Coaster Kingdom

Dragon Falls (Chessington World of Adventures)

In the days when the log flume was a popular water ride, invariably and unoriginally themed after the hapless adventures of a log floating down a river (interested yet?), Chessington was a park eager to stand out.

Whilst the Fifth Dimension was as camp as Graham Norton, it was a superb ride and unique to the country. Although they opened a few years later, the Vampire and the Bubbleworks showed how the park wanted to stand, arms outstretched and proclaim that it was the best themed park in the country – which, back then, it was.

Dragon River, as it was originally known, further embellished this point. Whilst every flume ride was taking you through forests in a fibreglass log, Dragon River stood as one of the best flumes in the country.

Newer flumes use technology to their advantage with coaster-style stretches of track and reverse drops and dips to entertain, however, a few years before that, only the drops and theming could entertain.

It seems strange then that the log alternatives seemed somewhat illusive. Chessington, though, strived to embarrass all other flumes, not with never seen before trickery, but by providing riders with a satisfying medley of drops and meandering.

The ride is perhaps one of the first things you see as you enter the parks’ Mystic East section. As you approach the spidered mass of Samurai, to your right hand side an elevated trough runs through a lake.

As you become mesmerised by the smooth and undulating motions of the parks’ Top Scan, Samurai, your attention may be distracted, albeit momentarily, as a boat drops between two giant tiled faces of the Buddha, splashing down and skimming through a small wave of water, splashing into the lake below.

Although the rides’ highlight is here, the entrance is far further away into the Mystic East. Past the Coca Cola Pagoda, up and over a  bridge, you approach a stark rock-face. Boats climb the side of this and crawl along the peak of this range. Breaking the bland and nondescript rock, an enormously spectacular Buddha sits, cross-legged, guarding the entrance to a tunnel through which you walk. In your mind, you’re probably imagining that this behemoth is 20-or-so foot tall. Wrong – our Asian friend is the best part of 55ft tall, towering over almost everything in the area.

Once through the tunnel, the path passes a brightly coloured Chinese dragon and a small drop into which the five-seater boats drop. Finally, in front the oriental decorated front of the station building beacons. The maroon pillars, the polished amber tiles and dragon décor ring true with the orient, and you cross a bridge into a forest of bamboo. With luck, most of this queue will be just walking – to queue here is a complete bore and a total waste of time. Dragon Falls is perhaps the most unreliable ride in the park so it would be typical to queue for an hour and it breaks down.

Once inside the station, you immediately ascend a flight of stairs towards a high walkway that wraps around three of the stations’ walls one floor up looking down on the loading of the ride below. As large paper lanterns hang from above, dimly lighting the station, a path of boats scathes through the centre of the station, loading on one side, unloading on the other.

The ceiling above is a suspended polystyrene tile affair with about one out of every six stencilled with a Chinese motif of some sort. This somewhat detracts from the lanterns’ elegance and the dramatic mural on the wall, a picturesque map of the world from the days when Singapore Airlines aptly sponsored the ride.

One form of entertainment can be found as people stand up to leave the ride and bash their head on a sign hanging below. This may sound rather masochistic, but the sign is only suspended by chains, so doesn’t do any damage, but the mirthful quirk of fate is that the sign asks you to remain seated.

After crossing over the conveyor-worth of boats, you go down some stairs before are asked by the member of staff how many are to ride. Each boat seats five at a push. Each boat is themed modestly as a small Chinese junk with a wood design.

A single bench goes down the centre with grab rails either side. You must sit on the bench and hold on to the sides, one behind another. If you have got long legs, avoid the front as your knees will end up being bashed to death.

The boat progresses towards the end of the station, past a curtain hiding boats in various states of undress, before you dip out into the water and meander off into the foliage.

The pace is reasonable as you pass the queue that enters the building and you turn a corner before hitting the rather modest first hill.

The conveyor takes you to the top before a thump as the boat levels out and drops into a small, first drop. The boat plunges quickly down before swooping out into the water creating a small splash.

You soon progress towards the open jaws of the vividly coloured oriental dragon seen as you enter the area. You go through the opened fangs of this monster and once inside, it is dark, drab and devoid of any interest, much like a storm drain.

At one point you would approach a curtain of water. As you got perhaps too close for comfort, the lights would go out and you would pass under without getting a drip on you. This is gone and so the tunnel is a bore.

Once out, the view hardly inspires. So much so, in fact, that you quickly go into yet another tunnel before passing through a dense bamboo forest, making another turn over a lake, past the veranda of one of the areas’ boutiques and progressing into a climb up the side of the mountain ridge seen as you enter the area.

This lift is quite shallow, but is very tall. At the top, you slow dramatically, gently floating around a 150-degree bend. The pace here is painful, and those of you with butterflies in your stomach will be writhing with dread. At this point, below you the roof of Tomb Blaster, and in front, Samurai.

The water soon cascades out of view as you hit a conveyor, taking you over the top of the rides’ main drop. Without a pause, you plunge into a single steep drop. As you scrape past the two walls either side there is a flash of a camera before you drop down into the water, skimming it for what seems seconds before you slow and a wave of water splashes out in front and to the sides.

You may squirm out the way, you won’t get too wet anyway, but you slow and pass several feet above the lake before going under the main walkway, over another lake taking you towards the station and past a half-dead looking elephant, famed at one point for squirting water at riders (and once mashed potato, Bodger and Badger fans may remember), now just looking a mess and in need of burying.

You climb up the conveyor back into the station, past your mug shot from the drop. Before you have a chance to hit your head on the sign in a much-fashioned blunder many make, your boat will probably be sadistically hit from behind by the boat following before you stand up and are assisted off the ride and past the reliably frustrating photo screens.

A rather superficial view of the ride may not impress, but when considering it’s age you cannot help but be fulfilled. The elegant theming touches like the Buddhas that surround the drop and welcome you into the area really set this ride apart from the rest, and to make such a feature of the tunnel is superb and pulled off to a fantastic standard.

The drops are not bad. The first is very short, admittedly, but the final is not too bad at all. It isn’t too tall, but it is fast, and with the walls either side that accompany you half way down, it adds to the feeling of speed.

The simple effects that this park cannot be bothered to maintain are ultimately its downfall though. With its latex skin peeling off, the elephant at the end looks a sorry mess and should either be fixed or removed. The water in the tunnel really was the only feature in there. Now it is a mess in there too.

If you manage to go on without a queue, without it breaking down and with an open mind, happy to accept that this is an old ride that was well before it’s time, then you will have a great time on it.

If you go on after queuing expecting something that can compare with Menhir Express or Storm Force 10, then you’ll leave thwarted.

3/5 Marcus Sheen