Coaster Kingdom

Equinox, British Fairs
Friday, February 23, 2007

Ah, what a wonderful image the word "Equinox" conjures up. The dictionary defines it as "Either of two points on the celestial sphere at which the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator", but I'm sure we all knew that already. The important thing is that it's the kind of word that rolls off the tongue beautifully. Besides, since when did ride names have to make sense?

In a sense, Dutch firm KMG have become the saviour of the British fairground. It wasn't all that long ago that there was a truly colossal difference in quality between the rides touring the UK and those in the rest of Europe (particularly Germany). They'd get all the latest rides from major firms like Huss, while we had to put up with a steady diet of Waltzers and Miamis. KMG were the first company to regularly churn out rides that are both good enough to appear on the mainland, and practical enough to appeal to UK showmen. Probably the most spectacular of their rides is Equinox, or to use KMG's name for it, the "Tango".

In the world of spin rides, very little is truly new. Most new rides are a variation on an existing ride, or a cross between two or more existing ideas. As such, when something truly original does come along, there's never long to wait before others start to borrow the idea for themselves. Probably the most influential ride of recent times has been Mondial's Top Scan. A roaring success both at fairs and parks, the ride's awesome reputation meant that it was always going to be the ride that others looked up to. The most obvious thing to copy was the Top Scan's distinctive star-shaped seating arrangement, with riders lined up along a series of "spokes", and sure enough, that's exactly what KMG came up with.

Standing in front of Equinox during the loading procedure is not exactly awe-inspiring. The ride looks much smaller than any other major spin ride, and the presentation is relatively low-key for a fairground ride. Although it often draws a crowd, it is more likely to be people trying to work out what the ride does, rather than digging into their pockets for the money to buy a ticket.

For anyone who does decide to open their wallet, the system is a little confusing. The paybox is on the right hand side of the ride platform, yet the entrance is on the left. What this means is that you have to buy your token (usually around £2.50 or £3), then shuffle through the crowd to the entrance. This is presumably a result of the fact that the ride platform had to be reduced in size in order to fit a standard British fair plot.

So you arrive on the loading platform and you are ready to take your seat. Unlike the Top Scan, there are seats on both sides of the arms, and so once you've decided which way to face it's time place yourself in the restraints.

Oh dear God.

Sorry for that little outburst, but you need to be prepared for a shock at this point. KMG have never had a great reputation for comfortable restraints. Their earliest rides featured horribly restrictive overhead restraints, while later rides generally saw the problem eased considerably. Unfortunately, it has to be said that the Equinox restraints are among the most horrific and intimidating devices ever constructed. To look at them conjures up images of a medieval torture device, and will surely make any sane person feel a little nervous.

The idea is clearly to be a sort of floorless stand-up affair, giving the impression that riders are simply strapped directly to the arms of the ride. First, you perch yourself on the small seat, designed like those on Intamin's floorless stand-up freefall towers. Then the operator manually lowers the restraint - an overhead restraint made of solid metal. Yes, you read that correctly - you half sit/ half stand there with a metal bar either side of your delicate cranium. First time riders will no doubt be praying that it turns out to be a smooth ride. As if part of some bizarre Dutch joke, more metal bars are used across the restraint, holding you in position in across a part of the chest where you'd really rather not receive such stealthy support.

Amazingly, the metal bars are only the SECOND-to-worst feature of the restraints. The worst is... and I shudder to even think about it... the dagger. How can I describe this instrument of physical and psychological torture without turning Coaster Kingdom into an adults-only site? The dagger is a long pointed metal spike that protrudes downward from the overhead restraint, and locks into a slot in the seat. This slot is positioned, to put it delicately, a few millimetres from a part of the body at which the male riders would prefer not have any pointed metal objects aimed. Oh my, I think I need to go and have a lie down. Honestly, these restraints are an accident waiting to happen, and I most certainly do not want to be around when it eventually does. Happily, the restraints are only a problem during loading and unloading. Once in place, they aren't as uncomfortable as they look, and, once you are used to them, suit the ride fairly well.

Fortunately, there are no more nasty shocks in store, but plenty of nice surprises. As the ride starts, it's worth watching the crowd. The first thing to happen is that the arm raises a few feet, and the ride starts to turn. At this point the crowd seems happy enough. Then a pause in the music heralds the first surprise.

"5... 4... 3... 2... 1". Goes the jingle.

This is where you realise one of the main differences between the Top Scan and the Tango. Whereas the Top Scan's rows of seats are free-swinging, these are powered, and can be flipped as and when the operator chooses. There is a collective intake of breath from the crowd as the three arms all start looping over, sending riders' limbs flailing in all directions. At this point, comments from the spectators generally revolve around the theme of "You won't get me on that!", but if they think they've seen enough, the ride still has a few surprise in store.

The next part is superb to watch. As I've said, the loading platform for Equinox is smaller than most rides, but you're about to see why. Behind the well-painted backflash, the arm actually goes back a lot further than it originally appears. With the cars still turning, the arm lifts up to its full height, a towering majestically over the crowd, and revealing the ride name neatly written along the underside of the arm. Again, watching the crowd is a joy, as this is when jaws start to hit the ground - they didn't see this coming!

With the arm now at full height, everything grinds to a halt in mid air. As the crowd look on, the ride reveals its final trick. The arm itself starts to twist round, sending riders tumbling chaotically through the air.

Now that the ride in full swing, there usually follows some sort of trick section, where one or two of the ride's three main movements are used at once, and changing the direction of the spinning. Eventually, the grand finale beckons. The seats begin to turn, the rows begin to loop, and the arm begins to twist. With all three motions being performed at full speed, this is an incredibly intense ride. It's now obvious that the similarity to the Top Scan is purely cosmetic, as Equinox offers a very different sensation, relying more on disorientating combinations of movements than sheer G-force. The fact that it is all taking place so far above the ground is just the icing on the cake. Forget all the niggles, this is sheer quality.

For the crowd, it is an incredible sight. The fact that a ride that looks like it will barely get off the ground ends up stretching a whopping 65ft into the sky is a sublime touch. For anyone nervous about trying a particular spin ride, a common piece of advice is to keep watching one person on the ride and follow that one person through the ride's motions. While this is perfectly good advice, when Equinox starts spinning on all axes, it is all but impossible.

As the end of the ride draws near, there is an unfortunate sense of anti-climax. The whole thing simply grinds to a halt at full height, and the arm slowly lowers to the ground. This is a shame, as a reversal of the lifting procedure, with the arm stopping a few feet above the ground and allowing the arms to spin a little more, would have given the ride a more satisfying conclusion.

Oh yes, one last tip: When the ride is over, make sure you push the restraint up as far as it will go. This may sound odd, but you don't want the dagger to be hanging down at head-level as you jump from your seat!

Staying with the restraints, while they are undeniably very awkward to climb in and out of, you do see their advantages during the ride. You are 65 feet in the air, being spun in three directions at once, the scenery is nothing more than a distant blur, and you're doing it all in a restraint which offers a surprisingly liberating feeling of exposure. It would be one thing to go through such a wild set of motions while buried in a cocoon-like seat, but to do it in such a flimsy seat and harness is quite excellent. The only conclusion to draw about them is that they are a great idea badly implemented. If only they could be modified slightly, particularly with regard to making them less hostile to get in and out of, they could become a real winner.

As riders finally get their feet back on the platform, a quick blast of James Brown grunting "I feel good" pounds out from the speakers, but is it appropriate? Well, I'd certainly say so. For the spin ride fan, Equinox is near-perfect. It's fast, it's forceful, and it has a sense of drama and evolution that few other rides can match. All the movements are smooth and graceful, and so the threat of bashing your head against the metal bars is never realised. While the presentation lacks the sense of manic urgency of other major fair rides, it nevertheless has its own distinct character. For the more cautious rider, Equinox is a pleasant surprise. Although undoubtedly intense, it is smooth, graceful, and nowhere near as stomach churning as it looks.

Although a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, it is notable that all-too few people seem to be lured into riding. This would be great news for a theme park operator, but in the pay-per-ride world of the fairground, it seems a little worrying. To many, the ride looks far too terrifying to even contemplate jumping aboard. Whereas rides like Top Buzz have an aura of pure fun, Equinox has an aura of fear. As a result, spectators get the idea that it has been designed more as a test of physical endurance than for fun, which leads all-too-many spectators to wrongly assume that the ride is simply not for them.

What makes Equinox so enjoyable is the sheer variety of movements. From the wonderful early section where the cars are held just above the platform and rolled over, to the sheer insanity of the finale, Equinox is like half a dozen top-quality rides all rolled into one. If only it lasted a little longer, and had a more climactic ending, it could be a challenger for the king of spin rides. As it is, it's hard to escape the fact that the ride invites comparisons to the Top Scan, but isn't quite up to the task of challenging Mondial's masterpiece.

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:

  • Great opening sequence where the ride 'unravels' itself
  • Very spectacular ride with a lot of stature in the fairground
  • Relatively cheap and simple ride for showmen

Bad points:

  • The ride sequence peters out with no real finale
  • Clumsy and sometimes uncomfortable restraints

Labels: , ,