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: