Well, I have to say yes it was better back in the day. But a lot of people are confused about what "back in the day" actually was.
For me it was when Pearson owned Tussauds. This was the period from the early 80's but they didn't actually buy Alton Towers until around 1990 and began heavily investing in the park for the next decade. From what I understand the company was led by a bunch of people very passionate about "experiences" and guest satisfaction. The focus was on magic, they were almost emulating Disney at one point but had put their own British twist on it. I think it worked beautifully.
When Charterhouse bought Tussauds in 2000, this is when things started to change, but only slightly. Despite most of the directors and John Wardley resigning the focus was still on magic it seemed. Hex (2000), Air (2002) and Splash Landings (2003) were all products in development from the Pearson era so it still felt like they were going to great lengths to provide a magical experience for their customers. No choke from Charterhouse it seemed.
Although there was a slight dip quality it wasn't until 2005 when Tussauds were bought by Dubai International Capital that things really took a turn for the worst. Major budget cuts and a total rebranding of the park away from "magic" just killed it for me. Thankfully this only lasted until 2007 when Merlin Entertainments came along. But it's not all rosy. While Merlin seem keen to invest in the park, they also want to squeeze every penny out of it that they possibly can, hence why they're dubbed "M£-rlin" by fans. Entertainment, guest experience, and maintenance all went out of the window along with any sense of humour the park had. This is exactly why, I feel, the park is such an unbelievable mess at the moment.
One thing I also really hate about Merlin is the fact they killed the "Tussauds" brand. A very recognisable, very British brand. If you've ever looked at the Tussauds Group logo, you'll see it represents everything Tussauds were about - it's a performer taking a bow in the shape of a T for Tussauds - i.e. they're all about entertainment. What's Merlin's logo then? It's just a generic "M". No wizards... no magic... say no more!
I'm still a fan of the park but in answer to the original question, yes the park was better than it is now. I'd far, far rather have a Pearson/Charterhouse Tussauds park, than a Merlin Entertainments park.