Blackpool: Britain's Coney Island
By Rick Steves
Blackpool, England's tacky, glittering city of fun with a six-mile beach promenade, is ignored by American guidebooks. Located on the coast north of Liverpool, it's the private playground of North England's Flo and Andy Capps.
When I told Brits I was Blackpool-bound, their expressions soured and they asked, "Oh, God, why?" Because it's the ears-pierced-while-you-wait, tipsy-toupee place that local widows and workers go to year after year to escape. Tacky, yes. Lowbrow, OK. But it's as English as can be, and that's what I'm after. Give yourself a vacation from your sightseeing vacation. Spend a day just "muckin' about" in Blackpool.
Blackpool is dominated by the 100-year-old Blackpool Tower — a giant fun center that seems to grunt, "Have fun." You pay to get in, and after that the fun is free. Work your way up through layer after layer of noisy entertainment: circus, bug zone, space world, dinosaur center, aquarium, and the silly house of horrors. Have a coffee break in the elegant ballroom festooned with golden oldies barely dancing to barely live music. The finale at the tip of this 500-foot-tall symbol of Blackpool is a smashing view, especially at sunset.
Vintage tram cars run 13 miles up and down the waterfront, connecting all the sights. This first electric tramway in Europe dates from 1885. A City Sightseeing hop-on, hop-off bus tour with a recorded commentary and 16 stops leaves the Blackpool Tower every 30 minutes.
Blackpool's famous piers were originally built for Victorian landlubbers who wanted to go to sea but were afraid of getting seasick. Each of the three amusement piers has a personality and is a joy to wander. The sedate North Pier is most traditional and refreshingly uncluttered. Dance down its empty planks at twilight to the early English rock on its speakers. Its Carousel Bar at the end is great for families — with a free kids' DJ nightly (parents drink good beer while the kids bunny-hop and boogie). The something-for-everyone Central Pier is lots of fun. Ride its great Ferris wheel for the best view in Blackpool (rich photography at twilight, get the operator to spin you as you bottom out). And check out the sadist running the adjacent Waltzer ride — just watch the miserably ecstatic people spinning. The rollicking South Pier is all rides.
Stroll the Promenade. A million greedy doors try every trick to get you inside. Huge arcade halls advertise free toilets and broadcast bingo numbers into the streets. The randy wind machine under a wax Marilyn Monroe blows at a steady gale, and the smell of fries, tobacco, and sugared popcorn billows everywhere. Milk comes in raspberry or banana in this land where people under incredibly bad wigs look normal.
Don't miss an evening at an old-time variety show. Blackpool always has a few razzle-dazzle music, dancing-girl, racy-humor, magic, and tumbling shows. I enjoy the "old-time music hall" shows. The shows are corny — neither hip nor polished — but it's fascinating to be surrounded by hundreds of partying British seniors, swooning again and waving their hankies to the predictable beat. Busloads of happy widows come from all corners of North England to giggle at racy jokes. A perennial favorite is Funny Girls, a burlesque-in-drag show that delights footballers and grannies alike.
Blackpool was the first town in England to "go electric" in 1879. Every fall, the resort stretches its tourist season by illuminating its six miles of waterfront with countless lights, all blinking and twinkling. The American in me kept saying, "I've seen bigger, and I've seen better," but I filled his mouth with cotton candy and just had some simple fun like everyone else on my specially decorated tram. Look for the animated tableaux on North Shore.
For a fun forest of amusements Pleasure Beach is tops. These 42 acres of rides (more than 125, including "the best selection of white-knuckle rides in Europe"), an ice shows, circus and illusion shows, and varied amusements attract nearly six million people anually. The top two rides are The Pepsi Max Big One (one of the world's fastest and highest roller coasters at 235 feet, 85 mph) and the Ice Blast (which rockets you straight up before letting you bungee down). The Bling ride spins gondola riders in three different directions 100 feet above the ground at speeds of over 60 mph. The Irn-Bru Revolution speeds you over a steep drop and upside-down in a loop, then does it again backwards. The Valhalla ride zips you on a Viking boat in watery darkness past scary Nordic things like lutefisk. With two 80-foot drops and lots of hype, first you're scared, then you're soaked, and — finally — you're just glad you survived. Most of the rides are variations on the roller-coaster theme. Pleasure Beach medics advise brittle senior travelers to avoid the old wooden-framed rides, which are much jerkier.
For me, Blackpool's top sight is its people. You'll see England here like nowhere else. Grab someone's hand and a big stick of candy floss (cotton candy) and stroll. Ponder the thought that legions of English actually dream of retiring here to spend their last years dog-paddling day after day through this urban cesspool of fun, wearing hats with built-in ponytails.
Blackpool is a scary thing to recommend. Maybe I overrate it. Many people (ignoring the "50 million flies can't all be wrong" logic) think I do. If you're not into kitsch and greasy spoons (especially if you're a nature lover and the weather happens to be good), skip Blackpool and spend more time in nearby North Wales or England's Lake District. But if you're traveling with kids — or still are one yourself — visit Blackpool, Britain's fun puddle where every Englishman goes, but none will admit it.