Something Stupid: Thorpe Half Marathon 2018
How far would you go, as an enthusiast, to build your collection of Theme Park tat?
Take out a Wonga loan to cover the cost?
Break up with your long term partner so you can free up some space?
How about run a half marathon to earn it...?
Well, last Sunday saw me do Something Stupid as I found myself running the 21 kilometres of the 2018 Thorpe Half Marathon, all in an attempt to nab the jazzy coaster-themed medal bestowed upon those who manage to get over the finish line.
And here for you, dear reader, is how I got on...
Thorpe Half Marathon 2018
The Thorpe Half is now in its second year, having enjoyed a successful - if wet - debut in 2017. Unfortunately as it's held in February, the park is closed, so the only real connection to Thorpe Park is that it starts and ends in the car park; there's no sprinting past Stealth and dashing around Depth Charge. What it does have to offer however is a pleasant run through the Surrey countryside, along a relatively flat-profile road-closed course - perfect for those chasing a personal best.
I was, it must be said, not chasing a personal best. I was just in it for the medal.
So, first things first. Sunday 25th February 2018 was cold. Bloody cold. The event organisers recommended that participants arrived at the car park by 07:45am, to allow good time before the race started at 09:00am. At 07:45am on Sunday 25th February in the Thorpe Park car park, the mercury was touching -1 degrees C.
But this hadn't deterred anyone! Indeed, the car park was busier than the average in-season Saturday when I arrived, and the place was buzzing with excited, committed runners. Many of whom seemed happy to be out in nothing more than vests, lycra, and shorts. In -1 degrees.
At this point I must admit that I took a large gulp and wondered what on earth I was doing here - and this wouldn't be the last time this particular thought crossed my mind.
It's also worth saying that I wasn't prepared for doing this. At all.
The fault is squarely mine, but I had done such minimal training beforehand that it doesn't even really merit the name "training". Since I booked a place at the event back in November, I had managed a grand total of two 3 mile runs on the roads around my house. Two. And on one of those I very nearly threw up at the end of it.
I am not a runner. I don't especially enjoy it, so, at best this was going to be a struggle. But there was only one way to get that medal...!
At this point I decided I'd take my mind off the impending challenge by having a nose around the site.
First up was a mosey on over to the park entrance - which looked very bare without an actual sign there! Does this happen every season, or might we be about to get a new sign design? And whilst they're at it, the paintwork could do with a good looking over too...
Alas I was allowed to go no further, because this sign had both red writing and underlining - doubly authoritative.
Thanks to my trusty zoom lens though, I could peek in a little closer...
...but there wasn't really much to see.
The Annual Pass building seemed to be getting a good dose of TLC though. Looked like it was having a new roof fitted, given the scaffolding.
Given the red underlined signs everywhere, it was pretty clear that the toilets by the entrance were out of bounds and out of action.
So bring on the portaloos!
Unfortunately, you can never have enough portaloos, and in this case, there weren't enough portaloos. Queueing is par for the course at any Theme Park, but queueing in sub zero temperatures is even less fun.
A quick look over the back of the bogs revealed very little of interest - although Zodiac standing stationary in a half-upright position looked quite strange! There was no visible work being done to X / WDTR.
However, it is photos such as this one that make me think how lucky we are to have a park as pretty as Thorpe in our country.
Thorpe Park is rarely praised for looking good. But with bright blue skies and deep blue lakes top-and-tailing it, it can't be denied that this is a sweet view. Reminded me strangely of a (very) mini Cedar Point...
OK - back to the action. The event organisers had done a great job with the central runners' village area, which contained a Cookie Bar, Coffee Stall, Massage Beds, Medal Engraving, a bunch of running-related retailers...
...and a stage!
Pictured here are the Epsom Rock Choir, who were singing with gusto despite the bitter cold. Did I mention that it was cold?
08:45am. Nearly game time. I got changed into my kit, which naturally featured a vintage Thorpe t shirt, and made my way over to the start area.
There were nearly 2,000 runners taking part in today's race, including many that had been bussed in by their local running group for the event.
The "why am I here?" thought flickered across my mind once more.
And we were off!
The route took us past the annual pass building, down towards the car park entrance, and off to the left.
Geek Photo #1 - the Protecting The Magic sign.
Do you know the Six Spells for Safety?
The route continued to track along the Staines Road, through the backstage areas of the park. Lots of industrial-looking buildings and infrastructure.
And then, behold! Geek Photo #2 - I spy nostalgia!
These look to me as if they've been saved from Chief Ranger's Carousel (RIP), which is great. But what will the park do with them?! Hopefully not leave them to rot...
OK, back to the race. The course had kicked us out of the Thorpe Park grounds at around 1 mile, on to Norlands Lane, then Coldharbour Lane, past Thorpe Farm (RIP), and up to the Thorpe Bypass.
At this point, my lack of fitness was really kicking in. The Sunday morning jolly at the Theme Park had suddenly turned very real, and I was wheezing after just 2 miles.
What didn't help was this section of the course, which involved running half a mile up one half of the road, only to turn around and run straight back down the other half. Sigh.
On the plus side, some great views of the M25. Oof.
But to be fair, much of the route was through very pleasant countryside, and if I'd been more fit it might have even been enjoyable.
As it was, it was a real mental effort to keep my head down, and keep moving. Just keep going. One step in front of the other. The coldness issue dropped away after 4 miles, because my body was generating so much heat.
I was overtaken plenty of times, and I had to just walk up anything resembling an incline. Spotify was a massive help.
The breakthrough for me came at about mile 10, where I realised that I'd made it around 75% of the course and that finishing was achievable!
At mile 12, I could start to see the tops of some of the rides peek over the skyline - wow. Never have I been more motivated by seeing the crest of Tidal Wave's lift hill!
My legs were properly turning to jelly, and the last pushes were really stop / start. But with a view like this, and the end in sight, I forced myself to go for a sprint finish for the last few hundred yards.
I threw myself over the finish line and doubled over, my chest burning and my legs on fire.
I'd done it!
2 hours, 1 minute, and 17 seconds of running later, and I'd completed the Thorpe Half.
And what was all this endeavour for?
Another addition to my collection of Theme Park tat! But what an addition it is.
Genuine blood, sweat and tears went into getting it, so I suspect it will remain amongst the more treasured of all the tat in my possession. It's a good looking, weighty medal and I'm proud to have earned it!
So, will I be running the Thorpe Half again next year to add another medal to my collection?
Immediately after the race my legs seized up to such an extent that I almost couldn't drive home. In the days following the event, my muscles were so sore that walking - anywhere - was a very real problem. And I later found I'd sprained my left foot along the course, and one of the toenails on my right foot had filled with blood and fallen off. Yuck. And did I mention the nipple chafing?
These injuries are, of course, preventable. As I said at the top of the piece, my running the Thorpe Half was Stupid. I certainly don't recommend following my lead and just running a Half Marathon in freezing temperatures with no prior training whatsoever in order to obtain a coaster-themed medal.
However, for those in better shape (or with a greater commitment to training) than I... it was a very well organised event. Why not give next year's a go?
Thanks for reading! Comments very welcome below.
As you'll have read in Part 1, my Canadian Caper involved a fairly crazy 2 days visiting 4 Theme Parks across the Canadian-US border in September, thanks to some ludicrously cheap flights from British Airways. And as Day 1 was fully taken up by the huge Canada's Wonderland with its 16 coasters, that left 3 Parks to cover on the 2nd day. With over 200km of driving to cover and a border crossing, the odds of me actually completing the planned itinerary weren't great - but Lady Luck was thankfully on my side.
Read on for Part 2 of my Canadian Caper!
So first to Marineland, a (you guessed it) marine-based Park just one mile away from the Falls at Niagara. The place has had more than it's fair share of controversy, with its 81-year-old owner John Holer appearing in the press for animal-abuse allegations with depressing regularity over the years. If you thought that SeaWorld looked bad after 2013's Blackfish, you ain't seen nothing yet. VICE have recently published an informative guide to the Park entitled: "Marineland is a Hellhole". Only last month, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals charged Marineland with five counts of animal cruelty, with further charges pending.
In yet another example, in 2011 SeaWorld won a court battle against Marineland surrounding the return of Ikaika the Killer Whale (Tillikum's son). Ikaika was on loan to Marineland from SeaWorld but SeaWorld sought to bring the animal back under its care, citing concerns about deteriorating conditions at the Park. Marineland lost, appealed, and lost again. If SeaWorld - which (fairly or not) has been very publicly criticised for its animal welfare record - is claiming that standards aren't high enough, you have to worry there's a problem...
These stories are undoubtedly absolutely shocking, but ultimately weren't enough to prevent my curiosity from getting the better of me, so I nonetheless duly handed over my cash at the entrance gates...
...and once inside, it's clear that Marineland is quite unique.
For starters, it's vast. Built for Disney World crowds, but in reality attracting Gulliver's World crowds... when I arrived at Park opening at 10am, the place was deserted. It has a very "rural" feel about it; essentially being over 1,000 acres of woodland peppered with fish tanks and amusement rides. Getting anywhere takes an age.
And what looks like it should be a service road is in fact the main guest thoroughfare in the Park. Look at it!
Unsurprisingly, the Park's headline attraction, Dragon Mountain, is quite a trek away - over 1.2km walking distance from the Park entrance.
Nestled deep in the woods, initial impressions however are that the hike is worth it, with the ride sporting a fabulous dragon-themed entrance.
And the rockwork and themeing continues throughout the queueline, which due to verging on the pitch black fostered quite an eery atmosphere - especially given there was no-one else around.
My trusty camera (the excellent Sony HX90V) even struggled to get a good shot of the station, below, which had a little more light in it - and, thankfully, another guest.
Dragon Mountain is, by most metrics, an unusual coaster. Conceived by Arrow's Ron Toomer, it was the tallest roller coaster in the world at the time of construction in 1983 (186ft), and at 5,500ft long, it's covers 30 acres of Marineland woodland; 90% of the track is hidden from guests before riding.
Ascending the lift hill for the first time, I really had no idea what lay ahead - which can't often be said for a large outdoor coaster!
The three and a half minute ride is a lot of fun, although not without a few painful moments along the way.
The trains are old-fashioned Arrow and don't allow for a huge amount of movement. The track doesn't handle transitions especially smoothly. But the ride does have a host of surprises up its sleeve, including two consecutive vertical loops, a large downwards helix inside a half-built volcano structure, two dives into tunnel sections (more tunnel than any other coaster in the world), and still the world's only bowtie element, the exit of which is shown below!
Oh, and a lot of completely straight track. So much straight track.
After a few rides on the Mountain, I strolled back over to the left hand side of the Park to take in the only other coaster, Lady Bug Coaster. Set in a charming kids area that also features a Zierer Kontiki (Viking Adventure), Zierer Ferris Wheel (Tivoli Wheel), and Zierer Flying Fish (Ocean Odyssey), Lady Bug is a simple Zierer Tivoli with manual brakes and had a longer queue than I ever saw for Dragon Mountain.
Having gone full circle back to the Park's entrance - and with energy levels already waning - I grabbed a very greasy chicken strips and chips meal from the Park's only restaurant and settled down to watch the King Waldorf Stadium Show.
This is essentially Shamu-lite, and I thought was pretty well done, with a variety of animals featured including beluga whales, dolphins, and a humongous walrus at the end.
The show aimed to put one half of the audience (red team) in competition with the other (blue team) via a variety of marine displays and tricks, but it didn't get the crowd (which had reached a respectable volume - I suspect the entire Park was there) especially excited. The speaker volume was also down very low, although I couldn't tell whether this was out of respect for the animals or whether it was simply a bit broken...
And last but not least, opening only at 12pm (cost saving?), the Park's most recognisable attraction by far is its S&S Combo Tower, Sky Screamer. This thing is huge, and looks even bigger because it is perched on top of a hill right at the centre of the Park (it's a 300m, 10 minute upward struggle to even get to the ride entrance from the base of the hill - painful in the now-midday sun).
The advertising of Sky Screamer as "the world's highest triple tower ride" is somewhat misleading. It is not the world's tallest triple tower ride - the tower itself is tall (100m), but 15m shorter than Madrid's S&S triple tower Venganza del Enigma (115m). What gives Marineland's tower the "highest" claim is the fact it's sat on that 46m hill; it's high by virtue of its location, not because it has the longest drop.
But I digress. It's still bloody big.
And that 450m total height is certainly put to good use, affording quite spectacular views over Niagara Falls itself from the top. Simply breathtaking, and pleasingly the ride itself is a typically thrilling S&S affair to boot (although still pales a little in comparison to the superlative Fabbri Megadrop IMO...).
In fact, I'd go as far to say that Sky Screamer is the best-located drop tower anywhere in the world, although Big Shot on top of the 921-foot Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas might have something to say about that... are there any other contenders?
So, Marineland - never far from controversy, and a pretty strange place to spend a few hours.
Its few rides, marine exhibits, and stadium are spread out over such a huge area that it makes a day there more effort than it should be; it desperately needs some form of Park-wide transportation system, and that walk up to Sky Screamer isn't fun for anyone - an escalator in the same vein as Liseberg's would do wonders. It also in general just needs more, especially for an entry price that's within range of Wonderland's.
But it does have some gems - Dragon Mountain and Sky Screamer make the visit worthwhile, and the Stadium show was well presented. I just hope that the stars of said show are properly looked after behind the scenes...
Martin's Fantasy Island
It was now nearly 1pm, and I'd taken longer at Marineland than originally planned (the 12pm opening of Sky Screamer being much to blame). Part of me considered skipping Martin's Fantasy Island, given that I'd heard of its reputation as just a glorified fairground, and the more-alluring Darien Lake was still over an hour's drive away, including a border crossing into the USA at Niagara.
An even larger part of me considered skipping it following an agonisingly long wait at said border, having been ordered into the Port of Entry building for further checks because my story ("I was last in the USA in June") didn't align with the US Customs and Border Protection computer systems, which had no record of this visit. Sigh.
All of this meant that I didn't reach Martin's until 2:30pm. But I'm very glad I kept it in the itinerary.
The Park is, essentially, a glorified fairground, albeit a well presented one. Everything was clean and tidy, and the setting around a small lake is really quite nice.
Martin's is a classic slice of Americana, with the place clearly targeting local families with a no-frills, great value day out. The place feels very rural and low-key; the closest Park in the UK in my opinion would be Oakwood.
Everything here is pretty standard - there's a Star Flyer, a Disko, a Gravitron, and a Teacups, all presented without a great deal of themeing, and mostly un-shaded tarmac connecting it all together. Excellent.
On the coaster front there's three to enjoy, starting with a standard Zamperla spinning Wild Mouse; Crazy Mouse.
Number two is a standard Wacky Worm from SBF Visa; Max's Doggy Dog Coaster.
And last but certainly not least is the very non-standard CCI Woodie, Silver Comet.
The ride, standing at the back of the Park, is the more unusual hybrid type with grey steel supports. Its stats suggest a perfectly average ride; 82ft height, 55mph top speed, 50° drop, 1:45 ride time.
Some CCIs impress: Megafobia, Raven, Tonnerre du Zeus. Some don't: Stampida.
Silver Comet definitely impressed, and is a brilliant example of how a ride doesn't have to break any records to be a thoroughly worthwhile attraction.
The layout is very peppy, never dull, and the above-average maintenance work over the years means a very smooth ride. Hugely re-rideable, and with good pops of airtime across the layout, a whole lot of fun.
This alone is the reason to come to Martin's Fantasy Island. It might look like an off-the-shelf model from Roller Coaster Tycoon, but its varied, compact layout is an absolute winner. Silver Comet is of the best large family attractions (with just a 1.2m height restriction) I've ridden in a long while. It'd fit into a Chessington or a Drayton wonderfully.
The only fly in the ointment is the operations on the ride. Mirroring much of the rest of the Park, loading and dispatch times on Silver Comet were painful. Having been assigned a row, riders get on the train and are told over the tannoy to do up seat belts only. 2 members of staff then start from the front of the train and check individual seat belts down the platform. Then the lap bars are unlocked, and riders are again loudly told to keep arms up: "do not touch the lap bars, we will put them down for you!" The 2 members of staff then go down the train again, lowering the lap bar. If any rider touches a lap bar, the process starts over.
Very tedious, and only serves to deter guests from marathoning an otherwise excellent coaster!
After 3 rides on the Comet, my watch (3:30pm) told me it was really time to move on.
I grabbed an obligatory (yet reasonably priced) Hot Dog and Pepsi, and made a beeline for the exit.
2016 is the last season that the Park will be operating under the Martin's moniker - local businessman Martin DiPietro, the owner since 1994, sold the Park earlier this year to Apex Parks Group who own small Parks, Waterparks and FECs across the US. This seems a good fit, and if the new owners keep the same solid standards and bring some new investment in the place, this would be no bad thing.
Commenting on the sale, Al Weber Jr, Apex CEO, said: “It’s a nice park, in nice condition, in a great market. We like that it’s family focused.”
I couldn't agree more.
40 miles away from Martin's Fantasy Island is Darien Lake, arguably the premier Park in the state of New York, and a former Six Flags property (1999 - 2006).
The place certainly makes an immediate impression on you with the towering 208ft Ride of Steel lining the entrance to the Park.
Little generates anticipation and excitement for a day out at a Theme Park better than a large red and blue hyper... more on this later.
At this point it had just turned 4:00pm, giving me 6 hours to get everything in before Park close, and the commencement of the daily show Ignite the Night.
The place was busy - it was a glorious Sunday afternoon - meaning that the task ahead was challenging, but not impossible. I grabbed my admissions ticket, stopping briefly to admire the attractive entrance plaza, and headed on in.
First up was Mind Eraser; an apt name for a ride that tries its level best to do your head in.
This was typical Vekoma SLC fare, made worse by having only one train in operation (the other train was in pieces to the side of the brake run).
On the plus side, at least it looks pretty on the lake.
Continuing the theme of ubiquitous Dutch pain-machines was Boomerang, a Vekoma, erm, Boomerang. At the time of writing, there are 34 operating Vekoma Boomerangs in the world; 16 of which are called Boomerang. This one tries to add a touch of originality by adding a suffix: Coast to Coaster. I'm not sure what exactly this means.
Regardless, this was one of the smoother Boomerangs I've ridden, and was well presented in attractive colours akin to our those of our own Colossus.
The Park's only Woodie comes in the form of Predator, a relatively rare Dinn Corporation ride from the same stable as the relatively rough Mean Streak at Cedar Point, relatively rough Timber Wolf at Worlds of Fun and relatively rough Thunder Run at Kentucky Kingdom.
Predator was, predictably, relatively rough. Actually, towards the back of the train where I was sitting, it verged on being extremely rough, which did nothing to add to its unmemorable layout. Zero to headache in 110 seconds.
Rarely do I come off a ride and tell myself I'm never doing it again. Predator was one of those times.
Unfortunately, the Park's 1982 Arrow Looper Viper did little to help ease the headache.
With both track and supports painted completely in black (is this a Merlin property?), and an extensive layout with 5 inversions, the ride certainly looks intense from the ground. Alas getting on board proved to be as slow as the SLC; the ride was similarly running only one train, and the station was a complete free-for-all, with no orderly queuing taking place whatsoever.
And whilst the ride was long and varied, the experience wasn't especially comfortable. On reflection I'd have taken another ride on Marineland's Dragon Mountain over another ride on Viper, Marineland's ride having opened just a year after Darien's.
Yet another long queue greeted me at the Park's newest coaster, Moto Coaster, although at this stage I was very nearly grateful that it would give my head a bit of a rest.
Thanks to the fairly appalling throughput on the 12-person trains, I had ample time to grab a drink and catch my breath - good news. The bad news was that this 2008 ride has literally been plonked down on a slab of concrete, with a queue line completely absent of foliage or shade. Even into the early evening, the sun was strong... and so the headache continued.
I'd been wanting to ride one of these for a while, but with the closest of the 10 operating models being in Särkänniemi, Finland, they'd evaded me thus far. So how was the ride? Not half bad, actually, although the limitations of the compact layout meant that the trains never gained any pace (a max speed of 40mph). The flywheel launch was a bit of a non-event as it lacked acceleration, but the twists and turns of the track were smoothly navigated, and the riding position was comfortable.
One of Zamperla's better creations, but still unfortunately inferior to Vekoma's bigger, faster, more substantial product.
The sun was starting to go down, so I checked out what else the Park had to offer whilst it was still light.
There's a HUSS Top Spin, Twister, although this was closed for maintenance on the day of my visit. The most recent thrill addition (in 2015) is a 22m Larson Loop by the name of Rolling Thunder, although I didn't go on this having enjoyed / endured the Loop at Six Flags St Louis, Fireball, earlier in the year.
Being fond of drop towers, I did have a go on the S&S-built Blast Off, a respectable 185ft effort that was garnering long queues. Pleasingly the lengthy wait was vindicated by some spectacular views over the Park.
There's also a moderately sized (60ft) Arrow Log Flume, Thunder Rapids, and a moderately sized (50ft) Intamin Shoot the Chutes, Shipwreck Falls. An decent length Intamin River Rapids, Grizzly Run, completes the solid water-ride lineup.
I even found time to enjoy American Rock, a jukebox show playing three times daily in the Grand Theatre. The venue couldn't have held more than a few hundred, but the show (with a cast of six) is professionally staged and performed; the audience seemed to lap it up.
The most unusual thing however is a baseball batting cage up-charge attraction that I'd not seen at a Theme Park before, allowing guests to pay for a few minutes of practice in a safely netted-off area. There were four pitches, and the speed at which the balls were being fired out of the machines increased as players went from left to right.
The kid below was hitting from the slowest firing machine... and let's just say it was still pretty fast!
Night was beginning to fall, and the only attraction left on the hit list was Ride of Steel. With an hour or two still to go before Park close, what better way than to spend the time getting as many rides in as possible...?
Unfortunately doing this was - as with the SLC and the Arrow Looper - a largely painful experience, due to slow loading and the disorganised melee in the station. Being a single rider, I did a lot of "making friends" with potential other single riders closer to the air gates to try to fill empty seats and get maximum rides in!
The ride itself is absolutely superb; easily for me on a par with similar Intamin creations such as Expedition GeForce at Holiday Park and Goliath at Walibi. Comfortable lap bar restraints and a long, airtime-filled ride; Ride of Steel benefits from a kick-ass first drop, colossal wide sweeping helices, and ejector-tastic bunny hops just before the brake run. It's a huge amount of fun; more rough and ready than an equivalent B&M, but more intense too.
One of the defining memories of the trip for me is sitting on Ride of Steel for the n-th time, climbing the lift hill in the warm breeze as the sun had just dropped below the horizon, and looking out over the beautiful lit up Park. Magic.
It's a real shame that there aren't more of these in the world; there are only 6 Intamin Hypers and 2 Intamin Gigas. Which is why it's really really good that Energylandia has bought the first new installation for 15 years. Set to open in 2018, the ride looks set to take the "fastest non-launched coaster in Europe" title with a max speed of 87mph, and even features a splashdown.
Having visited earlier this year, Energylandia is a really promising Park, and this on paper looks fantastic... colour me excited.
Following one final ride on Ride of Steel, I walked over to the grassy area by the Park's lake and took my place for the 10pm performance of Ignite the Night.
I have to be honest, I wasn't expecting anything especially impressive from this, a nightly show from a regional Theme Park, albeit the biggest one in the state (Darien's visitor numbers won't be topping much more than 1m; around half of what Alton Towers might achieve).
But it was absolutely fantastic. It blew me away. Darien's marketing is pretty accurate when it claims: "Music, Water, Fire, Video, and Pyrotechnics all come together for this laser light spectacular in the air, on the stage and all around." Lasers images are projected onto a central screen, whilst a myriad other lasers point out towards the crowd. This, plus the water and fire effects, are all synchronised to a booming soundtrack, which covered a wide variety of genres (everything from I'm Too Sexy to Wonderful World).
Clocking in at 25 minutes, audiences are certainly given value for money; there are many highlights, but Pitbull's Fireball, complete with liberal bursts of fire, certainly got the crowd going. You can get a quick flavour for the show from Darien's promo video here.
The show finishes with a genuinely patriotic and rousing rendition of Lee Greenwood's God Bless The USA, which didn't leave many dry eyes in the house. Superb.
Darien Lake seriously punches above its weight with it's nightly show, and it alone makes a visit to the Park worthwhile. Kudos to everyone involved. Why can't our Parks find the budgets to do this...?
And that brings Day 2 of my Canadian Caper to a close!
This is probably the longest trip report I've ever written, which reflects just how much I packed into this one day. Pleasingly, nothing spited me, I got everything I wanted to done, and had some really great new experiences; Marineland's Drop Tower, Martin's Woodie, and Darien's Hyper all spring to mind, alongside of course Ignite the Night.
I left the Darien Lake car park at around 10:45pm, thoroughly exhausted, but very content. There is a huge amount to see and do around Toronto - for the general tourist let alone the Theme Park enthusiast - and a fly-and-drive visit here comes highly recommended.
Thanks for reading! Comments very welcome below.
Liked this? More musings from my travels in recent years:
Sometimes in life, an opportunity presents itself that you just can't pass up, despite the fact it might be a bit mad... and in my case, this year it was an email from British Airways offering me a return flight to Toronto, Friday - Wednesday in September, for just £356. I had a few days holiday left, hadn't set foot in Canada before, and knew there were some tasty coasters operating in this part of the world... so why not?
It didn't take too long to come up with a plan: flight out of LHR on the Friday night after work, landing into YYZ (Toronto International) on the Friday night (8 hour flight but Toronto is 5 hours behind!). Pick up hire car, drive to hotel near the airport on arrival. A whole day at Canada's Wonderland on the Saturday, with the evening back in the airport hotel. Sunday was to be the big one: a three hour drive across the border to Darien Lake (USA), taking in both Marineland (Canada) and Martin's Fantasy Island (USA) on the way. Sunday night spent in Buffalo, which would set me up nicely for a whole day on the Monday exploring Niagara Falls. Return the hire car on the Monday evening, and take the subway into downtown Toronto, leaving Tuesday and Wednesday free to explore all the city has to offer. Phew.
With temperatures in the high-teens and the late-summer sun set against deep blue cloudless skies, September is a fantastic time of year to visit Toronto. I found the city to be a smaller, more friendly New York, made all the better by its location on the waterfront of Lake Ontario and the omnipresence of Tim Hortons. But what of the Theme Parks?
Read on for my Canadian Caper!
CN Tower: EdgeWalk
Before we dive in, a quick nod firstly to a Toronto attraction that isn't a Theme Park, but gave me a bigger thrill than any Park in this report.
The CN Tower is quite the landmark for Toronto, built in 1979 as the world's tallest tower and to this day remaining the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere. At 1,815ft high (553m), it's nearly twice the height of London's Shard, although the viewing platform (shown below by the red arrow) stands only at 1,168ft (356m).
No big deal, right?
...it is when you're harnessed up and walking around on a small platform on the top of it!
This is the EdgeWalk, opened in 2011 as the world's highest full-circle, hands-free building walk. It punishes your bank balance at $195 (c.£115), although this is somewhat justified given that it has a capacity of only 6 people every half an hour, and it's really, really cool.
Understandably security is very tight for an attraction like this - guests all have to wear a bright red "walk suit", and aren't allowed any loose objects on them, including watches, hair clips, and wedding rings. Personal cameras are a definite no-no. However, walk leaders are equipped with cameras and all guests receive a complimentary HD video and printed photo of their experience, with the (predictable) opportunity to buy even more photos at the exit.
I went up first thing on a beautiful cloud-free morning, and can honestly say it was the most exciting, terrifying, and liberating thing I've done all year.
Just check out that view!
Guests are harnessed up to the overhead rail via two ropes, and the walk leader takes the group around one complete circuit during the 30 minute session, encouraging each person to try out a few "tricks" along the way, such as balancing your feet on the edge and leaning back (above), and leaning out over the edge into the city like the famous "I'm Flying!" scene in Titanic (below).
Everyone attempted all the tricks (I was joined by a thirty-something IT technician from Jordan, and a fifty-something management consultant from the US), although not without a few wobbly legs and involuntary shrieks along the way.
If you completely trust your harness - and you have no reason not to - you're absolutely fine, but nonetheless the raw adrenaline from being that high up and that exposed is quite something, especially if conditions get a little windy. It's breathtaking and beautiful, and worth every penny.
EdgeWalk: bringing a whole new meaning to "don't look down"...!
Onto the Parks.
Canada's Wonderland, located 25 miles north of Downtown Toronto, is by any standards a serious player in the Theme Park industry, being ranked 3rd in the world by number of roller coasters (16), after Six Flags Magic Mountain (19) and Cedar Point (17), and being the 2nd most-visited Park in the Cedar Fair chain (soundly beating Cedar Point, and sitting just behind Knotts Berry Farm).
I'm a fan of Cedar Fair properties - in my experience they tend to index slightly more towards "well funded" than "managed by corporate spreadsheet" vs. either of the Six Flags or Merlin chains. That said, they are far from immune to criticism, and Wonderland's $20 parking fee payable as soon as you drive onto the property hardly gets your day off to a flying start.
What immediately lifts the mood however is a quite wonderful view of the Park's headline attraction, Leviathan.
More on that later.
For now, it was a quick photo of the uninspiring but admittedly well-maintained entrance, a mandatory scan through the metal detectors, and in through the turnstiles...
...and straight after the pretty average entrance comes an unexpected visual treat.
Seeing Main Street and the Cinderella Castle upon entering the Magic Kingdom creates an excitement and anticipation of the day ahead that is rarely matched, although plenty of Parks aspire to have the same effect. Wonderland's huge flower display, flanked by patriotic flags, in front of a giant water display, in front of a large artificial mountain, has quite some impact.
Definitely above average!
And so to the first ride of the day, which was actually housed inside the mountain: Wonder Mountain's Guardian. Debuting in 2014 (although the idea was first mooted 10 years prior), the 3D dark-ride-come-roller-coaster represents a unique collaboration between Germany's Art Engineering (no, me neither), who manufactured the track, and Canada's own TrioTech, who designed the ride's interactive 3D animations.
Riders sit in one of the 2 car, 8 seat trains, wearing 3D glasses and holding a mounted "blaster" gun. Alas, on my visit every train had at least 1 or 2 blasters not operational, meaning the hourly capacity wasn't hitting much more than 500... snails have travelled faster than this queueline.
The first half of the ride resembles a fairly tame wild-mouse style coaster, although the enjoyment of it is somewhat impaired by the 3D glasses making everything a bit of a blur . Riders then enter the mountain, as the second half of the ride sees the trains shuttle between giant video screens, in much the same style as Toy Story Mania and Maus Au Chocolat. The story goes that old King Adelsten once tried to fight a dragon inside the mountain, but during the battle, the King lost his crown. Stansein, one of the king's servants, now guides riders through the mountain to find and retrieve the crown - with riders helping fight off all the monsters along the way using the mounted blasters. You would be forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on; the 3D animations weren't great. So far, so humdrum.
But THEN, out of nowhere, comes the best drop track section on a roller coaster I have ever experienced. Wonder Mountain's Guardian features a surprise drop of 30ft (9m), roughly twice the height of Thirteen's and Darkmare's, and many times more powerful. It's the final scene, and the mountain dragon has emerged again, breathing fire at riders - and without any warning, the train just plummets at a rate that would rival most drop towers.
Indeed, it's so impressive that it turns a fairly mediocre ride into one worth joining the back of the queue again for... if it weren't for the fact that the throughput was so horrific.
Sat right behind the Mountain, and even snaking around the top of it, is Vortex, an Arrow suspended coaster. I've always liked these swinging rides (alas Vampire at Chessington was never the same after the new trains...), and this particular model looked fantastic sporting a fresh new coat of red paint.
The ride experience held up very well too given its age, with the cars' extreme swinging being made all the more fun by the track's proximity to the lake and a top speed of 55mph - the fastest Arrow suspended coaster ever built.
Vortex: 25 years old, and still one of the best rides in the Park. Both unique and intense; there are now only 5 rides of this type left operating in the world - ride whilst you can!
Speaking of "best rides in the Park", at this point I couldn't resist giving the headline attraction a spin, Leviathan. Leviathan is a 306ft giga coaster and one of only two B&M creations to break the 300ft mark to date; the other being the superlative Fury 325 at sister Cedar Fair Park, Carowinds.
Decked out in bold blue and cyan hues, the ride looks spectacular and although far from fully themed, attention has certainly been given to the ride's styling, which includes a classy three-dimensional logo sat atop a 360° waterfall at the entrance. Why can't major rides in the UK be as bright and colourful as this?
As for the ride itself - as you'd expect from a B&M airtime machine, it's a huge amount of fun; silky smooth tracking even at top speeds of 92mph, coupled with the comfortable, open train design, makes for a supremely enjoyable and highly re-rideable experience. What really stands out though is the first drop: diving into a tunnel, it's one of the best, bum-off-seat freefall experiences I have had in a very long time. So. Much. Fun. One of B&M's best, both in the back row (for the airtime) and the front row (for the sheer raw speed).
What lets Leviathan down a little though is actually its length, which might seem a strange thing to say for a coaster that's got the same amount of track as Blackpool's Big One. But Leviathan is over 40% taller than Big One, and goes 20mph faster, so you hit that final brake run so much quicker than you'd like. Indeed, the brake run itself is actually taller than most coasters, standing at over 100ft - one can't help but wonder whether there's a missed opportunity there with all that kinetic energy going to waste. It could simply do more.
Leviathan is undoubtedly a brilliant ride and I could sit on it all day, but it is bettered by Carowinds' very similar installation 3 years later, due to Fury being well over 1,000ft longer, containing all the same juicy floater airtime, and still having an absolutely killer first drop. Fury should be a top 10 coaster (top 5?) in anyone's book, whereas I suspect riders of Leviathan will be slightly less generous in their rankings.
You can't deny though that it looks very pretty indeed...
3 down, many more to go, but it's from here that you start to realise that although on the coaster front Wonderland has a lot of quantity, it doesn't fare so well on quality.
For starters, there's the ubiquitous Vekoma Boomerang, The Bat, which rode much the same as any other (although it's continually surprising how forceful these can be; I even greyed out on one in Thailand...).
I was actually lucky(?) to even get a ride, given that it seemed to be giving the engineering department headaches for most of the day.
In a similar vein, the Park hosts one of the original Vekoma Suspended Family Coasters, Silver Streak. Built in 2001, the coaster still rides well, but the tracking is rougher and the seating inferior to the manufacturer's more recent SFC effort at our own Paulton's Park.
And completing the Vekoma hat trick is Flight Deck, an SLC that looked shiny and fun, but predictably rode like a complete turd. It was a standard stick-your-neck-out-to-avoid-your-ears-getting-boxed affair, with generous helpings of being kicked in the back by your seat. Tick.
At the macro level, it's a real shame that these rides are so commonplace around the world - there are well over 40 still operating today, and Vekoma are still making money from it; a Park in Vietnam appears to have bought a brand new one for 2017 .
Very few ride types in the world are nigh-on guaranteed to put the rider through such an endurance test...
...except for maybe this one, the Zamperla Volare.
Thankfully less commonplace than the SLC (there are only 7), the Volare is without doubt one of the most poorly designed and fabricated coaster types around. Canada's Wonderland has the dubious honour of buying one of the first ones, with Tomb Raider: The Ride debuting in 2004.
These days it's called Time Warp, although much of the Tomb Raider themeing still exists. Getting into the ride involves a fairly frantic process of jumping onto the moving train, climbing a small ladder, and poking your head through the front bars. Staff members at the end of the station manually lower the back bars to lock you into place, and the ride then turns the train horizontal.
The riding position isn't exactly uncomfortable, but unlike, say the B&M flyer trains, you never feel particularly cushioned; there's a lot of industrial-looking metal around you.
The slowly rotating lift hill (in a similar style to Eurosat at Europa) winches you to the top, and then the pain begins.
To say Time Warp was inelegant would be an understatement; the sharp turns and awkward inversions ensure your body is slammed with some force into all sides of the ride car. I spent the ride braced for impact.
There is a reason as to why "Favourite Volare" came last in the Mitch Hawker Poll, below even Goudurix. It's a rather unique experience, but not, unfortunately, an enjoyable one.
Time for a quick look at the Park's flat rides - starting with Shockwave, a Mondial Top Scan.
Top Scans are amongst my favourite flat ride types, but despite sporting a supremely colourful paint job, this one was about a thrilling as a limp handshake. It lifted us up, lethargically windmilled a few times, and lowered us down again.
If you think Thorpe's Samurai is a good example of a terribly-run Top Scan model, you ain't seen nothing yet. It's a shame, but these rides are really only at their best when on the fair circuit, where they're not being continually flogged for 8 hours+ a day.
Wonderland also features a WindSeeker, another Mondial creation and a staple of Cedar Fair parks (having bought 6 of them over a 2 year period!).
You may be forgiven for thinking that these ride in much the same way as a Funtime Star Flyer, but they're actually quite different experiences. Star Flyers give riders the illusion of jeopardy, helped in large part by the fact that the seats are pretty minimalist, attached via a few chains to a central rotating structure that looks like it's been made out of Meccano. Wind Seekers are altogether more substantial; the seats are heavily cladded, attached via large metal arms to the sizable central rotating structure. Wind Seekers are also larger machines, with a capacity of up to 64 per ride and in this case, a height exceeding 300ft.
This provides the average rider with less to be nervous about as they're dangling around at altitude, and the result is an altogether more enjoyable ride. Views from the top of Wonderland's Windseeker were spectacular; you could even see the skyscrapers of Downtown Toronto.
New for 2016 was Skyhawk, a 131ft Gerstlauer Sky Roller. As with the Mondial Top Scan, I'm a huge fan of these flat rides - the ability to give yourself a seriously intense spinning ride through simple physics is fantastic fun.
I'd really enjoyed Holiday Park's Gerstlauer Sky Fly earlier in the year, and having given Wonderland's Skyhawk a spin, it's very clear as to which is the superior model.
The Sky Roller works by rotating the ride vehicles 360 degrees around the central tower in one plane (do excuse the pun). The Sky Fly however employs a boom arm that is far more three dimensional in its swinging around of the ride vehicles - meaning that riders have far greater opportunity to complete a full spin in their vehicle.
I managed to get a couple of complete spins in my aeroplane on Skyhawk, but it was much trickier than on either of the Holiday Park or Nigloland Sky Fly models. Cedar Fair likely chose the Sky Roller for capacity reasons (16 per ride vs. 12 per ride), but that's about the only advantage I can see over the Fly.
And it would be remiss of me to move on without touching on Sledge Hammer, the world's first and only HUSS JUMP². Designed especially for Canada's Wonderland, this giant flat ride (as with so many prototypes) has suffered more than its fair share of technical problems and downtime since it opened in 2003; kudos should be given to the Park for persevering with it.
It certainly looks the part, but how does it ride? Pretty well, actually, apart from one flaw. The ride involves the eight claws rotating around the central structure, with the 8-seater cars at the end of each claw also rotating around their own axes. Every so often, the eight claws suddenly shoot up into the air (as shown below), causing a sharp "losing your stomach" feeling. More rotating happens with the claws all raised, and again without warning they suddenly all drop down to ground level again. This repeats for around 2 minutes of ride time.
It's certainly a unique experience, and one that I'm glad to have had, but the flaw becomes apparent during a "jump", thanks to the sudden change in direction upwards or downwards; momentum from the rotation causes both your body to slam into the side of the seat, and your face to slam into the side of the restraint. The restraints are very cushioned (more so than usual...), but you couldn't exactly call it a refined ride. Ow.
Back to the coasters. Dragon Fire is one of the four original coasters at Canada's Wonderland, having opened in 1981 along with the Park.
Geek fact: since the removal of Drachen Fire from Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Dragon Fire is also the only Arrow coaster in existence to have counterclockwise-turning corkscrews.
I can't say I particularly noticed the difference.
Ghoster Coaster is another of the original 1981 lineup, and is tucked away in the Peanuts-themed kids' area at the back of the Park.
Coasters like this - solid, medium-sized, family rides - are generally undervalued by enthusiasts, but are arguably just as important as the big blockbuster attractions to the average punter; Ghoster was pulling queues nearly as long as Leviathan's.
Alas leg room for me was worse than even the very worst European short haul airline (I'm looking at you, Wizz Air), but the kids were having a great time.
The Park also features a "large Park" version of Mack's standard Wild Mouse: The Fly. Always good fun.
Geek fact #2: The Fly has an identical layout to all of the Project X / Test Track rides operating in the Legolands of the world. Thankfully The Fly's ride vehicles did not have comedy hoods installed over them, unlike poor Legoland Windsor's old Jungle Coaster...
Canada's Wonderland also plays host to one of the 3 Premier-built Backlot Stunt Coasters; these were previously known as the Italian Job Stunt Track from when the rides opened in 2005 to when the old Paramount Parks (of which Canada's Wonderland was one) were sold to Cedar Fair in 2008.
All of them clones, the layout sees guests launched at 40mph out of the station, before winding around a succession of tight upward helices themed as a parking lot. From here the trains dive into a series of s-bends trying to "avoid" parked police cars, before plateauing out in front of a tunnel. When the ride first opened under Paramount, here the trains were stopped for a short show to take place, involving a helicopter rising up along with simulated gunfire; this gunfire sprayed "petrol" all around riders, which resulted in a gas tank "explosion". Alas on my ride none of these special effects were in operation, and the block brakes weren't even slowing the trains, so we just cruised on past all of the themeing. A shame - not least because on the Kings Island version I rode earlier this year, they had kept a stripped down version of the show complete with pyros.
Trains are then launched for a second time into a tunnel, twisting and dropping before coming out of the "broken billboard", diving down in an aqueduct and turning back into the ride's station (below).
In all, despite having a mediocre capacity (only 12 guests per train...), these are great little rides; the tight transition from the initial launch into the "parking lot" helices is surprisingly intense, even causing me to momentarily grey out. It's just a little frustrating to see this particular one so pared back compared to its launch just over 10 years ago. No special effects, no Italian Job theme, and no MINI Cooper trains (sadly, Cedar Fair lost the licence for these too in 2010).
And finally to Behemoth, the original B&M airtime machine at Canada's Wonderland, which - incredulously - now has to put up with being Leviathan's little brother. Opening only 4 years prior to Leviathan, Behemoth is an unquestionably fun coaster, and has much in common with it's bigger, blue-r counterpart. Comfortable, smooth ride? Yep. Nonrestrictive clam shell lap bar? Indeed. Soaring airtime hills? Oh yes. Named after a huge Biblical creature in the book of Job? You got it.
But there are also differences; Behemoth is nearly 80ft shorter in height, its 4-across trains have staggered seating, and it's placed to great effect on a large lake, making the dives towards the ground even more exciting. Alas, its first drop doesn't have as much "wow" as Leviathan's - it's good, but not that good - but it redeems itself through its length; having just as much track as Leviathan makes for a longer ride.
Both deliver lots of floater and ejector airtime. Both are lots of fun. If I had to call it, I'd say front row / back row on Leviathan beats any row on Behemoth, but it's marginal.
Visitors to Canada's Wonderland should count themselves lucky they can enjoy not one, but two examples of fine Swiss engineering.
So, Canada's Wonderland: a large, well-presented park with a tonne of rides to enjoy; some impressive, some less so. My overall impressions of place were very favourable - there is no doubt that it is, as claimed, "Canada's Premier Amusement Park".
This is clearly borne out in the visitor numbers - I went on a Saturday in September and the queues were thronging. Great to see, but on days like these it's impossible to do the Park in a day without a Fast Pass - I duly coughed up for the Fast Lane Plus, which allowed me to get on a total of 24 rides in exchange for my additional $75 (c.£43); without it I'd have been lucky to do more than 12.
And a place like Wonderland is all about the rides; it's definitely a case of quantity over quality, but there are moments of brilliance to be found in Leviathan's front row, Vortex's back row, and Guardian's breathtaking drop - these alone make the trip over the pond worthwhile.
Thanks for reading! Comments very welcome below.
Next up: Day 2 of the Canadian Caper, including Marineland, Martin's Fantasy Island, and Darien Lake.
Welcome to Part 2 of the Stuttgart Sojourn; an April weekend exploring the regional Parks of south Germany (if you haven't read it, Part 1 is here). Following an overcast, but very enjoyable, day at Tripsdrill, a good night's sleep in one of their cosy Schäferwagen, and a hearty continental breakfast in a log cabin in the middle of the WildParadies (a second gate Wildlife Park next to the Theme Park), it was time to make the hour-long drive north to Haßloch's Holiday Park!
And what a difference a day made to the weather; out was the blanket grey cloud, and in were bright blue skies with warm sunshine. Theme Parks generally look great in any weather, but they look especially great when the sun has his hat on .
Holiday Park is based 12 miles out of Neustadt in Haßloch, and much like Tripsdrill before it, is set in the middle of vast areas of German countryside. Rather more "corporate" and polished than Tripsdrill, the Park was owned and run by the Schneider family from its opening in 1971, and was sold on to Studio 100 (who own the Plopsa brand) in November 2010.
Since then, Studio 100 have made significant efforts to "Plopsa-ify" the Park, importing into Germany the characters so prominent in their other Parks (and if you haven't heard of Plop the Gnome, Wickie the Viking, and Maya the Bee... well, you're not missing much). And there are now lofty ambitions for Holiday Park, which had suffered in the years prior to the Studio 100 takeover, with the stated aim to drive gate figures up to 1.2m through a phased €25m investment (to match visitor numbers at the flagship Park, Plopsaland De Panne).
It's easy to spot the new owner's influence from the moment you enter the car park - Holiday Park now sports a jazzy new themed archway at the entrance, much like the one at its sister Park.
The eagle eyed amongst you will have already spotted the Park's signature attraction in the above photo, and it was indeed the first ride we made a Maya-the-Beeline for as we entered the Park.
Expedition Ge Force's reputation precedes it; winner of the (revered?) Mitch Hawker Best Steel Coaster Poll 5 times in the last 10 surveys, and never dropping below third place over that time. With three of my personal favourite coasters coming in at 8th (Shambhala), 9th (Nemesis), and 11th (Katun) respectively, it would be fair to say that I was hyped to get to ride the so-called "King" of the leaderboard.
The ride is loosely themed around an expedition, with jeeps / backpacking gear / kettle drums scattered around the queueline, but the station is essentially an unglamorous tin shack, and the unthemed trains are of the standard Intamin lap-bar variety, commonly seen on their megalite rides (although these had tedious seat belts around the waist as well as the lap bar).
So far, so average. Also average were the operations - one train op, with the 2 ride attendants checking and re-checking both bar and seat belt twice each before the train was dispatched. We were lucky that despite the glorious weather, the Park wasn't overly busy - but had these ops been on a busier day, the resulting queues would have been pretty intolerable.
What isn't in any way average though, is this ride's scale. In a small-ish Park, it looks absolutely huge (at 171ft tall), with a monstrous sweeping layout that takes up a pretty large amount of Holiday Park's available space.
The cable lift hill is speedy, and affords some magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, along with the large twisty mess of track that riders are about to navigate. And as with Shambhala, the anticipation (and feeling of vulnerability) on the ascent is tangible.
There are many standout moments on this ride.
The 75mph first drop is an absolute winner; steep and sharply twisted down to the ground - in the back row particularly it's a killer. The numerous airtime hills, like the one below, deliver a sustained shot of ejector airtime. And the head choppers towards the end of the ride, where the track doubles back on itself underneath the supports of the first airtime hill, are some of the best I've experienced for maintaining the illusion of collision.
CoasterForce have a video of the ride that's well worth a look. GeForce is really, really good fun.
And yet, despite all this, it is hard to recommend it as the best coaster in the world.
The ride was built in 2001, around the same sort of time as Thorpe's Colossus. Aside from the lack of OTSRs, the train and track construction is pretty similar. The trains sound the same as Colossus as they roar around the track. And the comparisons with Colossus unfortunately extend to comfort: Expedition GeForce has exactly the same level of constant vibration / roughness that Colossus has.
For some people, this may add to the ride - no-one can claim that GeForce isn't exhilarating, or that it doesn't "give you a good ride". It's quite the thrill. But it does, especially in the back rows, mean that rides can come off GeForce feeling a bit beaten up.
And alas our old friends - the Intamin lap bars of doom - also don't help this feeling. Granted, they're far preferable to Colossus' restrictive OTSRs, but they do crush your thighs, especially over those ejector airtime hills, making re-riding more of a difficult choice than it should be. How Richard Rodriguez spent 104 days on the thing I've no idea.
So, Expedition GeForce: brilliant in many ways, but not, in my opinion, the best coaster in the world.
The Park's other big attraction is 2014's Sky Scream, a Premier LSM launched coaster with a small footprint; identical to Superman Ultimate Flight (the 2012 original) at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Part of Studio 100's €25m investment plan, the ride replaced the ageing Vekoma Corkscrew Super Wirbel, and a la Towers' entrance, corkscrew track from retired ride has been installed over the pathway towards Sky Scream as a nostalgic decoration.
And as you can see, the old overgrown Wirbel area has been completely transformed by the new ride. Anyone for a quick trip in the Sky Scream Limo of Horror?
I was not expecting to come away with a hugely positive review of the ride, thinking that the experience would be similar to Parque de Atracciones' Abismo, Linnanmäki's Ukko and the like (in short: fun Maurer rides, but too short, and with stomach-hugging, oppressive restraints).
I was surprised.
Sky Scream is smooth, intense, and well engineered. The train shuttles out of the blocks into a half-powered set of LSMs, pushing it halfway up the incline. Then it shuttles (backwards) into the station, where the LSMs (now with reversed magnetism) push it nearly all the way up the incline on the opposite side. Gravity does its bit to take the train back down (forwards) into the station, where the LSMs (at 100%) boost the train right up the incline and over the top of the 150ft structure.
A slow inline twist follows at the top (as with the Maurer SkyLoops), and then a short holding brake (seen below) creates suspense, before the train bombs down again at a very steep angle into the non-inverting loop, and then down again back into the station. The train overshoots the station once, before being comfortably braked coming backwards in to stop.
Sky Scream is a lot of fun, with decent Gs felt across all of the elements, and the (comfortable) lap bar restraints meaning the rider can properly enjoy being thrown around the circuit. It's worth saying that the trains come complete with a leg bar as well as a lap bar - which could be an irritation for taller people - but (at 6'1'') this didn't materially affect my enjoyment of the ride.
Holiday Park chose to open the ride without any of the associated themeing in place (see an early photo here), but a mention must be given to the final product, which is now of a very high quality. The queueline acts as a walk-through Haunted House, with jumpy TV-screen effects, detailed set scenes, and loud noises (chains, dogs barking) startling prospective riders throughout. The Park actually has banners outside the entrance advising under 14s to stay away! I particularly enjoyed the lenticular portraits that changed from "normal" to "spooky" as you walked on past; done before, but nonetheless effective.
Overall, Sky Scream gets a thumbs up. Yes, it's short, but for the size of its footprint I think Premier are on to a winner, besting Maurer's ride by having intense launches, and being less clunky and more comfortable. And with two of these rides having opened last year, and two more opening this year, I'm clearly not the only person to think so.
Given its limitations, Sky Scream clearly can't compete with the very best coasters out there, but I'd ride again without hesitation. Couple that with an impressive themeing package, and Studio 100 have done a great job here - no bad thing if this is indicative of future quality from Holiday Park.
The Park's final coaster comes in the form of Holly's Wilde Autofahrt ("Holly's Crazy Car Journey"), a brightly-themed 2010 Maurer Wild Mouse from the now defunct Loudoun Castle, not dissimilar to Rattlesnake at Chessington. There's not a lot to be said about these rides, other than this one was running well, with barely a brake in sight... other than at the very end! The cars screech around the corners with gusto, throwing all riders uncontrollably into the side of the vehicles.
Brutal, but fun!
It's easy as a coaster geek to undervalue common ride types, such as the wild mouse, the boomerang, even the wacky worm... but for 99% of a Park's guests, particularly the younger ones, these rides are as fresh and exciting as anything else out there.
I was reminded of this when watching riders on Holly's Wild Fart (yes, a fart gag) - almost every car was filled with guests screaming their heads off and having a thoroughly good time. These ride types are successful for a reason, and although we goons might have ridden many identikit versions of a type ourselves, this doesn't make their existence any less worthwhile.
Onto the Park's supporting attractions, and first up was Sky Fly, a new-for-2015 Gerstlauer, um, Sky Fly. Whilst not winning any awards for naming innovation, the Park have presented the ride well in a colourful new area surrounded by stalls, cafes and a toilet block. I am a huge fan of this ride type, which involves riders tilting the wings on their individual aircraft left and right in order to induce rotation, all whilst being whirled around a central support via a giant arm (much like a Mondial Top Scan).
Holding the left wing down / right wing up will rock you in one direction, holding left wing up / right wing down will rock you in the other. Get enough momentum up and you can make it over the top and complete a 360. Keep your wings "fixed" in the wing position (up / down) that pushes you over the top, and you'll continue to rotate in that direction like a madman. Of the 12 guests per ride, usually 2-3 will grasp the concept and make it over the top.
What is brilliant is that the rider can set the intensity of their ride by how much they want to rotate their aircraft. What is also brilliant is that if you get the rotation momentum right, the resulting spinning is downright insane - and easily one of the most intense flat ride experiences out there. If you have read my mini Trip Report from Nigloland in 2014, you'll know that their Air Meeting gave me a subconjunctival haemorrhage, as well as an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. Whilst the eye problems were thankfully not repeated in Holiday Park, the giggles certainly were, and I came away with a big grin on my face, along with lots of strange looks from the waiting crowd.
The Park also has a Star Flyer, the 260ft Lighthouse Tower, from Funtime. I like these rides mainly for the fab views (yes, more German countryside), but with only a few chains holding your chair onto the central spinning structure, I can see why some otherwise-confident guests chicken out of riding...!
Burg Falkenstein ("Falkenstein Castle") is a German hill castle in the Harz mountain range, located between Aschersleben and Harzgerode, dating back to the High Middle Ages. It's also the name of Holiday Park's only dark ride!
Built in 1987, the ride certainly looks the part from the outside, complete with wooden stocks and well-established plants growing up around the aging brickwork...
...and long-time visitors to Thorpe will recognise the inside - it's Phantom Fantasia!
Sort of. Mack provided Holiday Park with this version of the omnimover-style ride 4 years after they furnished Thorpe with theirs, and 5 years after they gave Europa Geisterschloss.
Alas time has not been kind to the Burg on the inside. Burg Falkenstein has to be one of the most badly-aged dark rides in Europe, with only a tedious journey around supposed "animatronics" that are either falling apart, squeaky, or stationery, to offer. The attraction is very dark, and there is the impression that scenes have been removed over the years; there are some entirely blank spots during the ride. Altogether very dull.
It's a well above average dark ride building, and a well below average dark ride. A shame.
Much more impressive is Donnerfluss ("Thunder River"), an Intamin rapids ride that also happens to be Holiday Park's oldest ride; built in 1983, Donnerfluss was also Germany's first ever rapids.
Sporting the same boats as Thorpe's Thunder River (also an Intamin creation), this rapids has all the components of a great water ride: good rockwork, thunderous waterfalls, surprise geyser bombs, and most importantly, some pretty hairy rapids sections! 3 out of 4 of our boat got very wet; only one of us came off unscathed, and thankfully that was me .
And on the subject of good water rides, Wickie Splash is another solid addition to the Park's lineup. The Mack flume was opened as Teufelsfässer in 1992 ("Barrels of Hell"; darkly-themed with the devil, skeletons, and fire effects), but received a family-friendly Plopsa re-brand in 2014.
The re-theme is fantastic, brightening up the whole area with shiny, colourful buildings and characters from the Wickie the Viking series (if you still aren't familiar, you can enjoy / waste 3 minutes introducing yourself here). And the log flume itself is excellent; 3 fun drops including one backwards, with the inside turntable sections allowing for some storytelling with Wickie and friends. The final drop is an airtime-filled double-down, much like Logger's Leap's (now sadly missed), but a smidgen higher at 65ft.
Good length, multiple drops, a backwards section, well themed, wet but not too wet. You can't ask for much more from a Park flume!
The final ride of note in the Park is Anubis Free Fall Tower; the first free fall drop in Europe, standing tall at 230ft. I love Intamin drops, common though they are, and this delivered as consistently as any other. That said, having opened in 1997, its age does show - the fall itself was pretty unrefined and clunky, and there was definitely a greater than average amount of shaking on the way down!
It's also worth saying that the link to Anubis, Studio 100's successful kids drama, was tenuous at best - there were a few posters of the show displayed in the queueing area... and that was it.
Previously the ride was simply called Free Fall Tower. Nothing like shoehorning in an IP when it's not required...!
And last, but by no means least, we come to the Park's all-season Wasserski Stunt Show, staged at least once a day in the Park's 1,300 capacity Aquastadion.
Replacing the incumbent show of the last 2 years, "Hollywood's Talking Dead" (um, OK ), for their 45th birthday Holiday Park debuted a brand new spectacle: "Die Jubilaumsshow Holiday Park - 45 Jahre" ("The Anniversary Show of Holiday Park - 45 Years"). There was even a giant celebratory cake floating in the middle of show lake.
The Holiday Park waterski show remains Europe's first and only waterski stunt show in Europe, and against any metric, it's an absolute winner. A team of c.10 stunt performers showed off some serious skills on the water, involving waterskis, waterboards, high speed boats, jetskis, and jetpacks. There was also some abseiling and high-wire work across the audience.
And the whole show was set to a pumping up-tempo soundtrack, with gunfire, cannon-fire, pyrotechnics and party streamers thrown into the mix!
Perhaps the best thing about the show though was its bonkers storyline. My German's not exactly great, but from what I could gather...
Holly (the Park's original mascot; not a Plopsa character) wants to throw a party to celebrate Holiday Park's 45th birthday
Holly has made a giant birthday cake, and needs help lighting the candles
Comedy French bad guy (in a comedy cape, sporting comedy mustache) turns up with his comedy French henchman, having arrived all the way from Disneyland Paris (in a Mickey-Mouse themed old banger)
Disneyland Paris bad guy claims that Disneyland is the best Park in Europe, and therefore must ruin Holiday Park's 45th birthday celebrations
Holly attempts to eliminate the Disneyland bad guy, via many high-speed chases and stunts on the water
Having had no success, Holly rings up good friend Roland Mack (!), who provides Holly with a Europa Park stunt boat (!!)
Holly saves the day by arriving in the nick of time on the Europa Park stunt boat
Both comedy French bad guy and henchman are blown up in a big fireball via a cannon
The cannon is then filled with fireworks and directed towards the cake
The cake explodes with colourful fireworks, streamers erupt into the audience, Holly does a dance, much jubilation, etc...
Utterly hilarious, and great to see such tongue-in-cheek rivalry between Parks on the continent...!
Holiday Park flatters itself by making the comparison to Disneyland and Europa, but still... top stuff .
So if it wasn't clear already, I had a great day at Holiday Park, with GeForce, Sky Scream, and the Wasserski Stunt Show being reason alone to make the journey over to Haßloch. It's in a period of transition, with the new owners investing in both new areas (Sky Scream) and redevelopment of old areas (Entrance Plaza, Wickie Splash) - and long may this investment continue.
There is certainly more to do; the Park's layout is strange, and the quality is inconsistent; generally, things that have been Plopsa-ified are of a far higher standard than the legacy areas from the old ownership (I'm looking at you, Burg Falkenstein...). So there's a way to go before the whole thing feels coherent. But I am confident - seeing the improvements to date, and having the backing of the chain behind it - that this upward trajectory will continue.
And any Park that invests heavily in entertainment gets my vote. In addition to the Wasserski Stunt Show, Holiday Park puts on an energetic daily parade involving all the Plopsa characters, as well as regular shows for little ones in the main plaza area.
Thanks for all the smiles, Maya the Bee!
And thanks to you for reading; comments welcome as always.
The 2016 Theme Park season is upon us, and what better way to kick off than a weekend hop over to visit our deutsche Freunde in Baden Württemberg. The reason for the trip was to explore two of the more regional, and less-well-travelled parks, in Germany: Tripsdrill and Holiday Park.
Planning was a cinch, involving a Eurowings flight out to Stuttgart (£50) and overnight stay at the Wyndham hotel on airport (£30) on the Friday evening, 2-day car hire from Avis (£30) picked up on the Saturday morning, entry to Tripsdrill on the Saturday (£17), overnight stay in the Tripsdrill Schäferwagen on the Saturday evening (£40), entry to Holiday Park on the Sunday (£24), petrol for the weekend (£8.50), and BA flights home on Avios (£17.50); all prices per person, based on 2 travelling. At £217 each, it's great value - and I'd encourage anyone thinking about planning a similar European trip to jump straight in - there's a huge variety of Theme Parks on the continent, not all that far from us, at relatively accessible prices.
As you can see, both Tripsdrill and Holiday Park are easily driven to from Stuttgart airport, although flying into Frankfurt could also work. And for a three day trip, Europa Park is also just under 100 miles away...
First up, on the Saturday, was Tripsdrill; a Park marketed as "featuring over 100 original attractions depicting Swabian life in the late 1800s... remarkable attention to detail, dedication to authenticity and respect for nature truly set Tripsdrill apart". And I'm happy to report that there's no marketing hooey here: the above sums up Tripsdrill really rather well.
This here is a Swabian man - let's call him Günther - from the late 1800s. Goodness knows what he is doing, or what he has on his back, but Tripsdrill is stuffed full of animatronics such as Günther - the Park really is a mecca for rural German history, if that's the sort of thing you're into. There are whole areas of the Park filled with both static tableaux and moving scenes, and you can easily spend an hour wandering around the place exploring all the exhibits.
This, along with its gorgeous rural location (in a valley, surrounded by vast rolling fields), gives Tripsdrill a very "homely" feel: it would come as no surprise to anybody that it remains family owned (the Fischers have run Tripsdrill since 1929; it's easily Germany's oldest Theme Park). It's clearly important to the owners that the Park integrates as much with nature as possible; wood is used for most buildings, and there are trees and flowers everywhere. And being family owned, there is a more "relaxed" approach to H&S (although I never once felt unsafe), operations were excellent, and there wasn't a queue-jumping scheme to be seen.
First up for us was the 2013 Gerstlauer Infinity Coaster, Karacho (no literal translation, other than "a lot of power"). The Park's newest and most intense ride, Karacho still manages to nestle in very comfortably with its countryside surroundings. The ride features Infinity trains with similar assemblies to Alton's The Smiler, but with only 2 rows rather than 4, and lap bars instead of OTSRs.
Themeing on the ride, as with all of Tripsdrill, is excellent, with scenes around the queueline telling a story about a madcap inventor designing his perfect roller coaster, surrounded by plans, prototypes and the like. Karacho is the result of his work, but as riders disembark, they are treated to one final animatronic of the inventor throwing up (water) into an oil drum. Not so perfect for him, then.
The ride itself involves a 180 degree turn out of the station into darkness, a "surprise" indoors heartline roll in the same vein as The Smiler, a peppy 55mph LSM launch out into the light, and an outside layout that involves a 98ft top hat, 2 dive loops and a corkscrew.
Operations were excellent, with fast, regular dispatching of trains - the operator would give each lap bar one push down and one pull up, and that was it; away we went. Top marks.
I was expecting Karacho to be a solid Gerstlauer installation, in the same vein as Lynet at Fårup, or Anubis at Plopsa. Solid launch, decent layout, OK trains. So I was really surprised to find that Karacho was actually bloody fantastic.
The trains are a large reason as to why - the Gerstlauer clamshell lap bar is a triumph; allowing maximum freedom whilst not exerting too much pressure on any one part of your thighs (I'm looking at you, solid Intamin bar of doom; see my Italy TR for more musings on this). For me, Karacho's are the closest coaster seats in terms of comfort to those found on Mack's megacoaster product - high praise indeed.
This elevates an enjoyable experience to a brilliant one, as the rider has complete freedom to be thrown about the remarkably well-tracked layout - which, in contrast to certain other rides, features absolutely no jolting or shuddering whatsoever. It's super smooth, and super fun.
By far the highlight of the ride is the 2nd dive loop, shown below. Not only does the ride tunnel underground, but the transition from the banked curve (seen at the back) and the dive loop (at the front) is very tight, meaning that riders get sharply "pulled around" into the dive (in a similar way to blue fire's final inline twist). It's an example of where OTSRs would have caused all sorts of painful head bashing, but with clamshell restraints, the ride remains intense but comfortable.
A final nod to the ride's lighting package. The well-themed trains look even better when they connect to the power supply in the station, as the two rear "engines" start to glow a vibrant red. It's a simple LED effect but really showcases Tripsdrill's attention to detail, fostering a nice anticipatory atmosphere in the dimly-lit station.
Overall, Karacho came very close for me to being the perfect mid-sized coaster. Although it probably wouldn't trouble my top 10, it would get fairly close - and it's by far the best Gerstlauer I've ever ridden. It actually prompted me to consider a trip to Finland to ride its brightly-coloured brother at PowerLand, and seems to me to be the perfect investment for parks with mid-sized budgets; I can imagine Blackpool and Drayton would be good candidates in the UK for this sort of ride.
And finally - why, oh why, could Merlin not have opted for lap bars on Smiler's Infinity trains...?!
Next up was 2008's Mammut ("Mammoth"), a pre-fab wooden coaster from Holzbau Cordes (similar to Intamin's pre-fab efforts with Balder and Colossos), themed around German saw mills. Cue more tableaux in the queue line of workers, saws, wood, etc... you get the idea. Strangely, no mammoths to be seen. And again, Gerstlauer were involved - this time producing the trains.
It's an imposing ride for a smaller park like Tripsdrill (98-foot tall, 2,822ft long), and I had to set my camera to "panorama mode" to fit it all in...
We were lucky enough to get 4 back-to-back rides in the morning (it turns out the Park doesn't get so busy during dreary Saturdays in April...!), and I'm happy to report Mammut is a good 'un.
An entertaining pre-show before the lift hill (with a "saw mill goes wrong" theme), a killer first drop (especially in the back row), and a varied layout including a tunnel, all add up to a solid ride. Operations were good, albeit one train only.
It isn't hugely intense - although I suspect that's not the market Tripsdrill's after - and there is a little bit of roughness during some parts of the ride - although there's a good argument that this is part and parcel of a wooden coaster - but these are minor quibbles of an otherwise decent coaster.
You also get the advantage of some superb views of the rolling green countryside as you ascend the lift hill.
It's no Wodan or Troy, but just look at the curve on that drop. Phwoar.
Moving on, and this is G'sengte Sau - the Park's first "big" coaster, from - you guessed it - Gerstlauer. Indeed, Tripsdrill's involvement with Gerstlauer goes back a long way, as G'sengte Sau was Gerst's first ever coaster, back in 1998. And what is remarkable is how smooth and accomplished the ride is, given that it was Gerstlauer's very first effort.
The ride is built around a schwäbisch castle, featuring the wild-mouse bends and tight helices typical of these bobsled coasters, with some good near misses around the building structure. More than most rides at Tripsdrill, this one felt truly integrated with its environment; the bunny hops towards the end of the layout felt more like they were following the terrain than having been artificially created.
It most reminded me of Thor's Hammer at Djurs, which was no bad thing - and no surprise either given that Thor was Gerst's 2nd ever bobsled ride in 2002. A little rough in places, but capable of pulling some great forces around its tight layout.
Note how close the ride track is to the public pathway; no netting obscuring the view, no fencing or bars erected in the name of H&S. It makes a big difference to the organic feel to the ride, and was great to see - the Germans are clearly more trusted than we are to not do anything stupid...
The other side to the castle hosts the wonderful Badewannen-Fahrt zum Jungbrunnen (translation: "Bathtub Journey to the Fountain of Youth"). This is an above-average Mack flume ride, where riders sit in comedy bathtubs meandering around various animatronic bath time scenes - some featuring a fair bit more nudity than you'd see in other countries! I have photos, but we must remember that TPM is a family website...
There were three drops, including a backwards one, and some nice interaction with the aforementioned G'sengte Sau. The drop was visually impressive, but didn't get you all that wet - which is the perfect combination for a cloudy April afternoon in my eyes.
By far the best bit of Badewannen-Fahrt zum Jungbrunnen however is the figure - let's call her Maike - that greets you when you disembark your bathtub.
She surely has to be one of the most gross characters to be found at a Theme Park, ever.
Some things cannot be unseen...
Onto some of the Park's supporting attractions, and we come first to Doppelter Donnerbalken (literally, "Double Thunder Beam"). This is a quirky set of two 50ft drop towers from Premier, facing each other, both themed to large trees. "Forest Brother" Huzelin lives in these trees, apparently, and the only way to visit him is to ride the tower. You know it makes sense.
What was quirky about the ride, apart from the fab Tripsdrill themeing, was what happened for the finale. For most of the ride the towers acted like oversized frog-hoppers, bouncing around whilst catching the expressions of those on the tower opposite (made all the more thrilling by only having a small lap bar to hold you in). The finale though involved both towers being raised to the highest point, and then a pretty fast, aggressive lurch forwards towards the riders on the opposite side.
This maneuver was genuinely surprising, and only a touch away from being "too rough" - with only a thin lap bar to hold you in, the experience could be compared to having a minor car crash.
A nice idea, but I have no doubt that the same effect could be achieved in a more refined way. It's telling that I didn't rush around to ride it again, and I'm a big fan of drop towers (for the record, Thorpe's Detonator still stands as #1 drop tower for me, even up against other towers three times its height...).
The Park also has a decent kiddie coaster in Rasender Tausendfüßler (translation: "Raging Centipede" ), a Zierer Tivoli with a high-capacity train that snakes around a lake with a fountain.
Some decent landscaping - and two laps around the track rather than one - elevate this coaster above the majority of similar kiddie rides.
Tripsdrill also has an excellent rapids ride in Waschzuber-Rafting ("Washtub Rafting"), a Hafema installation themed around an old washhouse from 1808. The queueline was, as ever, excellently themed, although old mangles and first-gen Miele washing machines aren't the most exciting of things to view whilst queueing...
I've always been a fan of Hafema rapids (their best creation surely being Phantasialand's River Quest) due to their innovative 3-piece boats that allow water to slosh around everywhere. This rapids was great fun as expected, with some seriously choppy bits, a thundering waterfall section, and a mock whirlpool, seemingly a Hafema hallmark.
Note again how close the Park's public areas are to the trough of the rapids. There's only a small wire fence between the pathway and the ride, meaning that an idiotic guest could easily jump right on in...
...and the same applies for Mühlbach-Fahrt ("Mill Stream Ride"), the Park's kiddie flume with a teensy 11ft drop - the cobbled area shown on the bottom right of this photo is a public area, but with absolutely nothing to stop a guest falling / jumping in to the water. I wonder how many kids in the summer have attempted to jump in!
In today's age of hyper-sensitivity to H&S and litigation, Tripsdrill's approach is unusual, but refreshing - let's just hope their more trusting attitude doesn't spell trouble for the Park down the line.
And finally a quick look at some oddities that make Tripsdrill, well, Tripsdrill. This ride, Weinkübelfahrt ("Wine Barrel Ride"), looks like your typical cars-on-a-track affair (R.I.P. Miss Hippo), but when various sensors are tripped around the course, the barrels spin like a lively teacup. Fun!
Fittingly, just behind the Weinkübelfahrt is the Vinarium, a free museum dedicated to German viticulture that offers all those who enter a free Tripsdrill glass ( ) and a walk around (yet more) exhibits of Swabian culture.
More of note was the cellar of this Vinarium, which turned out to be a fully operational bar. Manned by a local guy with absolutely no understanding of English whatsoever (A Level German suddenly became very useful to me), locally-produced wines from the region were the order of the day. I went for a glass of red (€1.50), which proved very palatable.
Tripsdrill are onto a winner here: if only more Theme Parks would give out free merch and sell cheap local wine in pleasant surroundings....
Laughs were had on the Park's Wackelräder ("Shaky Wheels") bikes, which had asymmetrical spokes on the front wheels, making them pretty hard to cycle around. I crashed into a wall once, and very nearly crashed into another guest barely a minute later. Good fun, with up-charging conspicuous by its absence.
In all, Tripsdrill is a really lovely place, filled with good quality, well themed mid-sized attractions.
Karacho is a stand-out ride. The fact the Park is family owned and run is evident throughout, and although it was pretty when I went, it must look really gorgeous in the summer. The flowerbed : guest ratio, even in peak season, must be approaching something like 3 : 1 .
It's also a place filled with German heritage oddness, which can range from educational and interesting to just plain strange.
To finish, I'll leave you with the latter; yet another Tripsdrill character - let's call this one Stefanie - who was found towards the end of the Tripsdriller Eheinstitut (translation: "Tripsdrill Institution of Marriage"; itself an odd attraction).
You saucepot, Stefanie.
N.B. We stayed overnight in one of Tripsdrill's Schäferwagen ("Shepherd's Carts"); essentially a classier, all wooden Thorpe Shark Hotel, set in gorgeous woodland surroundings. Theoretically you can fit 5 in these 13 sq.m.carts, although it would be a squeeze even with 4: two bunk beds hang over a central double bed, with a couch doubling up as a potential fifth bed. Toilets and showers are situated in a (well maintained) central block, but for those with a bit more cash to spare, full blown 6-person 35 sq.m. treehouses (with integrated bathrooms) are also up for grabs.
It was more than comfortable, and didn't just provide €7 pizzas delivered to our door and a great night's sleep, but a hearty free breakfast the next morning. At €100 (£80) a night all-in, including free entry to the Tripsdrill Wildparadies Nature Park next door and discounted Tripsdrill Theme Park entry, it comes recommended to those looking for an overnight option.
Thanks for reading; comments welcome as always.
Next up: Holiday Park!
Roman Roaming: Highlights from Italy, Part 2
Ciao! You've found Part 2 of my Roman Roaming Trip Report - if you've not yet seen Part 1, it's worth checking that out first. Part 2 continues with the tour around the land of pizza, pasta and Mario Balotelli, and includes the following Parks:
Ai Pioppi, Treviso
Bellissimo. Let's dive straight in!
Mirabilandia is Italy's #2 Theme Park, yet can hardly be called "conveniently located"; its closest major city is Ravenna (nope, me neither), and the closest airports are Bologna (90 mins drive), Florence (150 mins drive), and Venice (150 mins drive). You can see the Park skyline for miles in advance of actually getting there, due to the vast area of flat fields and low vegetation that surround it. And yet that doesn't prevent Mirabilandia from being rammed most days of the weekend / holidays, largely by Italians.
For this reason, Mirabilandia was the only Park in which I chose to invest in a Flass Pass, which afforded unlimited riding on all rides all day. It operated via a wristband system, and dedicated ride entrances - flash the wristband, and you're let straight on. Very similar to Thorpe's Ultimate Fastrack (£80), but with less need to re-mortgage your house, at just €39 (approx. £28).
Few of the locals had opted for the Flash Pass, so it turned out to be a highly worthwhile purchase - namely for the numerous laps I managed on Katun, unarguably one of the best B&M inverts in the world.
No doubt many of you on here will have ridden Katun, but for those that haven't, there is a very good reason that it has placed in and around the top 10 in Mitch Hawker's annual Best Steel Coaster Poll for the last 10 years. Only Alton's own Nemesis can boast a similar record as an Invert.
And why? Katun's sense of speed is hard to beat. The steep first drop is a genuinely thrilling, high-octane rush of a start (which consistently gave me an shot of adrenaline that few rides do), and from there the ride never lets up, with a layout including a very floaty zero-G, and a very speedily-taken cobra roll. The final helix, again taken at some speed, with riders' feet nearly brushing the dense vegetation that has grown up around it, is another highlight, and an excellent end to the ride.
It's very hard to make the call as to which is the better inverted coaster vs. Nemesis, but Katun wins points for a simply stunning first drop, and for the sheer relentless-ness of the ride. Nemesis benefits from its greater number of near-misses, given its location in the pit, arguably a better theme, and an excellent final corkscrew inversion that - as an ending - just edges out Katun's. It's interesting to note that both Nemesis and Katun are "old school" B&Ms, having been built in 1994 and 2000 respectively, and there's a pretty solid argument that the Swiss manufacturer have edged away from these more intense inverted layouts in recent years (although Asterix's excellent OzIris can perhaps make a counter argument here).
At the end of the day, one ride Katun alone is worth the flight out to Mirabilandia. Book it now.
Mirabilandia also offers an attractive set of supporting rides, including the visually impressive Intamin Water Coaster, DiVertical. Opened in 2012 (and initially mired with technical problems), DiVertical remains the tallest Water Coaster in the world, with its 197ft elevator lift structure towering over the skyline.
Boats meander along a concrete trough towards the bottom of the lift, where they are loaded individually onto a platform - connected to one side of the dual-pronged structure - that raises the boat up to the top. The bulbous middle of the elevator lift is to allow for another platform with an empty boat - connected to the other side - to descend alongside the ascending platform containing riders. It's a very speedy process, and hats must be tipped to Intamin for making it so efficient.
The drop itself is a fun one - not overly steep, but longer to compensate, and the minimal lap-bar restraints ensure riders feel vulnerable during the descent.
The initial splashdown is mild, with the track barely skimming the water - the proper dose of H2O is to come. The boat careers over a well-profiled airtime hill, a couple of turns, and downward helix, before making a proper splash back down into the trough. As you can see, riders should not expect to come away dry from the experience - but in the scorching Italian summer, I didn't see one person who cared.
I was expecting to enjoy DiVertical, but I really enjoyed DiVertical - Intamin may well have a ride that betters Mack's well-received Water Coaster. Intamin's track is smoother (), and there is real tension built by the lift structure. Colour me surprised, but I wouldn't mind seeing more of these pop up in the warmer Parks of the world.
Continuing the Intamin theme, Mirabilandia also hosts one of the better layouts of the Intamin Accelerator in iSpeed. Opened in 2009, iSpeed accelerates from 0 - 60mph in 2.2 seconds (not dissimilar to Rita), up a 180ft top hat (not dissimilar to Stealth). What follows thereafter though is dissimilar to both UK Accelerators - a further 2,500ft of twisty, airtime-filled track, including a corkscrew and inline twist.
The layout is great fun, fairly intense, and taken at some speed - indeed, the ride actually hits its top speed (74mph) well after the LSM launch. What prevented it becoming a brilliant ride for me was alas the restraints - the same as those featured on Stealth and Rita.
As you will know, these restraints have a thin over the shoulder design, with weighty bars that sit over riders' thighs. And actually this design is pretty bearable (but wouldn't go as far to say comfy) on the UK Accelerators. But on iSpeed, where there are numerous quick direction changes, and multiple pops of ejector airtime, the restraints just became painful, making re-riding a not-too-attractive prospect.
I managed 5 goes (with the Flash Pass), and found towards the end that the best way to ride was to use my hands to push up against the shoulder bracing on the OSTRs, to stabilise me and alleviate the pressure from the lap bar on my thighs. In this position, the air time didn't crush my legs against the solid, straight bar as much, and the direction changes didn't slice my neck with the shoulder bracing as much. But I shouldn't have to do this to enjoy the ride - rides should be comfortable and afford the rider as much freedom as possible.
In sum: great layout, hampered by poor trains, 7/10. If Mack could build iSpeed but with their Mega Coaster trains, that would be amazing, thankyouverymuch.
Mirabilandia is also host to Niagara, a very wet 100ft Shoot the Chutes flume, Reset, an excellent post-apocalyptic New York-themed laser shooter Dark Ride, and Eurowheel, Europe's largest ferris wheel, which stands tallest in the Park's skyline at 300ft.
It's also well known for its expensive-looking stunt show, which gets refreshed yearly. After many seasons running with a "Police Academy" theme, this year Mirabilandia debuted a new Grosso Guaio a Stunt City Show ("Big Trouble in Stunt City"), in collaboration with Hot Wheels - which meant the Park could generate extra cash through placing Hot Wheels kits for sale in every retail outlet on Park.
The arena set looked great, and after a pretty slow start (15 mins of talking, "comedy", more talking, and some audience participation), the eventual stunts were pretty impressive. It was the usual fare: car chases, motorbike jumps, dumper trucks doing wheelies; but the stand out moment came in the finale, where "Europe's first" real-life loop-the-loop stunt was unveiled. The green Hot Wheels-branded car attacks it with some speed and the chassis actually connects with a trough in the loop to keep it on course through the manoeuvre, but it's nonetheless an impressive visual spectacle, especially in combination with the trigger-happy pyrotechnics used throughout the show!
Great fun, and a nice way to end the day at one of the more impressive Italian Parks.
From the sublime to the ridiculous... this next Park couldn't be more different to Miribilandia if it tried.
Presenting Ai Pioppi. Ai Pioppi ("the poplars") is an "osteria" - literally translated as a "bar" or "tavern". It's actually more of a restaurant, and is nestled in the woodland 30 minutes drive north of Treviso (an hour north of Venice).
All very good, but why did a family-run restaurant feature in my roam around Italy?
Because, of course, this particular restaurant has roller coasters...
The restaurant itself is pretty rustic - the menu most comprising steak, fish, and polenta slices all being cooked on large hot plates together. Chips were also available. The outdoor seating area has been built to cater for crowds, with large numbers of benches and tables scattered around the expansive undercover area next to the kitchen.
Pricing was highly reasonable, and the food was tasty enough. There was even a nicer indoor section for the more formal meal out.
But you didn't come here for a food review...
Ai Pioppi is a restaurant with a difference, as the back of it features an entirely hand-built playground filled with rides ranging from swings, slides, seesaws, gyroscopes, flat rides and even roller coasters!
Some history: on June 15th 1969, a man named Bruno bought himself a few jugs of wine, some sausages and a few other items, and set up a tiny food stand underneath a tree in northern Italy to see if anyone would show up. By the end of the day - to his surprise - he had sold almost everything and the family restaurant, Ai Pioppi, was born.
The next month he had an encounter with a blacksmith who didn’t have time to make a few hooks for some chains. Bruno decided instead he would learn to weld to make the hooks, and enjoyed it so much he began to dream up small rides he could build to entice new customers to Ai Pioppi.
40 years later, and Bruno is still building rides by hand. And admission for these rides remains free for all patrons of his restaurant.
This is the workshop from which Bruno dreams up, and subsequently builds, new rides.
And this is the man himself - in his element as architect and manufacturer of his restaurant's attractions... and seemingly laughing in the face of retirement!
So what's on offer? There's too much to show, so here I'll offer some highlights, starting with this "ferris wheel with a difference".
Like many of the rides at Ai Pioppi, this attraction uses people-power to operate. Riders (max of 2) climb up the ladder to get to the central platform, where there are walkways to each opposite end. The way to make the wheel turn is for the riders to distribute their weight by walking (either forwards or backwards - different direction by each) in the smaller wheels situated at each end. With each rider moving around their respective mini-wheels, the central wheel turns, and it's entirely possible to complete a full 360 turn (and for riders to remain fairly upright) if both participants get the hang of it.
Fascinating to watch, and fairly daunting to ride - there are no restraints to speak of, only a handlebar to hold, so it's quite easy to see this going wrong with a mis-step or two...
Onto another hand-built kinetic wonder. In this ride, guests sit in cages and pedal what most closely resembles a bicycle, in order to drive their carriage around the large loop. There are heavy counterweights at the other ends of the pendulums, which enables a decent momentum to be built up - hard work to start with, but it's not too difficult to get into a rhythm and build up enough power to get close to inverting.
The best I managed was to get my cage to the 1-o-clock position on the "clock"; not quite enough to get to "12-o-clock" and beyond to make the full inversion. There were three reasons for this:
1) Momentum runs out very quickly when your cage (the heavier part) reaches any height, meaning a huge effort is required on the pedals to continue to push it over the top;
2) The "restraints" consisted of two curved shoulder bars, not unlike the ones featured on Thorpe's Slammer, but with zero padding, so they hurt really quite a lot when your entire body weight starts to rest on them, and;
3) By the time I'd pedalled all the way to "1-o-clock", I was fairly terrified of the entire contraption.
Moving on, to the 4 roller coasters that exist at Ai Pioppi.
Two were unfortunately not operating during my visit; the oldest, Bob, had a large twig over the tracks and the gate to access it was padlocked. Unfortunately, my Italian wasn't good enough to ask Bruno what was wrong. The second, Catapulta, has been "Under Construction" for 5+ years now, although given that it looked like it was attempting a petrifying Stealth-like launch using a counterweight system, this wasn't a huge issue for me...
The Carrello della Gobba ("Cart with a Hump") was open, and is a fairly sizable butterfly / shuttle ride with a c.30 degree incline, a bunny hop after the initial drop, and a steep (nearly vertical) ramp at the other end. Being similarly "people-powered", riders have to push the single-person cart to the top of the incline (on the left) until it locks into place at the top, get into the thing, lower and lock the "restraint", and release the brake on the floor of the cart to start the descent...
Given my previous experience with the flat rides, and the appearance of the cart (below), I was needless to say rather apprehensive about releasing the brake (had Bruno ever heard of ADIPS?!). However, my fears were (mostly) unfounded, as Carrello della Gobba gave a pleasantly smooth ride, marred only by the extreme ejector airtime over the bunny hop, which would have certainly thrown me (to some considerable height) out of the cart, had the painful metal thigh-restraint not prevented me from doing so. Ow.
The ride also takes a fair time to finish, because there is nothing to stop the cart once its been released at the top; it just continues to shuttle forwards, and backwards, and forwards, until friction alone brings it to a slow enough speed to get out of it unharmed.
Most riders came off with grins on their faces, and bruises on their thighs!
But the emotions stirred by Carrello della Gobba were nothing in comparison to Ai Pioppi's headline attraction, the Pendolo ("Pendulum").
Pendolo, like Carrello, is a butterfly / shuttle ride, but on a much grander scale, and without the bunny hop. Built 15 years after the original Bob coaster, Pendolo towers well above every other construction in the woodland, including the trees.
When we approached the ride, it was considered a write-off; the cart was covered up, and the railings sported signs saying "Closed" and "Under Maintenance". Given the sheer size of the thing, and the disconcerting yellow sign that advertised "maximum speeds of 100 km/hour", I would be lying if I said that a tiny part of me wasn't a tiny part relieved that I wouldn't be riding today...
But as we were eating our steak and polenta for lunch, Bruno had other ideas... and set to work fixing up the Pendolo to get it into operation!
When the first test car ascended the incline - shunning people-power this time, being driven by a pulley system with motor - we all held our breath as to whether the car would complete the run successfully, given the rampant foliage growing up through the track...
...but complete successfully it did, making a huge clattering racket as it thundered through the bottom of the half-pipe and up the towering steep ramp the other side. Much like Carrello, there was no braking mechanism, so the ride took around 3 minutes of coasting up and down each side of the track to slow down enough to (manually) pull the car to a halt for the oncoming riders.
And then it was my turn. Getting into the 3-across car, featuring seats still covered in leaves and head rests that had clearly been "borrowed" from a Fiat 500, I had rarely been more nervous for a ride. Not even the Vietnamese coaster with the non-locking OTSRs last year had me as worried as this one did, and I'm unashamed to say that at the point the car was released at the top of the slow incline, I shrieked like a little girl.
Whether we hit 100 km/hour or not, I will never know, but it could well have been; thankfully the near-vertical ramp that greeted us at the other side was quick to take the speed out of the car, and back down we went. The adrenaline rush was massive; 80% due to pure fear, 20% due to the thrill of the (impressively smooth) ride.
I have no doubt that the first time I rode Colossus, way back when, I experienced a similar level of nerves and excitement (10 loops! OMG!). But having grown older and more travelled, it's become harder and harder to re-create that pure adrenaline rush. Ferarri World's Formula Rossa did it for me last year, but then it had to launch me to 149mph across the Arabian desert to do so.
All the more kudos then, to Bruno, for giving me such intense "fear and thrills" feelings all over again on his Pendolo . Bravo!
In sum, Ai Pioppi is an absolutely bonkers place; as likely to make you soil your underwear in fear as it is to make you drop your jaw in wonder. It's probably a place that I'll never frequent again. But boy, am I glad to have been. Bruno - thank you for the memories, and don't ever stop inventing.
For more, there's a mini-documentary about Ai Pioppi available on Vimeo that's well worth 11 minutes of your time, here.
And finally, a little note on Etnaland. Etnaland is not an easy place to get to; situated on the isle of Sicily, around 30 minutes drive from the town of Catania on the east coast. Even a weekend trip over is not the easiest; only Ryanair fly direct from the UK (Stansted), only once a day during peak season, and even then it's a 3 hour+ drive to the Park from Sicily's Palermo airport...
This is a shame, because Etnaland is a gem of a Park. It features both a Water Park and a Theme Park, and in the summer season opens the former 9am - 6pm, and the latter 7:30pm - 1am. The only overlapping attractions to the Parks are the Jungle Splash (Shoot the Chutes with a vertical lift, below), and the Crocodile Rapids (Hafema Rapids) rides - and in the daytime, both rides add huge volumes of water to the experience (e.g. Crocodile Rapids has a massive waterfall directly over the rapids trough; in the evening, this is switched off... in the daytime, it is not...).
Ride either of these "Theme Park" rides in the daytime without wearing "Water Park" attire (e.g. swimming costume) at your peril...!
As for the Theme Park, it boasts a (surprisingly) excellent S&S Mine Train, Eldorado, which offers a wonderfully drawn-out first drop, detailed mountain rock work, and impressive forces on the downward helices. More mine trains from S&S, please! Other supporting rides include the novel The School dark ride, featuring desks and multi-choice questions rather than the usual laser guns, Quasar, a Zamperla Disk'O coaster, and the imaginatively-titled Etnaland Tower, a standard 200ft S&S Double Shot (elevated above others by offering excellent views of a certain Mount Etna...).
The real reason to make the effort to get to Etnaland, however, is The Storm, one of the first Mack MegaCoasters built after the debut of Blue Fire in Europa Park in 2009. I love the comfort of the Mack MegaCoaster trains, and was intrigued as to how this one would ride, especially compared to my experiences on Helix (review), and Alpina Blitz (review).
Happily, I can report that The Storm is an excellent ride; smooth, with a few pop of airtime, and an absolute killer Mack-trademark inline twist at the end of the course (akin to Blue Fire), but with the added bonus of a loud thunder crack being played by a nearby speaker when the train travels through it. It's infinitely re-ridable and has a great "rock and roll" theme, with heavy metal being blasted out through the queue line every time a train ascends the lift hill! Catch a POV of it here.
So how does it compare? It's certainly a brilliant ride... but lacks the insane airtime of Alpina Blitz, the length and terrain of Helix, and the theming and near misses of Blue Fire... so unfortunately doesn't compare quite as well to these similar Mack rides. It also could have done with being a little more forceful. But given the overall quality of the Mack product, there is absolutely nothing for Etnaland to be ashamed of - The Storm easily outstrips a large majority of the other coasters I've ridden. Top notch work from Mack, again.
And at 1am, with its LED lighting package shining bold in the moonlight, it looks bloody good too.
In short, I'd thoroughly recommend checking Italy out - both as a "normal" tourist and a "coaster" tourist; the country is packed with variety, and this trip report has barely scratched the surface of what's on offer.
And worth re-iterating again: whilst many of the Parks showcased here are relatively easy to get to for your average coaster enthusiast, touring the whole country and hitting everything is rather more tricky - which is why unlike my previous Trip Reports, for Italy I was with a large group from the European Coaster Club. If you've not heard of the ECC, membership is £25.50 a year, and that buys you 6 issues of the excellent First Drop magazine, a bunch of discounts for Parks across Europe, and of course access to trips such as the one I've described here
Thanks for reading!
Roman Roaming: Highlights from Italy, Part 1
Ciao! You may well consider that writing up a two-week, 3,500km road trip around the coasters of Italy, covering 16 parks, 6 fairs and thousands of photos, would be quite the drawn out process - and you'd be right. So please forgive me for opting to showcase the highlights here instead; the stand-out, the fun, and the unusual.
Italy is a fantastic place to be a tourist - from the 2,000 year old ruins of Pompeii, to the narrow backwaters of pretty Venice, to the imposing Dolomites and other mountainous regions across the country - there's no shortage of things to see and do. Add to the list the ancient sites in Rome, Pisa's Leaning Tower, and the stunning islands in the South to enjoy, and I can think of few other European countries with so much variety to offer a traveller. It's also a country that's rapidly growing its coaster count, with an array of high-budget new Theme Parks opening their doors in the very recent past (Miragica; 2009, Etnaland; 2010, Rainbow Magicland; 2011, and Cinecittà World; 2014, to name a few).
I've chosen a select few of the Parks I visited over the Italy tour to highlight here:
Cinecittà World, Rome
Gardaland, Lake Garda
Cavallino Matto, Livorno
Ai Pioppi, Treviso
Bellissimo. So, in no particular order, on with the Trip Reports!
Cinecittà World, the newest Park in Italy having opened only in July last year, is situated a 45 minute drive south of Rome. There is a once-daily shuttle bus that runs from Rome to the Park (departing 09:30, returning 18:15) for the sum of £10, but alas no clear other public transport options - so if you've not got a vehicle, it's the shuttle bus or bust! This is a shame, given that the Park opens until 23:00 in the Summer as standard...
The €250m Park is something of a Universal Studios of Italy - Cinecittà is the largest film studio in Europe, and counts Martin Scorsese among its regulars. For the studio, which has fallen from over 350 productions a year in their heyday, to just 50 in the last six years, Cinecittà World represents an entry into an adjacent market to grow again and bring freshness to the brand.
And it's an absolutely gorgeous Park. Brand spanking new, and gobsmackingly pretty. Below is the entrance, where naturally there is a red carpet for guests to walk down. Every day, the Park stages a 15 minute "welcome" show upon opening, where a large cast of singers and dancers perform whilst slowly retreating backwards down "Cinecittà Street" (1920s New York), which connects the entrance to the main Park plaza. Visitors walk down Cinecittà Street with the cast, and upon reaching the central plaza, the show finishes with a flourish and the rides all officially open. Nice touch!
Wisened readers will probably have already guessed why I've included Cinecittà in this report - it is of course home to a near-clone of our very own beloved(?) 10-looper Colossus. Inexplicably named Altair CCW-0204 (no, I didn't really get the theme...), the ride is identical to Thorpe's own but for a few differences: a re-profiled first drop, a faster cable lift hill, and lapbar trains.
And in the clear blue skies of the hot Italian summer, it looked great
The cobra roll and final inline twist that we are all so used to seeing in Staines. Note that Intamin have gone for their newer "box" supports, rather than the cylindrical columns of Colossus.
And these are the lapbar trains, affording the rider a huge deal more upper-body freedom, if not that much more lower-body freedom (there was still not exactly an abundance of space for legs and feet to be positioned...).
So how did the train compare? The short answer is that the new trains are a vast, vast improvement on Colossus' own, and Thorpe should invest in a new set immediately. They improve the ride experience dramatically, especially during the final 5 inlines, where the train almost throws riders out of their seats with only a single bar holding them in - superb.
The more nuanced answer is that the ride still isn't perfect. Whilst the new trains are a vast improvement, they are still rattly - Altair does not provide the glass-smooth experience that you might expect from e.g. a Mack Mega Coaster. And true to form, the seats towards the back were rougher than those at the front (the same, constantly vibrating roughness that Colossus exhibits - just less so).
Intamin's version of the lap bar also proves sub-optimal; the lap bar on these trains are exactly that: just a solid, straight bar. They don't mould around your thighs (Mack), or pin your hips (S&S), or hug your stomach (Maurer). They are just a solid, straight bar - and as such were a little uncomfortable, especially through the inlines: your thighs just slam into them (and full body weight rest on them) on every inversion.
It's by no means a deal breaker, and Altair remains a substantially improved experience over Colossus, but there's still work to do for Intamin to perfect the 10-looper model. That said, it's hard not to like the ride, with its futuristic theming, faster lift hill, and steeper, more thrilling first drop. I still enjoy Colossus, and Altair betters it.
A quick shoutout to the other headline rides at Cinecittà - Darkmare is a rightly well-received Intamin Family Drop Coaster, that has a much better "coaster" section than Thirteen at Alton, and a much worse "drop" sequence than Thirteen at Alton. Housed entirely inside (the building is ginormous), the first 2/3rds of the ride features some thrilling (and super smooth) transitions through drops and swoops around Darkmare's impressive "Hell" themeing.
The final 1/3 of the ride - the drop sequence - has none of the drama of Alton's effort: the train approaches a giant screen showing a winged Roman "Satan" figure surrounded by flames and oozing blood. With no warning, the train performs the 5m drop (unlike Thirteen: no bouncing, no bangs), and winds back to the station.
Nonetheless, a good attraction - and infinitely re-rideable.
More impressive themeing is showcased on Mack's longest Supersplash ride: Aktium. Inspired by Ben Hur, the ride has two drops and a splash zone for watchers, which proved popular in the midday heat.
And with Cinecittà clearly having done a 3-attraction deal with Intamin, the final headline ride is the most impressively themed (bar Disney's Tower of Terror) Drop Tower that I've seen. The actual elephant itself ("Erawan") is a third of the height of the 180ft tower, which features Sit Down, Tilt Sit Down, and Tilt Stand Up Floorless sides. I tried them all, and as with Apocalpyse at Drayton Manor, the Tilt Stand Up ride was by far the most thrilling.
Guests enter the ride under the trunk...
...and exit through the feet. Unbelievably detailed theming work on show here, backed up by a trademark punchy Intamin drop. I loved it!
Cinecittà World deserves success - the place looks shiny and spotless, and there is immersive themeing everywhere you look. The Park also offers a kiddie area, 4 backlot sets for guests to wander around, and a blockbuster show, Enigma, which is staged twice a day.
However, on the day I visited (a hot Saturday in August), the Park can barely have been breaking even: visitor numbers were low to the point where some Altair trains were not being fully filled before being dispatched. I saw no advertising for Cinecittà in and around Rome (in stark contrast to the ubiquitous adverts for Rainbow Magicland - a Park further away!). Some of the Park's supporting attractions aren't great (the 4D Immersive Tunnel is really tedious). And Cinecittà still needs investment to bolster its ride count: there's just not enough there yet to warrant a full day out, especially when crowds are as low as they were.
Cinecittà is only a baby - it's just turned one year old - so these complaints are perhaps excusable. Fingers crossed the Park grows and continues to invest in high quality, highly themed experiences.
Oh - and it's cheap too; adult tickets start from €23 / £16.75 (compare to Thorpe's £59.99...). Don't miss it if you're visiting Rome!
No doubt you are familiar with Gardaland - one of the larger Parks in Merlin's Resorts portfolio, and set against the stunning backdrop of Italy's Lake Garda.
As it's well covered elsewhere, I will spare you a full Trip Report of the place, but needless to say I was impressed. The Park has an extensive ride lineup, all of which are well themed, and the Park itself is pretty vast - it can easily lay claim to being a "Resort" as you'd want at least 2 days to properly do it all in the Summer. Pleasingly, the Park also had a daily opening ceremony featuring Park mascots and confetti cannons, and their suite of bespoke Park-wide music was playing everywhere, which was available to buy on CD for €8 - bargain!
The Park has somewhat "grown up" a bit in the last 4 years, with the arrival of two new B&Ms - the second of which debuted this year. Oblivion: The Black Hole wins no awards for creativity (I mean, come on Merlin...), but does deserve recognition for ride experience.
I'm an unashamed fan of Krake over at sister Heide Park, so was intrigued as to how Garda's Oblivion would compare. Thankfully it too is a great ride, with bags of floaty airtime (especially in the back row), a great drop, and an interesting (if short) layout in the second half. The airtime hill after the Immelman is some of the best track that B&M have produced in recent years; forceful ejector airtime, great stuff.
And the ride experience is complemented by the almost universally excellent theming. Case in point is the "black hole" that the train dives into, which appears to suck all manner of objects into it, including a TV outside broadcast van. The queueline is also an interesting one, snaking indoors around high-res floor-to-ceiling screens filled with bespoke-filmed Oblivion content, and other theming set pieces (see the white tent above). The station is filled with an array of mock-security cameras all pointing at the trains (a cynical person would say Merlin over-bought on cameras for the Smiler... ).
Gardaland's Dive Machine also benefits from a fantastic location, right on the edge of Lake Garda itself. Ascending the lift hill with that view over to your right adds an element that Alton and Heide can't begin to compete with.
So which is the preferred Merlin Diver? It's genuinely hard to say, so I'm going to do a lot of fence sitting. Alton's Oblivion is the groundbreaking original, and with the best theme. The trains are bigger, heavier, and the track actually dives into a hole, with very little curvature / bottoming out noticeable as a spectator - hugely worrying for the first time rider! Both the Heide and Garda Dive Machines appear less intimidating, in part due to the fact that they are smaller, and you can see the track bottoming out at the bottom of the dive. But I absolutely love Krake's dive into the creature's mouth and subsequent splashdown for visual impact, and Garda's Oblivion has the better, longer layout of all three rides.
Let's just say that they're all enjoyable, hugely re-ridable coasters, and leave it at that. Not going to trouble my Top 10, but I'd ride any of them any day
Onto the second of the Park's B&Ms: Raptor, opened in 2011, was the original B&M prototype Wing Rider coaster, beating Thorpe's The Swarm by a year. It's another great-looking ride, and I especially enjoyed the "guns" pointing at the train in the station - very atmospheric. The trains look great, and if you think they look remarkably similar to Swarm's, you'd be right: Merlin took a near-replica of the Raptor train design and heavily borrowed from it for Swarm's alien race train shells (saving both $$ and time).
The ride is really quite different to Swarm's. The Swarm is dominated by that Dive Loop first drop, inversions and helices. Raptor feels far less twisty in comparison - the first drop is a traditional straight one, and there's far more linear track generally, meaning the ride is far more about swooping around the near-miss scenery and generating pops of airtime than Swarm's is. Raptor is also helped by the lush landscaping present at Gardaland - it's built on a hill - so the ride feels faster and more exciting due to the close proximity of the foliage and trees.
I've yet to ride a Wing Rider that's particularly forceful or intense, but Raptor for me shows off the hardware at its best. Don't get me wrong, being at my local Park, I love the Swarm - particularly the themeing effort and ride storyline. But as a roller coaster, Raptor gives the superior ride. There's more airtime, more near-misses, and it's really bedded in well in its location at Gardaland. For me, there's no fence sitting here:
Raptor > The Swarm > Flug der Dämonen (poor pacing, and those vibrations...). Sorry Heide .
Gardaland easily rivals Alton as Merlin's best Theme Park property, but it's a shame its ride lineup is so inconsistent. As good as Raptor and Oblivion are, they can't excuse the existence of the extended SLC Blue Tornado (one of the most painful SLCs I've ridden; Vekoma should hang their head in shame), or the prototype Screaming Squirrel, Sequoia Adventure (ride it once and no more: why, S&S, why?!). And when the world's longest Wacky Worm, Ortobruco Tour (well over 2 minutes of ride time!), emerges as one of the better coasters in the Park, you know there's some room for improvement...
Nonetheless, Gardaland overall's a great Park, and deservedly #8 in Europe. Visit for Oblivion and Raptor, and their superbly themed Intamin Water Coaster, Fuga da Atlantide. If the ride lineup continues to expand along the same trajectory of the last few years, Gardaland has a bright future ahead.
I'll finish off Part 1 with a short note on Cavallino Matto. Cavallino is a regional Park in Tuscany, and a very pretty one at that. The name "Cavallino Matto" literally means "The Crazy Little Horse" in Italian, which goes some way to explaining the Park's strange mascot.
With a small selection of flat rides, travelling coasters and a dodgy 4D cinema, it has been relatively unheard of on these shores - until this year, when the Park stepped up and installed their first large-scale 'coaster, Freestyle.
Freestyle is a relocated Togo Stand Up coaster from Canada's Wonderland, where it operated for nearly 30 years as SkyRider. Now moved across the Atlantic and given a striking paint job, the ride finds itself with a new lease of life as the star attraction in this smaller Park. And there's no doubt that it looks fantastic.
It also means that a certain Park in Tamworth can no longer claim to have "Europe's only Stand Up roller coaster". Sorry, Drayton
Unfortunately it rides terribly, like most Stand Ups, and all Togo rides (Togo are now not in business, having been bankrupted by a Knott's Berry Farm lawsuit in 2001 over manufacturing defects in their new Windjammer Surf Racers coaster). The ride is fine if the train is going straight, with no horizontal or vertical directional changes... but alas this is the exception rather than the norm, and rib-bruising, head-banging, and manhood-punishing all takes place along the course of the track.
Against intuition, the worst parts of the ride are actually the small bunny hops towards the end of the layout; although small, these are taken so quickly that there's a pronounced whiplash effect on those riding. Check out the facial expressions of the riders below and see for yourself...
Screams of pain, or delight?
That said, you can't deny it looks good, and it's certain to do wonders for this fledgling regional Park. I'd ride it any day over Gardaland's Blue Tornado. And one would imagine that after 30 years of operation, Canada's Wonderland sold it off fairly cheaply, so I'd say it was a sound investment for Cavallino.
It also gave rise to one of my favourite photos from the trip - Freestyle poking out from above the mass of Tuscany Pine trees that fill the Park's landscape, with the deep blue Mediterranean in the distance. Lovely
That ends Part 1 of my Roman Roaming Trip Report - well done for making it this far! If you're keen for more, Part 2 will showcase the thrills of Miribilandia, the terror of Ai Pioppi, and the charm of Etnaland - Sicily's first major Theme Park.
A final point: whilst many of the Parks showcased here are relatively easy to get to for your average coaster enthusiast, touring the whole country and hitting everything in 2 weeks is rather more tricky - which is why unlike my previous Trip Reports, for Italy I was with a large group from the European Coaster Club. If you've not heard of the ECC, membership is £25.50 a year, and that buys you 6 issues of the excellent First Drop magazine, a bunch of discounts for Parks across Europe, and of course access to trips such as the one I've described here
Thanks for reading!
It's winter: the nights are drawing in, the days are getting shorter, and it's altogether a bit chilly. So what better excuse than to have a quick break away to the UAE; land of sand, sun, Sheiks... and coasters! Thanks to a bargain return BA flight booked relatively last minute, I enjoyed 4 pleasantly warm (28°C) days at the end of November in the Emirates, seeing the sights, enjoying the food, and riding the rides. Read on for the highlights, and lowlights, of my Arabian Adventure.
This trip report covers all of the Parks I visited:
Sparky's FEC, Dubai
Sega Republic, Dubai
Yas Waterworld, Abu Dhabi
Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi
I was based in Dubai for my visit, and all of the Dubai Parks were within easy reach of the Metro. Like most of the buildings & infrastructure in Dubai, the Metro is very new, with the first line having been opened only in 2009, and a second one following in 2011. The city's tram is so new, it was only 2 weeks old when I visited! Dubai is also very easy to get around via the relatively cheap taxis, which are ubiquitous.
Yas Island, which houses both Yas Waterworld and Ferrari World, is located in Abu Dhabi, and the only means of getting there is via car. Given that the UAE has a less than impressive road safety record (supposedly you are 7x more likely to have a road accident vs. in the UK), for these Parks I opted to avoid driving myself and got a taxi, which took just under an hour each way.
So, on with the report. Hold on tight - it's a long one. And the first (mini) Park I visited was Sparky's:
Sparky's Family Entertainment Centre, Dubai
Sparky's FEC is a very new addition to the Dubai amusement scene, having only officially opened in March 2014. Owned by Saudi Arabia's Al Hokair Group (who run 55 indoor recreation centres in Saudi and the UAE), the complex is based on the top floor of the Al Ghurair Centre - one of the more modest Malls in Dubai, but still comparatively large compared to anything in the UK. The site houses an ice rink, 5D cinema, dark ride, go karts, soft play area, many arcade games... and a coaster!
Entrance is free, and rides and arcade games are on a pay-as-you-go basis. The minimum top-up on the Sparky's card was 50 AED (£8.77), which got me 2 rides on the coaster and 1 go on the 5D cinema (which incidentally was very well done, if quite jumpy... damn zombies).
The coaster was simply called Roller Coaster, and stood seemingly deserted when I walked up to the entrance gates: I had to ask an attendee tending to another ride to come over and open it up for me! Truth be told, the FEC wasn't busy, so I suspect it makes sound business sense to employ fewer "roaming" ride operators than have more of them all fixed on certain rides for the day.
Roller Coaster is an I.E. Park Spinning Coaster - indeed, is one of I.E. Park's very first Spinning Coasters. Riders sit back to back on Maurer-style spinning cars, with a simple lap bar to hold them in. Squarely aimed at the family market, the ride features 2 lift hills and weaves its way around the top of the FEC.
And perhaps surprisingly, the ride was good fun from start to finish. I wasn't expecting much to start with, but Roller Coaster had a good amount of spinning, a few airtime-inducing drops (when sat at the back) and was altogether a very comfortable ride. Not half bad for a new model, so I.E. Park should be commended. It looks pretty good too (pictured here above the ice rink)!
Sparky's won't take up any more than an hour or so of your time due to the small choice of attractions and even smaller crowds, but I'd nonetheless recommend paying it a visit if you're in the area. Roller Coaster is a decent attraction, and the supporting rides make for a more entertaining visit to a shopping mall than normal!
Wonderland is situated to the north of Dubai city, only 10 mins drive from the airport. Before venturing off to find it, I questioned whether it would even be worth a visit: it was a little out of the way, looked as if it had only one operational coaster (a Vekoma Roller Skater), and the reviews on Trip Advisor were not even slightly encouraging (11% approval at time of writing). But not wanting to judge the place before I'd seen it myself, I took the Metro to the nearest stop, Dubai Healthcare City, and walked up to the Park entrance.
And this is what I found:
And this is what the car park looked like:
And there was no activity going on at this Beijing Jiuhua Amusement Rides Spinning Coaster:
And this contraption looked like it would kill anyone who tried to ride it:
Undeterred, I walked up to the very-far right booth at the entrance to speak to the attendant, and asked if I could buy a ticket. He was a local Emirati guy in traditional dress, but was a man of few words.
"Park is closed today", he said - even though their website stated it was open from 10am to 12am. When I asked why, he said that there was a "big new attraction coming", and they had to close the whole Park to construct it. "What sort of ride?", I asked, somewhat surprised. "A big one which spirals around a lot", he said, gesturing with his hands. I couldn't see any construction going on.
"When are you opening again?", I asked. He shrugged.
I then asked if I could have a look around the deserted Park to take some photos, but unsurprisingly he declined. The only snap I got was of the view into the Park from the entrance gates (below).
"Water park is open today", he said, pointing over to the left. And then he sat back down again.
But I had a good look at the water park, and it didn't look very open to me. Cutting my losses, I left Wonderland feeling more than a little frustrated.
Sega Republic, Dubai
Sega Republic is a relatively new FEC located on the top floor of the Dubai Mall. The Dubai Mall is the "world's largest shopping mall", with over 1,200 (count them) stores, including all the luxury brands you could want, along with a Debenhams, M&S, and Hamleys. Annually it hosts more visitors than New York City . So there's more than enough demand for an indoor Theme Park and Sega Republic stepped up to the mark, opening in 2009.
Much like Sparky's, Sega Republic operate on both a pay-as-you-go basis, where rides range in price from 15 AED to 30 AED (£2.63 - £5.25), and a pay-once basis, where a "Power Pass" for all rides is available at 175 AED (£30.65). Payment is handled via a Sega-bespoke smart card system, where ride entrances have only Sega-card readers and don't accept cash: Sega-cards must be topped up at designated payment booths prior to riding.
It's a pretty big FEC at 76,000 sq ft, and sprawls across 2 floors. As standard, the Park opens from 10am to 1am (11pm at off-peak times), so there's lots of opportunity to visit. And the Park's headline attraction is the rather good Gerstlauer custom spinner, Spin Gear.
As with the rest of the Park, Spin Gear is themed around Sonic and friends, and features an enclosed dark section in the second half of the ride that is not visible from the outside. It's a good length, smooth family spinner - the local riders opposite us in our car certainly seemed to enjoy themselves.
The standard of presentation is really rather good, with Doctor Eggman goading Sonic / presenting safety information in the queueline videos.
And the cars are very comfortable too, with a snug lap bar restraint to hold you in. So in all, Spin Gear can be recommended: it's a solid attraction that's much larger than first appears, and produces some good lateral forces. Well worth giving a go.
A side note on Sega Republic: prior to boarding any ride, riders are forced to stand and read a laminated sheet of paper with detailed instructions / safety information / rider restrictions printed on it. Ride attendants present this laminate to every rider about to board, which was fine given the relatively low crowds, but would be a throughput nightmare if there was any sort of queue.
I've never seen a Park do this before - highly conservative, and probably highly unnecessary.
Sega Republic had a good selection of flats to support the main 'coaster, include Xyclone, a gyro-swing-esq ride, which goes a full 360° and inverts riders over the top. Good fun, although a little painful being slammed back onto your restraint every time the carriage comes down having gone over the top.
My favourite flat was the innovative Halfpipe Canyon, which rode a little like a standing-up-pirate-ship. Huge amounts of fun, the ride puts 4 riders in 2 teams of 2, who compete against each other on their respective green or orange skateboard. Once the ride begins, the skateboards start to swing much like a pirate ship. Once the boards have reached their highest swings, they also rotate 360° for added disorientation. Teams gain points for stamping left-right-left-right on the plates underneath them at the points where the skateboards reach the top of the halfpipes - the most points wins.
Halfpipe Canyon: huge re-rideability - some people were running around for second / third / tenth goes - and very entertaining. If you ever see one of these, hand over your money!
Yas Waterworld, Abu Dhabi
And now onto the Parks in Abu Dhabi, both based on Yas Island. Yas Island is - much like the Palm in Dubai - an artificial block of land, located just off the coast of Abu Dhabi. It's still half completed, but the stats are staggering: the idea for the island was conceived only in 2006, but was built and opened for business just a few years later. The F1 circuit is the main draw, but the island has just opened a large Mall, and is home to both Yas Waterworld, and more famously Ferarri World. Total investment in the project is estimated at US$40 billion - that's 9 zeros - $40,000,000,000 . We opted for Yas Waterworld first.
Yas Waterworld opened only last year in January 2013, and has already been named the second best waterpark in the world, behind Disney's Typhoon Lagoon. Pretty impressive, and it's easy to see why - for me the Park is right up there with any of its American counterparts in terms of number, quality and variety of flumes & rides, and the standard of presentation across the whole Park is top notch.
For example, I don't think I've ever seen such a glorious mess of flumes as this (below) in any water park I've been to! These snake flumes were all provided by WhiteWater - the company behind our own revered Storm Surge. I think they've innovated a little since the advent of their Spinning Rapids Ride: these 6 slides include both cool new Rattler sections and a SuperBowl.
WhiteWater actually provided 12 out of the 14 attractions for Yas, and the Park is great advert for their products. One of the star attractions is the Liwa Loop AquaLoop, which I'm happy to confirm is one of the most heart-in-mouth water slides I've ever ridden. That moment when you're standing atop a trap door, knowing there's a freefall drop of several tens of feet below you and then a loop, hearing a calm female voice counting down "3...2...1..."? Scary bananas. WhiteWater also supplied a Freefall Speed Slide and a 6-lane Whizzard racer, which were both a whole lot of fun.
Judging by queue length alone though, it was ProSlide who won the popularity contest at Yas with their ginormous HydroMagnetic Mammoth Water Coaster installations that went by the names of Dawwama and Falcon's Falaj. Both slides use LIMs to propel the 6-person rafts up, as well as using gravity to push them down again into features such as this massive 20m funnel.
And you can't even blame low capacity for that queue - ProSlide claims a throughput of up to 1,080 per hour on their 6-person Water Coasters!
Hugely wet, hugely fast, hugely fun. And the uphill LIMs are a big improvement on e.g. Alton's Master Blaster water-propelled method.
But the real reason for visiting Yas Waterworld was to have a go on their Vekoma Splash Party coaster, Bandit Bomber.
It's a pretty bold decision by the Park to install a water-based steel coaster in a wet environment, especially given that previous attempts by other manufacturers (notably Setpoint) can hardly be deemed a success - Carowinds and Hersheypark can tell you more. The track layout sprawls across the Park affording riders a good view of the slides below, and the real fun comes when the 4-person trains roll through the "splash zone". In this area, riders on Bandit Bomber can choose to press a "trigger" button attached to the seats to dump a load of water on the queueing guests below. Guests below can retaliate thanks to ground-based water guns pointing up at the track.
It's a great idea, although unfortunately marred by the fact that on some of the trains, the hardware wasn't working (meaning no water was dumped, even if the triggers were pressed at the right time by riders), and that many of the riders seemingly had no idea that they had a trigger at their disposal, choosing instead to completely ignore the splash zone interactivity.
Whilst this was a shame, for those riders who did know what they were doing, and had been lucky enough to get a working train, Bandit Bomber was a lot of fun - anyone who's used the pay-per-use water guns located to the sides of Storm Surge or Tidal Wave will know how gratifying spraying a complete stranger with water can be.
And for everyone else, Bandit Bomber was still a solid family ride, with a decent twisty layout that afforded some good negative-G-inducing drops and swoops. Extra points to Vekoma for producing a really smooth ride, too - their latest steelies are so much improved vs. their back catalogue (their 2013 suspended family coaster Orkanen is one of the best family rides out there). Guests were running around back to the ride entrance to try it again; a thumbs up from me.
Yas Waterworld, then, is an excellent Park with only a few flaws (location is a bit in the middle of nowhere, and it's not cheap at 240 AED - £42), so I'd encourage anyone in Abu Dhabi, or even in Dubai, to make the trip over to Yas Island to spend a day there. The themeing and attention to detail is superb, and for my money the range of attractions and quality of the environment makes this a notch above more established local rivals such as Wild Wadi or Aquaventure.
Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi
Last but not least - Ferrari World. This had been by far my most anticipated Park due to its scale ("world's largest indoor Theme Park") and its speed machine ("world's fastest roller coaster"). As we had only a day on Yas Island, we didn't get over to Ferrari World until 4pm, having spent the morning and a fair amount of the afternoon in Yas Waterworld! Doing both Parks in one day does however have the advantage of being able to use the Yas Park Pass - a snip(?) at 365 AED (£63.87) - which bought us entry into both attractions.
The first thing to say is that the huge red structure which houses this Park is really, well, huge. It is so huge, in fact, that it's almost too big for the number of attractions that Ferrari World offers - around 15 if everything is operational. Walking from one side of the place to the other takes a considerable amount of time, but it wouldn't be difficult to polish the Park off in just half a day - as we did!
It's clear however that the Park are aware of this and are still investing. The 200ft drop tower that sits in the middle of the structure is currently under scaffolding (although it was unclear whether this was for renovation or to dismantle it), and the flume ride was boarded up with large "Coming Soon" signs plastered all over it. Local news suggests that the Park plans to install 7 new rides over the next 3 years, with the general manager claiming that some of these will be "iconic". Gringotts coaster, anyone?
But let's get straight to business - and the reason most of you probably came to read this trip report in the first place.
Formula Rossa is a breathtaking, pant-wetting rocket of a ride, and gave me the biggest adrenaline rush I've had from a 'coaster in a good long time; maybe even ever.
Made by Intamin, the coaster somewhat trumps sister hydraulic launch rides Stealth and Rita by boasting a launch of 0 to 149mph in ~4 seconds. That's basically Stealth's launch, and then Stealth's launch again. What follows is a 171ft hill, and then one of the longest layouts in the world (6th longest at the time of writing - Lightwater's Ultimate comes in at 2nd), mostly consisting of high hills and wide turns.
Although Ferrari World is an indoor Park, their star attraction of course launches off into the desert outside. And the Park provides a great viewing platform for potential riders to assess what they're letting themselves in for...
Two things happen in the station to keep the ride safe and operational. One: the train wheels and chassis are sprayed with water via automatic misters to cool it down in between launches. With temperatures in the summer averaging over 38°C, Intamin have had to adapt to the local climate. And two: riders are presented with red glasses, to keep any windy desert sand away from delicate eyes when moving at 149mph. All riders are required to wear these.
This ride is - unsurprisingly - all about the speed. The layout is fun, but with the transitions so wide and the hills relatively tall, not especially forceful. It's just fast. Bloody fast.
I rode Formula Rossa twice; once in the 3rd car (of 4), and once in the front row. In the 3rd car, the speed was palpable, with facial features distinctly wobbling and riders' screams literally taken from mouths.
On the front row, the ride morphs into an even more intense beast. Words cannot describe the sheer thrill of the launch: it really pushes the limits of human endurance on a Theme Park ride. My face turned into a rubbery mess, my arms - which were over-confidently in the air until about halfway down the launch track - were pinned back down into my lap bar, and my eyes streamed from the speed (even though I had the glasses on). In many ways, I am thankful for the trims on the hill after the launch - if the train continued to career around the track at the launch speed, it would have been a very uncomfortable experience indeed.
For me, the rush was comparable only to the huge adrenaline shot I experienced when skydiving over Salisbury Plain a few years ago - with a vertical terminal velocity of about 120mph. I have never experienced a Theme Park ride like it.
The riders' expressions say it all.
The Park's supporting attractions are the Fiorano GT Challenge racing coasters, from Maurer Söhne. Located on the other side of the Park, these dualing car-themed coasters use LSM technology to launch riders at a more family-friendly 59mph.
The trains are themed to Ferrari F430 Spiders, and feature comfy lapbars common to their spinner rides (a la Sonic Spinball). With a launch straight after the station, 3 further launches around the 1km track, and a handful of stop-start magnetic brake sections, the ride was both thrilling and a lot of fun. The ride layouts weaved in and out of each other, with red, yellow and green lights situated to the side of the tracks to inducate the (green) launches, (yellow) hairpin turns and (red) braking sections.
The ride ops didn't mind re-riding here, so we had a good 10 goes on Fiorano GT Challenge, on both the left (black) and right (red) sides - the left proved the favourite.
Other attractions at Ferrari World included the Scuderia Challenge simulators, Speed of Magic 4D dark ride, Viaggio in Italia Soarin-style attraction, newly-installed Tyre Twist teacups ride, and Karting Academy go-karts, which operated on a time-slot basis (we asked for a slot at 4:30pm, but were told the next available slot was at 7:30pm, so gave it a miss).
One of the largest-footprint rides inside the giant Ferrari building is Bell'Italia, a tour around a mini-Italy in a tracked Ferrari 250 California car. This ride proved to be a little embarassing, as the majority of "mini-Italy" had either been removed, or was in a state of disrepair. We were just driving around a load of empty green banking; Verona was little more than a sign saying "under renovation". Really quite poor.
Unfortunately, the Bell'Italia experience was somewhat reflective of Ferrari World as a whole; the two major 'coasters notwithstanding, the Park is a little in a state of disrepair at the moment. It is badly missing supporting attractions, with the closure of the drop tower and water ride not helping matters. The main Ferarri building is vast and needs more inside it to justify a gate price of 250 AED (£43.75). Although Formula Rossa and the Go Karts had queues, crowds were low (much lower than Yas Waterworld), which did little to lift the atmosphere - it was all a bit empty and flat.
I have hope for Ferrari World, though. Its coasters are both of real quality, and they have the infrastructure to build upon and grow. Yas Island is not even finished yet and Abu Dhabi has great potential to capitalise on tourism in the same way that Dubai has done. Fingers crossed the owners can keep the venture afloat and the Park doesn't go the same way as other expensive IP-led ventures such as ill-fated Hard Rock Park.
Burj Khalifa, Dubai
OK, so this is clearly not a Theme Park... but you, esteemed reader, may still be interested. This is the Burj Khalifa, and I was lucky to get in a visit to "At The Top" during my trip. Much in the spirit of all things UEA, you may not be surprised to hear that this is the "tallest building in the world". Tom Cruise famously sat on top of it. To put some numbers around it, the Burj Khalifa is 828m tall. That's insanely tall. If Nemesis Inferno's track was stretched out vertically from start to end, it still wouldn't be as tall as the Burj. London's The Shard could be stretched 2.5 times its height, and it wouldn't be as tall as the Burj.
In person, it's really quite impressive. It towers above Dubai's already screamingly tall skyline. The building houses 30,000 people, in both office and residental space. And for 165 AED (£28.87), tourists can take the (ear-poppingly fast) elevator up to floor 124 for a simply stunning view of the Emirate.
I picked my time slot to visit a couple of weeks before I arrived in Dubai ("At The Top" sells out weeks in advance), so I was primed for a good sunset at around 5pm. It didn't disappoint.
Watching the sun set over the city, desert and sea, from nearly a kilometer up in the sky, was a very cool moment. And as you might expect Dubai just lights up at night, yielding awesome views such as the below. Magnificent.
So, there is a wealth of Theme Park fun to be had out in the UAE, with clear highlights of my trip being Formula Rossa, Sega Republic and Yas Waterworld. The region is growing so rapidly that in many areas you can almost smell the investment being pumped into the place. That's not to say it's been an easy ride, however - the recession in 2008/2009 hit the sector hard, with projects like Universal Studios Dubailand barely making it off the drawing board. Indeed, when I was travelling down to Abu Dhabi from Dubai, I could see from my taxi the entrance arch to the proposed Universal Studios standing alone in the vast desert around it - very bizarre.
One large reason to be excited for UAE's Theme Park future is the development of Dubai Parks and Resort, a massive £1.7bn entertainment complex located towards the south of Dubai city centre, slated to open in 2016. Parques Reunidos - operators of Parque Warner Madrid and Mirabilandia - have been appointed to run two of the three Theme Parks due to open at the resort: Motiongate Dubai (a 4 million sq. foot Hollywood-inspired Park, with studios such as Dreamworks already on board) and Bollywood Parks Dubai (a 3-million sq. foot Bollywood-inspired Park, with major Mumbai studios on board).
The third Park in the complex is from a more familiar operator: Merlin Entertainments. Legoland Dubai, a proposed 7th Legoland Park, promises more than 40 attractions upon opening over an area of 3 million sq. foot. Construction boards have already gone up and are again visible from the E11 road to Abu Dhabi, so if all goes to plan, I can see many reasons for a return trip in a few years' time. And I haven't even mentioned the near-future opening of IMG Worlds of Adventure, featuring a Mack launched coaster...
Thanks for reading!
This is the final instalment in a 4-part series about my travels around Asia earlier this year, and some of the decidedly different Parks I encountered whilst I was there:
SuốI Tiên, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Đầm Sen, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Siam Park City, Bangkok, Thailand
Dream World, Bangkok, Thailand
Of all the Theme Parks I visited during my Asia Adventure, the one most traditionally "themed" was undoubtedly Thailand's Dream World.
Part 4: Dream World
Not to be confused with the famous Park of the same name in Queensland, Australia, Thailand's Dream World is billed by much tourist paraphernalia as being the country's version of Disney World, Orlando. But whilst you can certainly see how the Park has been influenced by its American counterpart, the end result is a little different.
As with Siam Park City, getting to Dream World is only really possible via car, especially given that the Park actually sits outside the city of Bangkok itself, in the Pathum Thani province. Getting there involves inevitably sitting in a henious Bangkok traffic jam, although my hour-long trip from my hotel (27 miles) clearly pales into significance compared to other horror stories: "...two or three weeks ago, travelling from Pathum Thani to central Bangkok, it took four and a half hours...".
From the start it was clear that Dream World was the most developed of all the Asian Parks I had visited - the drive to the Park involves crossing a pink Dream-World-branded bridge with castles / turrets / flags aplenty on the way in. And it was also packed - clearly a popular choice for a day out for both locals and tourists alike (unlike the other Parks I visited, there was a noticeable tourist contingent in Dream World's customer base).
The entrance to the Park is pretty impressive, with a colourful castle and bold signage standing amongst pretty and well maintained foliage. So far, so good!
Surprisingly, given the clear increase in quality on offer, Dream World was not the most expensive Asian Theme Park I'd visited, at just 800 Baht (£15.58) for a "tourist" ticket, including all the rides and entry to the Snow Town (more on that later!).
For comparison, Siam Park City had come in at 900 Baht (£17.25), although this also included entry to the waterpark as well. As with Siam Park City, the Park operates a two-tier entry policy, with locals paying significantly reduced rates vs. tourists...
Entering the Park is a surreal but fun experience, with some of the most randomly placed themeing I've seen for a while.
And the cutesy-Asian theme continued as you walk down the very pretty promenade to the large lake at the centre of the Park. I'm not sure whether this is supposed to be a cat / mouse / Pikachu?
Once at the lake, a variety of mascots were there for photo opportunities including the Park's main mascot, a rotund red animal of some description, sporting a Dream World hat.
Note the seriously impressive horticultural effort put into the Park, which far surpassed any of the other Asian Parks I had visited.
Mr. Bean is reportedly one of the UK's biggest foreign entertainment exports, having been sold to nearly 200 TV territories worldwide, so it really should have been no surprise to find him at Dream World, complete with comedy wet umbrella. Reminded me at little of the Les Parapluies de Cherbourg umbrella effect in Walt Disney Studios at DLRP...!
So the Park had made a very favourable impression on me so far, but what of the rides?
Well, as with Siam Park City, Dream World had a pretty solid roster of original Western-made attractions, rather than anything cheaper / less reliable / less comfortable...! And the headline attraction was a rather rare Vekoma Swinging Turns ride by the name of Sky Coaster.
Originally opened at World Expo Park in Queensland, Australia in 1988, and moved to Dream World in 1994, the ride is only one of three Vekoma Swinging Turns attractions ever made. I had ridden one of the other two at Bobbejaanland, Belgium, and the third is located in Mitsui Greenland, Japan. As with Dream Catcher at Bobbejaanland, this version of the ride had been retro-fitted with new Vekoma floorless swinging trains, rather than the original enclosed version - much like Vekoma did for Arrow's Vampire trains at Chessington.
It also sported a fab dragon / Loch Ness Monster(?) topiary...
As with Bobbejaanland's version, the ride was good fun, although more on the side of "pleasant" rather than "thrilling". Only towards the end of the ride and in the tighter helices did the train pick up enough speed to deliver any pops of real excitement.
The experience was very smooth though and was a clear hit with the crowds - the ride had the longest queues I saw all day, at points reaching an hour! The ride also had an on-ride photography booth situated at the exit - the first I'd seen on my Asian travels.
Alas the station wasn't particularly well themed, unless the theme was supposed to be "tin shed"...
Next up, more Vekoma goodness in the form of Space Mountain. Now if ever the Park were inviting comparisons to Disney, they certainly were here...!
Space Mountain was - as with Sky Coaster - relocated from World Expo Park in 1994, and uses Vekoma's MK-900 guage track, much like the overly-long Temple of the Night Hawk at Phantasialand and the shorter/sweeter Vogel Rok at Efteling.
The ride was very well presented though, with solid space-based themeing throughout. And it, like Sky Coaster, was very popular with the crowds.
As such, the queue was especially uncomfortable to wait in, given the large volume of people, fairly slow operations, and the fact it was still baking hot. Have I mentioned in this series of Trip Reports that Thailand in April is really quite hot?! It really is.
Hallelujah for the queueline fans / misters!
How many dark rides do you know where the track layout is stuck up on the wall by the entrance? No surprises about what was in store for us on Space Mountain then...
Overall I liked Space Mountain - a good length family ride with some exciting turns and drops, largely because the entire ride is in pitch darkness, so riders have no idea what's coming. Alas some trademark Vekoma-roughness was present, but overall it was a lot of fun.
Looking in the direction of the supporting attractions in the Park, visitors find a good set of Western-made flats and flumes, all presented in a very colourful way.
Hurricane, the Park's Huss Top Spin for example, has to sport the most vibrant paint job that I've ever seen...!
New for 2014 was Tornado, which stood resplendent in orange and yellow, and came sponsored by a famous Asian Green Tea company. I've not ridden many Technical Park (Italy) flat rides before, but this provided some impressive ejector airtime at the top of each swing. Strong Gs as well, which when combined with the heat, made me quite light headed indeed.
The ride also had an on-ride photo offer - although the photos were taken manually, by a Park employee with a DSLR...!
Dream World also boasts a Shoot the Chutes flume made by Hopkins, called Super Splash. This version was shorter (16m) than Tidal Wave at Thorpe (26m), although the splash just as drenching. But who's complaining in this weather?!
Also welcome in the Bangkok heat: Snow Town. The attraction is very popular with the locals (Snow! In a tropical city!), and as such carries an extra charge on top of the usual entrance ticket. Happily, it is included as part of the tourist ticket, so I gave it a go.
Temperatures inside Snow Town are around -5°C, a good 40°C difference between the temperatures outside Snow Town - so the Park gave out free puffa jackets and wellington boots to all those entering, in much the same way that Đầm Sen did for their Ice Palace attraction, Bằng Băng.
Snow Town was a surreal experience, with one half of the building a heavily themed snow dome...
...and the other an icy speed slide! This was a lot of fun, but felt pretty precarious - lean too far backwards/forwards/sideways on the inflatable sleds and you'll topple out onto the hard, bumpy ice underneath. Thankfully I kept it together, but the runway at the bottom wasn't long enough, so I ended up careering headlong into the side of the building.
I suspect the Park are aware of the potential for accidents here, choosing to station a good 4-5 employees at the bottom of the run to catch / comfort those who overshoot / have fallen out of their sled...
If Snow Town wasn't a surreal enough experience, it's worth showing some of the other oddities in Dream World, which make the Park somewhat unique.
For example, navigating the Park was more entertaining than usual, thanks to this guy.
And the Park's toilets were often decked out with a statue of some sort, in this case of a grown man in a bath wearing a nappy...
...and in this case of a constipated baby on a potty.
And this guy seems to just have that sinking feeling...!
Anyway - back to the rides. And the last coaster of the day was Speedy Mouse, a Cavazza Diego kiddie model opened in 2006, in replacement of the Park's previous ride, Speedy Mouse! The original was a standard Big Apple ride, which ran from 2003 - 2005, but thankfully the replacement was not a like-for-like swap, but a new ride / layout altogether.
The second Speedy Mouse, as seen below, was bought from a Family Entertainment Centre in Bangkok.
The ride was surprisingly good, with a good whip-around during the first drop, and a tight helix towards the end - its bark was definitely weaker than its bite!
Vastly superior to the previous Big Apple incarnation, I have no doubt.
Other supporting rides at the Park included the Vikings pirate ship (background) and Bump Boat (foreground) - both pretty self explanatory.
Disney-parallels abound once again with the Haunted Mansion walkthrough attraction, which featured multiple levels and all kinds of zombies / mummies / deceased people popping up / out at you.
The Park also had a Cable Car transportation system, which seemed to require a lot of manual effort to move the cars around when in the stations...
Alien was a similar ride in many ways to Alien Encounter: Extra Terrorestrial at, erm, Disney World (now replaced by Stitch). Clearly a newer ride at the Park, after a video-based pre-show, riders sit and watch an anamatronic alien sequence, which then turns more sinister as the attraction is plunged into complete darkness, and the "aliens" wreak havoc with riders seats etc.
Pretty well done to be honest (if not a complete rip off of the Mouse), but not really my cup of tea.
There was also a 4D Adventure attraction, but given that my knowledge of Thai is poor at best, I gave the screening a miss.
And finally, one of the most weird and wonderful attractions at Dream World is Giant House, which is a short walk through a - you guessed it - Giant's House. Think of Honey I Shrunk the Audience, but "real"!
This was really nicely done, with a bedroom, lounge and kitchen area for guests to walk through and investigate. Quite bizarre!
And one final parting shot of Dream World: this was the entrance to the Fantasy Land area, where a lot of the kiddie rides were located. Great to see so much attention has gone into the presentation of this Park, with areas like this almost approaching the standards of major Western Parks.
Dream World, then, is a great day out, and I can recommend it to anyone holidaying in Bangkok. What it lacks in thrill rides and coasters (see Siam Park City for those), it more than makes up for in presentation and theme. And it's pretty big too - there are many rides and attractions not shown in this Trip Report, including Grand Canyon rapids, Hollywood Stunt Show, and kids Water Fun play area.
The Park's investment in appearance and focus on the family market is clearly paying off, as Dream World had the largest crowds of all of the Parks I visited on my Asia Adventure. The Disney model, it seems, is not a bad one to follow. And with one or two more "headline" attractions, I think the place would be a real winner.
That's the end of my Asia Adventure Trip Reports - I hope you enjoyed the tours! Comments? Please post below!
This is the third in a 4-part series about my travels around Asia earlier this year, and some of the decidedly different Parks I encountered whilst I was there:
SuốI Tiên, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Đầm Sen, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Siam Park City, Bangkok, Thailand
Dream World, Bangkok, Thailand
Having left the colourful Đầm Sen behind in Vietnam, and spent a few days in Cambodia enjoying the magnificent temples at Angkor Wat, I crossed the border into Thailand and made a beeline for my third Asian Park: Siam Park City.
Part 3: Siam Park City
Siam Park City is located to the east of Bangkok, unfortunately well out of reach of the city's 2-line metro - so getting there meant jumping in a taxi. And compared to the (pretty bustling) Ho Chi Minh City, traffic in Bangkok really is crippling, meaning the 20 mile journey from my hotel to the Park took a little over an hour... and this was using the faster toll roads!
It is worth saying here that Thailand is a far more developed country than Vietnam (or Cambodia for that matter), making it far more "familiar" for the average Western tourist. It also means it is bigger, busier and more commercial; and this unfortunately means more scams to watch out for. A pretty common one exists in the taxi industry: many Thai taxi drivers approach tourists and suddenly their meter "doesn't work", so they quote a fixed price for the journey. Never accept these journeys! The "fixed price" is often up to twice as expensive as the metered fare... and that meter isn't really "broken"...
To get to Siam Park City, I had to negotiate with 3 taxi drivers (all who offered me a flat fare of between 350 - 400 Baht) before I found one that would take me on the meter. Meter cost: 160 Baht.
And much as Thailand seemed more "grown up" vs. my other Asian destinations, so seemed its Amusement industry: Siam Park City was a far more developed Park than either of the two I had visited in Vietnam. As I said - bigger, busier and more commercial, which in Siam Park City's case even meant the presence of original Western-manufactured rides, rather than any knock-off versions...!
So, onto the Trip Report. And Siam Park City has one of my favourite entrances to any Theme Park I've been to, mostly due to the large portrait of "Phra Chao Yu Hua" / "The Lord Above Our Heads" hanging above the gates. Thai people absolutely revere their monarch (King Rama IX), so this was not a huge surprise: their devotion is so embedded in the culture that legally speaking, any offence against the dignity of the monarch may be (and often is) punished. For example, at the start of any movie shown in a Thai cinema, a short video is run to which all viewers must stand: failing to stand can lead to arrest...
Anyway, I digress. Can you imagine Thorpe Park displaying a portrait of HM The Queen above its entrance just before the bridge...?
Siam Park City operates a two-tier ticketing system: one price for tourists, and another price for locals. Alas there was no way for me to get around looking like a Westerner! Tourists pay 900 Baht (£17.25) for entry and access to all rides, whereas locals pay only 500 Baht (£9.57) for the same deal. Tickets are purchased from booths just to the left of this photo of the rather grand entrance foyer:
The Park is anchored in the centre by a large rotating Siam Park City globe atop a fountain, complete with pink cat mascots holding hands. There were many of these plastic cat statues dotted around the Park, many larger than the ones here. Not to everyone's tastes, but effort had clearly been made with the presentation of the Park...!
Time for some rides: the Park headliner being Vortex. Your eyes don't deceive you - this is actually a legit Vekoma SLC, and a pretty long one at that!
The Park advertising is not wrong: Vortex is one of only 2 extended Vekoma "Susperded Looping Coaster"s in the world; the second being in Suzhou Amusement Land, China. It has a track length of 765m vs. the more ubiquitous standard 689m version, although the track packs in the same number of inversions (5) - just over a rather different layout. But would this be a good thing...?
It's also worth mentioning that the 'coaster is not remotely new: it originally opened in 1997 in Jerudong Park, Brunei, and later bought by Siam Park City second hand in 2005/6, along with a Vekoma Boomerang and a Zamperla Powered Coaster - more on both of these later.
As you can see, Vortex did not garner a huge crowd when it first opened for the day...
...which meant that I was able to take the front row.
And to be honest, the ride showed some good promise in the first half, with a good first drop and relatively smooth transition into the initial Roll Over inversion - although the standard SLC "shake rattle and roll" was ever present.
However, what did me in was the transition after the Roll Over and before the train dived into the Sidewinder, on a relatively straight piece of track - the whole train just "shunted" and flung me up and forwards out of my seat, such that the bottom of the restraint ended up winding me in my manly area.
I didn't enjoy the second half of the ride so much, as I was still smarting after the attack on my nether regions. Ouch.
Arguably the Park's second headline attraction - and unusually not a rollercoaster - is the imaginitively named log flume, called, er, Log Flume. This featured some impressive rockwork as well as monster lion and tiger statues, and gained the longest queue that I saw all day. It's a long flume featuring both forwards and backwards sections, and plenty of much-needed splashing.
I visited the Park during April - the hottest month of the year - where tempurates regularly hit 38°C, and it often feels even hotter due to the humidity. Bangkok in April has to be the most scorching, sticky environment that I've ever been in, and my day at Siam Park City was one such blisteringly hot day. As this website notes, "try and avoid April, unless you plan to be permanently submerged in the ocean...".
Needless to say, my ride on Log Flume was much appreciated.
The Park invested significant sums on building this attraction following a 2007 accident on their previous version of the ride (of unknown manufacturer). 1 woman died and 5 others were injured when a boat crashed off the crest of the drop. The log veered off the edge due to a sudden cut in electrical power, which caused a water pump to fail that controlled the water level of the ride. The ride vehicle fell 20m to the ground from the top of the drop.
Rather than try to repair the old ride, the Park scrapped it completely and gave Mack a call, who worked their magic and produced a really cracking replacement.
Life lesson #62: wherever you go in the world, you're never too far away from a Haystack Dryer.
On with the tour, and the next large attraction is found close to the Park entrance: a Vekoma Boomerang called, er, Boomerang (there's a pattern here...).
This is a standard Vekoma model set amongst some pretty nice landscaping: as was the case with Vortex, the Park clearly present their rides with care and attention - great to see.
I should caveat what I'm about to say by restating that it really was a blisteringly hot day during my visit to Siam Park City... but...
I greyed out on the Boomerang. This has never happened before! So either this particular Boomerang was unusually intense, or my body just really wasn't coping with the heat/Gs that day...
There are actually 50 Boomerangs in the world - 21 called Boomerang - but this one sports fab retro silver trains with BOOM written on the side
The third 'coaster of the day was Grand Canyon Express - alas a lot less exciting than the first two 'coasters; a Zamperla Powered model acquired again from Jerudong Park in Brunei.
From the outside of the ride it looks another decent, well presented attraction, with impressive rockwork...
...but when you take a closer look inside you can see that the ride was clearly a terrain 'coaster in its previous life - almost all of the supports are amusingly propped up on large concrete footers. I can't help but feel that more could have been done to disguise these, as the ride looks very odd in its current state!
Unfortunately, the ride experience was also pants. It gains points for being a long ride - and the tunnel section is fun - but really is very slow, and very boring.
Time to take a look around other parts of Siam Park City, which contains plentiful palm trees and a "motorway road sign" approach to Park signage...
A standard array of flat rides is on offer, including Enterprise, a Huss Enterprise, Condor, a Huss Condor, and Top Spin, a Huss Top Spin.
Unfortunately the Top Spin and Aladdin Magic Carpet ride were both down during my visit, and looked as if they had been under repair for quite some time.
There is also an indoor area containing less exciting flats, with a distinct aircraft-carrier feel to it.
And Loop the Loop was definitely not in any fit state to operate, having been closed for at least the past 10 years. It's always a shame to see a SBNO 'coaster, but such was the lax Park security that you could have a sneaky look around the ride station, where the severely dusty - and rusty - train still sits!
I later learnt that Loop the Loop is the oldest inverting roller coaster in Southeast Asia and was built shortly after the Park opened in 1980.
My favourite flat in the Park was actually Giant Drop, which delivered a surprisingly effective punch from its 75m height. And again - no sign of any Asian knock-offs here, this was a legit Intamin model. Lots of fun, thanks to some serious airtime!
The obligatory Haunted House, Big Double Shock, was also present, which was seemingly so scary that numerous Thai people came running back out of the entrance.
I opted not to ride...
And Siam Park City is not just a Theme Park, but also has a fairly large Water Park attached to the right of it. The tourist Theme Park ticket provides access to both the Theme and Water Park attractions.
Its big selling point is the Wave Pool, which is the Guinness World Records-certified largest wave pool in the world at 13,600 sq m. So large is the pool, that the Park owners boast of it being "Bangkok’s inland sea"!
It also has what is the most hairy water Speed Slide I've ever seen. It doesn't look much, but appearances can be deceptive - the taller red/orange/yellow/green slides are so tall, and so steep, that the average short / light Thai thrill seeker absolutely flies down it, spending more time in the air than on the slide...
The splash pool was also eyebrow-raisingly short, meaning that most people nearly splashed into the far side wall of the pool upon landing.
Serious air time. Serious pain on landing.
The Water Park also features this collection of Super Spiral slides, noteworthy only because of an accident in 2008 where a joint in one of the slides collapsed, leaving a 1ft hole on the bottom of the final section of flume. 28 children were taken to hospital having fallen 2m down through this hole, to the rocks and plants below.
Highly unfortunate, given the Log Flume accident only months earlier, although in this case the Super Spiral ride was repaired, rather than replaced. It's disappointing that Thailand still has no agreed safety standards for Amusement Park operators (unlike say, ADIPS in the UK).
So, we're about 2/3rds of the way through this Trip Report now, and you've probably been reading for some time. Maybe it's time to take a comfort break?
Well, comfort breaks are a little more difficult at Siam Park City, as none of the Park toilets come furnished with any toilet paper. Visitors can choose between either an unappetising long-drop bog or a marginally-more-appetising Western sit-down bog, but neither arrangement will furnish you with any loo roll. Or paper towels. So you are either expected to bring your own toilet paper to this Theme Park, or, well, you're on your own...
Anyway - back on with the tour. And at the back of the Park sits one of the more surprisingly impressive attractions. Dinotopia stands proud as a huge building facade set amongst some very pretty plant and flower displays.
The attraction is split into two halves: one half a semi-dark walkthrough around large motion-sensored dinosaur animatronics. This was well done, with impressive scale and pretty convincing models.
The second half is slightly less exciting: a "museum" filled with fake dinosaur skeletons and exhibits. It reminded me of an inferior Jurassic Park Discovery Center at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
And the dinosaur theme didn't stop there, with the Jurassic Adventure ride also a recent investment for the Park - a drive through "Dinosaur Country" in a Jeep. As you can see from the fonts / colours used, there was a fair bit of copyright infringement going on here against the Spielberg film, to the point where the queueline actually had TVs showing The Lost World for the waiting crowd.
The animatronics and themeing used for this ride were not half as impressive as in Dinotopia, perhaps because they were all housed outdoors (and open to the harsh Thai elements) vs. being sheltered indoors. But the experience was still fun, largely due to the Jeep being "real" and not on a track. A squirty-water dinosaur model halfway round the circuit provided some laughs (and again - much needed rehydration for me...).
Finally, the last ride of the day was Africa Adventure, also housed near Dinotopia and Jurassic Adventure. This promised a tour around the African savannah in two different ways: either via train, or via boat.
Naturally I chose the boat which was, like the Jurassic Adventure Jeep, very real and not "tracked" in any way. It was a pretty full boat on my ride, and was unfortunately having difficulty staying afloat - the water level was quite high. I was initially glad to have been handed a life jacket, but as you can see, no-one else thought they would be necessary...
The ride was good fun, with plenty of animal animatronics along the route. All the classic African montages were in there, including a scene of Lions engaged in an attack on a Gazelle, Elephants filling up at the watering hole...
...and native tribal people burning a white hunter guy on a cross. Standard fare for any African-themed ride. Oh, and King Kong also made an appearance at the end.
I'll end with a few shots taken from the top of the Park's 100m-tall rotating observation tower, Siam Park Tower. Not only did this tower provide excellent views of the Park - and further afield into Bangkok - but it was also air conditioned, and for that reason alone easily made it into my top 3 rides at Siam Park City.
Siam Park City is a solid option for any Theme Park tourist visiting Bangkok. More developed than either of the other two Parks I'd visited in Vietnam, it had clearly benefitted from recent investments in the excellent Log Flume and Africa Adventure, as well as the haul of rides and coasters it had purchased second hand from Brunei.
The Park clearly favours established Western ride manufacturers too (Vekoma, Mack, Intamin, Huss), over the cheaper Asian alternatives, and whilst there is little in the way of themeing, the Park is generally very well presented indeed. That said, there were many areas of the Park that looked decidedly worse for wear (entire Loop the Loop area, some of the flats, most of the animatronics, the toilets...), and the Park's safety record is hardly stellar.
With Bangkok beating London into 2nd place last year as the most visited tourist city, I can only hope that Siam Park City continues to build on its gate figures from both locals and travellers alike, and I look forward to seeing how it develops...
Comments? Please post below! Next up, and last in the series: Dream World.
This is the second in a 4-part series about my travels around Asia earlier this year, and some of the decidedly different Parks I encountered whilst I was there:
SuốI Tiên, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Đầm Sen, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Siam Park City, Bangkok, Thailand
Dream World, Bangkok, Thailand
My second Asian Park after the wonderful SuốI Tiên was also located Ho Chi Minh City: Đầm Sen.
Part 2: Đầm Sen
Đầm Sen is located much more centrally in Ho Chi Minh City vs. SuốI Tiên, and could be reached in only 25 mins via taxi from my hotel next to the Sông SàI Gòn river. And unlike SuốI Tiên, it's much more of an Amusement Park than a Theme Park: there is comparatively little in the way of style and decoration vs. its extensive Buddhist-themed brother.
That said, the Park is far from ugly, with lily pads and flower themeing being the order of the day. This is the entrance to the Park - the Towers Street equivalent, if you will:
And there's a very good reason for all the flora themeing - Đầm Sen is a circular Park built around a large lake, filled with lily pads, lotus flowers and other plant life. All very pretty - and this view across the lake provides some perspective on scale. Connecting the small pagodas is a walkway across the lake.
Đầm Sen operates a pay-one-price entry model, with tickets at 130,000 Dong (£3.79). As with much of Asia, it was all exceedingly cheap for a Western tourist. I came for the afternoon and whilst not quite as low as SuốI Tiên attendance levels, the Park was pretty empty the whole time I was there. How do these places survive financially on such low gate figures, with such low entrance prices...?!
As you can see, there were very few people around to enjoy the topiaries:
And now onto the rides: the biggest of them all being Tàu Lỏn Vông Siẻu Tồc / Roller Coaster. This coaster is tucked away in dense foliage in the top-left hand side of the Park, and is quite a walk from the main entrance - I suspect some visitors don't even find it...!
It's certainly a bigger ride than any at SuốI Tiên, and until a larger version was later built at nearby ĐạI Nam with 4 inversions, Tàu Lỏn Vông Siẻu Tồc / Roller Coaster held the record for having the most inversions in Vietnam with 3 - vertical loop, corkscrew, corkscrew. The ĐạI Nam coaster - built 10 years (2008) after the Đầm Sen version (1998) - is near identical, save for a second vertical loop after the first.
Merlin take note: black / brown / grey / white are not the only colours available when painting a roller coaster! This one had green rails, red tubular spine, blue supports and yellow supporting structure.
If you hadn't already guessed, the ride is an Arrow clone - you can see the corkscrew inversions bearing more than a passing resemblance to the classic Arrow corkscrew designs, with yellow "arch" supports holding the inversions in place. The layout is near-identical to the actual Arrow-designed Corskcrew at Cedar Point; the offending manufacturer at Đầm Sen is likely to be Hebei Zhongye Metallurgical Equipment (although RCDB doesn't know), given that HZME built the later version at ĐạI Nam...
So how did it ride? Early impressions were not encouraging, with a lengthy wait in the station for the train to completely fill up - the ride operators refused to send the train off without it being completely full. Health and safety or cost saving? I assumed the latter. The waiting time did give me a good 10 minutes to inspect my surroundings though, where I found that the screws holding the back of the seat in front of me in place were so loose and wobbly that they were close to coming out altogether. +1 for maintenance!
The ride itself wasn't bad at all - quite intense in places (especially the vertical loop) and not so rough as to be unenjoyable; serious bracing helped a fair bit.
I was sat next to a guy from Cambodia - who can't have been any older than 14 - who told me on the lift hill in broken English that this was his first ever roller coaster and he was very nervous to ride. He came off grinning from ear to ear!
Đầm Sen is also home to Tàu Xoay Cao Tồc / Spinning Coaster, which continues in the great tradition of Asian-clones by emulating the classic Maurer Söhne spinner. I am a big fan of the Maurer spinners - the excellent Tarántula at Parque de Atracciones de Madrid is one of my favourites - so was interested to see how this one would ride.
It was built by the almost-ubiquitous Chinese manufacturer Golden Horse, who appear in most Asian Parks with cheaper clones of classic Vekoma, Zamperla and Maurer rides. Alas for Golden Horse, in recent years the original manufacturers have been fighting back, with trademark infringement lawsuits aplenty.
The ride itself is a pretty standard spinner layout - there are currently 77 standard Golden Horse ZXC-24A models in existence, 76 in Asia - with flat hairpin turns in the first half, and more drops and longer curves in the second half.
The ride wasn't bad, with a decent amount of spinning and some good drops. However, it all felt a little bit more rattly and unsteady than the Maurer originals, and special mention must be given to the car design: almost identical, save for added seatbelts and the usual Maurer "loop" handle bar having been swapped with a t-bar handle bar, akin to those on a bicycle. When seated in the car, this t-bar sits at about knee-height for your average grown adult, and proved to be very painful indeed...
If you've ever ridden Dragon's Fury or Spinball, you'll know that the end of the ride features a fairly brutal "kick" from a long horizontal bar just above track-height which steadies the car and straightens it up. Tàu Xoay Cao Tồc / Spinning Coaster does likewise, although if anything in a more brutal fashion and with little warning, which resulted in both of my knees smashing into the t-bar handle in the centre. I still had brusies days later. Top tip for future riders: do try to sit with your legs as far apart as possible - pinning your knees against the side of the car may help. One go was enough!
And I've read a few ride restriction boards in my time, but never one that informs guests that "no gamboling... is allowed while riding". Which is a shame, because I was quite keen on starting up a game of blackjack whilst on the hairpin bends.
Walk further around the lake and you'll find Trò ChơI Rồng Bay / Flying Dragon - a standard Dragon ride much like the indoor Bí Mật Rừng Phù Thủy / Secret of Sorcerer Forest I encountered in SuốI Tiên. However, approaching the station I couldn't find an operator anywhere nearby; not wholly surprising, given the gate figure.
After a minute or so of looking around, I found a staff member relaxing a short way from the ride leaning against a tree. She motioned for me to get into the dragon car. Once I was sat down - her still leaning against the nearby tree - she started the ride off using a remote control in her hand! No bar checks or anything, just a press of a button on her remote to set the train in motion. Bizarre.
The layout itself was a standard Dragon oval, but the train did pick up some decent speed and I got a few goes around the track - pretty fun in all!
Now time for a bit of a tour around the rest of Đầm Sen. I should say at this point that the Amusement Park is only one half of the attraction: the other half is a Water Park, with a separate gate and separate entry fee. If taking a taxi to Đầm Sen, make sure your driver knows to drop you off at the right entrance...!
Whilst I didn't venture into the Water Park, it did look good fun, complete with Kamikaze drop slides, lazy river and recently-installed Boomerang ring slide. It apparently gets very popular at the weekends!
Other notable structures on Park included this large theatre, which could seat ~300 people. No activity here during my visit, though!
Đầm Sen also features this colourful (knock-off) Magic Carpet ride - a travelling version permanently installed in the Park...
...as well as the world's least-scary-looking Haunted House: Lâu ĐàI Kinh Dị / Castle of Horror. Save for the gargoyles and iron gates at the front, this looked more like Cinderella's Castle than Haunted Mansion...!
There was also a set of marine-themed dodgems: Chính Phục ĐạI Đường / Conquer the Ocean. Alas these were not operational...
...as was the case with the Park's log flume.
Onto the last coaster of the day: Vòng Xoáy TuổI Thơ / Childhood Spiral, which was operational! Points go to Đầm Sen for giving the ride a slightly more inspiring name than Roller Coaster or Spinning Coaster.
Yes, it's a Big Apple, but it's a Big Apple that shuns the typical, erm, apple - for a watermelon! It was actually quite fast and enjoyable, although fairly rough even though it was just a Big Apple. Further points go to Đầm Sen for letting the foliage around the ride grow to such an extent that the bushes hanging over the base of the lift hill attack even the smallest of riders. Great entertainment.
Colourful large grasshopper themeing was also a highlight.
Perhaps the biggest surprise - and highlight - of the whole trip though was Bằng Băng / All Ice, which was an unexpectedly large ice-sculpture house at the top of the lake. Standing / sweating in the humid 30°C Ho Chi Minh heat, even if the sculptures turned out to be unimpressive, I figured this was a very welcome installation indeed.
Given that the building had to be kept under sub-zero temperatures, and that most visitors (especially tourists) would not be wearing a great deal, the Park had the sense to provide warm puffer-jacket-style overcoats for guests to put on before entering.
The sculptures were very impressive indeed: really quite large, nicely lit, and very detailed. This section included a lighthouse and Titanic-style cruise liner. To give some context on size, I'd say the lighthouse was at least twice the height of me - 12ft+!
Other sculptures included the Greek Parthenon, a Roman Centurion, and a Chinese temple.
After 10 minutes in Bằng Băng my nose and ears had decided they'd had enough of being in a freezer, so I took the cue to leave and stepped out again into the close evening air. By this time the sun was quickly going down, and the Park showed itself to be very pretty at night, with light installations such as the one below dotted around many of the walkways.
Only at Đầm Sen: a purple pathway to love...?!
A quick shout out to the attractive Ferris Wheel sporting a jazzy lighting package...
...and a final parting shot of the lotus flowers I had passed on my way in - this time lit up like a Disney parade float!
And with that, I left Đầm Sen and grabbed a taxi to the newly-opened first McDonalds in Vietnam a few km away. Incidentally, McDonalds was absolutely heaving with locals, such that an extensive cattlepen queue had been erected outside the entrance to the restaurant and marshals were struggling to take orders from the crowds over the noise. It seems as if communist Vietnam is slowly seeing Western (capitalist) brands creep into their culture...!
As I chomped down on my regional McPork™ burger, I reflected on my time at Đầm Sen: a nice little Park, if a little quiet and under-developed. With some TLC and investment it could really thrive: it has the space to expand and growing affluence in Ho Chi Minh City could provide a customer base with increasing disposable income to tap into. It has been reported recently that some of the rides from the now-defunct Freestyle Music Park in South Carolina, USA, could be heading over to Vietnam: could Đầm Sen be the lucky recipient of the goods...?! That'd do nicely.
Comments? Please post below! Next up: Siam Park City.
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be travelling around Asia for a couple of months (a mini gap-yah, if you like), and took some small detours from the standard tourist path to visit some Parks. This is the first in a 4-part blog series about my Asia Adventure, which will cover the following Parks:
SuốI Tiên, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Đầm Sen, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Siam Park City, Bangkok, Thailand
Dream World, Bangkok, Thailand
Hopefully the series will highlight some slightly different - and definitely non-Merlin! - Theme Parks that are on offer just 6,000 miles away.
Part 1: SuốI Tiên
SuốI Tiên is located just outside of Ho Chi Minh City; a 45 minute taxi ride despite being only 16 miles from the centre of town. It's the biggest Theme Park near Ho Chi Minh City and city planners are clearly invested in the Park, given that Ho Chi Minh's first metro line is having a station built right outside the entrance of the Park (a $2.8BN project, estimated completion 2017). Despite this, and having been open since 1995, my taxi driver had no idea where it was I wanted to go... so thank goodness for Google Maps and Smartphones.
SuốI Tiên is one of the most unusual Theme Parks you are likely to visit: it is a Buddhist-themed Park where the attractions and landscaping illustrate Vietnam's history and legends. So as well as Buddhist-themed rollercoasters and dark rides, there are also plenty of Buddhist temples and statues located within the Park walls. And as you'll see in the photos below, the attention to detail in the themeing is second to none. Just take a look at the entrance...
Entry is 50,000 Dong (£1.47) and then each attraction is at an extra cost, from 5,000 Dong (15p) to 60,000 Dong (£1.75). For 2014 the Park trialled a one-price admission for entry + all attractions at 350,000 Dong (£10.26) - quite reasonable really, but I went for the pay-per-ride option nonetheless.
Before we go any further, it's worth saying at this point that the Park was absolutely dead. I counted maybe 50 guests inside it throughout my whole day, and the Park is not that small - roughly half the size of Alton Towers' sprawling grounds. There were at least 5 times as many staff visible as there were guests in the Park - so either this was an "off" day and the Park recoups the cost from much busier days, or the Park is otherwise propped up by the state... anyway, the Park felt even more deserted than my visit to Lightwater Valley on a rainy April Sunday in 2012, and that's saying something.
Onwards with the tour: once through the entrance gates, the elaborate themeing continues. Move over Mickey and Pluto: this Park's mascots are the dragon, unicorn, tortoise and phoenix:
It's a very pretty Park, with nods to Buddhist culture at every turn. Alas I never once saw this Ferris Wheel (CốI Xoay Của Thần Gió / Rotating Wind Spirit) move during the day - highly likely due to the lack of riders...
This elaborate entrance leads not to any attraction, but rather a large Buddhist shrine (Long Hoa Thiên Bảo).
And here's the temple itself, Long Hoa Thiên Bảo.
This dragon looks like it could be the centrepiece to a flat ride or similar, but is actually just another elaborate themeing setpiece for the Park (Tứ Linh HộI Tụ / 4 Sacred Animals) that guests can walk around.
SuốI Tiên also contains a saltwater waterpark (Biển Tiên Đồng / Fairy At Sea), which includes slides and a kids area. As you can see, it wasn't open...
OK, enough with Park overview - onto the Trip Report. I started the day by doing the Vương Quốc Cá Sấu / Crocodile United Nations, which was unashamedly a lake filled with crocodiles with a walkway positioned slightly above it. Completely safe.
The Park advertise this as the "territory of the swamp lord", with over 100 crocs in the water. Mostly they were escaping the 30°C heat by chilling out on the sides or submerging themselves underwater.
And as it was a Vietnamese Park, for 20,000 Dong (59p) you could dangle a piece of chicken over at the crocodiles to feed/bait them as desired. I didn't do this, but did watch the only 2 other Western tourists in the Park have a go. Needless to say the crocodiles got a little fiesty.
Having escaped the territory of the swamp lord, I decided it was time to give the Park's signature thrill ride a go - Tàu Lượn Siêu Tốc / High Speed Roller Coaster. This was a large sit-down coaster with a non-inverting track that shuttled around the Park's main lake. I'd only seen a train complete the circuit once in my time at the Park so far, and now understood why - the ride required at least 4 people to operate. I have no idea whether this was a commercial or safety-based decision by the Park, but it meant that I needed to find 3 others willing to get on with me in order to get the train dispatched.
Alas, I couldn't find anyone. Honestly. I even offered to pay the ride operator (in my best Vietnamese) for 4 tickets (60,000 Dong / £1.76 each) myself, but she insisted that I needed 3 others. Thankfully at this point the 2 guys from the Crocodile United Nations were walking past the ride, and after a quick negotiation agreed to join me. We later found a fourth rider near the Dolphin Show / Cá Heo và Sư Tử Biển (which never put on a performance due to - you guessed it - a lack of audience) and we were set for a spin on Vietnam's longest roller coaster.
The trains for the ride were a little odd - the seats looked like they'd been taken from a second hand car, and the restraints included both an over-shoulder seat belt and a silver OTSR. Only after the train had left the station and was ascending up the lift hill did I check the OTSR to find that it didn't lock - I could both fully lift the silver harness up and unbuckle the seat belt. Excellent.
The lift hill itself took a good 2 minutes to climb, thanks to the tyre-powered mechanism trying its best to get the train to the top. It was clear that the tyres were so worn that the train wasn't being gripped tightly enough to pull it up quickly, resulting in a lot of slippage and a very slow ascent!
The ride itself was good fun, although I spent most of it hugging my OTSR with both arms hoping that I wouldn't fall out. It was a relatively smooth affair though, and even included a fun shuttle through an artificial mountain.
Having disembarked, I saw that the Park were making some pretty bold claims in their advertising for the ride - a 200kmph top speed! I'm no expert, but the ride didn't feel as if it were 50% faster than Thorpe's Stealth (80mph/130kmph)... I doubt if it topped 50mph to be honest...
Onto coaster #2 - Bí Mật Rừng Phù Thủy / Secret of Sorcerer Forest. There are few hints that this building houses a coaster - it was only because I asked around that I came to find it. The beginning part of the attraction is a short walkthrough, which was actually quite unnerving as a solo traveller. To the right of the entrance below is a long pitch-black pathway, themed around a forest. Hidden sensors trigger various noisy animatronics, which seemingly light up out of nowhere. Further on in the walkthrough is a surprising shuddering floor effect, which in the darkness made me scream involuntarily. And once you get to the station of the ride itself, you see that after all of this buildup, it's actually just a basic powered Dragon ride. Talk about anti-climax!
The ride itself was - as the rest of the Park - themed very impressively with trees, foliage and sorcerers, which more than made up for the fact that the track layout was a standard oval.
Other attractions around the Park included this large aircraft-hangar filled with kiddie rides.
And larger thrill rides are hidden next to the Rotating Wind Spirit Ferris Wheel, including a Disk'O which I'm fairly sure isn't a Zamperla original...
This facade looks innocent from the outside, but houses Kim Lân Sơn Xuất Thế / Palace of Unicorns, which is a walkthrough attraction depicting the many stages of Buddhist Hell. The two crocodile-baiting Westerners from earlier told me that the attraction is immaculately themed but really quite violent and disturbing inside, using animatronics to portray gory Buddhist punishments for various offences, including drug addiction, gambling, and adultery. Think dismembered body parts and occasional jump-scares. I gave it a miss.
And new for 2014 was - wait for it - Lâu ĐàI Phép Thuật Harry Potter / The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Yes, in the middle of Vietnam's authentically Buddhist Theme Park sits possibly the most incongruous new attraction they could have built. I think they just threw away the concept for this one and went for a crowd pleaser...
Does Universal know that this exists? Do they care? Probably not. The attraction was hardly a competitor to the real Wizarding World, being just a glorified haunted house walkthrough with Daniel Radcliffe's face stuck on the front. And although the exterior was substantial, the inside was less impressive. I walked through 7 rooms in total, one for each of the books in the Harry Potter series, with standard ghost/witch/goblin statues popping out from all sides. There may have been an actor in there as well grabbing legs and shoulders as I walked past - who knows. Very little connection to the Harry Potter stories overall; the most startling moment came from a noisy dementor (possibly?) that flew overhead on a wire at great speed and nearly clocked me on the head.
My overall feeling was that it was a shame that SuốI Tiên spent money on this, given how out-of-place it looks compared to the rest of the Park. Last time I checked Harry didn't have a whole lot to do with the Buddhist tradition. It may have yet saved itself if the quality was in line with the rest of the Park, but alas...
Remember book 5? It's the Oder of the Pheonix!
As you can see, just like the films...
That said, it's good to see the Park continuing to invest - especially given that I have no idea where they're getting any money from. And it was clear that there was more to come both this year and next, with more construction happening by the indoor kiddie area. Notice that there is little to no protection of the public from the building work - I could just walk right on through!
Also in the pipeline is Đĩa Bay Hành Tinh Lạ / Alien Flying Disk...
...and Phât Địa Mẫu / Buddha Model, another Buddhist themed set piece.
And with that, it was nearing 6pm and the Park was shutting down for the day. I'd had a really unique experience here - nothing like any other Park I'd been to. Exquisitely themed (for the most part), strong religious themes running throughout and with some genuinely different attractions. It was just a shame there wasn't a higher gate figure; at times walking through the Park was a bit like touring an abandoned school - a bit creepy.
So how to sum up SuốI Tiên? "Buddhist nirvana"? "Disney on acid"? "Plain strange"?
SuốI Tiên is - at least in my experience - pretty incomparable as a concept. It's clearly taken a huge pot of cash to develop the Park in such an elaborate and large scale way, and I would encourage anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City to take a trip out to District 9 to have a look around, because it's just so different. You can't help but smile at the colourful bizarreness of the place!
Comments? Please post below! Next up: Đầm Sen.