Coaster Kingdom

Cobra, Paultons Park
Saturday, March 24, 2007

For most humans, there are some memories that seem to remain sacred. I am of course referring to some of our earliest memories from childhood. Our reflections of a time when everything we saw and sensed was new and we desperately tried to make sense of it all.

Seemingly, our memories of such times are patchy, and we remember certain circumstances that seem trivial yet stay in our minds still - uncertain of why that particular memory has chosen to stay intact through our growing up and adulthood.

Don't worry readers, Coaster Kingdom has not branched out into psychology or child development yet. However one of my very early memories, I must have been around six years old, is of Paultons Park, Near Southampton.

It's not surprising really, as Paultons (as they now like to be called) is in a privileged position of being able to supply most children who visit with their very first experience of an amusement park - a place that holds seemingly complicated contraptions that are totally dedicated to fun.

Paultons started life humbly as a farmhouse that grew into a luxury hotel before burning down in the 1950's. Now, its remaining gardens, exotic bird collection and idyllic location next to a river is home to children's rides, exhibitions and play areas aplenty.

My visits over many consecutive summers saw many such rides: The erstwhile Dinosaur Land, Clock Hedge Maze, the Enchanted Forest (a collection of animatronic characters that had horrifically burnt down on one of my visits, though made a welcome re-appearance in later years), and the Runaway Train (a small powered coaster by Big County Engineering that was quite possibly the first coaster I ever rode).

The park seemed to resist the temptation of buying in cheap second hand travelling rides, as their new installations were always either seemingly brand new, or custom built. However, until now, they had never ventured into anything bigger, perhaps much to the disappointment of those who had grown up with the park but now found themselves outside of their remit.

Enter stage right, Gerstlauer - a German company who have recently made a name for some marvellous family rides that resemble wild mice but ride very differently. Two German family parks had already taken advantage of the style including G'sengte Sau at Tripsdrill - a ride that offers the traditional switchbacks of the wild mouse, with some gloriously fun bunnyhops and tight swooping helices.

Out of the same bright idea, Cobra was born in 2006 at Paultons. The ride sits in its own new area of the park next to the age-old Go Karts, with seemingly a lot of spare flat land around it for further additions.

Paultons isn't a theme park, and in a fairly unusual move, has every building in the whole park styled the exact same way with blue wooden panelling and yellow borders. The Cobra station and maintenance bay are no exception. The ride itself sports aqua coloured supports with a more vibrant blue for the track.

You will see individual black cars with cobra faces careering around every minute or so, following the varied layout from one end to the other. There is no Cobra sign to speak of, but none is needed as the ride speaks for itself. Underneath the track is a large plaza home to some new picnic areas and food stands.

The entrance is right next to the start of the lift hill, and after some weaving around wooden fences, takes you into the station proper. Paultons have never really had a need before for large queue lines, and I'm not sure they have quite won here - with several grid pens inside the station offering no view of anything at all, bar some rock music and one screen showing on ride pictures.

Demonstrating the magnitude of the ride in relation to anything else at the park, a constant safety speech rambles on near the loading area advising all and sundry on the rules and regulations. Two sets of air gates allow four people into each car. The cars themselves sport an individual lap bar, and in addition to other rides of its type, a bright orange seatbelt.

Once you're clipped in, you engage on the lift with a bump - but you'll feel no jolts after this point, as you slide up the incline as though floating on air. After leaving the lift, you whiz down a steep drop to the right and enter some helices and undulations that deliver you to the first set of block brakes which do absolutely nothing to the speed of the car, a trend that will continue throughout.

Into the more traditional Wild Mouse turns now, and like the lift, the car weaves through them without a single noise. After several of these, you enter a marvellously compact downward spiral to the left, before a flawless change in direction delivers us onto some bunny hops supported by two huge mounds of earth.

As has become the expectation, the train bounces around the lawned cleavage with gusto, though provides no airtime to any riders. A third drop hurtles into what is described as the cobra's lair, but is really and obviously just a garden shed with a nice head-chopper effect.

Some more spirals and helices throw you onto the magnetic brakes which smoothly and, of course completely silently, slow the car down enough to enter the station and exit to the right.

After the option of buying either a photo or a gobstopper from the photo unit, you exit into the plaza for a panoramic view of what you have just encountered. Being able to see the whole ride afterwards really allows you to remember how the ride felt.

The single most astonishing thing about the ride, in my opinion, is how quiet the whole thing is. You won't hear any cars moving around the track, even on the first fast drops. The only thing that gives away any movement at all is the screams and whoops from adults and kids alike.

All the Gerstlauer traits are there: The swooping drops, the wild mouse turns, the spirals and the shockingly oversized bunny hops, and together they provide a ride experience that encompasses much variation. To the kids, it is a brilliant adventure where one set of movements soon gives way to another completely different.

It is immediately obvious that the ride is a hit with those that the low height restriction enables to ride. There is simply nothing else like it in the park, and whilst the Stinger and Flying Frog do excellent jobs of introducing them to the world of coasters, Cobra seems to be the perfect ride to aim for once they have been mastered.

I'm afraid there is probably room to say the ride is a little sterile and bland, both in looks and in ride experience. There is no decoration or planting around the ride area, just neatly mown grass and the cobra's lair looks like it should be home to some shovels and pot plants. However, bear in mind that the rest of the park is styled in exactly the same way; a nice piece of land with some interesting contraptions, and Cobra is most certainly the most interesting of the lot.

In terms of ride experience too, I can't lie when I say it is a real shame that the bunny hops show absolutely no hint of airtime, when the two similar rides in Germany became famous for it. Whether this is due to the seatbelts or is inherent in the ride, I can't say, but it makes the hops feel like they haven't achieved what they were supposed to.

This does not break the ride though, far from it. The roomy trains give a lot of room to breathe, and especially in the front where there is no front to the car (grab rails are provided on the lap bars themselves) creates a sense of flying around the track with no hindrance at all. The downward spirals are great fun, and will have the kids wailing with delight and the subsequent quick direction change will please the parents who will appreciate how quickly and smoothly it is encountered.

It is a brilliant family ride, of that there is no doubt, but I would stop short of calling it perfect. Some more visual diversions around the layout, station and plaza would be welcome and more could be wrung out of the bunny hops without scaring off the target audience.

Paultons is a park with a child's spirit. It's playful, sometimes mischievous but always kind spirited, willing to learn and looking for honest fun. Cobra represents the spirit of the Paultons child in exact detail, but this time round like the rest of us, it has grown up... but just a little bit.

Good points:

  • Looks the part and provides kids with an enchanting goal
  • Excellent trains are roomy, comfortable and easy to board
  • Layout moves from one set of elements to the next with fluidity

Bad points:

  • Very little decoration or landscaping around the ride area
  • No airtime, unlike other rides of its ilk
  • Poor Queue Grids could make a long wait very dull

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