On Water Street in Manchester is Granada Studios. The studio complex operated as a theme park between 1988 and 1999. Granada were also operating Camelot Theme Park & American Adventure at this time. Attractions at the Manchester site included a Robocop simulator, House of Commons mock up and a backstage tour.
The biggest draw was the Coronation Street set where visitors could see the famed landmarks of ‘The Street’ including the Rovers Return & The Cabin.
Although the Manchester attraction didn’t feature the multi-million pound productions that are now common place in studio parks, the basic idea was the same. Guests were given the chance to see what happened behind the camera. Visitors could produce their own news and weather reports in a mocked up studio and then watch the footage back on the ‘video wall’.
Another memorable attraction was the Checkpoint Charlie tram ride. The trams would travel from West German to East German sets. Actors donning a German uniform and a questionable German accent would often clamber up onto the tram and interrogate its passengers.
Live entertainment was showcased in the studio complex. Performers would sing a set of songs of old London including Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner and Let’s all go down the Strand (Have a banana!).
A visit to the studios is quite difficult to describe. The best phrase that I can come up with as I write this is that it was ‘a very British day out’. Elements of the attraction almost felt like a hands-on museum. My most vivid memory of my visit is that of an employee. He was a Mancunian in his 30s, obviously hungover. As we entered the Corrie set he informed us that “This is where we film that programme”.
Each male member of our party then proceeded to pretend to stagger out of The Rovers with one remarking that Bet Lynch “would get it”.
Although the tour provided a great day out, it was not an attraction that you could revisit time and time again. This is something which I continue to find in the newer studio parks around the world. Attractions in these parks just don’t hold the same ‘re-ride rating’ that your average roller coaster or dark ride may do.
Out of nowhere, the park announced it would launch its first (and last) roller coaster. It was christened Skytrak after the Gladiators event of the same name. It was to the world’s first ‘flying’ roller coaster opening three years before Vekoma’s first Flying Dutchman model.
If you asked members of the roller coaster community “What was the first flying coaster in the world?”, I would wager that Air, Superman: Ultimate Flight, Stealth & Birdmen would be among the answers given. All those answers would of course be wrong.
Skytrak was designed and built by ‘Skytrak International’ a subsidiary of Fairpoint Engineering, based in the small village of Adlington. Maurice Kelly, managing director of the park hailed the ride prior to its debut stating that “Nobody has ever seen or experienced anything like it before. Not only are passengers out there on their own, they’re actually flying head first, with the incredible sensations of solo flight.”
An opening date of June 25th 1997 was set. The park was right to be excited – this was a truly unique ride. It had the potential to be something very special that would be copied in theme parks across the world and it was all happening in the middle of Manchester.
Unfortunately, the story didn’t quite pan out like that. The ride was plagued with technical problems and would often open for just an hour before closing for the rest of the day. Sometimes it wouldn’t open at all. It wasn’t uncommon for the ‘Flight-Pods’ to come to a halt before completing the short course, this led to several rescues by the local fire brigade.
Had the ride been a hit, the studios may have had other problems on their hands. Each ‘Flight-Pod’ held one person. The pods themselves were problematic and when all five were serviceable, Skytrak could only deliver a throughput of 200 people per hour.
Granada were having problems elsewhere in the business at the time. The launch of the OnDigital service had been a massive failure and Granada began a massive restructure.
The world’s first ‘solocoaster’, costing £1 million operated intermittently before closing with the park on September 30th, 1999.
The ride wasn’t fun, it wasn’t comfortable, nor was it particularly successful in its quest to make you feel as if you were flying. That said, I feel quite privileged to have ridden Skytrak during its brief tenure.
Building a roller coaster is an art form. There are many examples across the world where individuals and engineering companies alike have tried to master the art of building a roller coaster. The result is often very much the same as what stood beneath the ‘Bonded Warehouse’ on Water Street.
Although the ride itself could only be considered a huge failure, the concept was revolutionary. The Manchester ride paved the way (directly, or indirectly) for more accomplished ride manufacturers to refine the design of the flying coaster.
The UK’s first successful flying coaster Air, opened at Alton Towers in 2002.
Did you ride Skytrak? Do you wish you had? Let us know in the comments box below!
Photos: UKRides, Wikimedia Commons, Mayumi Watanabe