Disney's long-term relationship with Vekoma just goes to show how many of their larger coasters are all about smoke and mirrors. Very few Vekoma coasters are anything other than average at best, yet, in the hands of the most competent themers in the world, prowess in storytelling distracts you from a coaster which is likely to be poorly paced and riddled with dead-spots.
Sometimes it is difficult to turn your senses off and distinguish just how much theming adds to a Disney coaster, but we were offered a unique opportunity to draw this comparison when Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at MGM Studios opened - and later Xpress at Walibi World, as - for all their differences, they were near-identical in terms of layout.
MGM Studios' Rock 'n' Roller Coaster was enclosed in a massive building hidden by a 40ft Stratocaster electric guitar. Inside, meanwhile, guests are transported from a dingy backstreet through a blacklit Hollywood to the red carpet of an Aerosmith concert in a giant 24-seater super-stretch limousine.
Xpress is painted blue and red.
It does have an intriguing history, though. It was added in 2000 along with three other coasters when Walibi Flevo as it was then called was transformed into Six Flags Holland.
Although originally called Superman The Ride, Xpress was planned to be installed as Riddler's Revenge, and as track was installed, it sported the familiar green and purple colourscheme that has since been used on the same park's Goliath.
Before it opened, it was decided that European visitors didn't know enough about Batman's villains, namely The Riddler, so the last-minute decision was made to repaint and rename the ride to fit the more universal Superman theme.
In 2005, the park reopened as Walibi World, and with this it lost the rights to the Superman name. The ride was renamed as Xpress, and the queueline which went through the offices of the Daily Planet was themed into a ticket hall for an 'xpress' train company.
While it is blatantly obvious that Xpress was a rush job of the highest order, you must doth your cap to whoever managed to conjure up the idea of putting the ride where it is.
By rights, it shouldn't have fitted, but by god, did they manage to squeeze it in. As there is no space for a pathway, the entrance is through a covered street much like Studio 1 at Disney Studios in Paris through a fairly non-descript doorway.
Despite the compact footprint, as there was little space for the ride, everything but the launch, brakes and station were built over water.
The queueline takes you up a flight of stairs, past a reception desk and through the tickethall of the Xpress train company, before running along the front of the building which is glass fronted.
You get as good a view you ever will of Xpress. The compact spaghetti-bowl layout is positioned awkwardly away from camera lenses at the end of a lengthy stretch of launch track, which too is discretely hidden away, this time under a weatherproof canopy.
Once outside, the weather-beaten deep blue and rich red colourscheme which has faded to a more pastel shade of blue and pink is all that remains of the Superman namesake. You go down a zig-zagging ramp before entering the minimalist station from page 1 of the Basic Coaster Accessories catalogue.
Every so often, a 28-seater train from the same page of the same catalogue rolls in before riders clamber out to the right hand side through a small door, and the airgates open for us to vault our way into the simplistic rolling stock.
After a rudimentary check of the restraints, the train is powered out into a left hand turn and into a darkened tunnel before stopping. The train inches backwards, before jolting to a stop.
At the chime, before you have time to say "leaves on the line" the train is launched along the murky tunnel like a supernova, exploding into the daylight, soaring towards the sky.
Before your eyes have time to adjust to the bright daylight, the train smoothly arcs up through a half-vertical loop, curling through a mid-air upside-down corkscrew and into another immediate half-vertical loop back down to the water below in a twisted element that borrows inspiration from the familiar cobra roll, just not changing direction mid-element.
Threading through a crowd of supports (for want of a better collective noun), the train swoops up into a right-hand banked turn, circumnavigating the ride as it climbs up into a vague clockwise spiral which heads towards the peak of the ride, straightening out before sharply twisting to the left into another swooping turn.
Now spiralling anti-clockwise, the train burrows into the middle of the ride, regaining some height as it heads through a banked turn into a tight corkscrew surrounded in supports and track which flips the train into a right hand turn, climbing into another straight stretch of track.
Another sharp turn to the left, and another lap around the outside of the ride. Under the shadow of the turns above, the train has lost a lot of speed as it makes a ground-level return to the final brakes, undulating as it does with a jump onto the final brakes.
Xpress was one of the first new-generation launched coasters that appeared in Europe. While Anton Schwarzkopf and to a lesser extent even Arrow had already offered ways to get from 0 to a lot faster in not long at all, Superman - Xpress - call it what you will was one of the first to follow the throng of similar coasters in the US which used an electro-magnetic launch.
The resulting launch is amazing, if not much more so than 20 year-old Schwarzkopf design such as Turbine (Walibi Belgium). It is immediate, fast and smooth. It holds the speed well until the end of the launch, and follows with a wonderfully twisted and - for Vekoma - uncharacteristically smooth double rollover inversion.
While Xpress' tanoy going 'bing bong' doesn't have the sense of theatre to it that Rock 'n' Roller Coaster has, the resulting launch and following opening of Xpress lose absolutely nothing from being outside - in fact, you can appreciate the twisted entree far more when you can see just exactly where you are going.
Unlike the cobra roll, instead of using the dwell between the two halves of the inversions to twist back into the opposite direction, on Xpress' rollover you continue barrelling in the same direction. As a result, it feels far more fluid, natural and unyielding than a cobra roll.
Sadly, the rest of the ride doesn't live up to this early promise.
If you like fairly lifeless, non-descript banked turns that really serve no purpose but to point the train in the direction of another fairly lifeless, non-descript banked turn, then Xpress could possibly be the best ride in the world.
But most people couldn't care less. Xpress is like one of those dull boxing matches, where a killer opening is followed by aimless prancing around the bewildered opponent punching the air in front of his face.
To carry on the analogy, to Xpress' credit it doesn't beat you black and blue like you would perhaps expect from a Vekoma ride - aside the shuffling of the train on the turns, there really isn't enough to rouse any notable force.
Where the brake runs fall on Disney's version of the ride, Xpress instead has straight stretches of track that strangely work to its advantage. The sharp turn out of each is a pleasant surprise - enough to wake you from your slumber, but not rough enough to give you a rude awakening.
Aside the launch and opening inversions, the only element of note is the corkscrew. But like most latter Vekoma corkscrews it lacks the brutality of many of their rides, but is still clumsy and forgettable.
After this, frankly there's not much to it. The finale is terrible - a vaguely undulating spiralling 360-degree lap at the lower level of the ride that further dampens the impact of the explosive launch and fiery first inversions.
There are many disappointments; the pacing leaves much to be desired, so too does the location, hidden away from all but the very most curious. Although the ride is built over water, it surprisingly doesn't add to the experience and is a feature that is easily missed.
For a ride that dispenses with quality theming and leaves the onus on the coaster itself, Xpress falls far short of the memorable benchmark that the opening sets. Xpress isn't a bad ride, has some excellent features, but is generally forgettable.
Xpress is a one-way journey to Average City Central - it goes through some pretty exciting places on the way there, but is generally a single-ticket affair at best.
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.
- One of the first modern high-speed launches in Europe
- A great opening with a fast launch and two consecutive inversions
- Nice setting over lake
- Hidden away from spectators, so it's difficult to know what to expect until you ride
- Boring. After the excellent opening, there is nothing of note
- Not rough, but not smooth considering it doesn't really do much at all
- Poor theming
Labels: Coaster, Vekoma, WalibiWorld