Coaster Kingdom

Eurostar (German Fairs)

I don't think it would be too controversial to say that, when it comes to travelling fairs, Germany is the place to go. Almost all spin 'n' spew rides appear on the German fair circuit long before the rest of the world discovers them, while most other types of attraction have travelling equivalents. Whether you're a fan of dark rides, simulators, towers (observation or freefall), or even Log Flumes, the showmen will find a way to get it onto a fleet of lorries, and bring it to town. Even more incredibly, they do this while still managing to make the rides as good as, and often better than, the park versions. Roller coaster fans are not forgotten, in fact showmen really push the boat out to accommodate fans of the "achterbahn".

Although all German showmen are all engaged in a never-ending battle to provide the best attractions, it is the families of Oscar Bruch and Rudolph Barth that have pushed the standards of travelling coasters sky-high. For many years, both families have toured a succession of exquisite coasters, all of them designed by the late Anton Schwarzkopf. As new rides arrived, the older coasters would be sold to parks around the world. The most famous example of this came in 1997, when the Bruch family sold the 4-loop "Thriller" (universally revered as the most intense coaster on Earth) to Six Flags Houston, where it was reborn as "Taz's Texas Twister". Closer to home, The ex-Barth "Dreier Looping" (or "Triple Loop" in English) now resides at Flamingoland in Yorkshire under the name "Magnum Force". Ironically, even after years on the road, the coasters are still so good that riders are unlikely to realise that these "new" attractions are actually over a decade old.

By the mid-1990s, the battle for supremacy had stalled slightly. No Schwarzkopf travelling coasters had opened since the Barths debuted the 5-inversion Olympia Looping in 1989, and had since become too ill to start designing new coasters. Oscar Bruch, though, was not oblivious to the fact that B&M were winning rave reviews for their new breed of inverted coasters, and decided he wanted to commission a travelling version. The problem was finding someone prepared to chance their arm on creating such a ride. Other than Schwarzkopf, few designers or manufacturers had either the capability or the inclination to create major travelling coasters. Although this is a shame, it is not altogether surprising, as the demands of travelling coaster design are very restrictive indeed. Let's take a moment to consider the requirements.

Firstly, and most obviously, the ride has to be dismantled and rebuilt very quickly. A quick glance at the German fair schedules tell you that rides need to be dismantled, moved, and rebuilt in unbelievably short spaces of time. The ability to get the ride ready quickly, without having to resort to hiring armies of local people in each town to help out, is essential.

Secondly, the ride needs to be transported using as few trucks as possible. If it costs a fortune every time the coaster is moved, the ride won't make enough money in ticket sales to cover the costs. Remember, the German fair-goers are accustomed to reasonably priced travelling coasters, and won't necessarily cough up if the price is too high. Sadly, this is in contrast to the UK, where punters have been known to pay quite astronomical prices for the novelty of riding a coaster at a fair, despite the rides in question often being tiny and, frankly, lousy.

Thirdly, travelling coasters need to have much higher capacity than park rides. German fairs can be extremely busy and it is simply out of the question for a major coaster to have the same kind of capacity of theme park rides. This may sound odd, but when there's a never ending stream of customers prepared to is pay for privilege of riding your coaster, you want to get as many people through as your allotted opening hours allow! As a side note, it would obviously be nice if parks also insisted on their rides having this kind of capacity. Alas, this is unlikely to happen - even the parks that have bought former travelling coasters run them to a much lower capacity than the showmen. Flamingoland, for example, infamously added 5 point seat belts to Magnum Force's previously lap-bar-only trains, hindering loading times considerably.

Given these headache-inducing limitations, you can hardly blame the designers for giving such projects a wide berth. Fortunately for the Bruchs (and for us), one man was there to save the day: Werner Stengel. Having worked under Anton Schwarzkopf for many years, Stengel was ready to make his own mark on the coaster scene. Although he'd previously worked on more coasters than most of us could ever hope to ride, Euro Star would (arguably) be his first project as the "big name" designer, rather than an anonymous "backroom boy". In other words, just as Thriller will always be known as an "Anton", and Nemesis a "Wardley", Euro Star would be the first real "Stengel". The fact that the coaster market is now completely and utterly dominated by "Stengels" does rather suggest that he succeeded in acquiring a decent reputation for himself - in fact it seems rare nowadays to hear a report of a new coaster without his name being mentioned at some point!

So, after much speculation and rumour, Oscar Bruch eventually confirmed his latest project, a full size, Stengel designed, four-inversion white-knuckle inverted coaster. The ride would not come from B&M, as many had assumed, but from Intamin. It would be their first attempt at an inverter, although they would be assisted by another Swiss firm, Giovanola, which had previously worked on B&M's rides, and which would later branch out and build coasters of their own. A model of the ride suggested that it would borrow heavily from B&M's winning formula, most obviously through the use of 4 abreast seating which would keep capacity high (later, both Intamin and Giovanola would create their own lines of non-travelling inverters, both companies opting for 2 abreast trains). The ride had a slightly inconspicuous start, suffering the ignominy of opening late at its first couple of fairs due to construction taking longer than planned. Happily, this proved little more than a hiccup, as the Bruchs' battalion of staff soon began to make reductions to both the build-up time, and the number of lorries required to haul the ride around the country.

It's become a cliché, but as with most of the things you'll see at a German fair, your first thought upon seeing Euro Star will be "How on Earth can that thing travel?". Try as you might, the tightly twisted knot of track, with its trains hurtling through impossible-looking contortions, is so impressive as to render the response inevitable. The colour scheme is a strange one, deep mauve track with grey and yellow supports. Somehow, though, the combination works. By night, the ride looks quite particularly amazing, with the structure partially floodlit in a manner that is surprisingly tasteful compared to the invariably (and gloriously) over-the-top surroundings.

As you reach the pay desk, the staff quickly relieve you of the surprisingly modest charge and issue you with a ticket. As you approach the station, your ticket is collected and you get your first glimpse of some of the most amazing station staff around. When we say that a ride has good staff, this usually means they are friendly and courteous. The Euro Star staff are amazing, but in a very different way - they may not be overly courteous, but you'll never see anyone operate a ride as efficiently as these guys. As you board the train, staff are ready to secure the restraints almost before you touch the seat, and then you're out of the station within seconds. With all four trains running, the queue moves at speeds well above anything theme park rides can manage, and can come as quite a culture shock to those of us more used to slowly shuffling along the endless pathways which eventually lead to the stations of many park coasters. Of course, much of the reason for this is that it's just not a 9-to-5 job working on the fairs. The simple fact is that the workers' livelihood relies on getting as many people through the gate as possible within the fair's opening hours, which keeps them on their toes, to say the least!

The trains resemble slightly skeletal versions of those found on B&M's inverters, with few of the niceties of the Walter & Claude's design. Most noticeably, the seat belts that secure the overhead restrains are omitted, presumably because of the delay they cause to loading times. Also, the station has no moving floor, which, given that your feet won't touch the ground anyway, does make you wonder why B&M bothered inventing the moving floor in the first place.

Heading out of the station, two 90-degree turns take you to the rear of the ride and up one of the noisiest lift hills in existence. At the top, you are immediately thrown into an inverted equivalent of the legendary Schwarzkopf drop, performing the kind of ferocious 180-degree right turn seen on several of the master's portable looping coasters. The practical reason for the twisted drop is simply that it enables the track to be packed into a smaller space, but that doesn't stop it from being one hell of a good way to start a coaster.

From here, the train executes a fairly standard vertical loop, and is then flung around a slightly overbanked left turn and into an in-line twist every bit as chaotic as that found on Nemesis. This takes place high above the queue-line, giving spectators a great view of the train bundling itself through this most insane of elements. After heading back to the rear of the ride, mid-course brakes provide riders with a chance for a quick breather. The brakes are a necessary evil, of course, as it would not be possible to run so many trains safely without them. From here, a sharp dive takes the train into a tight double corkscrew, buried deeply within the ride's structure. An absurdly tight right hand turn, taken at a speed higher than I suspect the turn was designed for, takes you toward the second mid course brake run, high over the station.

With the inversions all out of the way, it would be easy to imagine that the ride has nothing more to throw at you. Not so. Totally out of the blue comes what must rank as one of the most breathtaking finales to any coaster. The train creeps out of the brakes and slowly begins to drop down and to the right. As the speeds gets higher and higher, the turn gets tighter and tighter. As you reach the ground, the track continues in a helix so tight, and taken at such speed, as to produce some of the most powerful positive G forces ever created on any coaster. Still travelling at tremendous speed, the ride spits you out onto the final brakes. As with many travelling coasters, the brakes do not bring you to an elegant, gradual halt, but do their best to simulate what would happen if the train hit a brick wall. As the train briskly heads back to the station, even the most seasoned of coaster riders will surely feel their heads spin. The speedy station procedure offers little in the way of sympathy for your plight, and you soon find yourself back among the crowd of spectators, dazed, confused, and desperate to ride again.

Despite all the constraints of designing a large portable inverter, Stengel has produced a design that easily holds its own against B&M's high reputation rides, while still paying homage to the influence of his late, great, mentor. The most obvious example of this is the first drop, which owes a lot to Schwarzkopf's superb diving drops. His legacy, though, is also present in one often-overlooked feature of most large portable coasters - the general showmanship of the ride. Euro Star has three "tiers" of attention-grabbing elements. The highest point of the ride is at the back, with the loop and in-line twist well positioned in order for the crowds to see what's going on. Furthermore, the fact that the in-line twist is featured prominently at the front of the ride, right over the heads of queue is sublime. This is reminiscent of Schwarzkopf's attention grabbing arrangement of loops at the front of both Dreier and Olympia Looping, or his spectacular arrangement of Thriller's three circular loops one behind the other. Obviously Schwarzkopf didn't forget to teach Stengel the fact that a portable coaster, operated in a competitive pay-per-ride environment, needs to be as exciting for the spectator as for the rider in order to attract the crowds to the pay desk.  

Trying to think of anything disappointing about the ride is a long and fruitless task. If any other coaster let its trains hit the brakes with as much speed as Euro Star, I would call it a shame that it clearly has the energy to see it through a few more elements. The fact is, however, that the ride needs to stay within certain dimensions, and there is simply no space left through which to thread the track. It's true to say the ride is rough, but not intolerably so. A more selfish criticism would be that the Euro Star name does imply that the ride should venture beyond the borders of Germany, and it is frustrating that this has never happened. It is rumoured, however, that Oscar Bruch did once apply to bring the ride to the UK, only to be turned away. If true, this is an awful state of affairs.

Euro Star is a masterpiece. It stands as a testimony to a man who learned from one of the all time greats what makes a quality roller coaster, and who himself looks set to be one of the greatest coaster designer of all time, and certainly the most versatile and productive. If Werner Stengel never designed another ride (fat chance), Euro Star alone would warrant his inclusion in the list of great coaster designers. If the Bruch family announced their withdrawal from the fair business (fat chance of that either), Euro Star (along with Thriller), would be a fine tribute to a family who had the nerve to come up with seemingly crazy ideas and see them through, and who really understood the meaning of the phrase "Extreme ride". A magnificent ride.

5/5 John Phillips