Coaster Kingdom

Dragon, Legoland Windsor
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

With the popularity of Universal's Mummy coasters, it is easy to think that blurring the line of distinction between coaster and dark ride is a new thing. It does in fact date back as far as the late 1800's with the popularity of the Scenic Railway.

On such rides, dioramas would be built around the circuit of a figure-eight roller coaster, where a train - the speed of which was controlled by an on-board brakeman - would pass through these scenes giving the impression that people were travelling through rich and exotic lands.

As coasters became more exciting, the need for extra scenery to excite riders became somewhat redundant, and so this genre split with ghost trains and dark rides becoming ever-more popular, whilst roller coasters made use of new technology such as upstop wheels to create their own brand of excitement.

Coasters have since flirted with the idea of incorporating scenery into rides, but not ever to the level of the Scenic Railways. Rides like Space Mountain (Disneyland Paris) use sporadic set pieces, but have always remained more coaster than dark ride.

Revenge of the Mummy (Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood) have perhaps tipped the balance back in favour of the dark ride, using the coaster as your conveyance, but let's not forget Legoland's Dragon Coaster, half dark ride and half coaster.

Despite Legoland's apparent original insistence to the contrary, Legoland needed a coaster, and Windor's version followed two years after opening, and a year on from the similar, but far from identical model in the home of Lego, Billund (Denmark).

Denmark's version, like Windsor's, was half dark ride and half coaster, but unlike Legoland Windosor's used a Mack Blauer Enzian ride system, a completely powered 'coaster' much like Alton Towers' Runaway Mine Train. Legoland instead employed the British company WGH to supply a more traditional gravity coaster using tyre drives for the dark ride section.

By 1999, Dragon was joined by his younger sibling, Dragon's Apprentice, again from WGH offering a ride not dissimilar to a pint-sized Vekoma Roller Skater (such as Tami Tami at Universal's Port Aventura), which completed Castle Land, one of Legoland's largest and most spectacular areas.

Unsurprisingly, Castleland gleams its name from the castle the land is built around. The theming here is simply beyond the capabilities of what any British themer can conger up with a full sized castle complete with octagonal turrets and drawbridge set behind a tranquil moat in front, from which a Lego dragon rears his head.

Not even the most unrelenting nitpicker can find a tin warehouse underneath this castle with every rampart and every battlement intricately detailed down to the smallest touch.

Beyond the confounds of the port cullice, the detail continues. Sculpted from Lego, a statue of a fair maiden clasps a vase from which water cascades down into the fountain below, whilst two sleepy guards (also sculpted from the King's plaything of choice, Lego) guard the door to The Dragon, a small archway underneath one of the main turrets on the rear wall of the courtyard.

With Legoland's not-particularly-surprising bias towards modelling anything they can out of Lego, almost everything you see within the castle ramparts is created with a colourful palette of Lego blocks including characters, dragons and almost all the props too.

The queue starts off by passing an open book, bookmarked at a page asking "What secrets lie within?". Little touches like this will abound the long and winding queue line which first takes you up stairs inside one of the castle's turrets before wrapping around the courtyard on the castle ramparts.

As you pass through the turrets surrounding the castle entrance, you climb yet more steps up onto the highest stockades of the castle. Legoland's typical attention to detail abounds and keeps even the most fidgety kid engrossed with wizard's cloaks and hats hung out of reach and plucky knights above taking aim with their crossbows.

The station is a vault deep within the castle. The flaking ceiling is held aloft with timber joists, archways set within the walls with flickering lanterns lighting the room. From an archway to your left, a 28-seater fibreglass dragon will climb a slaloming brake run and enter the station.

The seven-car train is fashioned after a Lego dragon, with an angular rearing head at the front, red wings flanking the side of each of the bottle-green cars and a tail on the rear end of this plastic beast.

This dragon's belly has more than enough room to accommodate 28 people, with each row of two secured by a single lap bar. After a brief check of bars, the dragon slowly leaves the station through an archway, flashing and sparkling as if some timegate into another world.

You first enter the castle's cellar. With barrels set into the stone archways in the deepest recesses of the castle, you pass two mischievous monks stood around a barrel of beer. As one swigs at his tankard of beer, the other spits out 'beer' as a fine vapour all over the riders.

With a rich smell of food in the air, you continue your passage through this majestic castle. You slalom through the banqueting hall where the royal family are sat around a table feasting on a banquet. As molten wax from the candelabras drip onto the table below, the red-haired king takes a swig from a raised goblet as he talks to the queen opposite.

We pass more tableaux such as a wizard in his laboratory clutching a beaker of brightly coloured potion before our curiosity continues as we venture further into the castle, however, the festivities of the previous rooms are a distant memory as an enormous dragon has burst through the wall of the castle's basement and is standing guard over the king's nest-egg of gold, jewellery and crown jewels.

As the treasure glistens in the dim light, the plucky reptile breathes smoke, growls and generally looks displeased by our presence. Noting this, we continue past this agitated Lego lizard into a corridor, past the back end of the dragon and its flailing tail towards a knight which fades into view from behind a wall as you abruptly turn a corner, through an archway outside.

Our passage of escape takes us skywards up a tyre-driven lifthill before the front of our fibreglass stead pulls you into a spiralling helix towards the rugged grassland below.

Skimming through the long grass, the train buries itself into a trench, digging itself below terra firma sweeping through into another helix.

As our dragon gets out of breath, he is given a little push up a second brisk tyre-driven lift hill. As the ride prepares for its final throws, you plunge down a long, straight drop squeezing under overhead track before plunging beneath a courtyard into a dark tunnel.

After a brief sub-terrainain foray, bowing first to the right and then to the left, our plastic-fantastic dragon gets drawn into yet another ground-level helix spiralling anti-clockwise before ducking under the entering track, passing behind a large oak tree, climbing up to the right into a comically warped 'brake run' using booster tyres to slow the train down for its final climb back into the castle.

Whilst peoples' accounts of encounters with dragons are not well documented, historically dragons are not renowned for their good company and don't seem to have built up a good rapport with humans. But against the odds, this dragon is popular with young and old.

And fear not; this isn't a case of contenting the youngsters during the dark ride section and bowing to the demands of the thrillseeker throughout the coaster section - both halves of the ride strike a balance, with the dark ride section courting children's attention with bright colours and pure eye candy, whilst not forgetting adults inscribing the unmistakable Legoland signature in the form of their unmistakable sense of humour and attention to detail.

Considering WGH haven't chalked up a huge tally of coasters, Dragon is a fantastically smooth and often exciting coaster, which are hallmarks of an excellent all-round family coaster.

With two such distinct halves to the ride, it would be easy to end up with half of the ride wasted thanks to one half eclipsing the other. Fortunately, Dragon avoids such burden with each half of the ride confidently supporting the other – the dark ride is no inconvenient preamble, nor is the coaster cumbersome journey back to the station.

Independently, neither the coaster or dark ride are amazing, but together they are ingredients in a pretty tasty family ride.

That isn't to say it is without fault, though. The dark ride section is let down by the lack of music and dialogue throughout. In fact, your soundtrack will consist only of sound effects from the various tableaux and the squeaking of wheels underneath your train.

The characters really set out this attraction from many others; not only do they appeal to children thanks to their buoyant capers and cheeky grins, but to adults, too, thanks to the accomplishment of building detailed, full sized animatronic figures out of, yes, you guessed it, Lego.

The coaster section never really leaves the ground enough to be scary, nor does it have the impact of more established coasters, but never the less it provides an enjoyable ride.

Being a fairly sprawling ride for its size, there isn't much to look at on the coaster, nor is there the fun and interactivity of pathways, fields or buildings playing with your line of flight, other than the notable dive underneath the pathway off of the second lift.

Also, probably owing to the elevated station, there isn't much of a finale, with the explosive drop off the second lift never really being equalled as the train simply runs out of speed on its final approach to the station.

Independently, each half of the ride is good, not great, but together the whole attraction is a fun and exciting attraction for kids, and certainly inoffensive to parents and any teenagers. Both halves of the ride exhibit a certain amount of unrealised potential, however, which would have made the difference between a good ride and a great ride. But nevertheless kids tucked under the wing of this dragon will come off laughing.

Please, do not use our ratings to compare rides head-to-head. They rate only how well this ride meets its own objectives using criteria that may not necessarily be relevant with similar reviews.

Good points:

  • A fairly original idea to combine dark ride with coaster
  • The building and dark ride theming is amongst some of the best in the country
  • The coaster itself is smooth and exciting
  • The drop off the lift into the tunnel is a great moment
  • Lots of attention to detail throughout and Legoland's own brand of humour is prevalent

Bad points:

  • Dragon is a low capacity coaster meaning a slow-moving queue
  • The dark ride section needs more dialogue and/or music
  • The finale leaves much to be desired

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