Coaster Kingdom

River Quest, Phantasialand
Saturday, February 24, 2007

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

Not so long ago, there were only so many ways that you could get doused in water at a theme park. Log Flumes, Giant Splash rides and Rapids watermarked their way into the staple theme park line-up, and were more often than not as basic as they come, doing little to float your boat, so to speak.

Despite this, water rides have never been on the verge of drying up. Because water rides have reached saturation point, it seems a crying shame that now technology enables water to be bent in so many new and exciting directions, there are simply few parks who wish to replace their tried and tested workhorses for a innovative and more stirring alternative.

For example, flume rides are now capable of going backwards; but how many parks are willing to replace their established flumes for a new one? Not many. And what parks don't have flumes? Again, not many.

By the same token, rapids rides are now capable of going down drops, through whirlpools and even have Ferris wheel-style lifts - but there are few parks willing to install such a signature ride whilst their humdrum 15 year-old Intamin rapids ride still gets a queue. And again, what park doesn't have a rapids ride? Well, Phantasialand didn't.

Whilst Phantasialand is one of the oldest parks in Germany, it has never had the luxury of acres and acres of land to expand onto. In fact, the park has never had a rapids ride and it wasn't until Phantasialand "came within a hair's breadth of a catastrophe" (in the words of Bruehl's State Premier Wolfgang Clement) when the park's largest coaster, Gebirgsbahn, along with the Canyon Bahn were both all but destroyed by an enormous fire.

The effects of the fire were immediate; not only had - by many peoples definition - the heart of the park been destroyed, but the visitor numbers slumped dramatically. Yet, against all odds, in 2002 Phantasialand bounced back with gusto, opening not only Winja's Fear and Force (a pair of Maurer spinning coasters) but also Feng Ju Palace (Vekoma Mad House) and also River Quest, which was built on the site of the destroyed Schwarzkopf coasters.

It doesn't take a budding Sherlock to realise that River Quest possesses very little in the way of criteria by which be considered a rapids ride. Indeed, water ride purists (should such a thing exist) would argue what good is a rapids ride without any rapids. Well, whilst we could spend all day debating the credentials behind what type of ride is what, a ride is a ride, and River Quest has so many other strings to its bow that it would be unfair to approach it with anything but an open mind.

River Quest's entrance is surprisingly low-key. Much of the ride is hidden away until you climb down the steps into a large pentagonal hall with a column fanning out into a spectacular arched roof above, surrounded with a circle of po-faced knights clasping shields and swords.

The hall is surrounded in a river, almost like a moat, through which the black River Quest boats slowly float by. The queue takes you around the back of the hall and up a stairway up to the upper levels of the ride.

Whilst much of the ride is hidden away from view, from the various levels of the queue you get some excellent views that really embellish the idea of adventure. A glance to your left affords some great views of the boats passing by, whilst the queue bridges the final return into the station giving a good opportunity for you to see just how wet riders are.

A final staircase leads down into the station, decorated with huge and fanciful lanterns, fishing nets, racks of drying fish and other things associated with a medieval port.

Unlike Intamin rapids where the circular boats follow a turntable around, Hafema rapids bring the boat out of the water onto an enormous conveyor belt. The boat can be loaded a lot faster because of this, thanks to the fact you can walk on the conveyor and get onto (and off of) the boat from all angles. Each boat is made up of three segments, each seating three people with room to spare.

The boats are a work of art compared to the Tupperware affair on Ribena Rumba Rapids with riders appearing to be cradled in elegant outstretched bat wings. The small rubber 'tyre' around the skirt of the boat is small and the design of the boat is generally far more refined compared to other manufacturers with the sides of each section offering support, as well as a grab handle for each part of the boat.

The ride gets off to a relatively serene start, placidly floating around a lake punctuated by jets of water operated by people pulling on Excalibur-style swords set into rocks around a watching courtyard.

A conveyor belt now takes you into the foot of a castle tower, and into a dead end where you stop. Suddenly, the whole boat is slid across to the right and into a small room. This is where River Quest starts rewriting the books on what a rapids ride is, and indeed, is not.

Suddenly, your boat is vertically climbing the tower in one of two massive elevators, where, upon reaching the top the door on the opposite side of the lift slides open and River Quest prepares to really roll its sleeves up.

There are some points on rides that have an indelible effect on you. The moment where the lift gets to the top and suddenly you realise the only way out is down a steep, 30ft drop is one of those moments where words fail you.

Almost as a reflex action, jaws drop, hands clasp onto anything they can, and suddenly you slide from the lift and plunge down the drop, hitting the side violently as the drop funnels the turning boat into a straight line before splashing down into the water below, drenching those heading backwards into the wall of water, splashing just about everyone else.

Inevitably, in a state of disbelief you will glance over your shoulder, and sure enough, there it is, the largest drop on a rapids ride in the world, and it looks no less implausible from the bottom.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the ride again becomes a bit more tranquil, but only until you realise you are skirting around the edge of a whirlpool. The route your boat is clear as the trough perpetually spirals in towards the centre of the large circle, before ducking down and out of view.

As you slowly orbit around this whirlpool, other boats spiral around, faster and faster, following the torrents of water down into the centre where white water helplessly cascades down.

As you watch boat after boat disappear through a parting in the water, you soon realise there are no boats in between you and whatever lies beyond as the spiralling waterway once again steepens as your ill-fated vessel drops down below the whirlpool into another straight drop, splashing down into the water below.

Yet again, a moment to contemplate what else the ride can throw at you as you float past the curious queue line. Nervous giggles will soon turn to looks of desperation, though, as the sound of another waterfall heralds another drop, and as people make a desperate reach for the grab rail, the boat suddenly tips steeply down an incredibly abrupt drop into the depths of the building above.

A long, covered turn around the entrance courtyard is a fairly peaceful end to a surprisingly boisterous ride. As voyeurs watch your boat float slowly past, few will appreciate the extent of adventure that you have just experienced, nevertheless, with its job done, you jump from your fibreglass bobbing bat and are left to enjoy the rest of the park with wet clothes compliments of River Quest.

I'm sure you're expecting me to triumphantly proclaim that this is the best rapids ride in Europe. Well, I'm not. This goes back to the earlier remarks about what makes a rapids ride, so by the same mark, it is unfair to pitch River Quest against more traditional rapids.

Indeed, this is the largest criticism of River Quest. The party pieces are there, but there is no continuity between each of them.

Many rides have the occasional stand out moment, but River Quest is riddled with them. The moment you head into the elevator, you realise that this is a water ride quite unlike any other, and from that point on, there is no let up in grandiose and memorable moments including the outrageous drop from the castle tower, to the whirlpool and two drops following.

Had each of these undeniably incredible elements been tied together with rapids sections or something rougher than a millpond, then River Quest could well be one of the best water rides in the world.

Even with the lack of correlation between these elements, River Quest is simply spectacular. Not only has River Quest got three drops, each is completely different. There is the huge, long drop from the castle tower. Not only do you skim down this drop at unfeasible speeds, but also the boat is forcefully bashed into a spin mid-way down before the splash.

The second drop flows on well from the whirlpool where the spiral of water smoothly (and more conventionally) evolves into a straight drop.

Interestingly, the final drop was supposed to be a trapdoor effect where the bottom of the trough essentially drops out from underneath the boat, but instead it is just a violently steep drop, and one of the wettest on the ride.

Despite these fairly sensational drops, River Quest gives most riders only a healthy dousing in water, not a complete soaking. You'd be unlucky to come off either unscathed or soaked to the bone, which I think is a good balance to strike.

Theming where it matters is amazing. The station is wonderful, and the queue line and entrance area is excellent, but surprisingly, the actual ride is fairly flat and monotone - not poor, but not of the standard elsewhere.

River Quest is undoubtedly one of the best water rides in Europe, but it is easy to see how it could have been the best in the world.

Comparisons between River Quest and other water rides are ultimately academic, as River Quest simply is in a class of its own.

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 completely different experience offered to almost every other rapids ride
  • Three drops, all excellent, and each very individual
  • Elements such as the vertical lift and whirlpool are hard to find on other rides

Bad points:

  • Beyond the drops, though, there aren't many elements to hold your attention, and no rapids to speak of
  • Theming is plain in places, and there are dead-spots between each major element

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