follow and watch like an X-Sector version of the all-seeing Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. And yet it is completely bizarre and unique, like nothing we have seen before. Simultaneously familiar yet unfamiliar, joyful yet terrifying. Once we start to pick at the surface, it's easy to see why it is quite so captivating. 

In the UK we're quite lucky in that many of our bigger iconic coasters do have some element of narrative and backstory built into them, especially at Alton Towers. With the likes of Nemesis - an alien creature on a rampage after being disturbed by maintenance, and Hex - embodying the tale of real local folklore and an ancient family curse, The Smiler certainly wasn't unique in bringing a wealth of original storyline with it when it opened in 2013. But it DID do something differently that seems to be a key factor in its popularity - it had a prequel. 

Having debuted at Scarefest in 2012, The Sanctuary scare maze was the first piece of world-building future Smiler-fans got for this soon-to-be iconic UK roller coaster. In this attraction, brave 'advocates' would selected by the notorious Dr.Kelman to undergo the process of 'marmalisation' in order to 'get corrected', with horrifying consequences! All as sinister as it sounds and of course with the staple strobe-maze ending too. 

The Smiler cosplay by Smiley Quinn

Having access to this wealth of backstory tidbits, combined with more details to be found throughout The Smiler queueline, in the theming and even more so within the ride itself is what seems to have ignited this deep-set passion for the coaster. Fans were fed little bits of info here and there without having it explicitly spelled out for them in black and white (or black and yellow if you will), and therefore some creativity was required to "connect all the dots" and "solv[e] the mysteries" to weave together the lush tapestry that is the rich Smiler lore today. 

The amount of backstory put out there for engaged fans to find made it feel like a "theatrical movie plot", something you could "seriously write a blockbuster movie based on." Smiler-fans love the horror elements of the storyline but particularly that it's "something sinister hiding underneath the happy facade" as opposed to something more obvious and surface-level horror like SAW - The Ride at Thorpe Park. It requires some digging to figure out what is really going on, but like an iconic twist in a great plotline the payoff is so rich and satisfying that it sparks the most creative of Smiler fanatics to continue spinning off the storyline into their own creative projects. It is endlessly inspiring.

The Smiler inspired fursuit

Despite the fact that, as many of those I interviewed were more than happy to admit, "there's plenty of coasters out there that are far more intense, have better layouts" it is "the overall experience, the build up, the theming, the backstory, the soundtrack" and everything else in between that make The Smiler quite so captivating. It's the perfect combination of a truly world-beating thrill coaster combined with extensive lore and backstory that sparked something in theme park fans that the world had never seen before, and will maybe never see again. 

The Smiler fanart for Smiley Quinn by Andrew Sparke

Passion for developing and expanding The Smiler backstory and universe is infectious and continues to spread like wildfire - every new addition to the fanbase brings new passion, new ideas and new creative interpretations of The Smiler's brand and storyline, creating a kind of hypnotic whirlwind that it's very easy to get caught up in. But a core element of The Smiler that seems to resonate most strongly is one of the coaster's taglines - "Smile Always." Fans use this as an inspirational quote, a reminder that there are things in this world to love and be passionate about and something that, despite its sinister undertone, is at a surface level about joy: 

"It doesn't have to be better than any [other] coaster in my eyes, if it brings enjoyment, happiness and a way to escape then it can beat any coaster."

Special thanks to Ev_Jay, BallpitBee, theiconicgeek, Sanctuary Nurse, smiley_quinn and pigeon parades for speaking to me about their love of The Smiler for this article!

What do you think? Are you a fan of The Smiler? What about it do you think has lead to it having the impact it has? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to have a chat!

Talk later xoxo,