Coaster Kingdom

Whirlwind, Camelot
Sunday, February 25, 2007

What can you do to create a coaster that grabs visitors' attention? A dozen inversions? 300ft drops? Maybe, but these things don't come cheap, and not every park has that sort of money hidden under the mattress. No, a lot of parks need to find a cheaper way of turning heads.

One such park is Camelot. Sitting in Lancashire, the park has always suffered from the fact that it sits only a half hour drive away from one of the world's greatest amusement parks, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, not to mention BPB's sister park, Southport Pleasureland. It takes a lot to impress a public already au fait with The Big One, Grand National, or Cyclone, and Camelot has never really had anything in the same league.

When it opened, Camelot was owned by Granada, and consisted of a very limited array of kiddie rides. The only ride of any note was "Dragon Flyer", a bizarre and surprisingly peppy powered coaster circling almost the entire park. After a few years, the park expanded, opening some real thrill rides in "Land of the Brave", a new area behind the original park. This was quite a masterstroke, as any large rides placed here are clearly visible from the M6 motorway and act as giant billboards for the park.

For years, this area played host to the park's star attraction, "Tower of Terror". Not a drop tower as you might think, but a Shwarzkopf Silver Arrow coaster, with its loop cleverly concealed inside an impressive three dimensional castle facade. Only the most observant riders ever realised the ride went upside down until it was too late to back down. Although not Earth-shattering, it was a very enjoyable ride.

Unfortunately, both the Tower of Terror and the nearby Excalibur spin ride were only there on hire, and eventually the owners wanted them back, leaving Camelot and its new owners, Prime Resorts, without a ride of any real significance. As such, visitors in 2001 and 2002 were offered no rides capable of really grabbing their attention. Other than Dragon Flyer, the only large ride was "The Gauntlet", a Pinfari coaster of the same infamous design as Drayton Manor's "Klondike Mine" or Brighton Pier's "Turbo". Obviously, this was far from ideal!

Meanwhile in Germany, Maurer Sohne, were enjoying considerable success on the German fair scene with their "Spinning Coaster 2000" rides. Fitting the footprint of the firm's highly successful Wild Mouse, the ride included steeply banked drops and helices, and was designed to make use of the firm's new 4-seat spinning cars, originally offered as an add-on for their Wild Mouse rides. A disagreement with a showman, however, had seen the company repossess one of the earlier models of the ride.

So, Camelot had a space left by a reclaimed ride, while Maurer had a reclaimed ride looking for a home. It doesn't take a genius to work out what happened next. The ride opened in 2003, and was a real fluke for the park, as they came out of the deal with a ride that had earned a very good reputation in Germany, and could be claimed as a genuine first for a UK park. As if to highlight the brilliance of the park's timing, Tussaud's were already talking to Maurer about similar rides for 2004 at Chessington and Alton Towers, yet Camelot had come from nowhere and found themselves in a very enviable position, a real triumph of opportunism.

When you visit Camelot, there is a distinct sense that the place had been intended as a "real" theme park, and has gradually abandoned the idea. From the entrance, you pass through the courtyard, past an attractive mini-castle and the Go-Karts(!), then down into the original park and over a bridge into the newer section. As you arrive in Land of the Brave, nothing really hints at the idea of mediaeval theming other than the ride names and backflashes. The rides themselves all appear exactly as they would on the fairgrounds - not a bad thing in itself, but very out of place in what is supposed to be a "proper" theme park.

Whirlwind sits neatly on a little plateau that was originally home to Excalibur (a Weber Dreamboat). This makes the ride look very impressive, and much taller than it actually is. The ride is placed side-on from the pathways, meaning that the station is at the side of the ride, rather than the front, and the lift hill is at the back. The entrance is through a small archway (left over from the Excalibur entrance), which leads around to the left of the ride.

Until now, you would be forgiven for not realising that the ride had come from the fair circuit. When you near the station, however, it becomes comically obvious. Camelot's attempts to tailor the ride to the site amount to nothing more than a new name sign at the top of the lift hill, and the addition of the park's logo to the side of each car. The ride even uses the same queue system as on the fairs, a metal floored cattle pen, zig-zagging in front of a station that has very obviously been unfolded from a truck - you can even see the truck's wheels and luggage compartments.

OK, it's forgivable for an ex-travelling coaster to have a temporary look, but Whirlwind actually seems to go out of its way to contradict the park's mediaeval theme. For example, Lara Croft-style artwork hanging from the station fences might look good at a fair or unthemed park, but looks totally out of place here, as does the Maurer plaque giving details of the ride in German (or is it Chaucerian English?). With such a blatant disregard for the Camelot theme, it's actually surprising not to see a fairground paybox at the ride entrance, telling people in German that the ride still costs 4 Euros per person.

Still, there is one real advantage of buying an ex-fair ride, and that's capacity. If you've ever seen the kind of crowds that German fairs can attract, you'll understand why the rides need to get through the queues like lightning. To that end, Whirlwind is capable of running with seven four-seater cars at once. Sadly, few theme parks ever bother to run rides to capacity, and so my visit saw a mere four cars on-track. Not only that, the staff insisted that only two people could ride in each car, turning a queue of about 100 people into a very slow and irritating long wait. It's one thing to know that a park is doing its best with a low-capacity ride, but it's another to see a coaster operate with less than a third of its seats available for use.

Worse still, as you shuffle along this slow moving queue, there is very little of the ride visible - or any the park's other rides for that matter. It is a shame that the ride should look so good from a distance, yet nothing has been done to make the ride particularly easy-on-the-eye when you get near it. Spectators can only view the ride from one side, and even then high fences make the ride seem quite uninviting.

Again lacking any sort of Camelot theming, the cars appear exactly as they would on the fair circuit. Fortunately, they look very stylish, albeit totally out-of-sync with the park's mediaeval theme. Recalling the ride's Wild Mouse heritage, many of the cars have cleverly designed smiley mouse-faces painted on them, their eyes formed by the oval grab-rails attached to the lap-bars. This subtle and slightly odd humour is very characteristic of German fair rides, and is a welcome sight on these shores.

The cars are slightly awkward to board, but very comfortable once you are in. The back-to-back seating arrangement certainly offers a far more exposed feel than Reverchon's Waltzer-style cars. The lap bars are unobtrusive, and the lack of arm-space means that holding the grab-rail is definitely the most comfortable way to ride. Before long, you head out of the station and head straight for the express-speed lift hill.

As with the Reverchon spinning coasters, the cars are locked in position for the early part of the ride. If you think this will detract from the ride, worry not, the early part of the ride is good fun whichever direction you're facing. Facing forward, riders hit the Wild Mouse-like turns in a truly manic fashion, while backward riding gives the twisted first drop a real out-of-control feel.

Climbing out of the drop, we hit a very high-speed turn and pass the release mechanism that sets the car spinning. The car then hurtles straight into the ride's highlight, and one of the most disorientating pieces of coaster track around. With the car already spinning at a good speed, the track drops and rises into a truly insane 180-degree turn, banked almost vertically. Before you have time to gather your bearings, the car swoops back and up a sharp twisted climb into a block brake beneath the lift hill. There aren't many coasters where a block brake can be considered a highlight, but the sudden sense of calm sends the car spinning like crazy ready for the next section of the ride.

From here, the ride ties itself into a neat tangle of track, with a good mixture of straight sections, banked drops and helices. Given that riders are not given much chance to see the track ahead, the ride uses the very clever ploy of giving misleading introductions to each element. If you think you're heading into a helix, for example, you get a straight. Expect a straight, and you get a drop. Expect a drop, and there'll be another block brake to set the car spinning again.

If I have one main criticism of the ride, it is Maurer's attempt to fit too many elements into the ride. Other good spinning coasters like Magic Mountain/Star World feature no real drops as such, but concentrate on turns and helices to compliment the spinning. Towards the end of Whirlwind, there's a distinct sense of Maurer trying to cram in as many drops as possible, and sacrificing the ride quality. The ride's finale, for example, consists of two sharp drops squeezed around the back of the ride, when it seems fairly obvious that one gentle swooping drop or long turn would suit the spinning cars far better.

Possibly as a result of trying to pack in too much into the ride, Whirlwind is not exactly the smoothest coaster around. It should be remembered that when the ride debuted on the fairs, it was one of the first two versions to appear, with later versions (including Oscar Bruch's "Spinning Racer") being refined to make them smoother. Although not rough to an uncomfortable extent, it can certainly feel like something of an ordeal at times, especially if you find yourself facing the wrong way at the wrong time, unable to see that you're approaching one of the sharper sections and brace yourself accordingly.

With Whirlwind, Camelot may well have found the ideal short-term solution for its problems. Although not the UK's first spinning coaster by a long way, it certainly trounces the nation's infestation of lacklustre Crazy Mouse coasters. On the down side, a ride like this cannot possibly hold the position of star attraction for long. Even on the fairs, the ride would often have played second fiddle to giant coasters like EuroStar and Olympia Looping, and it seems unlikely that visitors would keep opening their wallets and returning to Camelot year after year on the strength of Whirlwind alone, especially given that there are other parks nearby offering so much more.

Teamed up with rides like a Pinfari looper, Fabbri Evolution and Huss Flipper, the park has the feel of a series of support rides without a star attraction. Worse still, the very temporary feel of many of Camelot's rides (Whirlwind included) gives visitors the distinct impression that they could well return and find that rides have disappeared, as happened with Tower of Terror.

Whirlwind is a great short-term solution to the park's lack of major rides, and should hopefully bring an upturn in the park's fortunes, but needs to be followed by a more grandiose statement of intent. With major parks installing custom-designed Maurer spinning coasters, Whirlwind will not maintain its prestige for long unless it is given a decent companion. Camelot, like most UK parks, has great difficulty gaining planning permission for large rides - proposals for a standard Vekoma inverted boomerang were given the thumbs down, for example - but other parks have shown that such problems can be vanquished with a little creativity.

So, am I recommending Whirlwind? Yes, it's certainly well worth riding. It's not a white-knuckle scream machine, but is a good fun ride, and a worthy successor to Maurer's enjoyable Wild Mouse rides. Whether it is as worthy a successor to Tower of Terror is, however, debatable. Had Whirlwind been installed in addition to that fine Schwarzkopf ride, rather than as a replacement, I'd be recommending you visit Camelot ASAP. As it is, I'm not sure.

The main problem with Whirlwind is that it isn't the kind of ride to keep you occupied all day long, and the rest of the park simply does not have enough attractions to adequately fill the rest of your time. Also, it is worth remembering that Whirlwind is an absolutely bog-standard installation of an off-the-shelf coaster. If you have already ridden another version elsewhere, then Whirlwind will have absolutely nothing new to offer you, and therefore I could only recommend that you give it a miss.

Whirlwind is an admirable stop-gap solution to the loss of Camelot's signature ride, Tower of Terror. Whether it is enough to single-handedly boost Camelot higher up the UK parks pecking order is another matter. It has certainly got the park's rejuvenation off to a good start, but let's just keep our fingers crossed that that is what it is - a start.

Only the most disciplined of readers will have failed to notice at this point that I have awarded Whirlwind 3 stars. That may seem mean, as Maurer have really come up with a great little ride here. It may not offer near-blackout G-forces or huge drops, but it is one of those rare rides that offer laugh-out-loud fun, a quality that can often be lost in the race for the latest record-breaker or world-first.

No, the reason for my star-stinginess is that this is a review specifically of Whirlwind, not the general "Spinning Coaster 2000" range. Whirlwind's problem is that, while Maurer have done a great job in coming up with a very good little ride, Camelot is charging visitors to enter a park without a really major attraction. Whirlwind would be an excellent support ride, but Camelot are asking us to treat it as a star-attraction, and it simply cannot live up to that kind of billing.

If it had been built at Drayton Manor or Pleasureland, Whirlwind would instantly earn itself another star, as it would fit beautifully into these parks' array of good mid-size rides. If it were at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, I might even award it a fifth star, as it would be a fantastic way to spend a few minutes before heading off to one of the bigger rides. At Camelot, however, it is expected to take the role of star attraction. As good as the ride is, it was never really designed for such a role, and doesn't really inspire me to make a point of returning to the park too often.

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:

  • Far superior to the Reverchon spinning mouse
  • Ferocious, but not uncomfortably rough
  • Original layout

Bad points:

  • Chaotic finale
  • Poor presentation of the ride
  • Not up to the role of the parks' star roller coaster

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