Coaster Kingdom

El Rio Grande, Walibi World
Saturday, February 24, 2007

It takes a special sort of talent to create a bad rapids ride. Even with the most boring layout on Earth, and waves as menacing than a sleeping puppy, somehow they still manage to be enjoyable. Even those that make an extra-special effort to be plumb the depths of acceptability, such as Thorpe Park's Ribena Rumba Rapids, somehow manage to provide some entertainment, admittedly in an ironic sense.

Well, I thought that the quest to find a really boring rapids ride was finally over when I visited Walibi World (the park that gets through names quicker than Prince and Elizabeth Taylor combined), and saw Vekoma's efforts in the guise of El Rio Grande. Here we have an incarnation of the rapids ride genre that promises to be as dull as ditchwater, with absolutely the prospect of zero thrills, next-to-no spills, and very little scope even for ironic-enjoyment. All in all, you would confidently predict the ride to be as flat as the nation that hosts it.

From the moment you decide to ride El Rio Grande, all signals are that this is going to be one of the crappiest rides you'll ever uncover. The pathways take you past some staggeringly unimpressive stretches of rapids, and the ride's sole piece of theming seems to be an Aztec style wall, past which the ancient looking boats amble every now and then.

On arrival at the station, the only thing that is remotely impressive is that the ride uses a conveyor-belt loading system, which saves the need for an elaborate turntable station. This pre-dates the likes of River Quest by quite a margin (decades, by the look of it), and is far superior to the awkward accident-waiting-to-happen of boarding the atrociously unseaworthy vessels that The Tussauds Group seems to love so much.

The boats themselves initially seem pretty decent, if a little odd, with eight riders split into pairs, and each pair assigned a cosy "compartment". Looking around at the rest of your boat's crew, you do get a sense of four dinky little Dodgem cars that have reached a rather unfortunate stalemate. Either that, or four teams about to take part in the cheapest of daytime quiz shows - at best you have an urge to enquire "Can I have a P please Bob?", at worst you expect Noel Edmonds to creep up and put his arm around you, which is hardly conducive to having fun.

The boat slides of the end of the conveyor belt, and plops itself into the remarkably still waters. By this stage, the promise of the world's crappiest water ride has grown into a full blown expectation. Let's just get it over with and then we can go on something else, shall we? Here comes the first wave, looking less like the raging waters of the Colorado, and more like the product of pulling a lavatory chain too hard. If the average Intamin rapids ride is anything to go by, the wave will cause the boat to bob about half an inch into the air. If Rumba Rapids is anything to go by, the boat will do absolutely nothing, and carry on as if the wave weren't even there. Here goes.


Sometimes, if you really believe, miracles really can happen. El Rio Grande, having provided absolutely no cause for optimism thus far, suddenly reveals how one tiny element can take a deeply dreadful ride and turn it into something astronomically wonderful.

Against all odds, Vekoma, the bunch of vindictive barbarians responsible for the coaster cars that stunted the growth of a generation, have come up with a design of rapids boat that turns even the blandest ride into a riot.

What is so great about them? Well, the four compartments that divide the boat are indeed totally separate entities, held together by next to nothing. Secondly, the tyre (or more precisely, the four small tyres) that keep the boat afloat are extremely thin compared to the Intamin design, meaning that riders' feet are well below the waterline, giving more of an impression of being "in" the river than merely bobbing along half a meter above the tide. Combine the two, and the result is that, at even the smallest of waves, the first compartment is practically buried under the water, allowing water to utterly cascade through the gaps between each segment, virtually submerging the entire boat.

Now that we've been alerted to the ride's charms, things look up immediately. OK, the layout is indeed dull. OK, the theming is indeed nigh-on non-existent. OK, there is indeed nothing to look at as you go, but who cares? The boat is good enough to make you forget all that. It just goes to show how excelling in one component can rescue any number of other faults. The comical thing is that, in an effort to breathe new life into rapids rides, we now have the likes of Phantasialand's River Quest throwing drops, whirlpools, and vertical lifts into the equation, whereas El Rio Grande proves that, if you concentrate on perfecting the fundamentals rather than inventing flash gimmicks, the genre is more than strong enough to survive all by itself.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Words like "cascade", and "submerge" do suggest that this is a ride that should only be attempting when the mercury begins to creep to the upper end of the thermometer. Not a bit of it, for despite the sensation of practically submarining every few seconds, riders remain remarkably unscathed. In fact, in terms of wetness, it is exactly what a north-European water ride should be. For once, the old adage "You will get wet, you may get soaked" is actually true. Indeed, the best chance of a soaking comes not from the waves, but from the waterfalls, as you cannot use the old ploy of getting up and running to the other side of the boat.

And so the boat bobs toward the end of its deeply unremarkable course, and yet as your maiden voyage draws to a close, the only thing crossing your mind is "I hope they let us go round again". It's crazy because, were you to tackle the same course aboard a "normal" rapids boat, you would be suicidally bored by this stage, and yet here you are desperate for another outing.

And so, we come back to out original question. How do you make a rapids ride feel truly boring? Easy-peasy. Just ride El Rio Grande, and then go back to an Intamin rapids ride. By comparison, it'll bore you rigid.

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:

  • The boats

Bad points:

  • Everything else

Labels: , ,