Coaster Kingdom

Maelstrom, Drayton Manor
Friday, February 23, 2007

It's often said that there have only been seven stories ever written, and that writers spend their lives coming up with endless variations and combinations of the same basic themes. The same is true of the ride industry, and particularly the spin ride market. Each year, the manufacturers unveil elaborate new contraptions, and while they always claim to be the next big thing, almost all of them can be traced back to a combination of elements and ideas borrowed from existing rides.

In October 1994, German showman Rudolf Robrahn presented the first Huss Frisbee at the Bremen Freimarkt fair. The ride was an obvious development from the ever-popular Pirate Ship, but gave a much wilder ride thanks to the replacement of the boat with circular spinning gondola. Suddenly, the relatively gentle swing boat ride had been transformed into a real white knuckle crowd pleaser, and soon Huss were taking plenty of orders for the new ride

As always happens when a new ride is successful, other companies soon started building their own versions of the Frisbee. Some made blatant copies of the Huss ride, while others started to add their own twists to the idea. Among the latter group was Intamin, whose "Gyro Swing" ride would use the same basic principles as the Frisbee, but would have the seats on the spinning disc facing outwards.

In late 2001, rumours started to circulate that Drayton Manor was to replace their ageing Huss Pirate Ship with the UK's first Huss Frisbee. Over the previous few years, however, Drayton Manor had built a good relationship with Intamin, and so it wasn't too much of a surprise to find that the Pirate Ship was staying, and would be joined by "Maelstrom", Intamin's second Gyro Swing (the first being in South Korea). As ever, the opening ceremony was performed by a pop group, the original reality TV band, Hear'Say, who soon fell victim to the Drayton Manor curse, and split up a few weeks later.

Maelstrom is situated near the Storm Force 10 water ride, and is squeezed between the old cable car and miniature railway rides. The sight of the gondola swinging out above high above the ride entrance area is undoubtedly spectacular, but the fact that the gondola spins at a fairly sedate rate may lead spin ride fans to be pessimistic about the ride.

At a standstill, Maelstrom is not the most attractive ride in the world, giving a squashed appearance in comparison to the existing range of Pirate Ship / Frisbee rides. Perched at the tip of this rather chunky structure sits one of the biggest motors imaginable. Compared to the slim-line look of KMG's Afterburner rides (e.g. Thorpe Park's Vortex), you get distinct sense that Intamin were using the "sledgehammer to crack walnuts" philosophy, and from many angles, it makes the whole ride look very bulky and, more importantly, downright ugly.

If the top of the ride is a little unsightly, the same can't be said of the bottom. Theming is surprisingly good, with the ride obviously representing the whirlpool, and the surrounding area themed as a surf village wrecked by the power of the storm. The queue picks its way through the wreckage, and heads out into a giant cattle grid at the rear of the ride, which annoyingly means the queue usually looks much shorter than it is.

As you negotiate the queue, look out for more evidence of the brilliantly whimsical sense of humour that Drayton Manor seem to inject into their newer rides. The entrance sets the scene, with the rear end of a diving bell poking up out of the ground, complete with a shark still trying to escape from the wreckage. Beyond this, buckled road signs give futile warnings of possible storms ahead, while all around surfboards and other artefacts stick up out of the pavements, having been swept into the air and thrown back to Earth. The control booth has the appearance of a surf shack, its roof destroyed in the storm, and with more wreckage sticking out at all angles. In a subtle touch, the ride platform is covered in a sandy surface, representing the beach.

On boarding the ride, you may be surprised to see that, although the ride uses suspended seats, the ubiquitous moving floor is missing. In its place, we have a series of small narrow metal steps are placed slightly too far back from the seat to really useful as you perch yourself into position. Having pulled down the comfortable overhead restraint and attached the seat belt, the steps drop away and the ride begins.

I may have mocked the motor's aesthetic qualities, but it certainly doesn't lack performance. The gondola quickly builds up height with a series of very powerful swings, while the whole ride remains remarkably quiet throughout. As the gondola begins to turn, a unique sensation begins. For anyone who thought the ride would just be a Frisbee with a different seating position, you are in for a surprise.

While the outward facing seats mean that the ride loses the "communal" feel of a Frisbee or Afterburner, they give a remarkable sense of freedom, as none of the ride's structure is visible from your seat. If you happen to face "forwards" as you swing through the station, there is an amazing sense of flight, with the powerful swing accentuating the feeling of speed as you skim the platform and head up into an unobstructed view of the sky. Face downwards at full swing, and you get a surreal upside-down view of the entrance plaza on one side, or the queue on the other. The sides of the disc are no less entertaining, with a great moment of weightlessness when you reach full height. Thankfully, you will almost always get a chance to try all of these sensations in a single ride, meaning there's no need to be choosy about where you sit.

As for the spinning, well, it is true that you don't really feel the spinning as you do on similar rides. Obviously, high-speed spinning would be impossible due to the fact that the seats face outward, but it would still be nice if it were to spin just a little faster. Ultimately, however, the fun of Maelstrom comes from the amazing visual sensation that is created. While this might come as a disappointment to spin ride fans, it is nice to find a ride that offers something so very different from all the other Frisbee-clones out there.

One disappointing aspect of the ride is the length. It does begin to slow down rather earlier that it really should, and always gives the same length of ride even on the quietest of days. Consequently, it makes you wonder how long it is worth queuing for what is ultimately a very short run on a very good ride.

One thing that merits a special mention is the efficiency of the loading process. Anyone who has witnessed Thorpe Park's Vortex will be glad to know that the powerful motor allows the ride to stop very quickly, without spending an eternity swinging a few inches either way; while the "boarding steps" consume a fraction of the time of Vortex's moving floor. Another neat feature is that the disc always stops in exactly the same position, meaning that people who have left items on the platform (bags, shoes, etc), are immediately reunited with them, preventing time being wasted while people run around the platform retrieving their possessions, and also aids security by ensuring that nobody is able to take others' belongings in the post-ride melee. Unfortunately, some of this saved time is lost by the fact that the narrow path is very close to some of the seats, meaning a severe bottleneck as people try to leave. This is a fairly basic piece of poor planning, as the exit could easily have been placed in a more convenient and safe part of the platform.

So, how does Maelstrom compare to similar rides? Well, I'm not going to tell you. Now, before you start booing, let me explain why. Maelstrom might use the same principles as the Frisbee, but it rides so differently that there is no point comparing it to any of the other Frisbee clones out there. Maelstrom isn't exactly a white knuckle thrill ride, but more a highly enjoyable exercise in disorientation, offering a wonderfully bizarre sense of isolation as you seemingly fly through the air, with a clear view of your surroundings unobstructed by the rest of the ride's structure, and hearing virtually nothing but the sound of the air rushing past your ears. Combine this with plenty of enjoyable moments of weightlessness at the height of each swing, and you have a recipe for a very enjoyable ride.

Before riding Maelstrom, I was not exactly optimistic. As a spin ride fan, I thought the spinning of the disc was far too slow to make the ride enjoyable, and that it would just be a weak clone of the Frisbee. How wrong I was. Maelstrom is terrific fun in its own right, and fills the park's need for a really good spin ride. Whether you are a fan of spinners or not, Maelstrom is more than capable of providing a very pleasant surprise indeed.

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:

  • Not too intense for spin ride haters
  • A spectacular ride with excellent and quirky theming
Bad points:
  • A short ride programme
  • Probably too weak for spin ride purists

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