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.